Monthly Archives: March 2020

“And there I found [in myself] what appalled me; a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds.” – C.S. Lewis

As a junior in high school, I moved to a small, Oregon logging community. Right before Thanksgiving, I stumbled upon community service that a new friend of mine, J, was involved in. Student volunteers put boxes together with turkeys, potatoes, etc. for families in town who might otherwise not have a Thanksgiving dinner. At least two people were needed to make the deliveries because the boxes were heavy, and since I also had access to a car, I told J I’d help her deliver a few of the boxes.

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I was unprepared for the poverty I encountered. We visited a couple places where small children peered from behind the legs of grateful, beaten-down adults. The houses were little more than shacks. The wintertime rain had already been falling unceasingly for weeks, and I could imagine what it might be like to live through a cold, wet, dark, dreary winter in each home.

The house I remember the most vividly looked as if the rain had saturated it over the course of its lifetime, so soggy did it appear with its patched roof and swollen-looking siding. When we got out of the car, a smell hit our senses though we were easily still 15 yards from the house. The smell, it turned out, came from their source of heat – could it have been a kerosene heater? – which we saw when the front door opened. It was massive, placed smack in the middle of the front room. It poured out heat and a stench I wanted to flee from.

The person who opened the door said, “Hi,” to J. He knew her, and she knew him, from school. It hadn’t occurred to me that I might encounter someone I went to school with. I didn’t know him, I was still new to the school, but he and J said a few awkward words and we passed the box to him.

How did this guy get himself to school every day when this place was his launching pad? How did his clothes not reek? They probably did. H’d never bring friends over after school; he likely tried to not be home himself as much as possible. I wanted to say to him, “I don’t know you. I’ll forget your face so when we have a class together, it’ll be like starting fresh.” I didn’t say that, of course; I just wanted to get out of there.

I did not for a minute wonder if these families deserved this food. They were clearly quite poor, which made them deserving enough.

This was my first brush with what I think of as rural poverty. My next close encounter occurred ten years later when I taught high school on the Oregon coast for a school district so small it served five separate towns. And even so, only 156 students attended the whole high school. A handful of my students wore the same clothes every day; at least one student didn’t have reliable access to a way to bathe. Probably more of them than I knew lived like my former classmate.

Tillamook County High School Young

Four years after that, I attended my first semester of social work school where I was re-introduced to urban poverty – but that’s a different story. My social policy class was taught by the man who wrote the policy book used by social work schools around the country. We began by charting the course of how American social policy got to where it was in 1991. This meant starting with the British workhouses circa 1576, one of the earliest examples of systematic punishment of people whose primary offense was being poor. Our professor knew by studying another country and an era centuries ago we’d. better understand the attitudes and experiences that shaped the first wave of people who immigrated to America. Because attitudes toward the poor came with them; those attitudes created the waters our American ancestors swam in, and it informed their policy decisions. These eventually trickled down to us.

The importance of recognizing the waters we swim in – the cultural beliefs that influence us – has been brought home to me particularly these past few years as I’ve looked more closely at the history of race in America. I’ve found it both sobering, and strangely grounding, to have someone say, “We’ve grown up in a racist society, so we are all (regardless of our race) racist.” How could we expect to emerge from a biased upbringing (and all of our upbringings were biased, though we often like to call our biases beliefs) without bias? That would be like growing up in the South and not believing in hospitality.

Southern Hospitality Wall Decor: Removable Wall Decals

Which is all to say that my reasoning mind understands that someone who’s poor deserves to not starve, deserves to have dignity, deserves to not be consumed with wondering if they’ll starve tomorrow, if they’ll be safe. And yet…

Garth and I currently find ourselves helping to provide food to other Portlanders. One of our tenants works for an organization that for years has received food donations for a range of its clients. The recent shelter-in-place order in Oregon has resulted in some of the other agencies that used donated food closing temporarily, and many of his organization’s clients aren’t coming around as much. This has resulted in an excess of donated food with no identified recipients for it. Thursday, we set our picnic table up where our driveway meets the sidewalk and put out donated food: pizza dough, clamshell containers of green beans, melons, and pineapples; bags of Brussels sprouts, spinach, carrots, celery, arugula; salsa and peanut sauce. All from places like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.

Circle With Lots Of Food Items Stock Photo, Picture And Royalty ...

The whole reason I was doing this was because I understood how the measures our state was taking in order to slow the spread of this virus had created massive food insecurity in my city. As I set the food out on the table, people began to wander over, keeping a six-foot distance. Unquestionably, many people had already been living on the edge, one paycheck away from disaster. Now they were unable to work because their jobs ended in favor of enforced social distancing, leaving them without an income, but with families that still needed food and shelter.

