Walnut Room this way

Walnut Room this way

Thursday, December 31, 2009

The long awaited day has dawned

J and I depart for South Africa this morning. We are both tired from the early morning arising and sort of quietly fading. Coffee...I need coffee..

We leave Memphis at 10 this morning, and leave Minneapolis/St. Paul at 3. From there it is overnight to Amsterdam and we land at 6 in the morning. We will have time for a short rest and recheck luggage before our 10 am departure for Cape Town--the long let of the flight. All day and until 11 that night. KLM is a wonderful airline, though and take good care of you while you are flying.

Here's hoping the next post is from Sunny South Africa and I shot of Court, Lira, and Josh welcoming us to their house!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Day Before the Departure

It's finally here--the anticipated trip to South Africa. I hope it is just the tiredness of the season and the lack of motivation to start packing, but I find myself half wishing I had not planned to go. Anyone who knows how much I love South Africa would find that hard to believe. Maybe it is just dreading getting up at 4 a.m. in the morning, the long lines at the airports, the hassle of dragging bags from one checkpoint to another, or even the long flights, but my sense of anticipation is verging on none at the moment. I am sure once I arrive and get settled and active, it will be a joy as always. I have work to do on the flights (another book review) and a manuscript to revise, plus a book for just fun reading.

Since we transfer out of Schipol in Amsterdam, we will get the experience of going through the new body scan machines our our return flight to the US--at least it is anticipated that they will have them up and functional by the time of our return. I don't have any feelings one way or the other about it, to be truthful. It does not feel much different from going to the doctor and stripping down--it has a purpose associated with a greater good. I imagine it is no picnic for the workers to have to pat crotches of strangers or look at naked butts of middle-aged people either.

It is cold and raining here today, but supposed to warm up a bit and stop raining tomorrow. We fly through Minneapolis/St. Paul on our way out of the US, and it will be 9 degrees when we arrive there in the morning, and up to a whopping 11 by the time our flight leaves for Amsterdam. It will be snowing, too, but I assume airports like that are better prepared for those issues than the ones in the South who rarely experience it. At least, I hope so.

I guess it is time to drag out the suitcase and start on the task of packing--it isn't going to pack itself. I have checked in already, and have boarding passes, so all we have to do in the AM is check our bags and head to the security line. Wish me uneventful travels!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Christmas to remember

October, 2005, post Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast. This site has stuck with me for the past 4 years now. This year, rather than a disappointment, Christmas was one to remember and to cherish. Nothing went wrong. It was quiet, calm, and peaceful. About the worst thing I can say is that for one week, I have not slept more than 3-4 hours a night. It was a small price to pay for a week that may be one of the best holiday trips ever.

I did not want to go back to Texas this year, after the last two Christmases. I said--in fact--that I was NOT going back. I had planned to take a short trip to see my folks right after the semester ended, but I had to work two more weeks to complete some things that had to be done prior to my January South Africa trip. It was not go--my first choice, I have to confess--or go with Randy for the week of Christmas. I chose to go with him.

We spent a pleasant 3 days with Randy's dad and our friend Jim, going out to eat, and my cooking dinner for us. We spent an afternoon with Auntie and BenBen, and it was like we had never left Abilene. I spent 3 days at my folks, seeing my sister and two of my nieces. The weather did not cooperate for me to see the other two, but still, it was a gift for what I was able to do. I talked to my last surviving aunt and uncle on the phone.

Mostly, it was the time with Mom and Dad--just the 3 of us and their dog, Teka. I cooked for them, we visited, Dad and I fed his livestock and shoveled snow, and we watched old movies and watched it snow. No drama, no arguments, no hurt feelings.

I got back to Randy's dad's last night in time for Christmas dinner. After a lovely meal that Randy prepared and dessert of Chet's pecan and key lime pies, we watched the ball game together. Chet said he was so glad we had come and that it helped make it easier to get through Christmas without Randy's mother. Randy said that was why we were there. Randy and Chet had exchanged gifts that morning, so I gave Chet my present for him, and he brought me his for me. It was a sweet moment, and reminded me of what a wonderful second father he has been to me all these years. He said he wanted to do something special this year, as this might be his last Christmas, or at least the last year he would be able to do something special. I don't know if that will end up being a prophecy or not, but I know I cherish the last Christmas we had with Jean--she died a little over a week after we had been home for Christmas.

Shortly before we left for this trip, I mused that I could not give up hoping that someday, it would be a Christmas like I wanted. When I went this year, all I promised myself was that I would take what I got. Amazingly, I got the most wonderful time I can recall in years, and that was the best gift of all.

