Only Anecdotal

No numbers, just stories

CSA

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As the buds have started popping on nearly every stick in my yard, I have become excited by the prospect of another year at my community farm. Yes, the CSA of this title stands for Community Supported Agriculture, and it is a movement that has brought me back to my time in Vermont, as well as to my childhood full of gardens and the wonder of planting things that sometimes produced beauty, and sometimes beautiful meals. Our family joined Stearns Farm in Framingham a few years ago, and our lives are richer each time we go there, not only because of the vegetables, herbs, and flowers we find there, but because of the community that surrounds the effort.

Last year, I drove in to one of the year’s first pick-ups, and a woman stopped me, and called me by name. She looked familiar, and I paused, wondering who.. where… When she reminded me, I could picture the driveway where we met, and the living room where I had met with her aunt. I was glad to hear that her aunt was doing well, and was touched that the woman had remembered me that well. These memories remain far beyond the first encounter.

My consular work gave me many similar experiences to meet people and to help a person in a moment, but also to gain something myself in the process. I sometimes run across people I met then, too. I still feel honored by the moments that many people shared with me in vulnerable circumstances, and I hope that this sharing allowed them all to get where they needed to be, and live the kinds of lives they wished for when they came to me. Going back farther, I rarely see students from my teaching days, and it has been years since I worked in my first job for a translation company, but I still remember so many students and clients from those days, and the great things we were able to achieve in these relationships.

I realize, though, that these relationships were no accident, and given the stressors in many of these situations, they could have been nightmarish, horrible encounters for both client and employee in the wrong sort of place. Likewise, a community supported agricultural project cannot happen without both a farm and a community, both responding to a bountiful harvest as well as to low-yielding crops.

We have all encountered toxic organizations, if only through attempting a customer service call to a service like Groupon that refuses to handle questions through an actual phone number. A bad culture may grow in places where employees have no reason to care, but we can foster positive environments with some consideration to the way we choose to operate our organizations. I titled this piece “CSA” thinking of a new acronym to attach to my love of this farm movement, and apply it to my pondering about working life now.

The C in my mind stands for Connection. I think about connection a lot in the work world, as I remember places where I have worked most productively–and also those from which I have made the happiest purchases. It is a joy to walk into an environment of colleagues sharing contributions, regardless of stature in the organization, where the boss can pick up a broom, too, where the most junior intern is invited to networking events, and the maintenance staff is included in team meetings. The practical worth of Viele Hände machen leichte Arbeit (more hands, lighter work) is a part of the efficiency, but intrinsic in that notion also is the sense of togetherness in the day-to-day of a company’s mission that no afternoon of team-building exercises can replicate. For the customer, it is nice to be greeted by a smiling face, no matter who opens the door.

The S is for Stewardship. I don’t mean this in the sense of fundraising and giving, but more in the way we interact in our world. No matter our position or place in society, we are caretakers of our own self, as well as of the environment in which we live. In our work, we have a responsibility to create spaces where all can shine, where strengths are appreciated, and weaknesses are supported, where the mission is more important than any individual or profit margin. It is about caring, but it is also about action, and doing something to take care of things, rather than to talk about it.

A is for Agency. We make decisions constantly as we go through our own personal day, but there is a great benefit to the organizations that acknowledge these judgements of their employees and gives them as much individual control as possible. A sense of agency is more than a willingness to remain in a role and keep a head to the grindstone; it is the idea of being a part of something, and that our efforts and expressions are unique and make a difference–and that we have agreed to the social contract involved. It makes us look forward to weekdays, to the opportunity to contribute rather than worshipping the weekends and the chance to escape the work environment. An organization may chug along with cogs to run their machine, but it will never achieve greatness without employees who have agency.

Connection, stewardship, and agency. It is easy to feel connected, caring, and intentional with our technology and the multitude of choices we can make now, but appearances can be deceiving. We are in this together, but hopefully we realize that a good life involves supporting one another and our equality, in work as in society as a whole.

 

 

 

 

 

Written by Only Anecdotal

24 Apr 2019 at 2:37pm

Day 7

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Today’s post finds me in my dining room, huddled around a space heater. I am home from work today, finally having fallen sick after my normally toasty warm abode has transformed since last Friday into a veritable icebox of a home.

