Places 2

 

My Grandparents’ Hill Top Home

I will make the case that to explore and affiliate with life is a deep and complicated process in mental development.  To an extent undervalued in philosophy and religion, our existence depends on this propensity, our spirit is woven from it, hope rises on its currents. ~ E.O. Wilson from Biophilia (Harvard University Press, 1984) 

The first memories of the natural world I recall in any specificity are from the family visits to my grandparents’ farm on the Watauga River in east Tennessee. The Feathers descended from John Feathers who immigrated to America from Ireland in 1850. Small farmers all, my relatives were subsistence farmers probably carrying on the tradition of people whose lands were always subject to seizure by foreign or religious powers.  They were independent, making their own food, clothing and furniture, raising children by the Good Book and taking simple pleasures in seasonal celebrations, dancing and singing, and harvesting and preparing the fruits of the Earth.

I did not know my father’s family until well after the Depression years that hit hard. Dad remembers being hungry, after all the animals had been slaughtered, when the beans and corn that had been put away in the cellar in blue-tinted jars had been emptied…when his mother made gravy from bacon fat and baked fresh biscuits to hold their hunger at bay.  But they made it through with hard work, sacrifice and luck.  When I showed up on Earth, their little farm was still there to welcome my sisters and me each summer or Christmas of our lives tromping from military base to military base.  Over these many years of annual migrations to my grandparents’ farm my character began to form and I learned where I came from, and something up ahead of me began to take shape.

A distinct memory is the feel and sound of our car wheels rolling up the gravel driveway late at night and getting my first glimpse of the lit windows in the large two-story house under the big maples. Deep shadows cast by a summer moon onto the white clapboard shingles or running across the lawn after a December snowfall primed the excitement in my heart as I anticipated my grandparents waiting on the front porch with its yellow light above the door.  Before the car came to a full stop, the doors flung open to release a tumble of jubilant children. The admonitions of our parents and greetings of our grandparents as they nestled us in their arms melded into the ever present rush of the river below the hill sweeping us into its flow and reverie once again.

I always considered the hilltop farm and its contours my home, which I explored like a small insect in my very own world.

Places make a quilt of memories woven of faces, feelings, and senses.  Any one of these can evoke an entire memory or set of memories from long past – so powerful are they laid down in our very core. I can recall vividly the sound of ripe watermelon ripping open after my grandfather had slashed a big gash down its middle and his sausage-sized fingers pulling it apart to expose the glistening red fruit. The aroma of its warm flesh, plucked fresh from the garden on a hot summer’s afternoon, laid bare for our refreshment under the cool shade of a towering tree, remains with me to this day, a half century later. Every time that I cut open a watermelon I am drawn into the good, wholesome feelings of those cherished days with my grandfather, sisters and cousins, spitting watermelon seeds across the lawn and watching my parents relaxed on a porch swing up the hill in the sheltering embrace of the old homestead.

These are my first memories of place. They are a tapestry of nature, nurture, and the flow of time. Yet I see now that they have a timeless quality and remain as fresh with me as the moment they happened.

 

 

 

PLACES

Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge

Places define much of what we become and in myriad ways determine the things we do.  Far from a “backdrop” to the drama of our lives, the places we inhabit, grow to love, and defend fiercely as we would our children, are intimately a part of us.  We breathe their air, drink their waters…eat from the table of their mantles until they form our flesh and blood and point of view. In turn our breath is taken up in tree trunks and leaves and our excrement is filtered into the earth. Our voices can be heard moving over the land where they mingle with the buzzing hordes and songs of feathered choruses. We are not apart from a place but knit tightly into it in mutual exchanges. We are relations.

My family history begins in the Smoky Mountains where many Irish, Welsh, and Scottish immigrants settled. Although I was born there, at the end of WWII my father returned to the States and whisked up my family into a 16-year journey of military life. We moved from coast to coast in the U.S. with one gentle, magical time in Honolulu on Oahu. It would not be a State of the U.S.A. until 1959, years after we left.

