Sunday, November 1, 2009

Autumn comes to my little street

The Queen's English

I am a lover of words, and language, and I believe that the language of a people says a great deal about who they are and what is important to them. Since I have been in the UK, I have come to appreciate many of their sayings, and to recognize them as a reflection of their culture. And others are just funny and entertaining!
Here are just a few:

Are you all right?: When I first came here, I thought my body language or facial expressions must be signalling that there was something wrong with me, because people were constantly asking me if I was all right. But I have come to know that the English use this as a more honest greeting than our American “how are you?” They don’t really want to hear a long tale about what is going on with you, they just want to make sure you are all right.

Well done: I overhear English parents say this to their children. It is used as we use “good boy,” or “good girl.” I like it because it praises the act of the child instead of tying the act to their essential goodness. It feels less conditional, and more real.

Unwell: The English use this to describe people who are sick or even mentally ill. It just seems less harsh than ‘sick,’ or ‘ill,’ and implies a temporary condition that is fluid, and subject to change.

No worries: This is often heard as a phrase instead of ‘no problem,’ or ‘not an issue.’ It feels like a kind of commentary on how they handle things in general—that there are no worries worth causing a problem in relationships, or worth troubling ourselves.

Leave it to me: This phrase is used when someone agrees to take responsibility for getting something done. Although it is used sometimes by people in the service industry and I don’t often trust that the person is really going to follow through! Sometimes it just feels like a way to get me to stop perseverating about the problem on the phone!

At the end of the day: I love this phrase because it reflects the idea that, in the scheme of things, whatever it is that seems so big and important really doesn’t matter, much. I hear this used a great deal in my work environment. It helps us to keep things in perspective.

Cheers!: This greeting is usually used at the end of a conversation, in place of or before saying goodbye.

Isn’t it, or i'n it: This phrase is used at the end of a sentence or thought, as we would use ‘you know,’ or ‘know what I mean?’

I am sure there are others, which I will share in the future as I encounter them. For now, here are some other entertaining turns of words and phrases that I have had to learn in order to adapt to the life here!

Pants: trousers
Sweaters: jumpers
Stove: hob, or cooker
Restroom: toilet, or loo
Umbrella: brolley
Thrift store: charity shop

Trunk: boot—I went to a ‘boot fair’ recently, expecting rows of boots for sale, and found only people’s junk that they had brought to sell in their ‘boots’—what we would call a flea market or garage sale!

Fries: chips
Chips: crisps
Cookies: biscuits

Life continues to entertain and amuse me here, as I settle into my new world across the pond!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The land of the Brattons, Wales

Settling In, Coming Home

I have not written in almost two months. I have been spending time adapting to my work and my new flat and trying to absorb all that it means to work and to live in this country so different from my own. I have also had so many thoughts swirling in my head about my work, and the different approach here, and those thoughts have mixed with the memories of my mother and my sister and my childhood. As I have thought about these issues, they have become more and more complex, and I have resisted writing about them because I don't want to trivialize them or simplify them with words that are trite and easy.

With all of our talk about and money spent on family preservation, in the U.S., it is not a concept that we practice well. We remove children of parents who test positive at birth, whether that positive test is for cannibis or cocaine. We bring families into court and force them into treatment when we are barely certain of the extent of their addiction. We separate newborns from their mothers and they are fortunate to get visits one hour a week. We don't provide poor families with housing and then we take their children away when they are homeless. We expect parents who are struggling to find work or keep their minimum wage jobs to attend court hearings in the middle of the day and to come to visits at the convenience of the workers and to attend parenting classes that cost money that they don't have. When the parents begin to falter, or miss a visit, or show up late because they have no transportation, we write their failings into court reports. And if, God forbid, they become overwhelmed and let their despair and feelings of hopelessness cause them to drink or use drugs again, we judge them to be unfit to parent their children, and we move for termination of parental rights.

Here,if it is decided that a mother cannot safely parent her infant on her own, we place the mother and baby into a sheltered environment where her parenting can be assessed, and where mentoring is provided. If she does not want to go into a placement with her infant, we arrange daily contact for at least an hour a day. There is a respect, here, for the importance of family.

There are those who will say that we go too far, here, in the other direction. Indeed,there have been several scandals in the UK that have included horrific stories of abuse and torture and death. But do we not have those scandalous stories in the U.S.,too? In spite of all of our courts and authoritarian approaches and our placements and our speedy moves toward adoption, do children not die at the hands of their abusers there, as well?

I cannot say which approach is right, or which works better. Both have their faults. I can only speak from my own experience.

When I first became involved with abused children, I was a young woman working in the Tenderloin area of San Francisco, with an inner city drop in day care center, and I came to know many children who lived in the hotels in the neighborhood, whose parents were addicts, and for whom life seemed pretty bleak. I was appalled by the conditions I saw there, and I thought that the answer was to get them away from these parents, to place them into nice homes where perhaps they would have a future.

It was the 80s, when I was working there, and there was a psychological theory afloat that posited the idea of "toxic parents," "toxic families," and "toxic shame." It was a time when victims were urged to cease all contact with their families in which abuse or neglect had occurred, to make new families with friends and like minded folks, to turn their backs on their pasts, to liberate themselves from the anchors that their families had become, and I became a part of that movement.

I was beginning to understand how some things that had happened in my childhood had wounded, indeed, scarred, me. I was never exposed to intentional cruelty or brutality by my parents. Instead,I was the youngest child of a father who had an alcohol problem, who wasn't a great provider, and a mother who was depressed and overwhelmed with the care of four children, and I knew deprivation and hunger and feelings of abandonment as a result. Other things happened. Life in the Bratton household on 75th street was fairly chaotic when I was growing up! And I was exposed to things I should not have known at such a young age. It affected my image of myself and my relationships with others. I cried alot (still do!), I suffered from depression and addictions of my own, I had a hard time trusting folks, and as a young adult, I moved from state to state, trying to outrun my past.