I do consider myself lucky, however, as we are no longer in the dire straits we were when the heating system was installed in 2009. Like many post-divorce families, we moved from a comfortable upper middle-class existence to a situation that flirted dangerously close to the national poverty levels.

The fact that we had fallen so low, however, made us ironically better off in many ways, due to eligibility for several programs and grants for low-income families. My children were free lunch kids, then reduced-fee lunch kids once I found a job. This lunch assistance, I quickly learned, put us into a category to receive all sorts of perks that were totally out of reach to anyone earning even a barely-livable wage. For example, we avoided the $270-per-child school bus fee once the kids hit sixth grade, and we were offered opportunities to attend summer camps that even at our formerly comfortable, grandparent-subsidized income could have been able to afford.

We were lucky to have these opportunities, but it was also unfair, particularly to families who were just over the income limits. Because the lunch assistance is based on federal poverty levels, it is easy to struggle in Massachusetts at a much higher income than these programs allow. I continue to find it difficult to reconcile that there is such a line where people can qualify for considerable assistance, but they lose nearly everything once they begin to earn enough to sleep at night. Insomnia quickly returns when a family can suddenly lose everything from fuel assistance and fee waivers to housing itself, simply because of a very small increase in income. The jump required to be self-sufficient is such a grand leap that it is no wonder so many people never manage to climb out of hardship.

Not to sugar-coat the application process for financial benefits, it was humiliating. I remember waiting in line for food stamps a few days after my husband moved out of our house. The man assisting me asked if my husband liked to “rough me up.”  As he collected the paperwork to reveal pertinent details of our financial situation, he told me that I should get a nicer haircut and smile more, as if either were quite possible at the time. We received emergency funding that very day, though, so the questionable legality of his comments was hardly something that I wanted to challenge at the time. I immediately went to the grocery store and bought my family food, crying in the checkout line as I realized that my new EBT card was really going to cover our bill. I shook myself off, and sent regular proof of my continued shame, as requested, until I could no longer stand it. It never got easier for me to ask for help, and I never forgot that feeling. Still, to this day, I would be happy to sit in a SNAP benefits line with anyone else facing the same humiliation that should not be.

Over the years following that initial application, however, we received a great deal of help to improve our lives both short- and long-term, and I am grateful. I was also lucky to have grown up in a family with a highly educated, erudite stay-at-home mom and a high-school-educated, blue-collar, union-member dad during a time that this was a near-guarantee of middle class. (More on this in a future post…). I went to college, and went on to earn graduate degrees. I have uncounted advantages that made it much easier for me to network to find help and navigate the rules and paperwork required.

I also learned that many people want to help, and have ideas of how they can do it. I learned, later, as I worked with others seeking various forms of assistance, that help comes mostly not as it is really needed, though, as an official, obvious, mandated policy. Sure, some assistance is mandated, but much of it is also unfunded, or under-funded.  Some assistance has legislated drips of funding that may easily be squeezed dry in the next year’s budget. Eligibility tests may become all the more stringent in the process, leaving many people in difficulty. Often, great ideas are tested in pilot programs that may or may not continue. Same for grant-funded projects. And then, there is charity, less predictable, sometimes hidden, often wonderful.

Now, over ten years past my food stamp days, my children are now (at least officially) adults, and I manage. The heating system was installed in February 2009, a gift, as I understood it, from the then-Town of Framingham, with the agreement that our energy use could be monitored for some sort of study. A company called Climate Energy removed our old furnace, and installed in its place the innovative Freewatt system. The system included a high-efficiency furnace that was connected to a generator. The generator, a Honda motor, then produced electricity, which we sold back to NStar. The credits were applied to our electricity bill, and our energy bills for both gas and electric dropped dramatically for all the years that the system worked. Some winter months, we paid $10 for electricity, and our house stayed toasty warm. It was such a relief!

Climate Energy also received alerts whenever our system was not functioning properly, and within days–or hours, even–a technician appeared at our house to repair equipment. Every year, they called to schedule the yearly maintenance.

In 2014, though, I took off work for the yearly service day, and instead received a visit from a woman offering to buy back the Honda generator. She told me that the system was no longer being offered in the US, but that maintenance would still be provided until the end of the warranty, after which I would have to pay for service, including an oil change. I kept the generator, and planned for service, anticipating the continued reduction in my electric bill.

