February 27, 2014

Baby Steps to Bliss

Fog and Lace

"Night run. Cold rain. Wet leaves. Steaming shoulders. Rain-flecked eyelashes. Monstrous shadows. Quickened heart. Dimming lights. Closed eyes. Heavy breathing. Whiskey n' Cider. Good night."

"tunnel vision through shimmering trees, heart pounding in my ears, flurry of hundreds of wings across an unseen lake, hot cider and alcohol, and endless conversation. that's a damn good run, son."


Back in 2009, when I had mice in the rafters for company and self-forgiveness was a rare act of kindness, I ran the streets and trails of Kalamazoo daily, nightly, constantly. Back when my frozen breath hung in the air like a lover's lost whisper, when I gazed over silent snow-filled expanse and watched the sky fall and erase me, running meant more to me than perhaps most anything ever had. 

When I began to get sick, and each rattling breath shook the foundation of my love for running, there finally was nothing I could do but stand back and helplessly watch it erode. 

When I stepped back from running in January, I hardly meant it as a last kiss goodbye. Yet with the turning of winter, extra work hours, nagging knee pain, and this cough 

this cough 

this cough

                                             this cough                                  this cough

                                                                                     this cough 

this cough, I slipped further and further away from what had once coursed through my very veins.

Poetry Aid Station (Poets not pictured) *Photo: Alexis Vergalla
And then, today, was The Run of the Ancient Mariner. This was an off-site event held in conjunction with AWP, the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference, this year held in Seattle! Jeff put this event on to combine three of his favorite things: Running, Writers, and Beer. There was a poetry aid station and many wonderful people who came out to participate. I spent a great deal of the time running with a PhD student from Louisiana who indirectly nudged my memory. Later that night, headache firmly in place and starving after a long Tukwila Commission meeting, I found myself galloping through the frozen food aisle of our local grocery store. Perhaps it was partially fueled by my search (in vain) for Ben and Jerry's new "Core" ice cream (What? I ran 5 miles!), but more than that, it was that forgotten afterglow that I only get after a good, long run.

Sure, my lungs suffered the aftershocks walking up the hill to the car, arm-in-arm with my man, post-run. All of the usual symptoms flared to life. But that run was respite from my unquiet mind and this unease that has settled into me as a constant companion. 

Someone had responded to a previous post of mine that I had helped her recognize the "consistency of spirit" that makes us runners. I had said that back in 2009, when running was a primal drive, an imprint on my DNA. "Where was my consistency of spirit now that the going got tough?" I'd thought, troubled at this confrontation from the Self That Was in '09. 

And then a few hours ago I found out it was there all along. It just needed some writers to come help it out.

Everyone Deserves Our Protection

To the rooftop parties that were and will ne'er be again. Photo by: http://www.jenniferharnish.com/

The past couple of months I've been doing grassroots organizing with homeless women. It is a needless reminder that homelessness can strike anyone, and that there are hundreds of thousands of people in WA who are precariously holding on to homes. When I lost my home to a housefire (a home that I was already squatting in), I camped in the woods for a week and then slept in the back of my place of employment until I found something affordable. I was lucky. I found an attic room with little heat and bats living in the walls and young drunk men banging on my door at all hours of the night, for NO downpayment or first/last month's rent. Cheap as Shit. I was single. I had family nearby to help if need be. I had the keys to my work with a comfy chair and a shower in the basement. I was damn lucky.


Please. If you have a moment tomorrow, call 1.800.562.6000 between 8:00am - 8:00pm and ask all of your lawmakers to:

"Please make sure the homeless housing and assistance surcharge fees don’t sunset by supporting ESHB 2368. And neither the House nor the Senate Capital Budget invests enough in affordable housing. Please help ensure all Washington residents have opportunities for safe, healthy affordable homes by making a deeper investment in affordable housing."

