Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Last of Her Village

“My horoscope advises: notice connections to your childhood
. Women and men the age my parents were
when they died are everywhere.
One has my mother’s hands. She weaves insights
like soft cloth, holding it to my shoulders when I chill.”

This is the ending of a magical, fearless poem called “Festival of Lights Revisited” by Yael Flusberg. (In March 2010, Yael dazzled my students at New College of Florida when I invited her to be a Guest Poet there. I took this photograph during her New College reading.)

Yael is a yoga teacher, a healer, and a writer. You can hear her talk about braiding these three roles together in a radio essay that aired on WAMU, American University Radio:
Therapy And Yoga At Walter Reed

On the first day of autumn, last September, "Festival of Lights Revisited" arrived in my mailbox, as part of Yael's first poetry chapbook. I have read all the chapbook's poems before. Some of them, a half-dozen times. I sat down that fall equinox and read them again. (A poem is never to be read just once, nor twice.)  As I prepare to spend a week with Yael in her home in Washington DC, some of her poetic lines are scrolling through my mind.  

The Last of My Village is a collection about moving through a year, moving through a life, letting what is not needed fall away, and learning not to need what has fallen away.

The Last of My Village won Poetica Magazine’s 2010 Chapbook Prize. Read it.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Out in the Silence

“We’re here, we’re queer, and we’re going to show a film in your library.” Those are the words of a movement in the making.

All over America, local LGBTQI-rights organizations are going into their local libraries, explaining that they have a documentary film about LGBTQI rights in rural America, and saying they would like to hold a showing. All over America, the film Out in the Silence is ending the silence. On Tuesday, February 2, this film will open the 2011 DC Human Rights Watch film festival. And as I am packing my bags for a week in DC, I will be there!

A bit of backstory:
Around the time I started writing No Word for Welcome (that is to say, one long decade ago), a friend of mine began, as he put it, “playing around with a video camera.” Joe Wilson is now (along with his husband, Dean Hamer) the producer-writer-director of Out in the Silence, an enormously important and inspiring documentary film. Joe and Dean have done far more than build a good film, they have honed a powerful tool for social change. And that film is helping to build a movement.

"Libraries are a great bastion of participatory democracy," Joe says. For books. For film. For all of us.

Read more at the film’s website and watch the trailer for the film:

Saturday, January 8, 2011

"Of course." Three Moments at Harborview Medical Center

For six weeks last summer, I was Writer in Residence at Harborview Medical Center, Seattle's county hospital and regional trauma center. (I still figuring out how to write about that experience -- among the more powerful of my professional life.) One of the phrases I heard often there, in response to patient requests, was "of course." This short essay, about one day in the life of palliative care physician, was published in STAT, the Harborview staff newsletter, in June 2010.
Dr. Margaret Isaac sits across the table from a father. His son, a high-school senior, was expected to recover from the hideous car accident. But the fat globules released by the marrow from so many broken bones reached his brain. Many weeks have passed without improvement. Margaret and the father discuss the details and logistics of ending life support systems; he says he needs one more evening to discuss it with the teen’s mother. Of course, of course. A pause wells up in the room. Then he says, “There’s just one other thing.” Of course, Margaret says. “Is this the right thing to do?” Margaret leans forward; her voice is warm, reaching for confidence. “Well, it’s a right thing to do.” The father wipes his eyes with a maroon bandana and thanks her. 

Margaret visits two brothers. One, sleeping in his bed, has been at Harborview for fifty days. The other, sitting in a chair by the window, lives on the East Coast. This is his third and final visit; he’ll stay for the rest of his brother’s life. He asks – business-like, slightly wary – about Margaret’s training and background. She answers, then says, “Tell me about your brother.”  What would she like to know?  “What did he like to do?” Each morning he laced up his boots, anticipating a day spent outside. He worked as a farrier, which afforded him only what he truly needed: a trailer to live in, a pasture and stable (that he built himself) for his horses, a workshop for constructing mechanical things. Not long before his brain hemorrhage, his favorite horse had died. His brother found a piece of paper in his wallet that had several names and phone numbers written on it – his among them. He called all the numbers; one person came to visit. Margaret and the brother stand by the man’s bed. He opens his eyes and coughs. His brother passes his hand over the man’s face, but his eyes do not move. Both men return to their waiting.

The son of a stroke victim tries to imagine how his father would experience the world, if he were to regain consciousness: It is a field of light. There are no boundaries. He waves his hand back and forth, fingers reaching. Nothing to determine the edges of things. Margaret nods as the son talks his way toward the end of his father’s life. Four hours later, his mother and sister and brother-in-law have all come to the ICU room, said their goodbyes, and gone home, while bruises of exhaustion have bloomed under the son’s eyes. He has two final requests. Fifteen minutes alone with his father to say goodbye. Of course. That the older man’s body be donated to science. Margaret is stunned and grateful; she has never before received this request. The son and the doctor thank each other again and again.

It is not enough to care for the whole person, or even the whole family. The edges of palliative care extend beyond the physical. Where are the boundaries? Families come through Harborview’s doors, stand at bedsides, ask the staff and one another: What does it mean to be alive? What does another person experience? What sort of life would another person want to live?   

The answers lie just out of reach. Of course.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

No Word for Welcome leads to Many Words for Welcome

On June 1, 2011 University of Nebraska Press will publish a book I wrote called No Word for Welcome. It's about three villages in southern Mexico, and how the people who live in those villages have dealt with the global economy. They have not had an easy time of it, hence the book's title. When I started No Word for Welcome -- a very long time ago, in the late 1990s -- I worked as a grassroots organizer. (Thanks to President Obama, I no longer have to explain what that is.) When I finished writing that book, more than decade later, I'd become a full-time writer and editor. A word worker. A story smith. I have always been a book binger. Since long before kindergarten. In spite of my book's title, I love words. Here, at "Many Words for Welcome," I will share some of the words that fascinate, agitate, or just plain stop me  in my tracks.