For much of early adulthood, I carried an anger about the things that had happened to me. I used to wonder what it would have been like to grow up in a family that had stability and structure and routine. I tried but never succeeded in cutting off contact with family members. I swore I would never be like them. I moved as far away from them as I could get.

But something happened. Circumstances caused me to move home. And as a result of that, I grew. I saw my childhood in a new light. A wise man I know once said that the older (and more sober) he got, the better his childhood had become. He began to understand not only the pain but the blessings he had received, as a part of his family, and he began to view his past with a new pair of glasses.

And so it was with me. I learned to appreciate the humor and the joy my father exuded, even when he didn't have two pennies to rub together. I have a vivid memory of my father shaving at the bathroom sink, singing and smiling at himself in the mirror. "Oh, you handsome fellow," he'd say. "Oh, you lucky dog." I must have been about six. I remember looking around at our rusty bathtub, the cracked toilet seat, the coal dust covered walls, and thinking, "is this lucky?" But my dad loved living. He was a happy drinker. He loved people, and they loved him, and he never met a stranger, because he turned them into friends.

With the current climate in the US, my behavior in elementary school (I had temper tantrums daily) would have brought me to the attention of child welfare folks. They would have investigated the conditions of my home, and I could easily have been removed from my family. And I don't know if they would have been able to get me back. It's not that they wouldn't have wanted to. But my Dad didn't like government intervention, and he would have rebelled. My mom would have felt powerless to comply with all the stipulations the state would have required. And they may have given up.

And so I could easily have grown up in a different family, as someone other than a Bratton. I may have been spared some of the pain of my wild and traumatic childhood. But I would not have known my dad.

For much of my life, I had a difficult relationship with my mother. I blamed her for leaving me when I was twelve, when she went on the road with my dad, who was a travelling salesman, and I held her responsible for not protecting me. But, the birth of my own child helped me to see her in a new light. Where I had viewed her before as weak, and submissive, I came to recognize her quiet strength. I came to respect her intelligence, her spiritual understanding, her tolerance, and her particular way of showing love. She helped me parent my son. She taught him his ABCS and took him to get his shots. Had I been separated from my family, I wouldn't have come to know her this way.

When Debra died, my mom and I had had a tense moment, after we watched her take her last breath. She followed me into the lounge of the hospice, while we waited for them to come and take Debra's body away, and she apologized to me for not being there when I needed her. My own son was struggling with drugs at the time, and I told her that I saw how hard it must have been to try and handle four kids, two (my brother and I) who were acting out. I told her I understood how helpless she must have felt, and tired, and I told her it was okay. Had I been separated from my family, I would never have had that chance. I would never have healed that place in myself that blamed her, and she would never have heard me say it didn't matter anymore.

Had I been separated from my family, had I been raised as someone other than a Bratton, I would have missed the opportunity to help my sister die with dignity, to watch her heal her own old wounds, to see her thank my brother Dennis for all he had done to help her, to watch my brother Allan, with whom she had had a conflicted relationship, carry her from the bed to the toilet and back, to be a witness to the tender exchanges that brought us a moment of grace in the midst of the suffering and sadness.

Had I grown up in another family, I would not have been able to lay by my mother's side at hospice house, cradling her in my arms, as she drifted out of consciousness. I would have missed the opportunity to rub lotion on her legs and arms, to care for her most intimate needs, to bathe her and help her to the toilet and to tell her that I didn't mind, that I was glad to do it, to let her lean on me.

I have seen many foster and adoptive children, in my years of practice, carry a deep and unmet yearning to know who and where they came from. Some of them have grown up in the most loving and kind adoptive homes. They have been given all the material goods, the educational opportunities, and the nurturance of parents who doted on their every need. Still they have felt fractured, somehow, like they didn't quite belong, like a part of them was missing. And many have gone to find that piece of themselves. It doesn't discount the brave and devoted parenting of their adoptive families. It just means that they need to know their connection to the blood ties that bind us as humans to each other. It is not the only thing that matters. But it matters, nonetheless.

Last weekend I travelled to Wales, and I carried with me my father's tales of the four Bratton brothers, who were kicked out of that country for stealing horses, and who set sail out of Donegal, Ireland, in the 17th century, for America. I walked the patchwork hills and viewed the little stone churches and met the Welshmen in their caps, fishing at the river, and I was so thankful to have had those stories, to feel a part of something bigger, to feel connected to the land of my ancestors, to feel like a piece of me had found my way home.

Saturday, July 18, 2009


I have had several encounters that have inspired my reflection on race and culture and the very different approach I am finding here, in England, yet I have hesitated to share them. I have hesitated because whenever the issue of race is brought to the table in my country, the US, defenses start to surface, barriers are erected, hackles are raised, wagons are drawn into a circle. I then began to parcel out my thoughts into careful, muted, words, afraid they would be misconstrued by some as typical white, generalizing blather, by others as naïve and wide-eyed and bleeding heart. And in the process of doing so, the message got muffled, and the words became bland and meaningless.

So I endeavor to tackle this issue with apologies to all who may find my thoughts and words somehow offensive. I am merely speaking from my own perception of what I have come to know in my interactions with racial issues in the US, and what I am learning about the very different way it is approached here, in the city I live, London, in my new country, England—a way that feels refreshing, and liberating, and fills me with a sense of hope about our ability to live together in a spirit of tolerance and harmony.

