Friday, March 23, 2018

This Book

I came across The Light of the World through something else I recently read. I don't remember what. Not from the women authors of color list, although the author, Elizabeth Alexander, poet and professor of African American Studies at Yale, is an author of color. Not from a magazine article. Not from Black Ink. From someone else's mention of the work?

I don't know.

But I do know this: reading this book was like holding a glowing, translucent orb in my hands.

Alexander's memoir is about the sudden death of her husband, painter Ficre Ghebreyesus, days after his 50th birthday. She writes flowingly, forwards and backwards, painting in words as he surely painted on canvas. Alexander seamlessly captures their marriage, their respective childhoods and lives before meeting, their sons, his death, their love for one another and for their sons, the loss she feels as wife, the loss her sons feel—Alexander write of it all, and of the love and the wonder at that love threaded through every bit of it.

Every now and then. you are blessed as a reader with a book that reaches deep into your heart and lodges there. This book is one of those for me.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

On Trauma and Therapy

In the treatment world (drug and alcohol addiction and abuse), it is not unusual to have a number of providers, from counselors to doctors, who are recovering drug addicts and/or alcoholics themselves. (I say "recovering" because that population knows that even if you have not had a drink in decades, that physiological trigger is always there in your brain.) They are drawn to that field because they know what the patients and clients are going through and they want to help.

In the juvenile court world, the one in which I have operated for seven years now, a disproportionate number of us were traumatized as children. By traumatized, I don't mean we (and I am one of that group) had moments in our youth that were less than Norman Rockwell idyllic. I'm not talking about "oh, I once got spanked by my dad when I misbehaved" or "my mom called me stupid when I was five and I never forgot that."

I'm talking major trauma: physical assault, sexual assault, verbal assault, emotional assault.

How disproportionate is our court? Several years ago, we had a very, very inappropriate (for lots of reasons) all-court training in which the facilitator handed out a worksheet where we marked off responses (by alphabet letters) to various situational questions and then tallied up our letters. Whichever letter you had more of corresponded to an animal with particular personality traits.

Most of the room, maybe 95% of us, were "golden labs," which meant we took care of others, put others' needs in front of our own, carried on even if exhausted, and so on. When most of us raised our hands in response to that identity, the facilitator frowned and looked flummoxed.

"I always get a more diverse population," she said. "I don't understand."

At the first break, a co-worker commented, "She didn't understand because she's never had a room full of the walking wounded."

I'm giving that background so that I can place the rest of this post in context.

As juvenile court staff, we work with traumatized children and teens all the time. Often the parents, especially the mothers, also experienced childhood trauma. So we are constantly looking for training, books, and other resources to learn best practices about serving this population. And because more than one of us are in this population too, we glean what we can from the training and books to help our continued healing too.

A coworker recently gave me a book she uses in her program working with volunteers who served abused, neglected, and dependent children. The book is The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. I just finished it last night and have been turning in my head ever since.

Van der Kolk is a psychiatrist known for his research and work in post traumatic stress. He along with others was instrumental in getting the medical world to recognize post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and its high rate of occurrence in military veterans. (He first worked with Vietnam veterans.) He then started working with adults and children who had been traumatized in their childhood. He and his colleagues soon recognized that this population exhibited symptoms that echoed PTSD, but did not fit the definition. (A fascinating part of the book is the extensive work he and others put into defining a new disorder, developmental trauma disorder (DTD) and the rejection of that disorder by the American Psychiatric Association as unnecessary for a "niche" population" As Van der Kolk writes, "One million children who are abused and neglected every year in the United States a 'diagnostic niche'?")

I can't begin to sum up what Dr. van der Kolk lays out in his book, other than say read it yourself or go on YouTube and watch clips with van der Kolk explaining childhood trauma and its impact: neurological, physical, emotional. This is all insightful for the work I do, but it was not what I took away.

What I took away from the book was gratitude.

Gratitude? Absolutely. Almost twenty years ago, I went into counseling, not for the first time. I had a spotty history of therapy, dating back to high school, but had never gotten much benefit out of the counseling. Some of that was due to my inability to be honest about my history; some of it was due to the lack of resources (as van der Kolk makes clear) available to even the most diligent counselor during those years. And some of them, in retrospect, were just mediocre therapists.