Friday, December 25, 2009

White Christmas

Texas Olympic Rings

Due to the blizzard Christmas Eve, I could not finish the post about the pasture. I had spent the afternoon in the pasture Wednesday, in the warm sunny upper 70s. I was intrigued by all the rolls of barbed wire all over the place. It hangs on gates, fence posts, tree limbs, and in places, is wired to something.
The creek keeps a trickle of water running through most of the time, but during heavy rains, it will spread out like a small pond.
Dad's horse, Rio. Dad has not felt well enough to ride in a month he said. It amazes me that at 84, he still gets on a horse.
The snow began falling early morning Christmas Eve, but by mid-afternoon, it had been labeled a blizzard. I was on my way to the grocery store and Dog was in his house, watching the white stuff--not sure if he has seen it much.
After I got back from the store, I could hardly open the door to the porch, and mentioned I needed to sweep the snow back before we could not get the door open. Dad refused to let me and went out to get his shovel. I waited until he was on one side of the porch and since he could not see me through the ice and snow on the glass door, I went out the other side and started shoveling the big side, which leads to the barn. The snow was blowing into our eyes and faces as the wind was blowing so hard. He got over to my side and asked "What are you doing?" I replied helping a stubborn old man shovel snow. He laughed and we finished the porch and steps.

He decided to go ahead and feed and as he was breaking up the ice on the water, I got the dog, cat, and horse feed and fed them. We had to take the feed over to the barn as Rio would not get out of his stall to come eat at the usual place. I don't blame him, it was still blowing snow and it was icy. We forked hay into his hay manger, fed him, and made our way back to the house through deep drifts of snow.
After depositing another few inches on the decks we had shoveled, it stopped, got calm, and the sun came out for a few minutes. The cats ventured out--this was definitely their first time for snow as they are still in late kittenhood. They were playing in it, leaping and frolicking.

I made pozole and cornbread for dinner and the temperature was really dropping. It got down into the low teens (which is nothing to you Alaska folks, I know, but pretty cold for the south!).

This morning, the sun came out and it began to warm up. I made Christmas lunch since I needed to get back to Abilene before the temperatures dropped again and the roads froze over.
Here is an example of why one should not use fountains during the winter!

One last beautiful reminder of the beauty of fresh snow, and then I tromped through the nasty slush to get back to the truck and finish the road to Abilene. Randy is cooking Christmas dinner now and we will eat in a bit (just he and Chet and I). We will leave early in the morning and go home to Mississippi, hoping all the Interstates are clear enough to be open. I am more than ready for my little Taylor cottage on the hill.

Merry Christmas to all!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve in a blizzard

Yesterday afternoon I was out in the pasture in a tank top, taking photos in the 75 degree weather. The temperature started to drop around 10 last night, and just now on my way in to town for groceries, this is the visibility, and worsening. We are under blizzard warning until 6 tonight. Thank goodness I am in the Avalanche with 4 wheel drive. Took me an hour to get 2 inches of ice and snow off the windshield--I am buying an ice scraper while I am in the store.
This was the driveway view while I sat in the truck waiting for it to warm up.
Here in the store I was having a latte and catching up on email when my niece (the one who lived with me for a year in Mississippi) came down the aisle. We visited a bit and since they are now not going out of town, I will go see them tonight after I cook dinner.

Guess it is time to get those groceries bought and go scrape ice and snow off the windows again and get back home!

It's a White Christmas after all--first one in quite some while.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Home visit

I arrived home last night to find my sister, my niece, my great-niece and great-nephew at my folks. It was a wonderful visit since I have not seen them in quite some while. Here, my sister holds my 13 year old great-niece, who has suddenly turned into a young lady. The last time I saw her, she was just a little girl.
Not to be outdone, her younger brother wanted in on the act as well.

It was a quiet rest of the evening and early bedtime for me. Out and about doing some errands this afternoon, having a really great burger for lunch, and then some grocery shopping before heading back to the house, and most likely a nap!

Cheers from Graham, Texas.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Los Arcos and Llano Estacado

Yes, it was a bit difficult with Randy, me and Kate all sleeping in a regular sized bed last night. It has been quite the while since we had to do that! But, Princess Kate is very spoiled and she loves her people. I was taking her outside this morning and she almost pulled my arm off trying to chase the cat before we got to the fenced part of the yard. It's like a park for her out there, with all kinds of new smells and things to look at.

I worked on my book review for a while this morning, then we headed to town to eat lunch with Jimmy W at Los Arcos. Guacamole enchiladas--my favorite! Jim showed us his new house he is gutting to re-do and all about his plans for it. It will be very nice and I put in my order for an arch over the professional stove--I asked for an AGA, copper vent-a-hood, and two wine refrigerators (one for red and one for white) since he was going to all that trouble. It will seem strange to go visit him and not be in the house I helped him remodel after he bought his first house. If we were ready to retire, I'd want to buy it and move next door to him.

We had to make a stop at the United and get things so I could cook supper for Chet, and some cat food for Jimmy's inherited cat, Rudy. Since his father died, Jim sort of inherited Rudy. He even lets him in the house and sleeps on the bed on cold nights. Rando gave him a really hard time for letting a cat in his house and he won't let Kate in the house when we visit. :) I also got a bottle of Llano Estacado for supper--somehow when I am in Texas, I just always feel like I have to have a bottle. Llano Estacado has come a long way since someone first got the idea to put a vineyard out in the staked plains near Lubbock.

I worked on my book review some more, took a nap, and then cooked supper. Now I am in my jammies, about to go find a fan to sit under. It is 80 degrees in here and Chet is cold, so no chance of turning it down. I am in a tank and shorts, thinking of going out to sit on the porch steps. :)

We drove by our old house, and it did not evoke any emotion in me this time, but being in Jim's house did--I felt a sense of nostalgia and lonesomeness for all the good times we have shared there over the years and wonder where the time has all gone.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

We're in Texas!

