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.