A year later, no one called for regular maintenance on the furnace. Climate Energy had warned us when the furnace was installed that the equipment required training and experience to maintain, so I called the company myself to schedule service. I was so spoiled in the past by the company’s proactive management, but I knew it, and never wanted to neglect the maintenance.

Climate Energy was a part of another company called Yankee Scientific, so when the phone rang to their number, I was not surprised. I left a message, then another, then emailed the contacts I had had with the company in the past. I never got a response from anyone, and began the search for another experienced installer. A year later, I had no success, and kept trying, poring over the paperwork I had–I kept everything! I probably should have had someone–anyone–come in to service the furnace, at least. But I didn’t. I was afraid to wreck it, and may have wrecked it anyway in my neglect. Maybe the blower would not have failed with maintenance, but maybe it just wore out.

If you search for Freewatt now, you will find the http://www.freewatt.com website, which directs you to the dreaded site of nothingness. Reviews and videos touting the efficiency of the Freewatt system date back years, and some former installers now seem to offer solar panels instead. I did reach a man who had installed a few systems, but he told me that he had also ripped those same systems out after he received no support from the manufacturer.

A kind man in the now-City of Framingham tried in vain to find records to help us, but the social worker who had originally contacted us had left her position years ago, and her department of social services was apparently eliminated.

Now, despite the current breakdown, I am grateful to have had a great furnace for nine years. We called a large company for repairs, and will restore the furnace, if not the generator, even with a cold wait for the parts. The cost of this repair, however, is not small. I am not sure what might have become of the other households included in the study. I sent out a message to a neighborhood group to find someone with a similar experience, but no one answered. How do low-income households who depend on support manage when assistance so abruptly vanishes? The cost of the repair could easily send a struggling family into a downward spiral financially–clearly not the goal of the original program, but a problem for so many good intentions.

I think now of sustainability and charity, and how intended kindnesses may backfire when the funding runs dry. As we look toward the end of the year, and our wishes to be generous in the spirit of the season, we must also aim for compassion. Receiving generosity does require effort, too, as those in need balance humility and gratitude with self-respect and a desire to give back. We must always consider that when we offer help, or accept it, we develop a relationship. It is a connection that can give hope, but when we do it right, it also allows us all to open our hearts and accept our human condition together. It may be anonymous, and sometimes these are the greatest kindnesses, but only when we accept that the gift never stops with the immediate gesture. As I think back to the ways we struggled in a time of change, I know how easy it is for anyone to end up needing help for any number of reasons. I also know that a lasting difference will consider the future at the outset. A lasting difference will always bring people into the fold with empowerment, choice, growth, and dignity.

 

 

 

Written by Only Anecdotal

8 Dec 2018 at 9:11am

Posted in advocacy, assistance, community

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An Outing to the Zoo

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As I have been watching the families at the border, I have remembered also that I spent several years in St. Louis volunteering at the International Institute. The refugee organization was generous to me, and I gained far more than I gave in assisting people in English classes, and in working with a social program for Amerasian teens from Vietnam. It was the early 90s, and most of the refugees then were from Vietnam, the former Soviet Union, and Ethiopia.

I remember in St. Louis that the area around South Grand was an area where many of the families I met lived. For most of my life, I knew these areas as German (though my own family lived in North St. Louis), but the change was good. My family came under some hardship, but nothing like the trauma that the families I met at the International Institute.

Once, I helped a man to translate course certificates from an IBM course. The certificate was in French, and the man told me that he once spoke French as much as he spoke Vietnamese, but he could not remember now, and hardly remembering the programming had learned in those early days, a different time. But still, a certificate could make a difference for him.

A couple worked with me on conversation. They were former Soviets, and the man–an engineer–drove a taxi and complained, and resented that his wife (a patient woman) was learning English far faster than he was.

I worked with the teen program, but it was hard. The kids did not want to do “refugee things”, and preferred hanging out and enjoying normal American teenage life. I couldn’t blame them. And because all of them were their families’ tickets to refugee status–children of Vietnamese woman and American soldiers–they had even more reason to grasp tightly to their new country.