I was invited to live with a woman who offered a room to me in her lovely, large, Victorian home near my work. She is a black woman from St. Lucia, in the Caribbean, who came to London when she was twelve years old. She is a delightful woman of 48, who left her comfortable job with the Croydon Council to pursue her dream of becoming a trained therapist. And although our backgrounds and upbringing are very different, we have much in common. She and I share political leanings that can aptly be described as “leftist,” and I hear her, sometimes, shouting at the TV news, much the way I have been known to do, when she is outraged by some latest remark or development. We have long discussions, sometimes late into the night, about family dynamics and relationships and all of the pain and complexity that comes with being the youngest child. But our most interesting discussions are around race. We talk about how our respective races impact our views of the world, our interactions with others, our capacity for relationships with those outside our race. And I have found myself thinking that conversations like ours, between races, are rare in the United States, and, if they do occur, they are laced with the burden of our difficult history.

I related to Cynthia, my roommate, an incident that occurred at my last job, as a Social Worker in Medical Foster Care. We had a developmentally delayed African American girl, who was severely disabled and in a wheelchair, placed with an elderly white couple, and the mother in the family found coping with the little girl’s hair cumbersome and time-consuming. Transracial placements in the US are often impacted by issues of hair care, since white folks tend to lack knowledge of how to work with hair so different from their own. But the woman decided that it would be easier just to shave the little girl’s head, than to try to figure it out. And the Social Worker I was supervising, who had the case, felt that this was an outrageous act. Not only did it further stigmatize a little girl already stigmatized by her disability, it made her look like a boy, and it felt insensitive and racist. But when this issue was brought to the attention of our team, a primarily white team comprised of nurses, it was not perceived as a problem. To them, it felt logical and utilitarian, not neglectful or insensitive. They didn’t understand the racial overtones to this act, and they felt that my Social Worker and I were making an issue out of nothing.

Yet when I related this incident to my roommate, she was shocked and appalled that someone would do this, and that professionals would condone it. She spoke of how hair and the maintaining of it is a huge part of a black woman’s identity, and an important part of who they are and how they present to the outside world. And, even if this little girl was delayed, having a bald head, like a sheared sheep, seemed dehumanizing. I recognized, while talking with her that an act like that could never happen here. First, a black child would not be placed in a white home. Transracial placements are rarely done. And, secondly, preservation of identity and culture are central to every assessment and all the work we do here as Social Workers in Child Protection. It’s not on paper merely for the auditing people to check off. It is part of every discussion we have, when we are talking about these children and their families.

The other day, one of my colleagues at work had had her car stolen and her house burgled. She is from Rwanda but was raised in Belgium. She had an idea of who had robbed her, but, when I asked her if she had shared her suspicion with the police, she said no, that she didn’t trust the police to protect her, as a black woman, that she was worried they would tell the man of her suspicions, and he might retaliate. At the time, I thought that it would be unusual for a person of color in the US to share something about her experience of racism so openly with a white person she barely knew. She would keep that to herself, or share it with someone from her own community, but she would be careful about making a statement like that to someone who is white. Because we (whites) are so quick to dismiss such statements as prejudicial themselves, to characterize the person who said it as being angry, and defensive, as having a ‘chip on her shoulder.’ We deny that racism is systemic in our society, and we discount and minimize their experiences of it, so these feelings are not shared with us. They are there, but they are below the surface of our interactions, hidden, and untouched. It keeps us from fully understanding one another. It distances us from each other. It keeps us forever apart.

And, finally, I encounter the difference in the way we relate to each other everyday, here, when I step onto the double-decker bus that takes me to work. I see a few white faces, but mostly my bus is filled with people of color, and I think, as I sit with them, how a white person in the US would feel threatened when entering this environment. He would stand and hold the rail rather than sit down, she would clutch her purse closer to her side. Yet here, we sit together. There are Sikhs and men in kufis and women in hijabs. There are Indian women with shawls wrapped around their heads and men with dreadlocks down the middle of their backs. There are rhythms of languages from Africa and India and Poland and Romania and Palestine. We feel comfortable with each other. We don’t carry the fear and distrust that surrounds us in the US. Here, (at least in London—I am told it is very different in the countryside), people have learned to live together, to share a bus, a table, a grocery, to begin to make a stab at understanding one another, to look at each other, to talk.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

This is an area near my home called Lloyd Park. The English love their flowers!

Missing Mom

I have been immersed in the domestic tasks commonly assigned to women, today, tasks I have managed to avoid developing an expertise in most of my life. When I was growing up, I hung out with the uncles playing poker and drinking in the basement, rather than watch the aunts in the kitchen upstairs, toiling over the turkey and stuffing. I climbed trees and tromped through the woods with my fishing pole, rather than learn the art of mending dresses and spiffing up my patent leather shoes. I wore a football helmet for an entire year, while other girls my age were learning how to twirl their hair into spit curls. My junior high outfits consisted of love beads, tie-dye shirts, and overalls, leaving little room for slinky shirts and panty hose. I never really paid attention to feminine things. They just didn't seem to interest me much.

But now, at the age of 52, the universe is drawing me into tasks and desires that usually belong to the traditional roles of my gender. Here in England, clothes are hung on the line rather than thrown into a dryer, which necessitates figuring out how to operate an iron, unless I want to look like I retrieved my outfits from the rag-bag. The lack of convienent foods, pre-made sauces, and frozen food sections in the grocery requires me to learn to cook. And the gradual aging of my facial features has caused me to try a bit of eye makeup and blush, at least when I am headed into work. These are things most women learned as little girls, at their mothers' sides. But I did not see the need for them then; and now that I do, my mother cannot teach them to me.

