Thanksgiving Reflections – 2020

Earlier this week, I was reminded of the reality of these times. It’s so easy to forget how many people are suffering. I wonder how many of my students need to stand in food distribution lines. It’s not something they mention though many have lost their jobs. I’m doing my best to support them in other ways to help them make it through the semester, but there are no guarantees my efforts will be successful for all of them.

Waiting in line for food distribution before Thanksgiving – November 23, 2020

This morning, though, my thoughts transported me to other days more than 50 years ago when I set off to find my true home and soul. Homeless and wandering the streets in Hollywood, California, I ended up among strangers who provided a temporary safe haven. I described how I ended up there in one of my earliest posts.

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A River Tooth – for Richard

This morning I was forced to rely on CDs to entertain my parakeets, Bud and Queenie. It was one of those days when the weather affected radio reception for the classical station that plays the music that helps them feel safe and encourages them to sing. The first CD I chose was by John Denver, and suddenly, I found myself thinking of Richard, a friend from decades ago. Richard was a shy, gentle man who seemed out of place in a house shared by ebullient, self-assured, and opinionated students, some who loved to party. He was from a privileged family, the well-behaved son of professors. I was the only housemate who took the time to get to know him.

It’s funny to realize that I always remember him whenever I hear John Denver sing Rocky Mountain High. I think of our adventures traveling through the Rockies in his ever-untrustworthy Fiat in 1968. The memories make me smile, but also carry a sense of sadness.

Photo of Grand Lake, Colorado by Charles Yates – uploaded with creator’s permission. Source: CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=814879

I was a poor, struggling college student when Richard and I were housemates. He had already graduated and was working as a photographer for a local newspaper. I had just finished my worst semester ever. I passed advanced French literature with a final exam written in French that I couldn’t translate when I awoke from the long sleep that followed two days and nights of cramming. Although I wrote what was, I think, a brilliant final paper for Peoples and Cultures of Africa, I just never got around to handing it in, so why would I pass? And the history of Buddhism – I really should have dropped it when I could. The arrogance of the professor who needed to remind us at least 100 times each class that he was the world’s most renowned scholar was so at odds with the subject. The only thing I remember from the class is one word – jnana – the Sanskrit word that means wisdom-knowledge, intelligence guided by compassion. The word was so antithetical to the example the professor modeled to the class through his words and behaviors.

And then there was my job, a nurse’s aide for the graveyard shift at the university hospital. I alternated between the gynecology floor and the maternity ward. By that point, I had witnessed nurses make mistakes that caused permanent damage to newborns with no professional consequences and morning staffings that were nothing more than gossip sessions about patients who were dying painfully from the last stages of metastasized cancer.

I was so ready for a change. When Richard asked if I would be willing to go on a summer adventure to see the western United States, I told him I would on two conditions — we would share expenses equally and would remain friends without any emotional entanglements. He readily agreed, so I dropped out of school, quit my job, and we took off on an adventure in his little maroon-colored Fiat. This particular model of Fiat was tiny, with the engine in the rear and the storage compartment in the front. We packed some of our camping gear in the front “trunk.”

And then we hit the road. First we traveled southwest, through the prairies and cornfields. We finally made it to the Texas panhandle, and as we drove on flat highways with no speed limits, the little Fiat valiantly fought to hold the road, buffeted by powerful crosswinds as trucks flew by. One strong blast of wind blew the hood of the trunk open, and another ripped it from its hinges into the middle of the highway. Although we stopped and ran to retrieve it, we were a little too late. We watched helplessly as a large truck drove over the hood, permanently bending it. We collected the dented hood, found some rope to tie it on, and headed to the nearest town to find some way to repair it. The best solution we could find was more rope and duct tape, not the most convenient solution when we needed to open the trunk every night to get our camping gear.

