What I’ve been up to…..                                                Edited February 21st

“In every human existence, we are telling the history of a people.” Natalie Goldberg

“What space and freedom, a chance to let go and not be frozen in history. This was immense, compassionate, and simple.”  Natalie Goldberg

“For the first time in history young people are turning for instruction, modeling, and guidance not to mothers, fathers, teachers, and other responsible adults but to people whom nature never intended to place in a parenting role— their own peers….” Gordon Neufeld, PhD & Gabor Maté, MD

“I desired liberty; for liberty I gasped; for liberty I uttered a prayer; it seemed scattered on the wind then faintly blowing” From Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

At the beginning of the year I formed the intention to complete most of the books I had not quite finished reading last year before purchasing any new ones. The reason I had not completed many of the books was time and necessity, and also, the fact that I was simultaneously reading relevant articles and things online. I had read parts relevant to what I was writing about in posts or related to topics otherwise salient for me at the time.  However, my reading has been somewhat slow these last two months because I have been engaging with art (long hours on end). You can see eleven new pictures at the Artwork 4 – Ink and pen drawings section of my site.

So I’ve kind of organized everything around my art activities. But I have managed to do some reading. I’ve returned to Eliza Reid’s book, Secrets of the Sprakkar. As I was reading her book I couldn’t help myself from making comparisons. In Greece there are things that the state provides like some level of free health care, free education, pensions (paying for these services throughout one’s working life is obligatory for all employees and employers in Greece), and there are now laws in place related to parental leaves for both parents for those working in the public and private sector, but not for freelancers even though they too pay contributions and taxes. Τhere is definitely room for many more quantitative and qualitative changes, especially if you consider that the population decline in Greece is one of the most severe in the world (2017). Greece’s demographic woes are getting worse every year as it shrinks, ages, and migrates. On the contrary, Iceland’s fertility rate is one of the highest in Europe.

Early on in the book Reid writes she has had the privilege of enjoying what it’s like to be a woman living in arguably the world’s most gender-equal country. A considerable part of the book is related to family, parenthood and motherhood in Iceland. She writes: “Families are the basis for a functional, prosperous society. To make it all work, we all need help. Free, regular, midwife-led prenatal care, generous paid parental leave for everyone, and subsidized, high-quality, accessible child care all provide a societal skeleton for what families work through together and level the playing field so people of all backgrounds and circumstances have more equal opportunities….. Finland’s day care is free from the age of eight months. Swedish day care facilities are open for at least twelve hours on weekdays and in some cases are available twenty-four hours a day…… The freedom of not letting finances be the primary driver for whether to have more children. The confidence in knowing that from womb through to childhood and beyond, a supportive healthcare system is in place.”

In relation to parental leave Reid describes her personal experience; ‘My husband and I each took several months of parental leave, during which we received payments from the government. When we returned to work full-time, our children were first cared for by a licensed child minder and then at a preschool a five-minute walk from our house, both of which were heavily subsidized by the city of Reykjavík. With these supportive systems in place, we didn’t need to prioritize financial considerations when deciding the size of our family.” Another factor she highlights is the importance of a caring community: “Each community is strong and supportive as its own unique neighborhood, yet like Russian dolls, each also belongs inside a larger region where it equally has a place. At every level, these communities form part of the web of familial support, but it’s often the smallest, closest knit one that a mother may expect her child to return to…… Regular extended family gatherings are woven into the fabric of Icelandic society.”