My mother was not the most traditionally feminine person, either, but there were a few things she knew well:

She knew how to iron a shirt without pressing more wrinkles into the fabric than she was trying to get rid of.

She knew how to paint her toenails red without also blotching up her toes.

She knew how to apply make up without making herself look like Bette Davis in "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane."

She wasn't a fabulous cook, but she could make the best potato salad anyone ever tasted, and she understood the use of oils, baking dishes, casseroles, and roasting pans. One of the last things she did for me, while laying in her hospital bed, hooked up to a feeding tube, was talk me through the browning of a piece of meat to make a roast.

She could cut vegetables for salad into nice, even pieces, instead of odd, mangled, chunks.

She was an expert seamstress. She'd find a matching button for any blouse or pants, and sew it on by hand while you waited. She could resize clothes to match our losing or gaining patterns. She sewed my home ec project to keep me from flunking the class.

She could get out any kind of stain--blood, chocolate, grass, it didn't matter--she worked at it until it was gone.

Sometimes, it is not the big things we miss, when we lose our mothers, but the little things we took for granted, that come to mean so much.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Peace in the Valley

It feels good to have a quiet mind and a peaceful heart, even in the midst of the chaos of my new job, the bursting crowds in the streets, and on the buses, the tension of the unknown, the lack of command I have over my whereabouts, my direction, my environment. It is a different sort of feeling for me, one that I am not altogether used to, but one I am trying to cultivate in my daily life.

Last Friday, I got lost on my way to a meeting in which I was supposed to speak, and I recognized that this business of not knowing where I am most of the time forces me to come face to face with all the issues that are uncomfortable for me--lack of control, powerlessness, my insistence on self reliance, my resistance to asking for help. One of the locals here suggested that I would probably be able to find my way around better if I simply asked the bus drivers, who are sitting right there, and obviously know where they're going, and which stops would bring me closer to my destination. And that was a novel concept for me, asking someone who might know the answer! Because I don't want to appear lost, or stupid, because I don't want to bother them, because I think I don't deserve a moment of their time, that they must be very busy with other things. Ha! It is so ridiculous, the way we program ourselves. And in Tampa, where I knew where I was and how to get places, I could continue to nurture my insecurities, and protect myself from having to stretch beyond them. But here, I have no choice. I have to reach out, talk to people, bare my vulnerabilities, dare to ask for assistance! And the results are mostly encouraging--better than wandering around with a map that makes no sense to me, and grumbling about how hard it is to figure out this giant and overwhelming city!

My inability to have command over my environment has helped me to hone in on the sights and sounds and smells around me, and I find myself especially attuned to them--the sweet smell of ripening fruit being sold on the sidewalks, the purple thistle bushes outside the hospital where I work, with bumblebees clustered amongst them, the chirp of a red-breasted robin at 4 (yes, 4!) a.m. when the sun rises, the way the leaves rustle as the wind picks up in the evening, when the clouds begin to form--bits of beauty and texture amidst the dirt and pungent odors and litter of city life. They are small appreciations that make my living here so rich. I'm sure these pockets of beauty were present in Tampa, too, but I was so busy, and focused, and full of constant, streaming thought, that I failed to pay them any mind.

My work continues to cause me to stretch, as well, to learn to accept the "system" as it is, with all its maddening inefficiency and lack of logic, for my own sanity, if nothing else. Because it would be easy to walk around in a state of outrage and irritation, complaining about the bureaucratic bungling, the unnecessary duplication of effort, the hours of time wasted outside and inside meetings, courtrooms, agency waiting rooms. I went to court with a colleague this week and watched the solicitor (their name for lawyers--solicitors are the lower rung, barristers are the higher rung, the ones who wear the wigs!) hand write our pleadings as we spoke them. Handwriting them, in longhand, pages of them! Then she took them to the solicitor in the other room, who was representing the mother, who made corrections and comments that were then rewritten, in longhand, to be read to the magistrates. Three magistrates were seated to listen to the pleadings, and it took them all morning to hear two cases! We arrived at 9:30 a.m. and at 12 noon we had still not had our case heard! And I used to complain about court in the US! It is wild! Antiquated! And somewhat humorous!

The population I am working with is much more diverse than in the states, but the problems remain largely the same--poverty, hopelessness, despair, generational repetition of long held family patterns--substance abuse, oppression, violence, neglect. But the cultural overlay is very different.
My clients will have much to teach me, in the coming months and years.

I made the decision to remain in "the hood" as we would call it back home. I had begun looking for a flatshare with an American friend, who wanted to live in Wimbledon, where there is alot of green space and the streets are clean and the shops are trendy and cute. And most of the people are white or Indian, there, up and coming sorts, well dressed in the latest fashions, headed off to their tennis matches. And there is nothing wrong with that sort of living, I decided, but it's not what I came here for. I came here to be in the mix--to hear the languages of whole worlds being spoken, to smell curry sauces and kebab meat roasting, to sit with women in shawls and men in kufis and old English ladies in their comfortable shoes on buses that rumble through the city streets. I love it, all of it, even the crappy little corner markets with their cheap mops and buckets on display, the well-worn storefronts, with their dingy brick walls, the old Arab store owners standing outside, smoking their hand rolled cigarettes. This is the life I came to be a part of. If I wanted clean and sterile suburbs, I could have stayed in Florida!

So as soon as I made that decision, I found a perfect flat! It is close to work, on a quiet street, of well kept, owner occupied flats, with a big kitchen and an old gas "cooker" as they call them here, and a "water closet" in the back, which is a toilet separated from the rest of the bathroom by a door. It has a cute little garden and flowers that are colorful and blooming. I'll move in around the third week of July.