We decided to travel north through New Mexico. Getting to the camping gear was a daily ordeal of untying crisscrossed ropes and ripping off duct tape and then replacing everything in the morning. After taping and re-taping the trunk for a few days, Richard decided to buy a small, light trailer to haul our camping gear. The Fiat was able to pull the trailer, at least on mostly flat terrain and gently rising foothills. But just as we reached Denver, the engine gave out. We had to stay in Denver a few extra days while we waited until the only mechanics trained to work on Fiats had time to fit us in. With the new engine, we headed deeper into the mountains and camped in breathtakingly beautiful places. I remember Grand Lake, nestled in the forests of high mountains. We froze at night in our sleeping bags. I would awake long before dawn and walk to the lake with my sleeping bag wrapped around my shoulders. I sat on the shore waiting for sunrise. As the sun rose and warmed the cold mountain lake, spirals of mist appeared and danced on its surface. Legends say the spirals of mist are the spirits of the Ute women, children and elders who died when their rafts capsized during a storm.

We traveled on to ghost towns that had once been busy silver mines, turned by then into seldom-visited tourist attractions. When we stopped in small towns to buy supplies, or on rare occasions to eat something other than campfire-cooked meals, we became a main attraction. People would line up at the windows of shops to watch us as we walked by. Richard was starting to grow his hair longer, a change from the clean-cut persona he projected when he worked for a newspaper, and a beard was beginning to show. My hair, then almost black, was long and unbound, blowing in the mountain breezes. Dressed in my sandals, bell-bottomed jeans and huge workshirt that looked more like a dress, I guess we appeared strange. Perhaps it was the first time townspeople had an opportunity to see “hippies” up close.

As we headed on our way to Wyoming, the little trailer didn’t quite hold the road as we wound around hairpin mountain turns without guard rails and finally went off the side of the mountain. Fortunately, we didn’t go with it. We stopped and got out just in time to see the trailer give up its tenuous hold on the trailer hitch and tumble the long way down to the bottom. Although shaken by our narrow escape, we nonetheless continued our travels and replaced some of the camping gear we lost.

Our travels led us to Seattle and down the Pacific coast to Los Angeles. This is where I decided to stay, with a newly found friend who lived in Hollywood. I know Richard was deeply hurt by my decision. Despite our agreement to avoid romantic entanglements, I knew that he thought he loved me, and I knew he wanted to protect me from harm. But I also realized that I needed to find out who I was by learning to stand on my own in the world. Hollywood seemed as good a place to learn as anywhere I had been before. It was far more diverse and exciting. Richard left alone to return to his Midwest home with tears in his eyes.

This morning when I remembered Richard and the adventures we shared, I googled his name on a whim. I found someone with the same name who is the age he would be now and whose photo looked like what I imagined he would look like decades later. I was relieved. I choose to believe that this is the Richard who once thought he loved me. And I choose to believe that our adventures inspired him to go on to become the famous creative quirky photographer described on the internet. Although we never met or spoke again, the memories of the friendship we shared remain in my heart and will probably continue to reawaken to the sound of Rocky Mountain High.

Some stories have happy endings without any regrets, even though touched by a hint of sadness.

“When you part from your friend, you grieve not;
For that which you love most in him may be clearer in his absence, as the mountain to the climber is clearer from the plain.
And let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit.”
(Kahlil Gibran, 1923/2002, The Prophet, pp. 58-59)

***

This Thanksgiving morning, a few words from a song that one of my long-ago new Hollywood friends wrote and recorded came to mind.

What can you make

that nobody else can fake?

Try a gen-u-ine

one-of-a-kind

guaranteed original.

You can make a smile

that is your very own.

You can make a smile

and you can make it known.

You can smile.

My travels have taken me many places since then. I lost touch with many of the friends I encountered along the way. Yet lessons they shared remain in my memories, leaving a legacy of resiliency and gratitude. I can smile. I can also send healing thoughts and bring soft hands and laughter into the lives of people I meet today.

Today, I am grateful for those gifts. Surviving hard times can bring unexpected life-long benefits. I hope that is true for those who are suffering today.

Note:

In another early post, I defined a term I learned from a former student, “River Teeth.”

Recently, I have been reflecting on what I would identify as the “river teeth” of my life thus far. River teeth, according to David James Duncan (2006), are the hard resinous knots that are all that remain after the softer wooden fibers of pine trees have been dissolved by the river waters into which they have fallen. Applied to life, they are the memories that remain decades later as transformative experiences and epiphanies.