One day, a very cold day, I went to pick up my teen partner for a trip to the St. Louis Zoo. When I arrived, though, she was gone. Instead, I found her mother and four-year-old half sister bundled to the best of their abilities, and ready to go.

So we went. It was incredibly cold, though, but in the trunk of my car I had two extra pairs of mittens that my mom had knitted for me. We were warm enough now, and crossed past the bears (only a polar bear was out where we could see him). We looked to some of the enclosed exhibits, still, the reptiles. As we wandered, the mother began to see animals she remembered from Vietnam, and she started to talk about her country, and her past.

She told me that she could not remember her daughter’s father’s name. She tried and tried, but so much had happened. She told me of her house in the mountains, and of her other child, the one she begged not to cry, so they would not be found. She told me of the fire they set to her house in the mountains, and running, running with nowhere to go. She told me of the kind Vietnamese man who accepted her–he came to  the US with her, and he was the father of the little girl who went to the zoo with us that day.

At the end, I didn’t know what to do. I drove the family home, and they left–wearing my mom’s mittens. I never asked for them back, and I never told my mom, either. But I think that she would have been happy to know that they had them now.

I’m not sure what happened to the family, but the last time I was with them, they were working hard, and had moved to a nicer apartment.

That day changed my life.

I have thought about many of the people I met then, people who had fled horrific hardships to come to our country, to have a better chance. We all must know many of the immigrants who come here with their dreams and their ambitions, who give up everything for the sake of their families. I think of the incredibly educated, sage scholars who worked in ordinary jobs in car plants (like my sister-in-law’s father, an art history professor working for GM).

I think of my own friends, literature students who came because coming to the US was the way to succeed. I think of the richness of our diversity, the music and food and art and texture of cultures, and I admit to falling silent in despair in the face of hatred to all these things that I love. I have not always been proud of the aggressions of the US–hard to argue that many of the refugees I met suffered in their own countries because of us. But in my life, I was often also encouraged as I saw us change, grow, love.

I want to think we can find this in our hearts again. Our biggest danger comes as we harden souls by torturing children, by pushing away those who need our shelter, by giving even more power to greed.

Written by Only Anecdotal

21 Jun 2018 at 6:56pm

Behind the Scenes

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This is not the post I had intended to write today.

I did not imagine when I was thinking through my article on the drive to work this morning that I would leave work to learn that Trump had reversed his policy of jailing immigrant children. But he did. And thank goodness for that.

Goodness. It is a word that I think a lot about. I think about it lately in the face of pure evil.

Evil. Sadly enough, it is a word that I have thought about far too often in the last two years. Thinking back, I felt a very real optimism in the 2016 election about two years ago. It unraveled all too quickly, though, and even in the face of that optimism, I saw the increasing fervor in the voices of hatred.

In the last weeks I have watched, in horror, as multitudes of asylum-seeking families were torn apart at the southern borders, I have also watched the defenders of this practice. As wrenching as the scenes of crying children have been to me, I am chilled to the core by the lack of compassion in so many who defended the family separation practice.

Bible-quoting Jeff Sessions of course wants the wall as much as his boss, and claims that they don’t want to separate families. But they have to, of course, to keep us safe. And the kids are all right. DHS’s head, Kirstjen Nielsen claims that only Congress can change things, and the kids are all right. Sarah Huckabee Sanders explained everything and explained nothing, as she always does. Fearless Leader himself blamed the Democrats. And Fox News was a great vehicle for spreading the gospel of hate, as they always do. Stephen Miller, a haunting soulless image who was unknown to me until recently, was apparently the mastermind behind this whole policy. I imagine there are masterminds out there who are finally coming into their prime, finding a place to voice their nationalistic sentiments and enact their horrifying dreams of supremacy.

A long time ago, I took my baby son to his pediatrician to find out why he was not doing all the things he was supposed to be doing–according to “What to Expect ….”

The doctor told me that he was “delayed.” But I was not to worry, because my son could still live with me.

I had never considered that my son would ever be taken from me, but the notion stuck with me when a developmental pediatrician came to our home and suggested that I apply for the Medicaid Katie Beckett waiver for my son.