My sixth week of life in London--a peaceful, exciting, and glorious journey!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

A Cloudy, Sunny Day

It is a cloudy, sunny, day, today, in London, and I am learning that this is the way the weather works here. One minute the sun shines brightly, and then clouds form, rain falls, wind gusts. My roomate says the people here are obsessed with the weather, because it changes so frequently, and you must always be prepared for whatever the changes bring. I have learned to dress in layers, at least three of them--tank or tee shirt, long sleeved shirt, sweater or jacket, neck scarf. The women here wear beautiful and colorful scarves to adorn their clothing, and to keep them warm.

My search for flats was discouraging and frustrating, ending in my decision to share with another colleague from the states. One bedrooms run about 700-750 pounds, which is close to $1000-$1050, and that is exclusive of heat, electricity, and council tax! I decided that I don't want to be so stubborn and set in my ways that I need to spend half of my salary on housing, leaving little for travel. I am just going to need to learn to live in harmony with another person, to compromise, to share. It is a concept that is a bit threatening to my isolationist self! But it is probably healthier for me in the long run!

Work continues to be a challenge, as I am assigned more cases, and enter into the meat of the work of child protection in the UK. Their documentation requirements seem excessive and often duplicative, and I have never been a fan of paperwork, needless or otherwise! I prefer to interact with the people I am supposed to be serving, rather than justifying what I have done to someone above me. However, in light of the recent scandals here over abuses and deaths at the hands of perpetrators who were involved with social services, I understand their need to ensure everything is done to a certain standard. There are also many, many, interagency and interdisciplinary staffings, with the police, schools, health care professionals, immigration teams, housing teams, and any and all other professionals who may be interacting with a family. These staffings require an enormous amount of coordination and effort.

I attended a training this week on foster, adoption, and post adoption services, and was encouraged to see that they view the family much more holistically than we do in the states. Identity is very important to them, and because of that, transracial, even trans-cultural, adoptions, are rarely done. Once, the trainer said, an Ethiopian child was presented to be adopted by a family from Trinidad, and the judge said to the presenter, "do you have any idea how far Africa is from the Carribean?" There is a recognition of the need for the child to maintain some sense of his or herself as a member of a culture, and the idea is that adoption should enhance, rather than strip them from, their identity.

Another encouraging aspect of adoption here is that they preserve the connection between birth family and child. They have incorporated into their formal procedures a process where pictures and letters are traded one to two times yearly. In addition, children have immediate access to their birth records once they turn eighteen. There is a recognition of the innate yearning we all have to know who and where we came from, here, a recognition that seems lost in the U.S. I think it is because we live in such a punitive culture in the U.S., where there seems a need to disregard any contribution of the birth family and to punish them for their sin of giving up or losing custody of their children--but we punish the child as well when we do that. It so refreshing to find that a perspective I have fought for years to promote is accepted practice here.

There are many other things I love about living here, inluding the immersion in the worlds of so many different kinds of people. I love that the mix of culture is not only tolerated, but celebrated, here. I love that I can pick up a newspaper and have ready access to world events. I love the groceries here, with their brown, baked, breads, cheap, organic, fair trade fruits and vegetables, and endless varieties of rice!

I have been attending some meetings of a fellowship I belong to, and have found the people to be kind and warm and welcoming, a contrast to the stereotype of the cold and formal English style. Yesterday my roomate brought me some flowers from her garden to cheer me up, when she found me crying after I had found some pictures of Mom and Debra on my computer--pictures I have tended to avoid. People with cars often offer rides, going out of their way to bring me places. It is such a treat, now, to ride in a car!

I will be in a new home within the next month, and am looking forward to creating my very own space.

I am headed to church at Unity, now, two bus rides and forty minutes away. But it will be worth it to worship with a community of like-minded folks. Mom and Debra will be there with me, I'm sure, repeating the affirmations and prayers they came to love and know so well.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

They still have phone booths, here, although I have not seen anyone use them!

Content to be alive in the moment

Today, as I was waiting for a bus that would bring me home, I noticed the black rounded taxis, the billowing clouds, the wind and sky, still damp from an earlier rain, the doubledecker buses, filled with people from top to bottom, and I was thinking how happy I am to be in this life, this world, this moment in time--and how fortunate. I am beginning to understand the areas that make up my borough, and to know, at least in part, how to navigate my way around them. I am becoming more familiar with the buses, the tram, the trains, and the "tube." I am able to walk up a street and know which one connects to it, and to keep an eye on traffic without feeling like I am going to be squashed flat.

It is the first day of my third week of work. I am beginning to make a bit of sense out of the system here, to understand the documentation, to comprehend the progression of a case through the system. And I am beginning to appreciate the differences here, the way they approach people, with a less authoritarian air, with more of an attitude of support. It is feeling more comfortable, to be a helper rather than a representative of the system, to allow families more latitude to live, to not feel it necessary to micromanage families, to let them come to their own solutions, while offering resources and support. Of course, they receive more economic services here, with less headache and groveling, so much of the stress is relieved for them. Our borough has approximately 330,000 people in it, and there are only 120 families here on child protection plans. It will be interesting, as I learn more, to see if this is dangerously low, or if it is all that is necessary, because the system addresses their needs in a different way.

Yesterday was a "bank holiday," as they call them here, but it didn't carry the particular sentimentality of Memorial Day that we have back home. I explained to my roomate that in Indianapolis, this is the biggest weekend of the year, with the Indy 500, and how everyone would listen to the race on the radio, or attend it in person. I remembered Mom, carefully following the race and marking in the Indianapolis Star who was winning at the end of each 25 lap stretch.