And yet, while one part of me told each person to take what they needed – knowing that only they could know what they needed -, and explained where the food came from, and said, “You’re welcome-” another part of me was thinking things like, “You’re wearing nice clothes; do you truly need this food?” and “Do you really need that many bags of green beans?”

I’m not happy to share these thoughts with you. I wish I hadn’t thought them.

But why would I expect not to think them, growing up as I have in a culture that to this day debates whether or not poor people deserve to be helped? On a personal level, too, I’m trying to dismantle the idea that it’s desirable to be thought of as Good, and that Good means you have only Good Thoughts. Thankfully, Mahzarin Banaji’s 20 years researching implicit bias have made one thing amply clear: none of us has only Good Thoughts.

Mahzarin Banaji and the Implicit Revolution – Association for ...

When asked how she navigates her own implicit bias, Dr. Banaji said that first, she assumes she has bias; secondly, she tries to know as deeply as she can what those biases are, in order to, thirdly, correct for them where she can. For example, if she knows she’s biased in favor of tipping male waiters more generously than female waiters because she assumes males need the tip money more than females, she can plan, instead, to tip according to a fixed percentage every time rather than going with her (biased) gut. (Note: this is my example, not Dr. Banaji’s.)

I do long for the clarity of my 16-year-old self. She had swum for fewer decades than my 58-year-old self in the cultural waters that teem with judgment and mistrust about poor people. What a relief it would be to live in a less nuanced mind again. She knew without reservation that no one should have to live like that, that everyone was as deserving of eating well as she was, and that their humanity wasn’t in question.

But while my 16-year-old self might have felt fiercely about the situation and the people involved, she also wanted to run away. She was overwhelmed by a system she couldn’t even begin to address in the ways she wanted to. This 58-year-old, though, she has more to offer at a time like this. Maybe part of the offering includes an undercurrent of wretched stereotypes and suspicions, but there is also self-awareness that allows me to act in the ways I mean to. I mean to do Good Things in the world, even though they aren’t always informed by exclusively Good Thoughts. That 16-year-old is still in me, and there are times she points me in the right direction. I can follow her lead, dragging my muddled self along with me, still able to navigate the situation until I’ve (sometimes) done some good.

Sunshine Week: A look ahead


[Note: this story does not end badly for the dog. Not to worry.]

There’s a man we have known for over three years. He is 50 and lives on the street. When we have jobs that need doing, we offer them to him if they’re in his wheelhouse.  We feed him when we see him. He is disorganized and enthusiastic, at his core a kind soul.

Two weeks ago, he encountered another street person with a dog. The dog was sweet-natured and cute, but this other person said he couldn’t take care of it any longer. It was too hard to care for a dog while having to take care of oneself on the streets of Portland. This other person planned to take the dog to the animal shelter.

Shih Tzu

Our friend hated the idea of this dog going to the shelter, which he imagined was as a good as a death sentence. He offered to take the dog himself. He’d grown up with dogs and had never thought he might be able to have one given his circumstances.

For a few days, our friend was over the moon, enamored with his dog. Then, as more and more of the places where he returned cans for money closed  – those sites understandably trying to “flatten the curve” by reducing the human gathering that occurs at canning sites, but also making tough lives significantly tougher – he discovered that having to travel to the edges of Portland to find a place to return his cans was so much more challenging with a dog.

Ten days ago, he asked if he could tie his dog up in our yard for awhile each day while he returned cans. This was pre-shelter-in-place Portland, so sometimes we were home when he dropped his dog off, sometimes not. He set up a cozy little bed for the dog under our picnic table. The dog wore a harness, and our friend tied the other end of the leash to the leg of the picnic table to keep the dog from running out of the yard.

Last week, during the handful of days when the dog was in our yard for several hours each day, social distancing arrived in earnest. Portland’s weather was gorgeous so we were all outside when we could be. We spoke to our neighbors from six feet away.

This past Friday ended such a weird week. Garth eventually worked from home exclusively. I saw some clients in person, most over video or phones calls, and the on-going uncertainty fried me a bit. By the end of the week, I felt exhausted. After dinner, Garth and I and our two kids piled onto the couch to watch a show.

Over time, a sound reached my awareness – a small sound, kind of like a squeaky wheel. At first I thought it was in the show, but at some point it was clearly out of sync and we turned off the sound. Nothing. We turned it on again and eventually the sound resumed. I asked Garth to go see if our friend had gotten his dog from our yard yet. Garth headed out, and we waited, and waited. By now it was about 9:15 pm. I finally poked my head outside and there was Garth, the dog in his arms. “It’s tangled in its leash,” he said. “I detached the leash from the table, but I can’t really see well enough to get it loose.”