If you're not sure who your lawmaker is, check this: http://app.leg.wa.gov/districtfinder/

And if you're confused about bills and representatives and committees and budgets and oh-what-a-mess then check out the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance's Facebook Page and Bill Tracker.

February 19, 2014

Homelessness: The Forgotten Women


I have, for the last 7 weeks, been facilitating a women's grassroots organizing group as part of my practicum placement. The group I'm working with are women living in transitional housing, and the process that I am taking them through is presented as a scheduled, mandatory class for the house. This situation is unique to this group; most groups form because the women have already identified something in their lives that they want to change. But these women, my women, have no choice but to show up every Tuesday, regardless of how tired they are, how much they worked, if their child is sick, if they're just feeling cranky and want to be alone.

And so it has been hard, and the learning curve parabolic. The women warmed up to me quickly, but not to the forced sessions, the extra work, or the continual time spent around each other--these strangers plucked from the streets. I've watched the tension build in them and between them these past two months as women got sick, were forced out of the house, found other living situations or jobs, and stared in the face of the crushing constriction of poverty with no real end in sight.

The culmination of my time with them is supposed to be an action on a social justice issue of their choosing. Naturally, we gravitated toward housing. Yet I realized that the women were having a hard time getting behind the cause: writing letters to our legislators defending housing funding. Little progress was being made on their work, and I needed to open them up and learn why.

I sat in the office before my last meeting, listening to the stories of in-fighting, belittling, avoidance. I heard about how they were shutting down, even with the simple task of writing a letter according to the outline I'd submitted. And I thought about what it was like -- this loss of choice, or freedom to move around; not knowing where you'll be the next day; your housing hinging on the whims of those around you. And so I decided to bring that discomfort to our session, and ask them to tell me what they thought of when they thought of being a woman with no home. 

The following speech is an excerpt of what came out of that process. One of the women will deliver it Friday in Olympia, in front of 600 advocates there to meet with their district representatives.

"This is the face of a homeless woman: mothers and mothers-to-be, washing dishes and cleaning houses, looking for work, anywhere, to be able to stay close to their families. Women with back pain, anxiety, hot flashes. Women who have survived rape, domestic violence, addiction, the deaths of their children. The work they find doesn't pay nearly enough for market-rate rent, let alone downpayments, background checks, registration fees, first-and-last month's rent. 

These are the words they use to describe themselves:

Fearful. Incomplete. Destitute. Limited. Muted. Tense. Desperate.

These are the words they use to describe their lives:

I feel on hold. And even though I know that there's no escape, I also know that at any moment, I could be out on the street. I feel like a naked woman under a magnifying glass. Never alone, always expecting someone around the corner. And yet still alone, because my family is so far away. Everything is magnified when you're homeless: fear, risk, rage. Addiction. Every problem you thought you'd overcome, comes back, and you can't get away. 

My sisters wanted to tell you this: Home is choice. It's family. It's comfort. It's knowing that you can have your candle, and a glass of wine, and a cat at your feet and a dog in your lap, and feel safe. It's where you feel free, enclosed, and safe. 

My Circle's Motto is: I'm every woman. A woman who works, loves, hurts, survives, births, and mourns. A woman who deserves safety. A woman who deserves a home.

I ask you, think about us, your mothers and sisters, and hold us in your hearts today. The need for low income housing and services to empower the low income population in Seattle is so great, and unfortunately, still not nearly enough."

I'm proud of them, and I hope that on Friday I can make them proud of me, too.


February 3, 2014

Am I a Runner? (From my Kalamazoo Farewell.)

Am I a runner?