But in late 2001 I hit the jackpot.

I went into therapy because my life and my marriage were falling to pieces around me. Without going into great detail, I was in a very toxic marriage, it was killing me, and my sons were being traumatized as well. I finally realized that if I did not get help, I was at risk for harming or killing myself. I needed to stay alive to protect my sons. My husband urged therapy (each of us with our own counselor) as a way to salvage our marriage. I saw therapy as a way to save my life.

My therapist, Douglas Kramer, PsyD, at Ohio State University, was the right therapist at the right time. Over the course of several months, he led me through a series of approaches, especially using guided imagery. Two things he said at the very outset of our meeting have stuck with me all these years.

The first was his explaining how he approached therapy. He was not there to tell me what to do to "get better." "I'm here to help you decide what direction you need to go and help give you ways to determine that within yourself." I remember looking at him and saying, "Good, because if you were going to order me to do this or that, we'd be done right now."

The second thing Doug said, towards the end of that first session and after he had some background on me, is that I was not required to tackle everything in my life and my past. He said that past events were like rocks in a field. They rise to the surface over time but that didn't mean I had to go dig them out. "We can plough around them, April. It's your decision." I remember thinking (and later saying) that there some rocks, especially from my childhood, that I would never dig out. I also remember the session, many weeks down the road, when I walked in and said, "I'm ready to dig some rocks out."

Doug used guided imagery to take me back into my past, to talk and interact with the young April, the April I had been, to bring me (and to a large extent, her) into the present. Van der Kolk describes EMDR (eye movement and desensitization response), a more recent therapy method that we have seen success with at court and that some of my colleagues have gone through and I recognized some of the same techniques (minus the eye) that Doug wove into his guided imagery working with me.  Slowly and surely, rock by rock, I worked through my trauma and got my self, my soul if you will, back. (Incidentally, tying Doug and van der Kolk together, I do have a diagnosis of PTSD, because DTD was not identified back then and still is not an official diagnosis.)

That work made the rest of my life possible, from the community work I do to the committed, healthy marriage I have with Warren.

I will always carry my trauma with me, but now it is a scar other than a throbbing wound. I still have trauma triggers—less from my childhood and more from the toxic marriage—and there are times when I have to take a time out and regroup, using techniques that Doug taught me. Yoga helps, and I was thrilled to see that van der Kolk uses it as a therapeutic technique. (Right, Amanda?)

So I am grateful: not for the trauma, but for the healing. Bessel van der Kolk's book was a reminder of just how grateful I still am that when the teacher appeared, I was ready.

*********************************************************************************P.S. While writing this blog, I Googled Dr. Bessel van der Kolk to see what he looked like. He looks like this:

Then I looked up Doug, who looks like this today:

I don't think it is coincidence that they both share open, trusting faces. And have great smiles. And have spent their professional lives helping others figure their lives out.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Latest Titles

My reading continues unabated. Someone at work said something about how much I read, and I commented that I had several things going for me. First, I don't have children (with their accompanying activities). Second, neither Warren nor I watch television. Ever. Third, I usually shut down my computer by early evening, and I don't have a smart phone or even data access on my cell, so once the computer goes dark, I don't spend time on Facebook or YouTube or in other time sinks.

And fourth, and probably the most important point, I read very, very fast.

So while it is mind boggling to some that I read as much as I do, for me it is as much a part of my being as wearing glasses from the time I get up to the time I go to sleep. It's just me.

For those of you who are wondering about Warren and what he does while I read, trust me, he is not neglected. Warren's personal and professional schedules make me look like a piker. So while he is usually home while I am reading away, he is not drumming his fingers and wondering when if ever I will look up and give him attention. (In fact, while I am writing this, he is in the living room writing a grant proposal due next week.)