Changing places frequently lends to a sense of loss and confusion precisely for the reasons that place is not a location but the source of our biological and psychological lives. I am only now beginning to appreciate this fact, now looking back. As hard as it was to be continuously uprooted and thrown upon new soil, I learned to grasp hold quickly and savor the rich, diverse places on my “dance card” in life.

A Celebration of Friendship and Community

Photo by Susan Feathers

Tomorrow I am flying to New York for the 39th Harry Chapin Run Against Hunger. This year’s race is very special because the community of Croton-on-Hudson is honoring the life and legacy of Carol Falter, daughter of my friends Betty and Bill. Carol lost her battle with pancreatic cancer at age 39, in the fullness of her life as a dynamic leader in education and youth development.

The race, which is run to honor the legacy of Harry Chapin, who was also taken in the prime of his life, is a fitting place to celebrate family, friends, and the principle that any one life can remake the world through passion for a cause greater than themselves. Below is what I will share with the community on October 20 – Race Day:

Thirty-nine years ago, this race was born in the office of Pastor Sandra Myers at Asbury United Methodist Church. Sandra called me to her office one Fall day in 1980 to help her establish a fundraising event for the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR).

Later that day I met up with my running buddies, who are here today, to celebrate the life and legacy of Carol Falter and this amazing community in which she was nourished as she grew.

Molly Connors, Kate Glynn, Betty Falter, Dot Janis, and I were training for a Leggs’ Mini-Marathon in Central Park. Let me set the context for you. Women were just discovering they in fact could run long distances without their uterus dropping. Yes, that was a falsehood perpetuated during the women’s movement to keep her out of the long-distance running competition. Katherine Switzer broke that barrier in 1967 — with the aid of a man, I might add — who held off a race official who sought to kick her out of the Boston Marathon. It would not be until 1972 that women were allowed to run that race.

On our run that day, we discussed a 10K race for Pastor Myers’ idea as a community project. Croton had long been a running community. The first U.S. chapter of the Hash House Harriers took root here. The dream of a race over the iconic dam and backroads of this beautiful place hovered in our minds. Pastor Myers named it the “Run Against Hunger” or RAH.

In July of 1981, Harry Chapin’s life ended in a car crash on Long Island. Harry had helped establish President Carter’s Commission on Hunger and Poverty, donating a third of his band’s earnings to charity, and established World Hunger Year. In his last three years, he raised $3M to end poverty.

A Croton resident and producer of Harry’s music asked that we make the RAH a tribute to Harry’s life and work, donated t-shirts, and that is how this race came to be in October 1981. We marvel at this community’s commitment to continue the work.  Carol Falter loved this race.  She later became an ultra-marathon runner herself – maybe because she first ran in the Fun Run here with her parents and brothers. She herself left an abiding legacy of work on behalf of youth and education, answering Harry’s challenge when he wrote these lyrics:

Oh, if a man tried
To take his time on Earth
And prove before he died
What one man’s life could be worth
I wonder what would happen
to this world*

                                Carol and generations of women have since changed                                                                     the pronouns to be more inclusive!

*Lyrics from the Chapin song: I wonder what would happen (Gold Medal Collection Album)

What the Eyes Don’t See: Everyone Should Read!

Chemical Symbol for Lead

What the Eyes Don’t See is a book written by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha about the Flint, Michigan water crisis. As a pediatrician and Community Health Residency Director at Hurley Center in Flint. Dr. Mona (as her tiny patients refer to her) learned from a high school friend, an environmental scientist, that she should be concerned about lead in the water in Flint. She was surprised. The Flint authorities told everyone the water was fine to drink. Like most of us, she expected the people “in charge” to protect the public. Isn’t that what government is for? But, Dr. Mona’s friend said no — it is not safe. That began an 8-month odyssey that grew from a conversation between two friends to a consortium of doctors, scientists, activists, and  parents who exposed the cover up and righted a huge wrong.  Dr. Mona knew all too well what lead exposure does to developing children.

I highly recommend this book for its depth, its fluid story development, and its educational value for every adult in the U.S. and for the sake of every child. I read it over two days, hardly able to put it down. See Dr. Mona on the web.

