Friday, June 21, 2013

Flashback: Wild Violets

June 21, 2013
As I begin the brave task of telling the honest story about the effect of mental illness on the lives of my family members, I am rooting through journals and writings. I came across this from ten years ago.

Wild   Violets
We had another long vigil at the hospital last night and my children and I have slept late this morning, piled together in the big bed in the master bedroom, praying that the phone will not ring. We tumble out of bed just before noon and take our late breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon to the back deck. There we discover that wild violets have grown up in the backyard, tiny stars of purple against the green crabgrass. I wonder that they have survived the harsh winter, the ice and the frost of neglect. And yet they have grown, struggling to push themselves out of the hard earth towards the warm spring sun. Despite last summer’s drought and the sub-zero temperatures of winter, they have survived to grace our backyard with their royal beauty.
They remind me, I tell my son and daughter, of these past five weeks that their father has lain in a hospital bed, the victim of a horrendous car accident. Day after day, his body has struggled to heal from massive trauma and subsequent surgeries, beset with complications and infections. But then, everything reminds me of it. While Ron’s ongoing hospitalization has become the focus of our lives, we somehow manage to struggle on, going to work and school, doing laundry and making meals, sharing moments of hope. Just last night as we sat in the waiting room of the trauma ward awaiting word on Ron’s emergency surgery, I said to the two offspring that were with me, “You know, we’re a tough family. It takes a lot to knock us down.”
“We take a lickin’ and keep in tickin’.” my youngest quipped and we all laughed.
But there is a deeper truth to Allen’s words. We have taken a beating. No one could argue that. Ron’s ongoing illness has thrown obstacles and burdens our way that we could never have imagined. My daughter and I have learned to change the oil in the cars and install the storm windows. Allen’s older brother Dennis has filled in the gap left by his father’s absence at soccer games. We are often tired and frightened. We sometimes question God. But we are not beaten. We have struggled to survive, to push our heads above the surface of our circumstances and seek the sun.
Sipping the tea my daughter has brewed in my grandmother’s china pot, I wonder if it would it be too melodramatic to compare us to these wild violets in the backyard. The Book of Matthew tells us to “Behold the fields in all their glory; even King Solomon was not arrayed as one of these.” I breathe deeply on this April morning, recognizing the purple majesty of these wild flowers as a gift from God, a miracle of the cycle of seasons and a reminder of Jesus’ resurrection. To all things there is a season. That these violets have survived is a testimony to God’s mercy.
Our family has survived. Not because we have been able to ignore our situation or “rise above” our circumstances but because, even in the dark, dankness of tragedy and despair, we felt the warm love of God the Father. Often the love came in the form of meals left on our porch or money tucked into my pocket after Sunday services. Sometimes the love came from my sixth grade students and the cards and letters they sent to Ron on a weekly basis. Sometimes God’s love surrounded us during the long hospital vigils as Ron’s life teetered precariously. And now and then the love came from small, almost insignificant treasures such as these wild violets.
We peek our heads up, perhaps tentatively at first, and then, secure in our safety, warmed by the sun, content in God’s love, we grow.
I take a final sip of tea. I will need to call the hospital in a few moments and see how Ron has fared during the night. There are other calls to make, other people also waiting to hear. The dark purple violets scattered against the grass have, like us, survived.
No matter what happens, I think, we’re going to be all right.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Sweating it out: A Summer Story

It is a disaster of gigantic proportions, according to my husband, equal only to the weekend the cable television went out. To me, the death of our seven year old central air conditioning was just--shrug--one of those things. Nothing lasts forever. It would have lasted a sight longer, said our technician, if we had remembered to regularly change the air filter. Ooops. Okay, you try remembering something such as that when you're running from one job to the next. Still, point taken. I knew how he felt, He'd installed one of his babies for us and we hadn't lived up to our end of the bargain. I groveled a bit, claiming my husband's chronic condition and my over-worked schedule. He finally relented , claiming he could probably replace the condenser--or whatever makes the thing work--for around $600.

Large gulp.

In the meantime, though, we were without that wonderful commodity known as central air for at least a couple weeks, and a heat wave was coming right at us. We have ceiling fans, so we're not totally dead in the water on this, and we've still got a couple of box fans in the basement from our pre-central air days. We hauled them up, dusted them off, and set them up in central locations. After three days of straight 92 degree weather, we became adept at positioning the fans and keeping the shades down against the day time sun. Then a beautiful, rousing thunderstorm--the kind that only summer can bring--lowered the temperatures to a more comfortable 75 degrees.

And I made a discovery, something I probably knew as a kid but forgot after so many years of insulating myself inside an artificially cooled environment: summer demands open windows. My father, who retired to the beach fifteen years ago, tells me that summer is supposed to be hot. He's right; that's exactly why we call it summer. The word "summer" originates from several Old English, German, and Dutch words meaning "strength and warmth". My dad's beach house is fully air-conditioned, but he prefers to sit on his screened-in porch with the ceiling fan on low and a cold beer in his hand. Not a bad way to spend a lazy summer day.

So with the temps in the 70's and my fans positioned in the exact right places to circulate air through the house--because it is just lack of movement that makes the air feel really, really hot--I threw open my windows to the sounds of summer. In the morning, I discovered, the birds that gathered around the back feeder thanked us with trilling melodies, blending in with the tinkling sounds of the wind chime in the tree. And as school let out, more and more children cavorted in their backyards, happily splashing into pools and shooting baskets into hoops. The darkening of evening brought with it its own sweet sounds: locusts chirping the next day's temperature, dogs engaging in the twilight bark, and the sound of the ice cream truck rounding the corner.