We got up really early this morning to get an earlier start on the 12 hour trip. I went back in my room to find Libby had gotten into my suitcase lying on the bed and removed a bottle of pills, chewed the top off, had them scattered all over the floor. A count showed she had eaten two of the beta blockers I take to slow down my heart beat. We tried to find information about it on the internet, but could find nothing about the potential hazard. By the time we could get her to the vet, it was in her system, so we opted to just wait and see. J said she was up and running around and barking, so it seemed as if it did not affect her. We hope there are no residual effects at this point, but have not yet heard back from J since we arrived in Texas.
Princess Kate, aka one of the "X Dogs" was patiently waiting for me to finish my McDonald's breakfast so she could have the last bite. At lunch, she got her on chicken McNugget Happy Meal. Mom got the toy, though, as she would just eat it. It's Avatar, and when you clap your hands, his head lights up.
After wasting an hour in Monroe (took the wrong exit and had to drive all the way through poverty central to get back to the main road and then the line at McD's was forever), we finally got to Texas at almost 8. Kate is relaxing on the couch and hoping Randy will toss her one of those cookies. I am watching my Saints get creamed by the Cowboys. It's almost time for bed since my day started at 5 a.m.!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Sun, Blessings, Packing for Texas

Today dawned the most beautiful day--blue skies, warm temps, birds singing, sun shining. I worked on issues related to the upcoming Poor Peoples Economic and Human Rights Campaign march from the Delta to Detroit. I did laundry and dishes before I leave tomorrow. I got Kate's nails trimmed so hopefully she does not create any new wounds on Chet's paper-like skin in her enthusiasm to see him. I stocked up on supplies J will need while we are gone for a week. I cleaned out Libby's kennel, since it was finally a day without rain--whew! That was a lot of puppy poop! She did not like it that I had the pet door closed off while I was in there and kept jumping up on the window trying to figure out why she could not get out there with me. And finally, I filled all the bird feeders, hoping it will tide them over until I get back home next week.

Finally, after all of that, I sat on the porch in the still beautiful day and watched as a baby deer--probably just out of his spots stage as small as he was--came into the yard to snack on fallen bird seed.

It was not all I wanted to do today, or even needed to do today, but after all, there are only so many hours in a day. I am looking forward to spending a brief time with family and friends, and looking forward to soon when J and I depart for South Africa and spending time with friends who are "family" by choice.

Every year at this time, I have my visions and dreams and hopes of how it will be, and it usually is not that way. Sometimes it is just a disappointment, and sometimes it is a disaster. But, once again, I find myself eagerly anticipating the opportunity to share special times with my family those who are family by 'adoption', whether in Texas or Africa. Perhaps it is the pronoia, but I find I just cannot give up that someday, it will live up to my expectations.

Pronoia? I know I mention that a lot in my posts, and perhaps there are those who do not know what that means. Everyone knows that paranoia is thinking people are out to get you when they are not. Pronoia means thinking everyone likes you...you get the picture.

Wouldn't it be cool if someday, we really did all like each other?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Two days and counting

I have two more days of work this week (administrative duties) and then I have some much needed time off. Of course--as with all academics--that time "off" will be partially spent revising a manuscript for publication and recruiting subjects for the study we begin in the spring.

Today was wearying at the mental and emotional level. I spent the day fielding calls and meeting with students who showed up at my door. I told one student if they were in my office as much during the semester as they had been since it ended, they might have done better. : Some truly just want to understand what they failed to do and how to do better, and I am always happy to show them, and hopefully help them. It is always hard for me to see a student fail when she or he is trying to improve life chances by getting a degree, as well as wanting to make a difference by choosing social work. I tend to find that the ones who get to me the most are those who have tried, but simply were unable to master the course objectives. When you enroll in college needing remedial work in reading and writing, it makes it difficult to succeed even with the greatest motivation.

Then there are those who fail for either not turning in assignments, not passing exams, and/or plagiarizing. More than ever, it is easier to detect plagiarism. Where as once it took hours of searching on the Internet, and poring over paper copies of journal articles, it is relatively easy these days. It amazes me that students think we either will not or cannot detect it. I can generally spot a plagiarized paper based on the inconsistency in the writing. When sentences that are grammatically incorrect, no noun/verb agreement, numerous mistakes, etc, are interspersed with beautifully written sentences using vocabulary that I rarely even employ, it raises a red flag. That's usually when I make the check. Find the first instance, look for the next one. Once I see the pattern, I am like a pit bull--I won't quit until I find them all. I can overlook one or maybe two mistakes as a mistake in citing. When the paper is just chock full of them, it's either failure to master the course objectives and deserving of the F, or it is intentional academic dishonesty, and deserving of the F.

There are even programs now where students submit their papers electronically and they are checked against data bases in the university, other universities, and any published online source. It links you right to the website that the material was lifted from, and compares the original with the material in the student's paper. Amazingly, in spite of that, students will still do it.

Meanwhile, students in the US fall further and further behind those in other countries.