Exposure to high lead levels as infants and children can cause irreversible damage to their brains and other organs. Gray matter in the brain is eroded so that the child has problems with attention and impulse control; it affects white matter in nerves that carry signals in the brain; it is suspected of having epigenetic effects – changing a child’s DNA which means it can be passed to future generations. People exposed to lead as children show higher rates of crime and addiction as teens and adults. Lead in the body can erode eyesight and affect other organs.

Dr. Mona encapsulates the story in 1) the political policy — austerity; 2) the socioeconomic history of the city and those most affected by the lead poisoning — an environmental injustice; 3) the U.S. practice of requiring the victim to prove harm first rather than using the Precautionary Principle: when danger is suspected, move with caution, using science to understand the risk.

In 2014, due to Flint’s bankruptcy, the state assigned an emergency manager who alone made the decision to switch the city’s water supply from the more expensive fresh water of the Great Lakes to river water.  The Great Lakes water was treated with a corrosion control to prevent leaching of chemicals like lead into the drinking water. The new manager decided to not use corrosion-control treatment of the river water as a way to save money–his primary mandate.

Dr. Mona points out that the city lost democracy with the assignment of an emergency manager appointed by the state.  The city was in free-fall economically not by the fault of any of the families and small businesses that were struggling economically in Flint. The wealthy either moved out, or changed the housing and voting districts to wall themselves off from the poorer workers and neighborhoods. The people were essentially punished for being poor. Extreme austerity was what they got, a short-sighted, unjust policy.

When Dr. Mona and her team began to contact authorities to alert them and request data, they were met by silence or by bureaucratic barriers. They had to “prove” the harm done to children before the authorities would agree there was a problem. To protect industry, the U.S. requires harm to be proved first unlike all other nations in the world. Instead, Dr. Mona points to the Precautionary Principle.

Everyone in America knows that lead is dangerous, and officials in government know that corrosion-control in municipal water quality prevents leaching of lead. So why should she need to prove anything. Shouldn’t the authorities move with caution first to protect the possible harming of children? Again, in policy, money came before the kids.

Dr. Mona worked with data experts, scientists, policy makers, and many others to pull data, analyze it with rigorous methods to be sure the increase in lead that they were seeing was true. It was far worse than they expected. Thousands of children in the prime months and years of their development were impacted. But, just as you can’t see lead in the water, you won’t see the changes in the children for months or even years. So, one has to be cautious, right?

This book is something more. It is the story of an immigrant family who fled a brutal dictator (Saddam Hussein) to live in the U.S. Mona and her brother were natural born Americans but her parents brought the traditions of their country and lives to their home in America. I was fascinated to learn more about the history of Iraq. Instead of the war-torn, fearful images I have only seen through U.S. media during the Iraq war, I learned about the Iraq Republic before the revolution that installed Saddam. Women had similar freedoms to American women today. It’s hard to imagine that such a complete transformation of the country has happened in such a short period of time and a warning to our country to watch for destabilizing influences on our democracy. Mona describes her parents and grandparents, the food, language, and story traditions from Iraq that are lovely and that I related to my own familial traditions. Her family members, each in their own way, emulated qualities of citizenship and justice that Mona clearly inherited.

Dr. Mona opened the world a little more to me. This perspective of the immigrant is vital to understanding other nations and our role in the world. I kept thinking as I was reading, “Thank God we let her family immigrate to America. Look what she and her family have contributed to the welfare of our country!”

Landing in the America that made it possible for Dr. Mona to be a doctor, she began to see that there were “two Americas” – the one that worked for her and her brother, and the one that doesn’t work for most of the residents of Flint. The families most affected by the poisoned water were the same ones who could not pay for bottled or filtered water. Children impacted by the poisoned water were already dealing with major stressors such as malnutrition, neglect or abuse–all the impacts of poverty.  Dr. Mona explains what we know about the impacts of Adverse Childhood Experiences, of A.C.E’s which cause such ailments as chronic asthma. Dr. Mona teaches the reader about Community Medicine that looks not just at physical health but also zip code–the socio-economic correlates of health. The book is annotated and provides references for professionals and parents in the back of the book. It contains an excellent summary of Flint’s history from the heyday of GM’s dominance to the disenfranchised neighborhoods of today. This gives readers a setting in which to understand how and why the story unfolded as it did.