So what titles have I added to my list? These titles:

40. American Rust by Philipp Meyer (another working class novel I turned up at the same site as #34)
41. Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier (this was tucked into a bag of reading material from my friend Corroto and is a non-fiction work about, wait for it, traveling in Siberia, which the author did several times in the early 2000s. A combination history, travelogue, and political commentary, it has a great opening line: "Officially, there is no such place as Siberia.")
42. Boy by Roald Dahl (the first of two memoirs that Dahl wrote in the 1980s, this takes him from childhood to adulthood, and contains his memory of the candy store that served as the takeoff point for Charlie and The Chocolate Factory)
43. Going Solo by Roald Dahl (Dahl's second memoir covers his war (WWII) years, when he was an RAF pilot until he was too severely injured and mustered out. Dahl stopped writing the chronological memoirs and went back to his children's work. Dahl did write a memoir, My Year, during the last year of his life; I have it on request at the library)
44. The Twits by Roald Dahl (this is such a bad, bad work that I would have bet money it was Dahl's last, but it right there in the middle of the 19 children's novels he wrote)
45. New and Selected Poems, Volume One by Mary Oliver (back after Christmas, I wrote that I had received this "just out" paperback from Warren, only to find when I sat down and read it through that the collection actually came out in 1992 and this edition came out in 2004. Never mind: Oliver's poems are stunning)
46. Fallingwater Rising: Frank Lloyd Wright, E. J. Kaufmann, and America's Most Extraordinary House by Franklin Toker (for someone who fell in love with Fallingwater decades before I ever saw it, this was a fascinating read, despite my irritation more than once at the author's style)
47. The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (a novel about suicide, about love, about grief, about what if, and about a Great Dane)
48. Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly (I read this novel, with strong roots in historical fact, because my friend and editor Maike Haile wrote me about it, both praising it and saying it hurt to read. It is not for the fainthearted; a significant piece of this novel centers on the concentration camp aRavensbrück (all women), the sulfa experiments conducted there on the internees, and the aftermath, including bring the "Rabbits" to America in the 1950s for medical treatment) 

I noted at the start of the year that I am reading down a list of new titles by women of color and that continues. Recently, serious allegations have come to light about Native American author Sherman Alexie, and in response Native American author and co-founder of Longhouse Press Tracy Rector wrote an article in which she reminds us of the contemporary Native American women authors who are often overlooked. Some of them appear on the women of color list, but there are names on Rector's list that I will be adding to the "to be read" list.

Our local library continues to transition to the new consortium but as of Thursday, the search function (within the consortium, not within the larger Search Ohio database) went live. At last! On the way home from Aldi this morning, we stopped at the library and Warren brought me the latest books that I have reserved. Truly an onward and upward moment.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

First Steps

My foot is back.

For the last four weeks, I have had one operable leg and foot (my left) and one inoperable leg and foot (my right). As I wrote about some weeks ago, I had surgery in early February to repair a torn peroneal tendon. I spent the first week with my foot and leg up to my knee swathed in bandages. I spent that week at home, reading voraciously (well, I always read voraciously, so I guess I read more voraciously). 

A week out of surgery, I exchanged the bandages for a nifty fiberglass cast. Given my choice of colors, I picked Symphony Blue:

Symphony Blue, you say? Why, of course:

My blue cast was still non-weight bearing, so I got around with the aid of this trusty scooter:

The scooter went like the wind on the smooth, polished halls of the county building in which our Court is located. And it was the envy of the walker/wheelchair set at the assisted living facility where Aunt Ginger lives. One wheelchair-bound tiny lady beckoned me over and said, with great longing in her voice, "I bet that goes fast." (A coworker, when I told him the story, laughed and pointed out that compared to the wheelchairs and walkers, I was in a sports car.)

With the scooter, I went back to work 12 days after the surgery. I couldn't (didn't) go to schools to conduct attendance mediations but there was other work to be done. All the same, I was counting down the days to March 9, when the cast would come off and I would get a walking boot. I was dreaming of being able to go to bed without a log (albeit a snazzy blue, lightweight one) wrapped around my leg, of being able to use our bathrooms without having to strong-arm myself on and off the toilet, of being able to stand on my own two feet again.

Yesterday morning very bright and early Warren and I were at my surgeon's complex. The technician cut the cast off and unwrapped my leg from the mummy-like cotton swaddling under the cast. X-rays, a chance to wipe off some of the dead skin that accumulates under a cast, a thumbs up from the PA, and the snipping and removal of the stitches followed. Then technician fitted me for the boot and I stood upright on both feet for the first time in weeks. All was great until she said, "Okay, take a step."