I also reflected back on my own experience as a working mom decades ago. One memory that kind of reflects or summarizes the pressures and dilemmas of my own experience as a working mother, first as an employee and then as an entrepreneur, is the following incident. It was during the early years of my running my own school and working long hours as a language teacher. My husband was on a work related trip and I had left my young son at home with a babysitter. And then I received a phone call that made my heart skip a beat or two. She phoned to tell me that they were at the local hospital because he had fallen and cut his chin badly, and that he was okay and was having his wound stitched, and whether I would be able to go to the hospital. My heart sank. I could neither leave young kids unattended nor send them home before their parents picked them up, and there were more on their way – some on their own, which I could not contact. I could not risk putting them at risk. It was not a shop I could just shut and leave. On the other hand, every fiber of my being was screaming at me to be with my child, understand what had happed. I had classes till late in the evening. I was composed and efficient on the outside and feeling my little son’s stitches as my own on the inside. When I finally got home it was late, past his bedtime. I found him waiting for me with his baby sitter and her husband. He was very brave and told me the stitches didn’t hurt. By the time I put myself to bed my body felt stressed and exhausted from overwork, worry and all the conflicting feelings I had to grapple with throughout the day.

Talking about stress I will return to Dana Becker’s book, which as I mentioned in the previous post explores the current “stress” discourse”.  She suggests that the discourse of stress (women’s in particular) attempts to address things by locating the problems within a medical and psychological context rather than in the sociopolitical domain. She claims that “professionalization of social problems rendered them more readily isolable and controllable, placing all domains of living under the professional’s authority and helping to maintain the societal status quo. The culture of professionalism also reinforced individualism by deracinating social causes from social problems in the interest of science; the social system could not be held responsible for life’s vicissitudes, nor could it be blamed for people’s “nerves.”

In the next post I might continue this thread bearing in mind some of the ideas in  the book that Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate have co-authored, Hold on to Your Children, another book I intend to finish reading, in which they discuss how society is out of touch with its parenting instincts, the negative impact on our children of peer orientation, the flat lining of culture and how as parents and teachers we can reassume our nature-appointed roles as the mentors and nurturers of our young, as the models and leaders to whom they look for guidance. They write that we need to give our children the freedom to be themselves in the context of loving acceptance— an acceptance that immature peers are unable to offer but one that we adults can and must provide.

They are informed by realities in Canada and America, but a lot of their arguments are true to one degree or another for most of the so called Western societies and even globally. They write about a global peer culture. They begin by clarifying that “Parents haven’t changed— they haven’t become less competent or less devoted. The fundamental nature of children has also not changed— they haven’t become less dependent or more resistant. What has changed is the culture in which we are rearing our children. Children’s attachments to parents are no longer getting the support required from culture and society. Even parent-child relationships that at the beginning are powerful and fully nurturing can become undermined as our children move out into a world that no longer appreciates or reinforces the attachment bond….. It is not a lack of love or of parenting know-how but the erosion of the attachment context that makes our parenting ineffective.”

One more book I will refer to today is Natalie Goldberg’s memoir The Great Failure (2009), which is deeply informed by her identity as a writer, an American Jew and a Zen practitioner and teacher. In this narrative we witness her journey of integrating disappointments, hurt and pains with all the goodness and the loving. She touches upon many experiences across time and by the end of the book we have through her narrative also witnessed her reckoning with her family and the deaths of significant people in her life like her biological father and her Zen mentor. a well known spiritual figure. Her writing and meditation practice support her on this journey. She writes: Zen is about plunging oneself into the hot center of life and death. Nothing hidden, nothing not revealed. When there is a secret, the dharma can’t grow direct from the root. It has to twist itself looking for sun…….. I spent my thirties sitting still. At the age when others were investing their energy in building careers, a vast opportunity was presented to me— to meet my own mind and “to have kind consideration for all sentient beings every moment forever.” That was a big job Zen and Roshi proposed, probably an impossible one, but it offered me an enormous vision of human life, so different from the one I was brought up with.”

Psychological maturation involves understanding that human experience and humans themselves cannot be understood in purely black and white terms, which eventually allows for growth, healing and forgiveness to take place. Through her practice and facing the truths of life she seems to have reached a place of more understanding of the underlying causes of people’s actions, responses to situations and ways of being in the world, the social and historical circumstances that formed them, the impact of World War II and the intergenerational transmission of traumas. We read about the hard and painful work required on her part to integrate seemingly contradictory experiences and to overcome viewing herself and others through dichotomous black and white lens. She writes: “I’d felt as if I’d taken on the whole institution of fatherdom. Everything had been set in concrete, and I wanted to budge it…… I was learning something true and mean about the world. Rabbis, priests, parents, siblings, cousins, teachers— this was oppression, close up and personal. And insidious— it quietly ruled and ruined lives.”