Sadly, there are students who blame everyone (usually the professor) but themselves for the outcome. I had a series of really disrespectful voice mails today with outrageous accusations. "I know for a fact that there were students who passed your class that did not even turn in a final paper." (Well, I don't know how that rumor got started, but nope, you can't pass the class if you don't turn in a final paper, and besides that, everyone did turn in a final paper. And it is "students who" which is a mistake I have repeatedly pointed out for you throughout the semester.) "All the black students failed and all the white students passed." (Well, again, no they did not--on either account. Some black students passed, some black students even made As and Bs. Some white students failed--due to plagiarism, and some white students even made Cs.) As I told one of my colleagues, I am an Equal Opportunity Failer when it comes to plagiarism. If anything, I am more inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to an African American student because most of them have come from inferior education systems in which they have been neither taught nor held accountable. While I hold all students accountable, I also work really hard to teach them all along the way what to do to correct the problems.

I had students who showed up in my office every single day, after every single assignment, and stayed until they understood what I was telling them. They passed.

Why am I writing all of this? Why do I keep agonizing over it? My colleague today said she thought we agonized over it more than the students did. Why I am writing this is because I just don't know what to do about it. I have struggled repeatedly since coming here to improve my teaching, to understand the barriers our students face, and to learn new ways of instruction to help them master the content--in all the classes I teach, but most particularly in the Research Writing class. I constantly try to look at it with the understanding that I am viewing it through my white lens, and the experience of when I was in school when you simply did not progress if you did not master the content--period. I know that is a white perspective. But on the other hand, I have black colleagues who are better writers than I am, who also have PhDs, and who demand excellence from their students, so it is clearly not solely a white/black issue.

It is yet another reminder that we must work harder to bring about equality in education, in housing, in access to society's resources. If equality were the norm, we would not end up with so many students who are not only disadvantaged educationally, but so wounded from the institutional racism experiences that they are unable to benefit from help even when offered.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Last day of the semester...sort of

Final grades were due today by 6 p.m. Though I have been grading non-stop since Thanksgiving, and until 2:30 this morning, I still had one class to go. I submitted them at 5 p.m.! It is always like this for me, usually because I insist on giving assignments where students must demonstrate the ability to write, to think critically, and to apply information to the practice of social work. Someday when I need social work services, I want to think my social worker can communicate orally and in writing, knows how to apply knowledge to the case I might bring her, and cares enough about social work to base her work on valid knowledge that is acquired by reading and study. Is that too much to want? That always means a lot of complex assignments, that take time (and a detailed rubric) to grade. I was breathing a sigh of relief when I hit the submit button just as the clock tower chimed 5.

As I headed to the car, the slight mist was gently blowing into my face, and the pleasant 61 degree evening was the first time in days it has not been cold and raining. The sky was darkening, the campus was deserted, and the bell chimes in the tower began the 5 o'clock ritual: tonight, Christmas hymns. Now I am pretty much the Bah Humbug of Christmas, but it was still a moment of pleasure in what has been a very hard semester.

A reminder, that in this world that is falling apart at the seams, I am blessed.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Jake's Wish

Jake was diagnosed with leukemia last year. His wish was to meet the Ole Miss football players. Like a lot of us, he especially loves Dexter McCluster, the favored receiver who has made so many touchdowns for us this year.

We have 4 football players who are social work majors. Derrick, LaMar, Cordera, and Jeremy helped make this wish come true. Dexter, on the right, and the other players joined us today for a luncheon and a surprise meeting with Jake.

Cordera Eason, faculty member Sherry Williams-Jenkins, LaMar Brumfield,
faculty member Pete Campbell
All the players lined up around the table and the walls, and passed footballs. Jake got his own football signed, along with a poster for his wall, and a PR picture of Dexter.
The team also brought him presents in addition to all the signings. Social work major Jeremy McGee looks on from over Jake's shoulder.

Cordera Eason with Suzassippi
Dexter and Jake
Jake runs out to catch a pass from Dexter.
Dexter getting ready to show his skill for Jake.
The members of the team who showed up for lunch with Jake. What a great bunch of guys!
Jake's beautiful mother, who has raised an amazing young boy.
The faculty with Jake and the players.
It was the most amazing day. It was overwhelming to think these guys would take 2 hours out of their finals week to come eat lunch and sign autographs and take a gazillion pictures. Our student athletes are all 4 incredible young men. I know that from teaching them in my classes. They enlisted the support of fellow team members to make this dream come true for Jake. We were all blessed by their presence, their caring for Jake, and their willingness to sign footballs and take pictures with our faculty and staff.

I have no idea how many people we fed today. In addition to the players, a number of our students came by and the building maintenance people who do so much to support us, along with faculty--wonderful food and wonderful people. It was one of those days when you just have to count your blessings and remember to keep life in perspective. It's too short to do anything else.

Thanks, Ole Miss Rebels. You are the best.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Bring on the Sun

It has been a drab, cold, raining week here in Mississippi. We have had some intermittent moments (like a nano-second or two) of sunshine, but they do not last long. I just bundled up to take the trash down the hill and it's dropping quickly out there, plus, more rain on the way tonight.