This wasn’t a thought that I had really developed before, but there was the question, all the same. The first time that I’d ever heard of someone making a differentiation between Running and Jogging was during a conversation with a man I’d briefly dated, a Runner by any definition of the term. It was during a discussion about marathon times (me trying desperately to mask mine, he freshly proud of his Boston qualifying time) that he brought up “The 5 Hour Marathoner”.  That’s not running, he’d said, it’s jogging; it’s not in the same category as what I do.  I uncomfortably brushed the comment off until I kept meeting people at the store, buying their first pairs of shoes, full of nervousness and questions, and I’d ask them, “How much do you run?” Invariably, these women — and it was almost always women — would flutter their hands at me and sigh, “Oh, no, I’m not a Runner. I Jog.” If I pried, I’d find out that they were just beginning 5k training with groups of women at work, lunch break office runners with t-shirts thrown on over pleated black pants, arms pumping as they hoof it around the park. They’d always downplay their training – “I can’t even say I jog. I’m more of a walker who accidentally and sporadically finds herself running and can’t figure out how to slow down gracefully.” I’d shake my head and laugh with them and offer my encouragement. We’ve all started out the same way, I'd say. But this past weekend was the first time I’d put any real thought into our need to make a distinction between the two.

Saturday morning was the Borgess Half Marathon and 5k, and I put on my rain gear, grabbed my bike and rode out to cheer on the community I’ve had the pleasure of serving for two years. As I stood in the parking lot of Mackenzie’s Bakery, screaming out names of runners in between longs draws of coffee and a cranberry bran muffin, the man standing next to me marveled at how many people I seemed to know. ”I thought I knew a lot of runners, but you’ve called out the name of almost every person who’s come by! Who are you?” Before I could swallow my muffin, a man went racing past and screamed, “You sold me my shoes! They’re awesome!” and was gone in an instant. The man next to me nodded his head and said merely, “Ah. 
You work at Gazelle,” and turned back to the race, smiling. The middle of the pack was coming up, and I jumped on my bike after a few more hoots of encouragement and tried to track down my runners. After several failed attempts to catch them at different points, I gave up and rode back to where the race doubled back on itself before heading down Riverview. There I found two overwhelmed volunteers trying desperately to supply GU to the throngs of runners streaming past. After failed passes they’d fling the GU after the runners in a futile attempt to fulfill their role, but at this point, most of the runners – fast, front of the pack, don’t-want-nor-need-to-slow-down-for-no-carbs runners – didn’t need anything. Then the crowds coming by picked up, and I grabbed handfuls of Gu and started hollering my encouragement. I was supposed to ride to the finish. If I stayed much longer, I’d miss my friends crossing the finish line. But as the 9-9:30 minute milers passed by and we got into the 10:00′s, I was too caught up in the race to leave. Here, in the thinning out rush of runners, were the people who needed that encouragement the most. Here were the pale determined faces, hunched shoulders and limping legs, form sloppy from exhaustion. Jog: A series of disconnected motions. Well, that seemed to fit in some instances here, but not in its second definition: to run at a leisurely, slow pace. Ask anyone moving past you, and if they had the energy, they would laugh in your face if you asked if this was leisurely. 

And that’s when I saw her.

She was someone I had helped with shoes within my first few months on the job. I’d watched her go from I’d-jog-but-it-makes-me-convulse-until-I-puke to her first 5k, her first 5k through winter training, winter training through Summer Safari, and suddenly this woman had dropped a width from her shoes, two sizes in clothing, and built such calf muscles they could have rivaled the colosseum in structural strength. She never became fast but she grew graceful and confident, and I had ridden with her on her 20 mile runs as she kept pace for hours. Now here she was, striding past me with a grin and a wave. I felt so much pride – for her strength, for what I’ve done to strengthen others, and for the people who have given up that quiet dismissal to claim the title of Runner. Being a runner isn’t about speed or skill for most. It’s about determination, overcoming frustration, the mental unraveling the first time they hit that distance they don’t think they can finish, and then running anyway. It’s running into obstacles, and running into oneself, literally and metaphorically, the emptying of ourselves into something greater.

I guess this is my good bye to the community I’ve served and taught and laughed with and learned from for two years. In one week, Seattle will be my home and I’ll have to learn all over again the faces and names and stories of the runners in my new community. What I know I can count on is their consistency of spirit.

Now that’s a runner.