Ah, summer.

As I have waited for the technician to find the needed part, I have not only thrown open my windows to the sounds of summer, I have cast my mind back to those summer days of my youth, before ac units blocked our windows. "It's so much hotter now than we we were kids," people have told me when I mention that we are, for the time being, going without air conditioning. Not true, I am afraid. According to the National Weather Service, Pennsylvania--my home sweet home--ranks 34th in the list of "hottest states"; in fact, in 2008, the last year official records were kept, the median temperature of the summer was a lovely 72 degrees. Sure, there are the dog days of August and those streaks of days reaching into the nineties, but for the most part, summer is more warm than hot. "Warm" is defined as "giving off a moderate amount of heat" while "hot" is giving off a "maximum amount of heat". Now that's clear. Back in 1968, the year by dad bought the Westinghouse fan on wheels which provided our only source of air circulation in the summer time, the temperature reached 89 degrees on July 8; the rest of the month we enjoyed a balmy 74 degrees or so.

Often, we blame humidity for our summer discomfort. Human beings just do not like moisture on their skin. However, I could find no information to indicate that the humidity has increased over the years. Maybe we've just forgotten how to handle it.

So if you, like me, have a conked our air conditioner or maybe just want to lower those PECO power and light bills in the summer time, I've got a few suggestions, culled from my grandmother's advice. Open your windows in the morning to let in the cool breezes and try to get a good cross ventilation going. After lunch, shut the shades and the curtains and call the kids in to color or do puzzles. Drink plenty of water and when the heat gets to you, jump into a cool shower for a couple of minutes. Dab Seabreeze--a lovely, summer "medicinal lotion" that contains menthol and can be had for a mere $12.00--onto your neck and wrists. It even smells like summer. And when all else fails, take that cold beer--or iced tea, if you prefer--to the back deck. Enjoy the great outdoors this summer, because the gray and rainy days of winter in the Northeast will be here all too soon.

 And while you are on the deck, counting the lightening bugs and listening for the locusts to predict tomorrow's temperature, listen for the ice cream truck.

Treat yourself! It's summer!

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Traveling Poor: A Slice of Society

June 7, 1013

It was the second encounter I have had with the new segment of society known as "the traveling poor." I am not old enough to remember the days of the Great Depression when hobos rode the rails and unemployed people lived in Hoovervilles, but I remember my grandmother's stories of the well-mannered and soft-spoken men who would appear at her backdoor, asking politely it she could spare a slice of bread or a cup of coffee. Nanny always had something ready to give to those in need; she and my grandfather were fortunate in that the owner of the house they rented was a kind-hearted man who could wait for the rent.

During the cold months, Nanny would ask the traveler to come inside and warm up. "But they would always decline," she said. "They'd say, 'No ma'am, I'll just stand out here in the yard." They never failed to thank her for the food and always asked if there was some chore they might do to repay her, such as shoveling the walk or weeding the garden. The hobos came regularly; obviously, someone had placed one of those enigmatic hobo symbols on my grandmother's house, probably the cat that signified "A kind lady lives here."

My grandmother said they never had any trouble at all with this segment of society. "They were decent, God-fearing men," my Nanny would say. "Just down on their luck."

That was then. This is now. There are whole families, now homeless, wandering from town to town. Most often, they have some kind of a car, but have lost their homes and their jobs. Unbelievably, when I searched "traveling poor" on Google, I found nothing to help me understand just who this segment of our society is.

The first time I met members of this group, my daughter and I encountered a couple with their dog standing at the corner of Grubb Road and Route 13 in Claymont, Delaware. We had just picked up supper at Boston Market and, due to a buy-one-get-one sale, still had twenty dollars in our pockets. The woman stood on one corner with a tattered umbrella and a cardboard sign that said, "Traveling Poor"; the man stood on the other corner, holding the leash of a sad and bedraggled dog. Generally, I do not give handouts. I am not mean, but I prefer my charity to be in the way of food or actions. But the couple looked so forlorn, and the dog so sad that I held out my remaining twenty dollars to the woman when we stopped at the traffic light. She came up to the car--looking way too young to be in such a predicament--and accepted the bill with a lovely smile.

We thought about going back to Boston Market and buying them food. But it was, as I said, raining. We wanted to get home, where it as dry and safe. We had at least, my daughter and I agreed, done something.

Just two days ago, though, we had our second encounter with a member of the traveling poor. I was with my son this time, and pulling out of the Walmart parking lot at Larkin's Corner when we saw him, a man and his dog huddled under an umbrella in the rain, sitting on a piece of canvas. This man, too, held a sign: "Traveling poor." Parked behind him was a rusted hulk of a car that probably would not pass inspection. But when I handed my son some bills and he held them out the window, the man with the dog was ineffably polite:

The weather is getting warmer, the economy is still sluggish. Medicare is threatening to cut benefits and many, many people are still out of work. 

In a recent book, Confronting Suburban Poverty, authors Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube confront the issue of suburban poverty, referring to the "changing map of American poverty." Poverty, once primarily an inner city issue, is now regional in scope. Scenes like the one above are being played out in shopping center and street corners all over suburbia. According to government statistics from 20120, one in three Americans is poor or close to poor. To learn more about this "new trend" in the plight of the traveling poor, you can follow this link and download a free chapter of the book.

What is the answer? Better jobs, lower living costs, re-education for the unemployed? They would all help, I am sure. But maybe the real answer is in response of the man with his dog, sitting by the side of the road on a wet piece of canvas.With a smile, he took the three dollar bills my son offered to him and said, "Thank you, sir, for helping me on my journey."