Image result for tangled knots

I’m something of a getting-knots-undone wizard so Garth brought the dog up to the porch. It wasn’t just the leash that was tangled around the dog – it was quite a bit of thin twine as well. And it had wrapped really tight. My daughter came to the door. “Would you bring some scissors?” I asked her. We had to cut all the string and leash rope off, carefully, the dog distressed, me trying not to accidentally snip dog rather than twine. We sat on the porch with the dog. His back legs didn’t seem to be working right, and he was terribly agitated. His head swung back and forth and his breath came in little bursts.

Garth, Kami and I sat with the dog, discussing our options. He was usually so mellow. Was this agitation a sign of its understandable upset over its legs not working, or was it something bigger, more systemic? Then one leg seemed to return in functionality and we figured the legs had gone to sleep from the circulation being cut off by the twine. But the other leg didn’t seem to be bouncing back, and the agitation persisted. With his third leg back on-line, he turned around and around like a dog settling for sleep, only he never settled. I smelled an abundance of flea powder, and even outside on the porch, my asthma started rattling in my lungs.

What to do? We decided to call Dove Lewis, our local awesome animal emergency clinic. Was this the right thing? It wasn’t our dog; what if we made a decision for treatment that our friend wouldn’t have made? But our friend wasn’t here. We aren’t pet owners and somehow we couldn’t tell if we were making a good decision. (Maybe the jangling week of encroaching covid-19 had something to do with our diminished capacity?)

We decided to call our neighbor, L, whose dog, Rudy, is a family favorite and who we saw as our Expert of All Things Canine. In short order she brought dog food, and Rudy’s carrier, and after talking with the folks at Dove Lewis, Garth and the kids piled into the car with the dog; the dog, still with a non-operational fourth leg, still anxious.  I stayed behind in case the owner showed up.

It was 10:00 pm. A text came in just after my family left with the dog. It was L, asking us to keep her posted on the dog’s condition, and to let her know if she could be of any more help. Someone outside of our household knew what was happening and wanted to be of help. This fact was more reassuring than I can describe.

After responding to L’s text, I noticed one I’d missed from earlier in the evening. It was from one of our newer neighbors, R. She’d sent it right around the time Garth had gone out to check on the dog. It read: “Do you hear a puppy? I can’t tell where it’s coming from.” I answered her text, and back and forth, the story came out. R wrote: “I know you and Kami are allergic, please let us know if we can house the pup until the owner returns.”

Garth, Kami, and I had talked about this while we’d perched on the porch, waiting for L: could we consider keeping the dog overnight if Dove Lewis released it? It would mean a night and morning of inhalers for me and my daughter. I felt twitchy about anything having to do with our lungs: there was a lung-eating virus out there. Surely we should protect our lungs where we could?

Once again, R’s text reminded me we didn’t have to navigate this alone. Knowing this was – everything.

Then the text from Garth saying Dove Lewis wasn’t super-concerned but would keep the dog overnight; my family coming home; the call the next morning from Dove Lewis saying the dog was fine; filing a report that would put the dog into the hopper for possible adoption (no-kill shelters in Portland, thank you very much); our friend showing up much later that afternoon with a cane and ankle wrap, describing how he’d stepped wrong disembarking from the bus, had to visit the emergency room, worried for his dog, sad and also relieved to hear it would be okay and someone would soon have it who could care for it better.

If I were maintaining a laser-sharp focus on the personal essay challenge I set for myself at the beginning of the year, I’d have already tried to finesse some way to link conditions during the pandemic with this story. But my focus these days is unreliable. Instead, I will simply state the obvious: because we felt vulnerable with the situation we were presented with, we reached out; and in reaching out, we realized we weren’t alone. There would be help.


*Gate A-4  by Naomi Shihab Nye (thanks for the poem, Pete and Polly)

Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning

my flight had been delayed four hours, I heard an announcement:
“If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please
come to the gate immediately.”

Well—one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.

An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just
like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing. “Help,”
said the flight agent. “Talk to her. What is her problem? We
told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”

I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke haltingly.
“Shu-dow-a, Shu-bid-uck Habibti? Stani schway, Min fadlick, Shu-bit-
se-wee?” The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly
used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled
entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the
next day. I said, “No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just later, who is
picking you up? Let’s call him.”

We called her son, I spoke with him in English. I told him I would
stay with his mother till we got on the plane and ride next to
her. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just
for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while
in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I
thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know
and let them chat with her? This all took up two hours.

She was laughing a lot by then. Telling of her life, patting my knee,
answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool
cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and
nuts—from her bag—and was offering them to all the women at the gate.
To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a
sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the
lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same powdered
sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.

And then the airline broke out free apple juice from huge coolers and two
little girls from our flight ran around serving it and they
were covered with powdered sugar, too. And I noticed my new best friend—
by now we were holding hands—had a potted plant poking out of her bag,
some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country tradi-
tion. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.

And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, This
is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that
gate—once the crying of confusion stopped—seemed apprehensive about
any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women, too.

This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.

Image result for people reaching out