Now, the Katie Beckett waiver is an amazing thing: it was a waiver designed to help families of children with disabilities to keep their kids at home. But I didn’t quite understand the world of waivers back then, and was convinced that by applying for Medicaid, I would also be putting my son’s name on a list of disabled kids.

The doctor reassured me that no harm could come of applying for assistance. Those days of lists and persecution were in the past, he said, those days when people were labeled “different” and sent away, or worse. We all do remember history to know that these times did exist, of course. I’m not sure that a return to those times was quite my fear, but I did apply for Medicaid for my son, and he quickly was approved for the waiver. And it helped him.

But it is a strange thing. My son is no longer a child, but he is on a list, probably a lot of lists. I do think about it sometimes, though he does not appear in immediate danger.

I am not sure what makes my severely disabled son less likely a target for caging than a migrant child, except that he is white. But as we watch the rights of immigrants erode, we must also notice the stories of benefits dwindling for people in need of all sorts. We exclude, and we punish the weak in our great nation.

Watch the defenders of evil. I try to understand the people who were fed up with hearing unheard and unhelped, and as they explain themselves, I think it is easier to look for blame in a face that looks different than to blame ourselves for the mess we have created in a rich country that cannot manage to feed and house everyone. I hear that hatred, but while I think that it is terrible, I don’t think that this fear is evil. Promoting the fear is what is evil. Trump may well have ended the tears of children, at least for now, but keep watching what happens behind the scenes while our leader makes noise and throws twitter tantrums. Oh, to be sure, there will be images of some joyful reunited families–the midterm elections are upon us, after all. And there will be plenty of families who face a tough battle to be reunited (one father has killed himself after being separated from his child, so no resolution there). There will be family camps, then, right along with proclamations of wanting the best for our citizens, and keeping the borders safe. But I won’t be fooled. The masterminds are hard at work while we watch the circus, and they are not working for love.

Written by Only Anecdotal

20 Jun 2018 at 6:27pm

Posted in advocacy, disability

Tagged with ,

Reminders

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Today was the first pickup day at Stearns Farm. I had completely forgotten how I had grown to love garlic scapes last year, but there they were, reminding me of how glorious they are!

Stearns Farm is a beautiful CSA in northern Framingham. I first knew of the farm from the mother of one of my daughter’s preschool friends, way back when. These friends lived on a nearby street, and told me all about the lovely flowers available there. I drove by several times, and then saw the opportunity to work for a share. It was the perfect opportunity for my son at the time, and I quickly fell in love with the community there. We joined as paying members last year, and bought in early this year.

Now, the vegetables and herbs and flowers and occasional berries are a highlight of my week. But even more precious to me are the gems of moments that have often caught me off guard. Last year, I recognized an old neighbor. I loved chatting with people: people working, people picking out their weekly share. And today, a woman called out to me, by name. She knew me, and reminded me of how we met.

I was working at the time as Options Counselor, in the position that originally inspired the creation of this blog. The woman told me that I had visited her aunt–it must have been over five years ago. Somehow, she knew my name, and remembered what I had said, and I remembered her face, and her kindness. I also remembered her aunt–who is doing well now, I am happy to say.

I do miss that work. I miss the job at the Consulate, too. I miss working (“working”) where I can not only interact with people, but where I can actually make a difference in their lives. It sounds trite. But I thrive where I can work through bureaucratic details in systems that in all their stupid awkwardness really are designed to make life better for people–as hard as they make it for anyone to figure out how. Figuring out how is my forté.  Most of all, I miss hearing people’s stories, and understanding what they need to fulfill their dreams, or just to live a beautifully ordinary sort of life. It was creative work, or I could think of it in creative ways as I cleared the brush and wove a way through the labyrinthine rules and structures of resources. When I felt an injustice could be remedied, I wrote about it–often, here–or I spoke about it, publicly. I always felt that naming a right makes it real: and something real to fight for. I felt honored by the trust and love in our communities, the individual people who both needed help and wanted to give it.

It is easy to wax poetic about work in the disability field, and the privilege to be paid for good work, with others working for human rights. When there were not enough resources for the many individuals I met, though, it was very hard to stay upbeat. When I could not manage financially for my family on the income I earned, it was even harder. The lack of possibilities to earn a sustainable iliving is exactly what made me leave that work.