I am looking forward to spending 2 weeks in hot, sunny South Africa in just a couple of more weeks. This will be my first trip over there during their summer, and I am anticipating new experiences weather-wise, as well as the new organization I will visit and do some training with. Since it is summer, I will also get to visit Thelema Winery--one of the premier wineries in SA. It is always closed when I am there during the fall, as they sell out early in the spring. While there in the fall months, I have enjoyed a wine tasting many times sitting in front of one of the fireplaces in the tasting room, this will be a first to get to enjoy an outdoor tasting along the beautiful scenic routes. There are still so many vineyards I have not yet been able to visit, so I am awaiting that pleasure as well.

Also a nice bit of South Africa news is that the second review of my and my colleague's manuscript on child welfare in South Africa has gotten a favorable review. With making the revisions desired, it will move another step closer to publication.

And finally, one of my long-time favorite actors (Morgan Freeman) will be portraying one of my long-time revered political activists and leaders (Nelson Mandela) in Invictus. A colleague lent me the book on which the movie is based (Playing the Enemy) and I had planned to read it during my long flight to South Africa. Now I am torn; I want to see the movie, but don't want to see it prior to reading the book. As Cape Town will host the World Cup in 2010, I am also looking forward to seeing the new stadium being built and the construction that was promised in the townships in preparation for the many visitors who will be journeying to South Africa.

And finally among the new adventures for this trip, my long-time friend Jeanne, who now lives and works in South Africa, will take me to two new sites in the Western Cape. Always a new adventure!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Strut Your Mutt

It has been several weeks since we participated in the 14th annual Strut Your Mutt fundraising walk for the local shelter. This is Kate's fourth year: the first year she was a foster dog, but the last 3 years, she has been our dog during the walk. She is a very sociable dog and loves going out.
I walked in memory of Maggie, our lab we lost last summer. Maggie was not a sociable dog, preferring home and her own family, so she never got to go with us on the struts.
Princess Kate, who thinks she is supposed to do everything her humans do, and then some.
There are always all kinds of dogs present, from pedigreed special breeds to the local mutt Heinz 57 mixes. This Chesapeake Bay Retriever was rescued from over in the Delta. His fur was so matted and damaged, it had to be shaved, so he was wearing a tee shirt to protect him from the hot Mississippi November sun. I should have been as smart as the dog: I got a sunburn.
And, this is what all well-dressed Ole Miss ladies wear when walking dogs. While I myself in my younger days often wore heels all day long, and went shopping and to work in them, I never went on a 2 mile dog walk dressed like this!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Another day in the Delta, and some sunshine

Yesterday I drove over to Lambert, MS to pick up my friend and colleague, Debra. She and our chair were doing a focus group with some teenage girls. Debra and I were driving on over to Webb and Glendora afterwards to drop off some items and for me to give her a quick drive-through of the town and us to discuss how to set up the first town meeting. I have never been to Lambert before, so once again, it was an education for me. The lines are distinct in Lambert. To riff on Alaska Steve's poetic "zebra weather" of last week, Lambert is "zebra community" with distinct lines of black and white.

I found the church and went inside. Two young ladies staffing the door directed me upstairs. After letting them know I was here, I went back downstairs to wait for them to finish. The young lady closest to me smiled prettily and said, "It's my birthday today." I noted then the dollar bills pinned to her shirt and said, "So that's why you have all those dollars on your shirt!" I would have given her one, but I didn't have a one dollar bill--I knew that as I had just gone through McDonald's on the way to Lambert! I told her I had never heard of that custom until I moved to Mississippi.

They were having a basketball jamboree there in the church gym, where they also have a community program for the youth. It has been very successful in encouraging academic success and lowering the teenage pregnancy rate. As Debra and I drove over to Webb, I asked her about the dollar pinned on the chest. She laughed and said it was not a Mississippi tradition, or even an African American tradition. She was not sure where it originated, but she thought it was European. She said when she was growing up, you did not "display" your money, but tied it up in a handkerchief and put it in your bra. She said the "tradition" of pinning a dollar on someone for a birthday is a fairly recent thing here. I had only seen it once before when one of my students came to class with dollars pinned to her shirt and I asked her about it.

It was a fun trip (about 20 minutes) through the Delta. We shared our frustrations, our tiredness, laughed at things, and talked about things that worked and how we could continue to try to address all the issues that confront Mississippi--especially in the face of those who continue to think that those issues either do not exist, or are the fault of the individual rather than a system that fails to educate, fails to pay a living wage, fails to ensure health care and adequate housing.

I think it may be possible that the time is near for a major revolution in thinking about that, just because so many of the "middle class" are now in the same boat as the poor have been. People who have worked, who are educated, who were homeowners--now they are losing homes and jobs and have no health care--when it hits those who have "almost" made it or have made it, politicians start to pay attention in ways they do not for the poor.

On over to Glendora, and the mayor was out working on remodeling a building. I stopped and introduced him to Debra and said we had set up a meeting for the next week. We planned a community potluck to begin the engagement and meeting people before we start the assessment of what people in the community want and how we can find the resources to make that happen. We talked about the importance of keeping children in school, providing opportunities to see that there are other life courses.

And we laughed. We laughed about our middle aged lives and our husbands and things we never thought would happen to us. On the one hand, it helped me regain my hopefulness--things will turn out.