Take a step? I looked at her wild-eyed. I looked back at Warren. Take a step? Take a step? I had forgotten how to take a step! Warren stood up immediately and offered me his arm. Leaning heavily on him, I took one tentative, lumbering half-step. 

"I don't know how to walk." I was frozen and afraid to move. 

Talk about embarrassing.

In the end, I climbed back on my scooter (which I had hoped to return to rental that day rather than rent for an additional week) and scooted out of the examining area, out of the reception area, out of the building to our car. Warren was very sympathetic; nodding but not saying "I told you so" when I said I didn't trust my foot.

All the way home, all 30 minutes of that drive, I thought about walking. I have been walking for over 61 years. I thought through the act of walking: weight on foot, one foot in front of the other, left, right. Come on!  

We pulled in and I scootered to the first small step up to our slab porch. Warren made ready to help me get up and in, but I held up my hand. 

"No, I have to do this and I am going to walk."

And I did. Up the small stair, across the porch to the larger step into the house, into the house, and into the hall. My steps were halting and clumsy, but, by god, I was walking.

And I have been walking ever since. By midday yesterday, I had relearned the rhythm of walking. I'm not elegant by any means, and I get clumsy by day's end, but I am walking. The scooter is sitting in the living room where Warren parked it. I am delighting in being able to carry items in my hands, not having to back up the scooter to make a turn, in being mobile. 

Sleeping last night was heaven.

So this is my boot, my assistant foot, for four more weeks: 

I still won't be able to drive, but I head back into the schools for attendance mediations starting midweek this week. I am baking a pie tonight for our conductor, Jaime, for tomorrow's concert. 

The longest journey begins with a single step, according to the ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi. For me, yesterday, the longest journey started with me taking that first step down the hallway.

I haven't looked back.  

Saturday, March 3, 2018

And At The End Of Two...

At the start of March, my book count stands at 39, with number 40 underway. Since the last update, I have added the following titles:

34. Coal Run by Tawni O'Dell (a working class novel that I stumbled onto from a website exploring—what else?— working class issues)
35. The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore by Kim Fu (another woman of color writer from the master list, Fu writes an unsettling novel about girls stranded on a camping expedition; it is not the stranding as much as the telling of girls' life stories before and after the stranding that makes this novel work so well)
36. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (this was a recommendation by my friend David, who has not read it, and one I probably would not have come across otherwise. You have to buy into the very unconventional style of the book, but once you do, it's smooth reading. And I loved the ending(s))
37. I, Fatty by Jerry Stahl (excellent novel fashioned as a memoir told by silent star Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, whose career was destroyed by a false allegation of a particularly heinous rape/murder; Arbuckle is the one who lured Buster Keaton (my all-time favorite actor) into the movie industry and Keaton plays a significant role in the telling of this story)
38. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (this novel about commitment, marriage, prison, and racism will break your heart and maybe, just maybe, mend it by the end)
39. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (this novel won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction last year and the National Book Award the year before, but the reason I read it is because it popped up in an interview about books and reading that Barack Obama gave towards the end of his presidency, an interview I read in Black Ink—Obama's description was so compelling I had to read this work)

Out of the 39 works I have read so far this year, 14 have been by writers of color. I recently saw a description of a talk called "Diversifying Your Bookshelf" and that is what I am conscientiously doing this year. Yes, it makes a difference and yes, it does involve being deliberate.

The biggest book hurdle I am facing right now is that our library is joining another library consortium, which will greatly expand the libraries from which we can draw. The hurdle? Our library's search engine, as well as individual library accounts, are inaccessible while the change is made. Arggh! I cannot see the status of books I requested before the conversion began (library staff will inform me by email if any come in) nor am I able to search for and request books while the conversion takes place. Beside my computer is a growing stack of slips of papers containing titles, just waiting for the moment our local library goes live (sometime next week, I believe...and hope).

Truly a first world problem, especially in light of the books I have been reading. I am drumming my fingers over lack of access to a search engine. And there is Booker T. Washington capturing the educational opportunities finally opened to former slaves, himself included, after the Civil War and the end of slavery: "a whole race trying to go to school..." A whole race learning to read at once.

What a moment that must have been.