I think that my grieving is getting some room to flow, here, as I am opening myself up to new feelings and experiences. At home, I had shut myself down, a matter of survival, I think, closing out the recurring images that crept into my mind of Mom and Debra, of my last few months with each of them, the way they looked, the fear in their eyes, their progressive weakness and frailty. Each time I encounter an old woman on the train, I see my mother, and I feel sad for a minute. I think it is a necessary step, though, this breathing in and out of grief. Otherwise, I would become hardened and stoic, and that is not who I choose to be. I want to be soft and yielding, open and willing, able to feel, and to be vulnerable, and to risk.

A friend and I went to Camden, in London, this weekend, and happened to walk into a cafe that was too crowded to eat in, but on the way out, I picked up a brochure of coming events there, and was so excited to find that one of my favorite folk singers, Richard Shindell, is playing there June 17th! I came home and, at the urging of my roomate, bought a ticket online, only to discover I had gotten one of the last two tickets! The last time I saw him, he opened for Joan Baez at the Tampa Theater, and I have been a huge fan of his ever since. I am so happy to be able to see him in such an intimate setting, in London, no less!

That is the way my life is flowing, right now, today, with opportunities falling into my path, requiring no massive amounts of effort or control, with my housing situation and job placement turning out to be the perfect fit for my personality and my needs. So I am trying not to worry, to learn to rest, to let things happen, to recognize that it is all good. As my friend Mo always used to say to me, "it'll all work out!"

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Trial by Fire

I finished my first week of work in an entirely new system, a system in crisis not wholly unlike the child welfare system in the U.S., just with fewer formal methods of training and orientation, which is discombobulating at first. It is hard enough to enter into a new job at my age, let alone try to understand a completely new system of paperwork, documentation, and staffing, with few formal methods of teaching these important pieces. Others in my group, who work in different units, are similarly frustrated. It is a system in trouble, a bit shattered, and it is clear that they are in desperate need of new social workers to fill the gaps. I am working in a hospital, Mayday, which has a maternity unit that serves the entire borough, so we deal primarily with pregnant women and newborns. I was surprised that they encounter few egregious abuse cases, the shaken babies and burns and twisted and broken bones with which I have become so familiar in my twenty years of U.S. child welfare work. I am not clear if it is that there are fewer cases of severe abuse here, or if it is that the GPs and clinics and hospital staff are not recognizing the injuries as non-accidental. I will find out more about the trends here as I go along, I'm sure!

The GPs, or doctors assigned to the National Health Service Clinics, have visiting midwifes and health visitors assigned to their practice as well, so most women receive home visits and work closely with nurses who follow them throughout their pregnancy until the baby is born and deemed healthy and safe. Economic services are also easier to obtain here, so women automatically receive child credit and men and women can get job seeker's assistance. Housing subsidies are also provided, and pregnant women receive priority for housing. There is so much I don't yet know about the system and some nights I come home exhausted from trying to absorb all the new information that is coming my way.

Meanwhile I am dealing with the minor frustrations and irritations of adapting to a new way of life. My supposed 24 hour grocery is closed on Sundays, I learned. How can a 24 hour store be closed? Many things are closed on Sundays and most stores, including the mall stores, close at 6 (or 18:00) p.m. You have to prepare and plan things in advance, here. Clothes washing takes longer, most people hang their clothes out to dry, few people have driers. Bus transportation takes time and planning, and you have to learn to carry many things with you that you may need throughout the day, but not so much that your bag is heavy and cumbersome! Three essentials, I have learned, are a jacket, an umbrella, and a map!

I have given up my easy and comfortable and known life for an unknown and uncomfortable and sometimes exhilarating experience. I am anxious at times, excited at others, full of new thoughts and ideas, and not a bit sorry yet!

Friday, May 8, 2009

Becoming a Child

Yesterday I worked my way into the city on the public transportation--a conglomeration of busses, overground trains, and "the tube," as they call it here, London's underground railway system. I felt like a slowly moving and fat rat in a rush of hoardes of faster rats swirling all around me. I am learning to adapt to new ways of thinking and living as I enter into the rhythms here, and I recognized that in a sense I am like a child, here, learning how to act in the new world in which I have placed myself. There is so much I don't yet know and with which I am unfamiliar--the money, the way the busses run, how to transfer from bus to train to tube. I must be willing to accept my ignorance and not feel stupid. I have to remind myself that I am new to this place, that adjusting is a process, and doesn't happen overnight, that I don't have to get it all at once. I must put aside my anxiety and my desire for instant gratification and mastery so common in our American culture, and find joy in the journey, in the experience, in the learning about and exploration of my new world. I'm going to need to learn balance between exploration and retreat, between activity and rest, to give myself time to both discover and process all that I am learning.

Meanwhile, I have already entered into some healthier patterns for myself. Only five channels on my bedroom tv forces me to find more quiet--which gives me more time to think, and to get back to my words on the page. Busses and trains must be walked to and from, and traipsing up and down the hills of my neighborhood is bringing me more exercise and activity. The English eat smaller portions and food is not their primary focus in life, with fewer fast food places and more vegetable and fruit corner markets, and tiny restaurants offering Indian and African cuisine, which includes rice, noodles, beans, and light meats in tasty sauces and stews. No iced tea with artificial sweetener, less coffee, means more water and juices instead. I hope to continue to incorporate these healthier habits as I begin the world of child welfare work next week.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

London Town Day Two--I am having a very difficult time figuring out this blog site and it is taking me forever to post pictures. I am not clear on the concept, I guess. Anyway, today was a great day. We went to London and walked London Bridge and the Tower Bridge. I am constantly amazed that I have been given this opportunity to live in such an exciting place.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