When I awoke this morning, the sun was shining and the sky was clear blue. It has been a pleasant fall day and I was able to complete a few chores outside, as well as sweep up dog hair and dust--not bad for someone with a total lack of motivation these days.

So, perhaps I shall be thankful after all. My friend Gigi has a lovely new grand daughter, I have weathered yet another storm in Mississippi and I am still standing, and hopefully, we will get the latest snag with getting a passport for J completed in time for him to accompany me to South Africa as planned. But that is a whole other story of life in the US these days.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Pre-Thanksgiving Prep and I'm not feeling very thankful

It's been 6 1/2 years since I came to Mississippi. Though it has had its major trials and I have spent much more time in the valley than on the mountaintop--though valley may be a misnomer; it's more like in the desert wandering with the herd of goats--I have always managed to pull my usual rabbit out of the hat. I have always tried to take my failures and inspect them relentlessly--after the pain of it, of course. I have tried to find the learning in failure and to use it in a growth-producing way. I usually succeed and as a result, have had some of the most awesome experiences that allow me to actually be thankful for the painful or difficult circumstance I have endured, coped with, and ultimately, turned into a positive and useful learning.

I have had more opportunities to do that here in the last 6 1/2 years than I think I have in the previous 25 years of career, work, and relationship. To say that my reality of my previous 25 years of experience has been upended by my experience here is such an understatement that it defies measurement.

So, last Friday when I came home, I sat outside in the perfect chimenea weather and enjoyed a fire. I remembered my beautiful house back in Texas, with it's lovely fireplace and two bathrooms that worked all of the time, and an in-ground swimming pool, and a two-car garage with a door that closed, and a stunning view of the lake and park behind my house, and all the terrific friends I had there. Then I thought about this house that is the nightmare from Elm Street x 10; another bathroom improperly done that we are having to re-do; the mold in the bathroom that is eating the walls due to the first improper remodel done by the unskilled person who did it before we bought the house, the constant battle with the water...and mostly, i thought about the reality that was my work and my passion and my career before I came here, and the reality that it has become here...and I said for the first time that I regretted the decision to come here.

While part of me truly wishes I was still back in my great house with my great friends and my work that had been successful on so many levels, and the hell with a new challenge and the desire to take it on, at the least, I found myself wishing I had stuck with the original decision we had made for the other university on the northwest coast. I thought of all the things that I knew for sure would not have happened: my dog would not be dead from a tick borne illness; my son would not be seriously ill with a tick-borne illness; my house would not be washing off a hill rotting away with mold; and most of all, I would not be in yet another deep valley of doubt. Not about who I am in the world--I am clear about that and I do not let others define that reality--but about how in the world to make this workable given the barriers I continue to face.

Just when I think it is safe to go back in the water so to speak, out come the sharks again. Just when I think I have weathered the worst of it and am feeling inspired and hopeful and motivated and supported, the rug is suddenly not under my feet but firmly grasped in the hands of the other. Even when the rug is gently tugged out from under me, it still causes me to lose my balance.

Once again, I have examined, questioned, looked at the evidence, lain awake hours each night, never had a moment without "it" out of my head since Friday. It reminded me of a conversation with a friend not long ago. She was talking about wanting a relationship and being so tired of being alone and relationships that seemed promising suddenly turning to crap right before her eyes. I said something to the effect of perhaps it was an opportunity to look within and seek better understanding of herself that it continued to happen. She replied, "I have looked inward until I am sick of it. I just want a decent relationship."

Friday, I understand that emotion at a gut level. I have looked inward for 6 1/2 years on a regular basis, and finally, I am sick of it. I just want this to work. I just want to be able to fulfill my life work without looking over my shoulder to see if someone is reaching down for the rug. I just want to understand why the reality that was for 25 years of my career is suddenly--at the point when I think I have the greatest skill and understanding and compassion of my life and have put forth the most effort in my life--is not the reality that is seen in this place. Clearly, there is a disconnect, and clearly, I do not know how to go about connecting it.

During my time on St. Paul 2 summers ago, my true reality was validated and affirmed. I left that island convinced of my capacity for self-efficacy and totally at peace with myself. I've been in that place now for well over a year...until Friday...

Now I know myself really well by now, and I know that (a) regardless, it will turn out. I never know what "turn out" means exactly, just that it will...well, because it has to. Nothing can not turn out; it's just that you can't always predict how it will turn out. I also know that (b) given a few days to be on the pity pot, the angry pot, the annoyed pot, the depressed pot, and I will say, okay, well enough of that, and go right back to doing what I always do, which is the best I can to matter and make a difference in the things that matter and make a difference. I also know that (c) these things tend to happen when I am least expecting them; like at times when I thought everything was going swimmingly. That is what makes it such a kick in the gut--I don't see it coming.

Remember the movie "An Unmarried Woman" when she is out walking down the street with her husband, just prattling on about her women friends and suddenly he says he is having an affair and in love with someone else and wants a divorce? She steps over to the gutter and leans down and pukes her guts out. Then, she goes about setting her life back in order.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Yes, I am just sitting here waiting on you to need something.

