Walnut Room this way

Walnut Room this way

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.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

International Social Work Conference

The social work department held a conference today, to benefit the students going to Belize for Study Abroad in January. I was asked to present on the work in South Africa. I spent 12 hours putting together my presentation, using pictures from the past five trips. I wanted to paint a picture of how the country had changed--and how social work had changed--since 2001 when the transition to social development finally began to come about.

I noticed as we were setting up the computer and projector that the room was so light the pictures were not visible. We were in the ball room, which had ceiling to floor windows and the east sun shining through them. There was nothing to be done (apparently, drapes are not thought to be necessary in a ballroom) but turn out the lights, and lower the shades on the east side...which were white, mesh shades, designed only to filter but not block. It made little difference.

The idea had come to me a couple of days ago as to how to begin my presentation. Without pictures being clearly visible, I knew I had to make the narrative even more interesting, and I tried to do that by walking around, doing descriptive examples of the work I have done. I stepped up to the microphone after my introduction and startled the crowd by belting out "Mandela, Mandela, says fight for freedom, in our land of Africa. Holyshasla, Mandela. Freedom is in your hands. Show us the way to freedom, in our land of Africa."

I have to say that my whole experience of planning this South Africa class has been doomed from day one! Now, I am still going, and looking forward to it, and my part of it has gone seamlessly. I arranged the incredible pricing of $15 per night for housing, and only $100 in excursions due to my contacts. By reducing my salary by 2/3 and taking no per diem, I was able to get the cost (which includes all the tuition and mandated university fees) to an all-time low--the lowest cost of any study abroad course in the January session. With airfare running at 1400 now instead of the usual 2,000, my cost was still the lowest of any of the travel courses and I was certain the class would make this year.

It did not. It was doomed from the beginning by errors (not mine) which resulted in posters printed for the wrong city, inaccurate information posted on the website as to the nature of the class, failure of others to show up for meetings and classes as scheduled, or answer correspondence and in the end, in spite of my efforts, I had two students sign up, so it is a no go for the class. From the first mistake to the last, I have spent many hours obsessing over it, grieving over it, and asking myself what it all meant.

Even though I am not taking a class and the efforts of today from me (presenting and supporting the silent auction with some of my cherished South Africa items such as hand-beaded spoons and silk-screens), go to support students selecting another trip, I applaud the notion of studying abroad. It adds so much to one's experience. Since my first trip in 2001, South Africa had become an important part of my life and my experience and I will never be the same again.

On December 31, I leave Memphis with my son for my sixth visit to South Africa. I will see two new programs, revisit my dear friend Aunty Goliath and family, and spend time with my friends Courtney and Lira and their son, Joshua. I will see my former student and now friend and colleague who works there, Jeanne. I will have time--for the first visit--to be truly on holiday, spending my time as I choose rather than working. When you put something out to the universe, things happen. I said not long ago "My next trip to South Africa is going to be on holiday." And so it is.

These are some of my pictures from my first visit in 2001, when I went to evaluate the internship experience of my student who had just spent a year there working in child welfare. As we drove past the airport on our way to Stellenbosch, I was not prepared for the miles and miles of shanties--known as informals--that make up the townships of Gugulethu and Khayelitsha. I did not know then how much time I would come to spend in those townships over the next 9 years.
Once in Stellenbosch, we headed out to Kayamandi, the township. Though apartheid had ended 10 years earlier, the communities were still very segregated and housing was inadequate for the majority of the population.
Shanties do not have kitchens nor cooking capacity for the most part, though some families will use a small kerosene burner to prepare a one-pot meal. Far more common is the braii, or barbeque, where families will purchase simple foods.
One of the commitments is to preparing the next generation for education and success. Each township will have a number of pre-schools, or creches, for early childhood intervention.
Basic curriculum materials are provided, and social workers work with mothers in the community to help children become school-ready. It also provided a bare minimum of nutritious snacks under the feeding programs.
To this day, I recall looking into the eyes of this young man and wondering what he was thinking as he stared at me. One of my friends, on seeing this picture, said, "Now there is an old soul." This little boy would be around 11 or 12 by now.
The first trip was a whirlwind week of my visiting all Jeanne's work sites, but on the last day before our departure, we had time to see a few tourist locations. Jeanne took us for the day to Cape Town to the market and to see some of the stunning views of the area.
One of my favorites was this mural made from guns (real and toy) that had been turned in following the ending of apartheid and the move to a violence-free culture. Sadly, there is still much violence in South Africa, though it is not the same type of violence. I also define the daily poverty of unemployment, living in dangerous and unhealthy shanties without running water, toilets, floors or proper roofs as violence. Violence can be more than guns and crime.
Tourism has been a boon to some in the area, and sites such as these street-side performers is common. I still play their CD on a regular basis and enjoy the beauty of their voices, singing both in English and in Xhosa.
Our last meal that year was at Mama Afrika's where we ate traditional African food prepared by an excellent chef. We sampled springbok, crocodile, and ostrich, accompanied by traditional foods such as butternut and spinach.
I was particularly fascinated by the chandelier made from old coke bottles!
The following morning, we would depart for the flight home. I knew then that I would return the following year for my upcoming sabbatical, and began at that moment to prepare for what would turn out to be the most incredible experience of my life.