Stories from the Grocery Store

Carol A. Hand

Going to the grocery store is not my favorite chore. In truth, I typically avoid it as long as possible. It sometimes feels as if I’m entering the twilight zone or the aftermath of a zombie invasion. I encounter people blocking the aisles as they talk or text on cell phones or, as if in a daze, stare glazed-eyed at the colorful shelves stocked with chemical fare or off into space. They move at such an unbelievably slow pace, seemingly oblivious to everyone else. It feels like I’m in a different dimension, moving at a different speed.

grocery store 1280px-Fredmeyer

Photo: Super Grocery – “Fredmeyer” by lyzadanger – flickr.com. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons

I repeat an inner mantra. “Be patient, be kind.” But I try to zip thought this task and escape as quickly as I can.

These days, the major impetus for facing this task comes from the need to prepare for my granddaughter’s visits. I doubt if she would be willing to eat only the odd concoctions I come up with from my frozen garden produce and the remnants in my cupboards and canisters. Often, I bring her with me even though her requests for candy and junk food are gently ignored.

But with my granddaughter or alone, people do sometimes share their stories about the hardships they’re facing. The stories they share tell of the difficult times ordinary people are facing now and the choices they’re forced to make.

Yesterday, as I neared the dairy section, I saw a man eyeing the choices for eggs.

“I wish I could afford to buy the organic cage-free eggs,” he said as he looked at me, “but look at the price. I can’t afford them because I’ve been laid-off from my job for the winter. I have to be careful about how much I spend for food. I have to buy cheaper ones even though I’m afraid the antibiotics in them have been making me sick.”

Just before Christmas, during a trip with my granddaughter, the gentleman who was bagging his groceries at the next aisle told us his story.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m only 55 but I had to quit my job because of my health. I suffered congestive heart failure and spent a long time in the hospital. My prognosis isn’t good. The medical bills have taken all the money my wife and I were able to save. Now, I have to rely on Medicaid. The State put a lien on my house for half of its value. I worry about what will happen to my wife if I die. She’s blind. I’m the only one she has to depend on, and now, the house we worked so hard to pay for won’t provide enough to cover her care if she needs to sell it.”

My granddaughter was so sad when she heard his story, and amazed when he made a point of wishing others a merry Christmas and putting a donation in the Salvation Army collection bucket on his way out of the store. His story made me think about federal Medicaid Estate Recovery policies.

“State Medicaid programs must recover certain Medicaid benefits paid on behalf of a Medicaid enrollee. For individuals age 55 or older, states are required to seek recovery of payments from the individual’s estate for nursing facility services, home and community-based services, and related hospital and prescription drug services. States have the option to recover payments for all other Medicaid services provided to these individuals, except Medicare cost-sharing paid on behalf of Medicare Savings Program beneficiaries.” (Medicaid.gov)

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“Affordable Care Act of 2010. Estate recovery will be forced on millions of people who might have otherwise gone without insurance. Why? Because the plan is that millions more Americans have health insurance. That would be accomplished by expanding Medicaid and implementing premium assistance (subsidies). When a person is found to be eligible for Medicaid, they will be automatically enrolled into their state’s Medicaid program. Those forced into Medicaid will, due to the federal law, also be forced into estate recovery. Their estates will be partly or fully taken over by the federal or state government when they die.” (Medicare for All.org)

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“So here’s the deal: since 1993 there has been a federal law requiring states to recover at least some of the costs of Medicaid-covered medical care for anyone 55 years old and up, from the estates of those covered.

“States enforce this law, with their own laws and policies added in, differently in every state. But the general principle is there. Up until now the usual consequence has been things like this: Medicaid puts a lien on the house of someone in a nursing facility who has run out of money, and after they die, the heirs find they have to buy the house back from the state if they want it.

“We haven’t had lots of people younger than 65 on Medicaid, because in most states simply earning less than the Federal Poverty Level did not qualify one for Medicaid.
And we haven’t had many people with lots of assets on Medicaid, because in most places you have to have less than around $2400 to your name before Medicaid will cover you. You can keep your house and your car, but Medicaid reserves the right to put liens on them and take them when you die.