So, I left. But every so often, in a grocery store, in the library, at Stearns Farm, I run into someone who knew me then, and I am reminded that there is a bigger world that loves beyond the greed and horrors we see so often in our society now. I am inspired to work toward this love, to love more, and to find a way to survive while doing it.

I write now to return to this generosity, to fuel it, and to remind myself that it is the most important thing I can do in my life right now.

 

Written by Only Anecdotal

19 Jun 2018 at 6:00pm

Flower and Stem

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I was in my car listening to the radio, as I do quite a lot, and heard another story about increasing opportunities for women in STEM education and career paths.

The reason this is important is obvious: there should be no room for gender considerations in any field. But there is another consideration that comes up time and time again in these sorts of discussions, and this is that jobs in STEM pay more. Is the exclusion of women from STEM-related jobs part of the reason for salary inequality?

No doubt it is. But then, I wonder why we do not hear the same sort of push for men to enter fields that are traditionally held by women. I have known a handful of male nurses and social workers, for example, a few administrative assistants. Go to an elder service agency or a preschool, and count the men. Not many, in my experience.

I personally was not drawn to any STEM-related career track, though I liked math. I understood more science than I realized, but never wanted that life. Was it culture? Undoubtedly I was discouraged by an atmosphere that may have seemed overtly hostile to women, but more than this, I was more drawn to other areas: writing, languages, translating, interviewing and making connections, teaching. I invented my own way, to a great extent, and I saw my STEM-oriented brother leap far beyond me in salary at a very young age. I remember the heavy sighs from my family as I pursued my interest in literature, social work, advocacy–sighs undoubtedly at the thought of my inevitable poverty. But more than this, the sighs indicated a fear–a fear stemming from our society’s utter lack of serious respect for the fields where I excelled, for the career path that I–and many others–really wanted.

And this is what baffles me, really, not so much just that women don’t get an equal chance in STEM, but why we look down on those non-science, non-technical, non-engineering, non-math career paths and demonstrate our disdain by paying them so little money? Who determines the worth of work? I know the official answer to this question, but I ask this at a societal level. In a world that truly meets the needs of all of its citizens, shouldn’t we be encouraging people to explore many interests, and to pursue fearlessly and boldly those in which they truly excel–not abandoning talents we need in a rich world for the sake of work  that has been artificially deemed worthy of a livable wage?

Written by Only Anecdotal

17 May 2017 at 7:45pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Twenty

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He was the first of my children to be born in Vermont, about five miles from the Canadian border. Less than a year into a new life in the Northeast Kingdom, we drove the hour in moonlight to a quiet hospital in the middle of the night, and my second boy was born.

I had no idea then how much my perception of the world would change within the next year–hadn’t it already with his brother? Doesn’t it always witha child?–but no. This was a child to make me throw my “What To Expect” books clear into the backyard snow the next winter. That quiet, sweet, beautiful boy did learn to walk, yes, taught by a horse when he was four (true story, yes a miracle). He learned some things, and not some things, and everything more slowly than those books said he was supposed to, more slowly than his brother, and his sisters, and he stayed young–as the developmental experts said. Say. He did not learn to talk, not yet, but still, over the years, he has told me so many things.

He told me of the important qualities to look for in people: love, strength, patience, honesty, connection. Not the loud, not the flash, not the big promise nor the fear. My son told me how to see, how to fight, how to love, how to choose, how to understand the smallest of things, and the quietest, and the most important.

When we think of the abrupt changes that can happen in a few words, a diagnosis, a guess, a realization that, alas, everyone else is growing up all around us, it is easy to think of what we did expect, what was supposed to be, sounds trite to say it, since we all eventually face some version of this, sometime in a life.  He is why I am who I am now, and on days like this, when I think of how far we have come, I have cake and open presents with him, and am glad to see him smile. I imagine life through his experience of it, and I hope/think it is a good life, so many changes, so much so hard to understand. It has been hard. No, I won’t lie about that. We face a future (yes, of course we think of it often)… well, didn’t we always face uncertainty and chaos?  Oh, my boy, I know that the best gift, today after all, is the one you have given to me. You give me hope.  Happy Birthday.

Written by Only Anecdotal

6 Mar 2017 at 9:32pm