It's that time of the semester: you know, when all those assignments that they have known about since the first day of class start coming due. Monday the students on one of my classes (who actually have had a fairly light schedule up until now) said, "What are the chances you would move that policy booklet that is due Friday to the 30th?" I said none. I reminded them that they had Wednesday and Friday of last week with no class and they were to work on the policy booklet. I reminded them they had known about this assignment since the first day ofclass, and that I had frequently reminded them to start on it and work on it throughout the semester. I stressed (not that they cared) that I had 65 research papers due on the 30th that had to be graded that week, along with the final exams and that it was impossible to add 20 more major assignments and think I would finish.

They begged and said pretty please, and then, rolled their eyes and huffed--at least some of them did. It's not that I am unfeeling or unsympathetic...kind of...a little bit. After all, it is a relatively simple assignment, just time consuming; but one in which if a student only did one agency a week for 15 weeks, would have done all 15 agencies by the end of the semester. Or for those not that organized, 5 agencies every month for the 3 months of the class. Rocket science it ain't. I suppose the real question for me came down to "Was I willing to create a hardship for myself--possibly even an impossibility--because they had not used their time wisely?" My answer was no, I was not. After all, in social work, the judge won't care why you don't have a family assessment plan for her; she will just care that you don't have one. Your agency director will not care why your progress notes are not in the chart on time; he will just care that they were not there and the accrediting body cited them for non-compliance. "Your honor, I am a procrastinator; I don't do my work on a timely basis, and I want you to extend yourself in my behalf, and jeopardize the life of my client because I cannot manage my time. You see my point of view, don't you?" Somehow, I am not seeing that fly.

I must have had 25 emails and that many phone calls in the last 2 days. I grade papers all weekend every weekend, and most nights. There is only so much one human can do in a 24 hours period. I spent the day in Tupelo yesterday, arriving home at 6:30 p.m. after starting the day at 6:00 a.m. I don't think I am a slacker these days. Every spare minute between seeing students, I was grading papers and giving feedback. Yep, those 25 emails are "I sent you my draft 15 minutes ago, but I don't have a reply." The phone call: "I took my test; I don't have a grade." Okay, when did you take the test. "Just now." Okay, well, I was not just sitting here looking at my drop box waiting to see if something showed up in it. I will get to it as soon as I can.

I took 2 more calls (after I shut down the computer and was ready to walk out the door) wanting to know why the paper they had submitted 2 nano-seconds ago had not been graded. I stopped at my colleague's door on the way out and said, "Why is it a student thinks if she has put her paper in your drop box, you are supposed to immediately respond?" Kim laughed and agreed. "Yep, like you are just sitting there watching the drop box for something to come in." Deja vu. Or , I wonder, not realizing that you have 20 other students in that class (or even more) and every one of them is dropping papers on the due date--well, unless they are late due to being procrastinators that is--and that no human being can read more than one paper at a time. I read them in the order they come in, okay?

I said I was going home and putting on my pajamas, and then sitting down in front of my computer. Kim asked, "To wait for papers to show up in your drop box?" It made me laugh, and remember not to take it all so seriously. Just do the next thing; South Africa is coming.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Delta Education of Suzassippi

Thursday morning I was up early to drive back over to Glendora and then cool my heels while the group had breakfast and waited for Antoinette to arrive for the tour. Mayor Thomas took us on the tour of the town, beginning with the Emmett Till memorial bridge and park. It is hard for me to believe, but there are still people who do not know the story of Emmett Till's brutal lynching in Mississippi in 1955.

His body was dumped from this bridge into the Black Bayou. History records he was thrown into the Tallahatchie, but subsequent investigation revealed Black Bayou was the spot, and eventually, his body was carried to the edge of the Tallahatchie where it was discovered.

We made a stop at the housing complex which is owned by the local development corporation, and while the mayor discussed housing and poverty issues (the average income of a resident in Glendora is $6000 a year or less), the group was astonished to see prison labor on the county garbage pick up. Cheri wandered over and in a few minutes yelled out "they want to talk to us!"
Across the tracks are the remnants of the closed grocery store, a bar, and a row of empty buildings. This young man recognized Antoinette and came over with his friends to meet with us about some of their concerns living in the community. There is no work, no school, no grocery store, no gasoline pump, no laundry facility. There is a limited health care clinic, but the poverty level is so high, no one can afford to utilize it. The ambulance service takes 2 hours to get to the community, even though there is a hospital 30 minutes away.
These are the "Delta Boys" and like many young black men in poverty, they dream of success as rappers and musicians.
The Emmett Till Museum is located in the old cotton gin. A walk leading to the building reminded me of a peace sign.

We finished our tour that day driving over to a plantation to meet a family. I was not surprised to see us show up at the row of shotgun houses I had photographed on my way into town the previous day. We met with the sisters living there, along with their mother and several children, in a one bedroom shotgun house. They pay to stay in a house that looks like a hold over from the Great Depression--unpainted boards, holes in the walls and floors, no windows, only a light bulb in one room, no flush toilet--at least not one that was working.

The area is home to big agriculture. The plantations these days are owned by corporations--all along the drive I saw signs that said "Delta Plastics." That is the corporation that owns all the farms, and provides what limited employment is available working in the fields.

I was burdened by the fact that less than two hours from the university exist conditions that are as bad as any I have seen in Belize or South Africa.