“But now we have the Affordable Care Act, and its expectation that everyone in the lower tier of income will end up in the Medicaid system. To accomplish this, they have dropped the asset test. So now we will have lots of people ages 55-64, who have assets but not a lot of income right now, for whatever reason, on Medicaid.

“The kicker of it is, if you make the right amount to qualify for a subsidized health insurance plan, your costs are going to be shared and subsidized by the government. But if you go on Medicaid, you owe the entire amount that Medicaid spends on you from the day you turn 55.” (Daily Kos.com)

Passing ones wealth and property to the next generation is only a privilege for those who are obscenely rich. They’re the ones who have the power to suggest legislation that judges those who need assistance as free-loaders – the very working class that sustains their wealth through under-compensated labor and advertising-induced over-priced consumption. The State is only too willing to be an accomplice in recovering any assets the working class has been able to accrue.

Writing this reflection has made me wonder about the significance of trips to the grocery store. Grocery stores may be place where we are forced to confront the consequences of corporatist policies, exploitation, and social inequality. Many may simply see it as reduced choices in their lives that make it difficult for them to feed themselves and their family healthy food. Maybe distractions help shield them from that thought and the realization that they will have to make do with few healthy options.

fruit-932745__180

Photo: Fruit

From now on, it will be easier for me to remember to be patient and kind during my infrequent visits to the store. It’s so easy for me to forget to avoid judging other people. They’re often doing the best they can to merely live. We’re all caught up in a system that gives us very little room to do otherwise.

 

Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

A Grandmother’s Reflection

Carol A. Hand

As the holidays approached, I felt the annual dilemma of what I could give my daughter and my two grandchildren, Aadi, my grandson who is now 14, and my granddaughter, Ava, now 6. I know that my grandchildren cannot help being caught up in a society that values things. The rampant consumerism that rises to a frenzied pitch during this time of year always reminds me of the need to keep things in perspective. I ask myself, “What really matters?” The answer, for me, is to be mindful of others’ suffering, to do what I can to ameliorate it, to do what I can to prevent it in the future, and to refuse to allow the pressures of conformity to dictate my giving, even for my grandchildren. What I give them is my commitment to do what I can, small though it is, to remember what matters. I can give them stories that remind them they are loved and special. And I can share stories that remind us that we all have much to do to create a world that values all of our children.

In the spirit of remembering what matters, I am sharing this excerpt from Jonathan Kozol’s Amazing Grace: The lives of children and the conscience of a nation. He describes the neighborhood in South Bronx where poor families are forced to live in appalling conditions that have no doubt deteriorated since Kozol’s 1995 visits.

During these days I walk for hours in the neighborhood, starting at Willis Avenue, crossing Brook, and then St. Ann’s, going as far as Locust Avenue to look at the medical waste incinerator one more time, then back to Beekman Avenue. In cold of winter, as in summer’s heat, a feeling of asphyxia seems to contain the neighborhood. The faces of some of the relatively young women with advanced cases of AIDS, their eyes so hollow, their jawbones so protruding, look like the faces of women in the House of the Dying run by the nuns within the poorest slum of Port-au-Prince. It’s something you don’t forget. Seeing these women in the street, you feel almost ashamed of your good health and worry that, no matter how you speak of them, it may sound patronizing. ‘The rich,’ said St Vincent de Paul, ‘should beg the poor to forgive us for the bread we bring them.’ Healthy people sometimes feel they need to beg forgiveness too, although there is no reason why. Maybe we simply ask forgiveness for not being born where these poor women have been born, knowing if we had lived here too, our fate might well have been the same. (p. 71)

Like Kozol, I am grateful that neither I nor my daughter and grandchildren were born in this neighborhood. I wonder this holiday season how I can give my grandchildren the gift I wish all children should receive – a world that sees each and every being as unique and irreplaceable, worthy of respect and compassion, deserving of a safe and healthy life. A world, in the words of Sweet Honey in the Rock, that acknowledges “We Are — One.”

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