Only Anecdotal

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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

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


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Funny how it is so true.. the more things change, the more they stay the same.

I should explain, at least briefly. I have not posted here in a year–not because I have no stories to tell, but because at the end of the day, 99% of the time, I can hand the clients I see now the thing they need.  (And… yes, I no longer call them consumers–removed from one world, I have decided that client IS an empowering word–they hire me, really; I am a public servant, if a local one).

What this his has meant, personally, is that I sleep at night. I get thank you notes–not always joyful outcomes, but resolved ones. It is rather amazing to me, now, that I have the power to hand someone a document that opens a door, that breaks a boundary. I still see crises, but people come to me, and I can usually get them where they need to go. Sometimes the stories are not happy. More than once, clients have come to my little booth in a time of grief–a last moment, a funeral, a goodbye. But what they need from me is specific. And I can usually get it for them.

But it is so much more than this. I realize now the level of burnout that comes from crisis situations. I still see crises. But I am not burned out.

I was thinking of this earlier this week when I was scrolling through the Kaiser Health News. I used to read this daily, along with the local obituaries, and it is a habit I have not yet broken. The story that caught my eye told of emergency workers–no doubt far more apt to burn out than I ever have been. But I did know the numbness from seeing such difficulties, the nursing homes, the recent diagnoses, the bills…

The story told of Jonathan Bartels, a nurse at the University of Virginia Medical Center. He described the moments following a patient death, a moment when a tired trauma team may well feel defeated, and the chaplain who asked the team to stay in the room for a moment, to honor the life that was.

This moment made a difference. It is attention to a life, to the person, to the work to save that person’s life. It is a moment that gives permission to that trauma team to care, and to feel supported in that decision to care.

It also is a moment, I think, that a team can step back and see just how much the work that they do matters.

I can imagine the bureaucratic nightmare that could be the daily routine of my work now.. It’s not, though it can be, some places, sometimes, as we see on a daily basis across the world. Border crossings can prompt all sorts of demands, and I realize that I am lucky now to be able to do what I do.

But what is the difference, really?

I also think of the world of long-term care that I used to see daily. As I think through the problems around the critical moment of an accident or diagnosis, people were not always sure what it was that they needed. But after a bit of reflection, this was rarely the real problem–most people could name many things that would make an enormous difference in their quality of life. They needed help with housework. Transportation. A hearing aid. An accessible place to live. A new wheelchair cushion. A new wheelchair. Food. Not to lose everything they owned due to the exorbitant cost of their medical care.

Can it really be so difficult to solve?

Expensive, yes. With resources, though… not so incredibly difficult.

Expensive to solve, yes, in a world that has not considered that people do fall down and break things, that they get sick, and sometimes cannot climb stairs that they used to climb, cannot see things they used to see, cannot say things they used to say.

But in the end, it is far more expensive still to leave people isolated, impoverished, and depressed. In the long run, I know it is.

I felt this frustration often, despite the many people I worked with who did want to make a difference.

But there is an underlying message that is sent when resources are cut, when employees don’t have the tools they need, when there is not enough office space, when there is no time given to reflect for a moment… The message comes through loudly: this does not matter so much.

But it does. It matters a lot.

The world sees things it could ignore so easily in the past. As the tech-savvy get older, and tweet and post and video-chat their frustrations more and more, I cannot imagine that the rage at “the system” will remain so easily contained in this realm for much longer.

I have pinched myself sometimes over the last year, riding the train to the big city, protected by the glass of my booth and the reliability of the systems I depend on to do my work. It is amazing, really. Nice. Not extravagant. But it enables us to provide the excellence our clients deserve.

I used to go into the trenches… a word I do not use lightly, nor with disrespect. I loved seeing people where they were, where they lived, where they could show me firsthand the life they experienced. It was generous. It was often tough. It was real. It was sometimes lovely. More often, though, it was tragic, and could have nearly always been better.

As I always saw, though, we can make a difference, even in small ways. The things we must always give to people who come seeking help are these: listening–we cannot know if we do not hear and remain patient in the process, clarity–what we can and cannot do, truth–when we know it (not passing the buck to another messenger when truth is hard), and competence–and this is completely on us. We owe it to ourselves and to the public we serve to do our work well and to care about it.

I have thought over and over about systems, how things work, infrastructures, how an inefficient database can throw everything off. how everything needs to work well at every level, how giving good employees good tools–and putting trust in them–makes employees work better, not less, I do think that most people do want to do good work… but without the support and trust, the crises do quickly burn people out.

The trust, then, is also giving permission–expecting–people to care, to take it personally. A pause to say it all matters, that we should care. Caring is really what makes all the difference, in everything, at every level. It is what creates the changes when they need to happen.

Written by Only Anecdotal

3 Oct 2015 at 9:37pm

Posted in Uncategorized