Dr. Mona works in a public hospital so she sees and cares for the poorest residents. Her amazing story is about the indignation of one doctor who would not stop until she exposed the lead levels of kids she saw at Hurley. She tells the story of the coalition of friends, fellow professionals, legislators, and parents who managed in only 8-months to expose the truth. Ultimately, the governor mandated the switch back to fresh, Great Lakes, corrosion-treated water. It was a victory but it is also powerful implication of America’s environmental injustices. And it is an ongoing effort to stay with all the kids affected to make their futures as bright as possible.

Direction for Communities Across the Country: As Dr. Mona travels around the country to introduce the book, she is teaching all of us about community resilience and how coming together we can provide buffers to poverty and neglect that will help stabilize children, and how we can all work together to provide kids in low-income neighborhoods with books, with mentors., with education, and a social fabric that helps each child and parent be more resilient to stressors.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha is just one child of immigrant parents who has become an amazing advocate for American children who is also showing our nation where we must re-examine our policies at least as they affect the very young.

Dr. Mona is exposing much more than lead in the water. She is showing us a direction to live up to our creed that all people are equal and deserving of equal rights and protections under the law. Her book is a call for government to live up to its mandates and for citizens to make sure they do. Ultimately, Dr. Mona explains that she is a believer in the role of good government as opposed to extreme policies of austerity which are often short-sighted and basically unfair. I agree.

See Dr. Mona on the web.

UPDATE: Frontline Article July 25, 2018 about death toll from Flint Water Crisis, specifically from Legionnaire’s Disease.

 

 

Hidden in Plain Sight: The Tragedy of Children’s Rights

Hidden in Plain Sight: The Tragedy of Children’s Rights from Ben Franklin to Lionel Tate

Hidden in Plain Sight (2008 Princeton University Press) written by Barbara Bennett Woodhouse examines past and evolving perspectives on the human rights of children. Written for both students of law and the general American public, this book offers a solid methodology for how to think about the rights of children through the science of human development. It frames the rights of children by grounding them in basic human rights values of privacy, agency, equality, individual dignity, and protections.

Barbara Bennett Woodhouse is the L.Q.C. Lamar Professor of Law, and director of the Child Rights Project at Emory University. She is also the Donald H. Levin Chair Emeritus in Family Law at the University of Florida.

Woodhouse presents the stories of historical figures familiar to Americans (Louisa May Alcott, Willa Cather, Frederick Douglas, and Ben Franklin) as well as children she has known in her work as a legal representative, a law professor, and a witnessing advocate for children and families.

As the reader follows these lives, learning new insights about familiar Americans, the author describes her own journey to understanding of the problems and solutions society faces in adjudicating the rights of children in numerous situations such as living in child intolerant times, slavery, abandonment, violence, and juvenile justice institutions.

As I read each chapter, Woodhouse gave me ways to think about each child or teenager, how she thought about it and has since changed her mind or confirmed her understanding. The basic premise is that children’s rights in the U.S. are tragically wanting for just policies and deeper understanding of the ecology of child development as we understand it today. Woodhouse compares America’s policies and legal record on children’s rights to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).  It is the most rapidly ratified human rights convention in the history of United Nations, yet the U.S. has not joined the international community for fear that the rights of children might infringe on parents’ individual rights and undermine adult authority and control.

Woodhouse argues that the contemporary cult of individualism often contributes to harsh sentencing of children who have committed crimes and are held responsible for their actions by courts of law without due consideration of children’s developmental ability to understand the ramifications of their actions.

Hidden in Plain Sight asks readers to consider our American values in the light of the human rights of children. She evokes the language of the U.N. Special Session for Children:

A world made fit for children is a world fit for everyone.

With little personal foundation in legal study, this book read well for me as an unfolding argument by an experienced legal expert, a mother, and a legal guardian of children. I highly recommend this book to everyone who is concerned with the protection of children, and citizens who worry about the future we adults are creating for the children in our lives and around the world.

RELATED ISSUE: Juliana vs. U.S. – Children’s Constitutional Lawsuit.