Friday, I was back in Glendora at 8 a.m. for the final day of planning for the Poor People's Economic & Human Rights Campaign march. The purpose is to continue building support for a poor people's movement to end poverty and the housing/health care crisis. I also left the meeting Friday afternoon armed with contact information for the follow up work that my colleague and I will begin in Glendora, starting Monday. It's one thing to not know about it before now, except in an abstract way. Now that I know it in reality and these people and places have faces and names, it is impossible not to support their dreams. We are not talking charity here--though a good dose of charity is necessary for the children to eat right now--but a community organization to develop employment, housing, & health care. If the townships in South Africa can do it--and some of them have--then surely we can do it in a community of 285 individuals who are an hour and a half from the resources of the University of Mississippi and a department of social workers trained in community development and social capital.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Poor Peoples Economic & Human Rights Campaign, Glendora

I headed over to the Delta this morning for the first day of the Poor Peoples Economic and Human Rights Campaign organizing meeting in Mississippi. It was a new adventure for me as I had not been to this part of the Delta before. As I drove through Charleston and approached the courthouse, I realized the significance.

Tallahatchie County was the setting for the trial for the 2 white men accused of torturing 14 year old Emmet Till...and on these steps, they--who admitted they had killed him--were acquitted and set free. Till's crime? Besmirching white southern womanhood by speaking too familiarly to a store clerk.
As I approached the town of Webb, the plantations were evident all along the two-lane. Here, a row of shotgun houses--holdovers from the sharecropper days--caught my attention. This is the sad state of housing in Mississippi in 2009 in the Delta, and the reason for the PPEHRC meeting. Their primary focus has been on housing, though they address other issues affecting poor people.

A few miles later and as I approached the turnoff to Glendora, it hit home even harder. "Emmet Till Museum." This tiny community of 285 people on the edges of the Tallahatchie River is where Emmet Till was brutally murdered. There is not much left there these days: a post office, houses, a public housing complex, the museum, a clinic, a bar, and the bed & breakfast which would be home to the organizers for the next 3 days. I located it easily.

The organizers arriving from New Jersey, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, California, Florida, and Mississippi were not yet there. As a result, I had the opportunity to spend 2 hours talking with a local person from this small community, about what he saw as the needs, how schools needed to be in the community, and how we might partner to change the dismal future of this area. He said one thing that struck me deeply: tourists come here, but they only take away; they don't give anything back.

Not long after, the first of the group arrived, and things turned to logistics. All the plans for the day had been scrapped due to late arrivals, and we were unable to take the community tour that was to kick off the meeting. Instead, I helped Rosemary chop vegetables for the evening meal, set up tables, put away food, cart in luggage. Finally, armed with a list of things the group needed for tomorrow (and a promise to bring some wine--they had no idea they would be in such a rural area where such luxuries as they were accustomed to from the big cities would be non-existent!) I headed back to Taylor and my errands.

I will be up early tomorrow as the tour is scheduled for 9 and it is an hour and a half over there. I look forward to the day, feeling a kinship with these folks, a hope for the work we will do here, and the belief that there are still folks who care. I can't ask for much more today.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Encouraging literacy at Riverside

Group three spent Saturday afternoon in Riverside. It was a beautiful--if windy--afternoon and we had about 15-20 children, one parent, and one grandparent spend time with us on encouraging literacy.

Brett, his friend, and Claudia set up the "Book Walk" court. Modeled after the old "Cake Walk" only the prize was a book of choice. The students had obtained over 40 books, so each child had the opportunity to receive several books throughout the afternoon.
Here, Danielle looks on as her group members place the numbers. She gently chastised the group about the tiny size of the numbers. Behind her, the clearing is under way for the new park promised by the city. Finally, children will have a place near by to play, with a basketball goal, baseball field, and playground equipment.
Danielle and Claudia set up the "go fishing" game, testing out the state of the art fishing poles.
This scene was my favorite! It exemplified the fun of the afternoon, the camaraderie of the group, and their ability to work together for the benefit of the community.
The event was perfect for our age group. Generally, the after-school crowds are a little older and rowdier. These pre-schoolers were not only having fun, they were well-mannered (Yes, ma'am) and polite in waiting their turns.
Charlotte would identify gender and age level so that the "catch" was appropriate for the developmental level and interests.
Behind the scenes, Claudia was assisted by one of the older children who enjoyed helping select the right book or toy.
The final activity was a bit more cerebral, playing a literacy game of rhyming words, and the opportunity to select another book. Our top three "prize books" were from Barnes and Nobles, and were excellent hard cover books. Those were thanks to my dear niece who sent a gift card to her Aunt Susie!
My favorite conversation of the day was talking with the grandmother who had brought her 4 year old grand daughter up to participate. I explained who we were, and how long we had been coming to Riverside. She said her grand daughter loved books and would enjoy having her read her new books to her later. It was such a joy to see all the children be excited about books and participate. In Lafayette County, Mississippi, black and white children start school at the approximate same reading level, but by third grade, that level drops significantly for black children. By seventh grade, only 15% of black children are reading at the dismally lower proficiency levels in Mississippi. (We set our own proficiency level at lower than the national levels, so when our children can't read, they really cannot read.) Part of why we are at Riverside has been the desire to change that statistic, even if for only one community.