I’ll also share a poem by the American poet of Chinese and German origin, Kimiko Hahn, which was written during the Covid period, Things That Are Changed—March, 2020:

A bandana. A cardinal. An apple  /   No. 2 lead pencil—the mechanical pencil, now empty—appears more vivid

A box of toothpicks—now that I’m baking bran muffin

Rubber gloves: that Playtex commercial “so flexible you can pick up a dime.” I tried once and it’s true. Thankfully, I have yellow rubber gloves—like those Mother wore. We never had a dishwasher. No, that was her, the dishwasher. Not even this gloomy daughter was assigned the chore. Though I did learn in Home Ec. to fill a basin with warm water and soap; wash glasses before the greasy dishes then silverware and finally pots and pans. Rinse. Air dry (“it’s more sanitary”). And I do.

Scissors: I cut up dish clothes to use as napkins. When I try sewing on the ancient Singer (1930?), the knee-lever doesn’t work so I abandon the hemming. Then hand stitch while listening to the news. I am grateful for a full spool of white thread.

Scissors: where once I used these to cut paper, now I use them for everything. Including hair. Father always directed us to use the right kind of scissors for the task—paper, cloth, hair. Had he lasted into his nineties, how would he have dealt with sequestering? With belligerence, no doubt.

Empty jar: I think to grow bean sprouts and look into ordering seeds. Back ordered until May 1.

Egg shells: should I start a mulch pile? Mother had a large empty milk carton by the sink where she’d add stuff to mulch. And now TV reports that because they are making every meal, Our mulch pile is so alive.

Sleeping Beauty, yes, that cocoon—

Moby Dick, The Tale of Genji, Anna Karenina—I left Emily Dickinson – Selected Poems edited by Helen Vendler in my office

Notebook: March 20, 2020

A student in Elmhurst cannot sleep for the constant ambulance sirens. She keeps her blinds drawn but sees on tv what is taking place a block away—bodies in body bags loaded onto an enormous truck. The governor calls this The Apex. And late last night, R called—”helicopters are hovering over the building!” She remembers the thrumming over our brownstone in Park Slope on 9/11. And just now I learn that religious people just blocks from her were amassing by the hundreds, refusing social distance. And I am full of rage. Some communities have begun to use drones to disperse people. The president states he has “complete power.” And I am filled with rage.

Binoculars: a cardinal     /    102.7°F       /     Puzzling

A neighbor goes out to pick up my prescription. I leave daffodils on the porch for him. I picked them with gloves on.

Finally, I will end with a podcast you might like to listen to by Sounds True with Dr. Melody T. McCloud, an obstetrician gynecologist and advocator within the medical field for Black women’s health. She talks about existing disparities, discrimination, who and what inspired her to become a doctor and what prejudices she faced on the way.

A couple of points made during the podcast:

“I think in the medical field, physicians even need to be more aware of these disparities. And it’s been reported across the board. When Blacks report to an emergency room, let’s say they’re having chest pain, their pain is not taken as seriously as other people. They may not be offered the same recommendation for lab tests or procedures to be done. And that’s been talked about a lot within the medical community…

So, when I was in a little debutantes ball, I didn’t put physician, I actually put that I wanted to be an obstetrician gynecologist. And that was a big step because my history teacher, I remember very clearly, and again, talking about things that people say that could leave an impact on your mind, I remember my history teacher—Joan Stacks was her name. She was the history teacher and the vice principal of my Catholic high school. I remember at the end of a PTA meeting that I was standing right there with my mother. She told my mother, “Make sure she takes typing because Black people don’t become doctors……

And then there’s the crab barrel syndrome….. I got to keep you down because I got to get up. I can’t have you go up because no, I’m going to crawl over you crabs in a barrel. And that can happen in any demographic, truly.”

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