Their complaint asserts that, through the government’s affirmative actions that cause climate change, it has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.

 

The Writing Vortex: Louisa May Alcott

by Harriet Reisen

When Louisa May Alcott became seized with the idea for a new book, she describes the feeling as being drawn into a vortex. A prolific writer, most of the time by necessity, Alcott might turn out a novel in a month! Often her hand would become paralyzed and she’d have to switch to her other hand, a skill she taught herself in anticipation of her “overdrive” writing style.

Harriet Reisen’s 2009 biography of Alcott–Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women— is an engrossing read. Her extensive research (she read well over 100 of Alcott’s publications) and energetic writing style are only a part of why this book is so readable: she was also that little girl whose imagination was seized by Louisa May’s stories in Little Women, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys. Reisen visited the sites where Alcott lived, and met with editors and rare book experts who have followed the Alcott trail of hundreds of publications (books, essays, letters, short stories). There are still dozens of publications Alcott refers to in her journals and letters that have never been found. In fact, it was only recently that a rare book dealer found a letter squished between the pages of an Alcott book that eluded to one of Alcott’s aliases and discovery of another publication!

For writers it is worth noting how different the publishing industry was during Alcott’s writing life. Yet, for us writers, Alcott’s musings and writing practice still hold value today. She was relentless when she began a new story or novel. She wrote straight through without editing much (a Hemingway style) and she wrote from her own experience. She tried to stay away from contentious political topics (even though she was very much an activist for women, abolition, and all sorts of social injustices), instead keeping her narratives to common human emotions and situations that as time has proved are just as relevant today as when she was writing. Love, jealousy, conniving, friendship, loyalty–its all there in very well defined, unforgettable character. I suppose a writer could do no better than to study this one amazing author and human being as mentor for their own writing.

I highly recommend this biography to all writers but also to anyone who loves Alcott’s novels. The biographer, Harriet Reisen, wrote the script for an accompanying film which eventually PBS aired on American Masters with the publication of the book in 2009. Amazon Prime has it today as well as the film site.

REMINDER: For Mother’s Day, PBS is airing a new version of Little Women. May 13th is the Day. Make your crumb cake and brew the tea ladies and gentlemen.

The Wonder of Fiction

The year the youth novel Wonder was published, I lost my father and was still grieving the loss of my sister. At the time I worked full-time at the University of West Florida, and somehow I missed the wonderment of Wonder.

Here is the 2012 NY Times Book Review.

I am about through and savoring its completion. The narrative, characters, and the real life circumstances of each middle-schooler, especially August, are true to life. The story has the effect of healing my own wounds from that period of youth that is so very difficult. It is the time when we truly differentiate from our childhood identities, our birth family, and move into the harsh realities of life.

R.J. Palacio, the author, put this book “out there” and it has since been translated into many languages, and used in classrooms, and other educational venues. Palacio created one book with a narrative for our culture, and cultures worldwide  about being “different”.

Auggie Pullman’s disfiguring genetic disorder causes conflicting feelings. Palacio provides personal narratives of Auggie’s sister and his classmates to sensitively show us how we deal with difference depending on our family, experiences, and personalities. Reactions to Auggie when he enters middle school range from fear to revulsion. When we learn more about each character, readers explore similar feelings in themselves.

Palacio takes adult readers on a poignant journey to our preadolescent selves when we asked, Who am I? We present ourselves to the world with our face and expression. We experience Auggie and his peers grow and change as they deal with Auggie’s condition and his bright, true persona which they discover over time.

Auggie’s facial deformities are extreme. Yet, he is a pretty normal tween and a cool guy once you get to know him. His experiences are tenderly created by a talented writer who was raising middle schoolers at home. She had once encountered a small girl with a similar genetic disorder at an ice cream shop. That encounter led to the creation of Auggie Pullman and her first ever novel.

At a time in world history when fear of the other is strong, this book provides a way to understand how we react to difference but how our differences help us grow and make the world a more wonderful place.

Maybe it’s time for a National REREAD of Wonder.

Read about Treacher Collins Syndrome

See the movie after you read the book.