London Town

I arrived in London town this a.m., picked up by a driver and brought to my new little home. It is cute and old and the woman I am living with is full of hospitality and balanced spirit. She showed me around our borough today and got me acquainted with the bus system. My first time on a double decker. The streets are narrow and filled with roundabouts that seem very confusing. Pedestrians have the right of way here--what a novel concept! I saw old Indian ladies in saris walking for blocks and climbing into the buses. I rarely saw old folks walking in the U.S.--if they did, they hunched painfully over their walkers and managed only a few short steps down the sidewalk before they turned toward home. My roomate introduced me to her butcher and to the neighbors across the street. There is a tiny plot of land filled with carefully cultivated flower bushes and newly seeded grass behind the house. Englanders emphasize green living and signs supporting recycling and wise use of resources are everywhere. The streets are filled with people of all colors and nations--mosques on many streets, women in their hijabs, some in burquas, others in saris, scarves, silky and flowing. I fluctuate from anxiety and sadness to absolute wonder that I have made it to this place, halfway around the world, where I have the opportunity to renew my spirit.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Snapshots-- For My Mother

Black and White

You are a little girl, standing in front of an ancient car, surrounded by your brothers and sisters, Kansas field dust swirling in the background. It is a picture that always reminded me of the Okies in Grapes of Wrath. I cherished this black and white, and framed it, along with others that depicted your childhood—you with your metal baton, legs poised in a perfect marching stand, your Andrew Wyeth pose, seated in a wheat field, gazing toward your farmhouse. You shared so many stories of growing up on a farm, of your brothers’ antics, and your mother’s steel edged determination, of your father’s absence when you needed him most. I used to tire of hearing the same ones repeated over and over through the years. I would give anything to hear just one of them come from you now.

Growing Up

We are clustered together in our yard, you and dad and the four of us, Debra and I in sky blue matching dresses you sewed, Dad and the boys in suits and ties, Dennis shivering against the April winds. It must have been Easter Sunday, because I am clutching a stuffed rabbit someone gave me, which I creatively named “Happy Easter Bunny.” You are pressing a white hat against your head with one hand, your other placed protectively upon my shoulder. I never appreciated all the clothes you made for us when I was younger, preferring worn-out jeans and tie dye shirts over the outfits you carefully stitched. You were so good at fashioning treasures from others’ careless discards. You planted gardens in summer, canned the vegetables you grew, made jellies from our grapes, tacked carpets over creaky floors, pasted wallpaper, hung Christmas lights around our sagging porch. You were resourceful and strong, and held many skills which served our family well.

Dying Young

We are standing in front of the casket, you and Dennis and I, our arms draped around each other, eyes red-rimmed and sad, faces etched with grief. Dad had left us just a few days before, and, though we knew his time with us was short, we could not make ourselves ready to lose him. His funeral service filled three rooms, and his procession to this gravesite was over two miles long. I stayed with you after Dad died, and together we found welcome reprieve from our grieving as we made preparations for the birth of my son. We spent your birthday that year in the hospital, while I labored, not so quietly, to bring him into the world. We hoped he would be born on your day, but he chose to come at one a.m., needing his own birthday instead.

Better Days

Desmond is a baby, his chubby legs struggling to be freed from his stroller, while you and Aunt Betty Marie, sisters, stand behind him, smiling. We had moved to Naples, close to Allan, where you cared for my son while I worked, and the bond forged between the two of you grew stronger. You lunched with your mall walking group, played cards at the beach with your hospice grief group friends, and, thanks to Betty Marie, traveled the world to places you would never have known without her. You once told me those were the happiest days of your life. I am so thankful you were able to leave behind the cold winters of Indiana, and spend the last part of your life in warmth and sun.


You are seated next to her bedside, soft eyes focused upon her as she sleeps. Our family had tread a difficult journey, watching her wither, as the cancer overtook her, and her spirit began its transition to a place beyond our knowing. Her death left a hole in all of our hearts, but perhaps, for you, it was a hole that could not be filled with daily activity and trivial concerns. You had spent so much of your life worrying about her and caring for her, that maybe without her, you were just a little bit lost.


Your hospital bed is next to the sliding glass door in my living room, where Debra’s was, and you are sitting upright, surrounded by your grandchildren and newest great- grandchildren. It is the day before we move you to hospice house, down the hall from the room where Debra passed. You had made a valiant effort to recover from major surgery, but your body was tired, and four months of illness and hospitalizations had taken its toll. Allan and Desmond and I had worked hard to keep you comfortable at home, and I am so grateful that we were able to do so until a week before your death. Your final week was a peaceful one, with kind and gracious care from the nurses, family at your side, and Desmond’s bass playing soft and deep tunes to ease your spirit. You helped bring him into the world, and he was there to help you out of it.


We are gathered together, here, to celebrate your life, and bring honor to your passing.
We’ll share memories, and more pictures, and our family will go on, and grow, with more children, new generations, as the cycle of life continues. We’ll carry a part of you with us, wherever we go, and bring that piece of you forward to the ones who come after. And so, you’ll live, always, not just as a memory, but as an intricate part of who we are, and who we will become.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

the way back

I am in Indianapolis, now, driving past my old places, now overgrown with commerce, helping my son understand from who and where I came. Like my home in Tampa, every road and resturaunt and landmark revives another memory here of Mom and Debra. But there are other memories, here, as well, memories long hidden in the corners of my consciousness, now revived and shined and looked at clear. The weather is cold, rainy, and cloudy, with only the hint of sun piercing the gray from time to time. This is the climate of my youth.