Friday, March 2, 2018

February Finances

As I have written before, I am continuing to track my monthly grocery/household expenses, as well as eating out expenses. My goal for 2018 is to bring the monthly grocery/household expenses down to $175.00 a month, and to keep the eating out tab as low as possible.

Our groceries/household expenses for February edged up from the January figure. We spent $168.57 on food and $17.49 on household (such as laundry detergent, toilet paper) for a total of $186.06. Some of our grocery expenses were higher due to the circumstances of this month. Warren was juggling Symphony, rehearsals, day to day life, and my being homebound from surgery. That meant more groceries were purchased at Kroger, often quickly at the end of a long day, and less at Aldi.

There is a price differential between the two stores.

Being the math geek I sometimes am, I immediately calculated what we have to hit monthly for the rest of the year to come in at $175.00 per month. The formula would be $345.50 (the money spent to date) plus 10 months at divided by 12 months to equal $175.00.

Solve for x. 

And the answer is?


How great is that? I can hit $175.00 a month by spending $175.00 a month from here on out.

Eating out was only slightly lower this month. Warren had a series of rehearsals and a concert out of town early on in February  and spent some money there ($10.00 over 3 days). We took my parents out to lunch for their wedding anniversary, with our share of the meal coming to $14.58 with tip. The monthly total came to $38.11 (counting tips). It would have been under $24.00 but for the anniversary meal and under $14.00 but for the out of town rehearsals and concert. I point that out because out of town rehearsals/concerts are infrequent. The meal out with my parents was slightly different. As my mom's dementia deepens, her comfort level in restaurants decreases. She is happiest now at McDonald's and Bob Evans. Out of concern for mom, we went to Bob Evans, which ranks really, really low on my "let's eat out" list. (Who am I kidding? But for mom, I would not be eating there at all.) With my still not being "out and about" this month, I predict we'll really drop the cost of eating out (which, remember, includes takeout as well).

I am back at work (thanks to my trusty scooter) and have even ventured with Warren into Kroger and Aldi (and Meijer), so we can share more of the grocery shopping once again. I predict we'll hit the $175.00 mark in March without even breaking into a sweat.

March came in like a lion, so it should go out like a lamb. I'm hoping to keep the financial front as meek as a lamb as well.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Books They Keep Coming

I went back to work this week, so I am now splitting my days between the office and home. That has cut into my reading time, but, never mind, I'm ranging far and wide.

Here are the latest titles that have moved from library to home and back again:
29. Redwood and Wildfire by Andrea Hairston (Hairston is an African-American science fiction/fantasy author; this is a reread of a novel my son Sam gave me when he heard Hairston speak at PSU several years ago)
30. Black Ink: Literary Legends on the Peril, Power, and Pleasure of Reading and Writing, edited by Stephanie Stokes Oliver (excerpts from African-American and other Black writers' works running chronologically from Frederick Douglass to Barrack Obama, this one blew me away. W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Alice Walker, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Roxane Gay, James Baldwin, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: the list goes on and on. One of the most emotional excerpts was from Booker T. Washington's Up From Slavery, where he recounts the immediate impact of the end of the Civil War in former slaves of all ages finally having the opportunity to obtain an education: " was a whole race trying to go to school." I read that and started crying from the sheer weight of that moment. Poet Nikki Giovanni says it best in in the Foreword: "Black Lives Matter. Black Ink reminds us of why.")
31. Where Did You Sleep Last Night? A Personal History by Danzy Senna. (I got introduced to Senna through Black Ink; this is her memoir of making sense of her tangled biracial history)
32. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman (translated from the Swedish, this is a fun novel that several of the oncology nurses and staff were reading late last fall)
33. The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story by Edwidge Danticat (another Black Ink introduction, this work is half memoir of the death of Danticat's mother from ovarian cancer and half an examination of how writers, especially women writers, write about death in fiction and in memoir)

Last week Warren's son David was over to share a meal. At some point in the evening the picture book Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel came up. David was a little hazy on whether he remembered that book, so Warren found a reading of it on YouTube and we all watched and listened. Warren said "add that to your list." "But I didn't read it," I responded. We had a brief debate about whether it should go on the list, and I finally told Warren I'd list it with an asterisk and no number. So:
*Mike Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton (a childhood classic: what more can I say?)