I am supposed to come up with some profound and moving words for my mother's eulogy, and I am afraid I can't live up to the promise. I don't know what to say about her now. That her illness and suffering toward the end of her life was tragic and undeserved? That it was not what I wanted for her, for me? That I am still sad and mad about it? That I still can't bear to look at her pictures, her magazines, her address book, with her writing scrawled in it? That I think about her every hour of every day, especially when I want to air my frustration about some ridiculous rule or procedure, that I want to call her just to have someone listen to and commiserate with me, help me sort things out, know there is someone in this world who is totally and completely on my side, even when the 'side' is illogical and silly.

My brother is in the hospital right now, as I write this, recovering from a lung biopsy, dealing with his own health compromises, the vulnerabilities we encounter as we age. Dennis, the strong, stalwart member of our brood, who lived his life according to the rules set forth for him, who did what was expected, and who hoped to be rewarded with a time of rest and recreation during his retirement years. Life brings us surprises, sometimes unearned blessings, sometimes undeserved tragedies, some joys, some sorrows. We have to learn there are so many things beyond our control, and we have to enter into the stream not knowing where it's going to lead us, and that we are only responsible for figuring out a way to stay afloat while we ride. I hope my adventures in London are a way for me to return to the stream, to find joy in my encounters with others floating alongside me, instead of where I have been the last few months, on the shore, dry and safe, only observing the stream of life in front of me, too tired and weary and afraid to step inside, to allow myself to float.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Haunting Visions

I dreamt about my mother again, the other night. She and my Aunt Betty Marie were in my aunt's car, and mom was backing up and running into things in a parking lot. Upon awakening, I remembered that my previous study of dreams told me driving and crashing dreams indicate a feeling of being out of control, or lost. So I wondered, is my mom lost on the other side? Did she feel out of control there, or here? Or is it a symbol of my lack of ability to control this grieving process, this current stage of my life? So many unanswered questions about the last two years, why they happened the way they did, why it was left to me to exhaust myself caring for the two people I loved most in the world, and watching them wither and die.

I have a recurring vision of the last time my mom was in the hospital. She had been so cold for days, even though it was warm outside and in the house. She shivered the last time I bathed her,and I was sweating in the steamy bathroom, telling her there was no way she could be so cold. The following day, she began to have tachycardia (racing heart rate) again, and the Dr. sent her straight from his office to the hospital. There, it was discovered that she had low iron caused by some kind of internal bleeding, so they did a bunch of tests and gave her several pints of blood. She was there for four days.The day before her discharge, I was home cleaning to get ready for her, and I missed hearing the phone ring. When I finally heard it, it was my mom calling. She sounded very anxious and upset, saying she had been trying to call me for an hour or two. My mom had not dialed a phone for four months, so the fact that she was calling me indicated a desperation and a need. She said she was feeling crazy and wondered when I was coming to visit. I told her I had been cleaning to get ready for her to come home, and she said "I think I need to see you more than I need a clean house." My mother never wanted to bother anyone with her needs. It was so unlike her to ask for help. So I told her I would be there soon,put away my cleaning supplies, and rushed out the door. On the way over, I listened to my messages,four calls from my mother, her quivering voice asking me to call her back. And I remember feeling so bad that I had not been there to respond to her the moment that she needed me.

When I got there, she was sitting up in the bed, waiting. She was shaking a little. She said she had heard the Dr. outside her room telling the nurse that she couldn't come home with me, that she was too weak, and that she needed to go to a nursing home. I rubbed her arm and assured her I could handle her care, that I was never one to take orders from authority figures, and that perhaps now she would be grateful that I was such a rebel! This settled her, some. I brought her home the next day, wheeling her to my car in a wheelchair, wrapping her in blankets to stave off her chills, cradling her head to keep her from feeling so dizzy. She died two weeks later.

Looking back, I wonder if she was not trying to express the fear that is so hard for us to put words to, the fear of death. And I missed her signal, denying her an opportunity to talk about it, so caught up was I in wanting her to get stronger, to be well, to live--to spare me from another loss. I could not face the reality of her imminent passing from this earth, from me. But I remember feeling very tender toward her after this exchange between us, because she trusted me enough to pick up the phone and give me a call, to reach out to me, knowing I would be there to answer.

My mind and heart are filled with these visions of our last few months together. They haunt me in quiet moments. I fill my head with noise and my days with activity in an effort to block them out. I can't bear to look at them yet.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Waiting Game

Today I feel like I am in a holding pattern, waiting for my new life to begin. I am surrounded by poignant and painful memories of my mother and sister, Debra's, death, in this house, in spite of my efforts to cleanse the rooms of them. I have smudged the house with sage and played classical music and hidden pictures that reminded me of them. Yet their spirits linger. At night they sometimes infiltrate my dreams. During the day I fluctuate between missing them and stifling my anger at them for leaving me with all this emotional and physical baggage. I have been unable to interact with mother's and Debra's things. It is hard to even look at them.

There are people I need to see, relationships I need to heal, closures I need to make, but I lack the energy and the will to do so. It is an effort to even get out of the house. I am comforted by the seclusion of my bed and books and television and internet. It seems to be as much as I can handle right now. Phone calls and visits with others require emotional energy that I don't have enough of to expend. I am so tired.

So, I wait. I pour over atlases and research England sites and dream of my new adventure abroad. I avoid phone calls and limit my visits with folks to one or two a day. And I try not to feel guilty about all of this, to let myself grieve for a minute, to not fill my mind and heart with a list of shoulds. And slowly I heal. I have been going to concerts and movies lately. I have talked to a few people on the phone. I have managed to make it to work most days, to read newspapers and magazine articles, even some pages in a book. These are the first words I have written in months. Every step is a big one, and I celebrate each one. It means I am coming out of myself, and getting ready to move on.

This blog is written primarily for me. But I will share the link with others as my preparations grow and my writing gets more interesting.