Honesty Manifest

honesty-herb-jordanThere is a lump in my throat,
That I feel with each swallow.
My heart beats in my ears,
as if I were hollow.

Under furrowed brow,
tear stained cheeks glisten.
Shaded eyes conceal hurt,
along with confusion.

Pictures of him run through my mind,
whose captions I will never know.
How damning is a certain lie,
when whispered through lips of a beau.

Experience has made me rich,
giving strength through life’s transitions.
Vulnerable but without blench,
I choose Love over demission.

Mothering

Sitting in the kitchen at Mamaw’s house, listening to her direct my 63 year old mother how to prepare a dish she has oft prepared, helped magnify the reality that regardless of the age of your children, you will always be their mother. In her 89 years on this earth, my grandmother, or Mamaw as she is lovingly known to her family, has raised eight children. She is surrounded by scores of grandchildren and great grandchildren and great great grandchildren. She has lived now to see four generations brought to life from her life and experience. Imagine the beauty of that?!

As my mom prepared the dish, Mamaw sat at the counter, watching each step. I could hear my mom respond under her breath, much like I did at 15 when my mom stood looking over my shoulder. I love watching her hands at work; hands identical to her mother’s. These are the same hands I see when I look down at my own. Strong hands. Hands that have  accomplished much, worked hard and produced something. Hands that nurture and protect.

Now, as mother to a fourteen year old girl myself, surely there are moments that mirror this exchange; moments of motherly love inevitably passed down through the veins. I watch my girl with anticipation of all her potential being fully realized. I instruct and marvel; words she may exchange for nag and hover.

The truth is, mothers cannot help but to mother. That instinct is born at the first stirring of life in our womb. I still remember  that moment well. After a long day and night, preparing a dinner party for 25, I finally sat down to rest…my four month pregnant belly starting to extend. I felt a little flutter, much like a goldfish swishing around a glass bowl. Joy washed over me, helping me forget my tired feet.  The motherly instinct grew astronomically from that moment on; sometimes completely overwhelming all rationale. The instinct to mother fills our thoughts as we watch our children take their first steps, walk through the school gates, pass the graduation podium, down the aisle, and over the threshhold of motherhood themselves. The instinct to mother keeps us from sleep, steals our breath and drives us to instruct our 63 year old offspring to stir the pot and turn down the heat before it boils over.

I enjoy watching these moments of motherly love between my mom and grandmother. It makes me proud to be from a heritage of strong, genuine, women who hold the future in their hands and faith in their hearts. ❤

  

For My Daughter

In your eyes, I see the future, not in that wispy, fanciful way of others but a calm,
supposed belief that all you know and all you will see melts into one being
so perfectly and completely that it isn’t what may be as much as what will be.
You often have a distant look as if you can see the day after next, skipping past tomorrow.
You retreat into yourself for that is more comfortable and familiar than opening up to others.
Yet in those moments…the few chances you give them to see you,
your wit and charm are realized much more than you or they anticipated.
At times I feel like I have not been your mother as much as an observer-
lucky enough to be there, watching as you grew in knowledge and height.
You never really needed me as much as wanted me by your side, just in case.
Or maybe it was more that you knew I needed to be by your side.
It seems, I never had to convince you that you could
because you were already so confident that you would.
You are beautiful.
You speak with a soul more experienced than your age implies.
Even so, you move forward with caution…
never with the reckless disregard that youth often acts.
You are bright and I respect your intelligence that seems to come so effortlessly.
Just as you are close to the depths of great emotion,

I sense you closing yourself off, hesitantly taking a step back.
I wish for you to touch the sky, swim in every sea,
breathe from thin mountain air and explore underground tunnels.
I wish for you to know love…to be loved and give love…
so much so that oxygen feels removed from your lungs when your lover is gone.
Not because I wish for you pain, but I wish for you understanding.
I wish for you to never fear the night and always cherish morning light.
I wish for you to allow yourself to feel the world around you, deeply-
to comprehend compassion as much as scientific reasoning.
I wish for you to never doubt the unmistakable, incredible being that is
the sensational, fantastic, brilliant- You.

Wherever you may go, whether near or far,

whatever you touch, create or live through,

I will be with you, in love and in spirit.

maddiepark

Shackled Grace

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Ngozi was a pretty girl with fine, delicate features and a dazzling smile. She was a happy girl and truly loved school. Her favorite subject was science and she read as much as she could at school because she did not have any books at home. Ngozi grew up in a Somali village until the age of nine. That was when the rebels came. They tore through, destroying the simple patch homes with fire, slaughtering innocence and driving out her family. Upon returning from school, Ngozi found her burning home but not her parents and siblings. Along with other schoolchildren and the few adults who dared come back to collect scattered belongings, she fled on foot away from all she had ever known.  She walked and walked, frightened and unsure of where her steps led her. Days later temporary lodging was found and a terrified Ngozi was given to a family who agreed that she may stay with them until she could be reunited with her family. As the days passed, she often remembered her mother, sister, classmates and missed going to school. She remained with her adoptive “family” and in exchange for their generosity, she was required to care for the younger children, do laundry and help with cooking. She was not permitted to attend school or read. To comfort herself, she made a small doll to look like her mother out of leaves and straw. At the age of 12, as payment towards her servitude, Ngozi was forced into prostitution. She was unclean and therefore forced to sleep outside of the hut ruled by her adoptive father. By 14, she was in a violent arranged marriage which later gave to her a daughter of her own.

Ngozi and I met when she was about 19; her chubby cheeked daughter just a toddler. They had arrived to the U.S. only two weeks before with her husband. Upon arrival, an apartment had been secured for them in the same community as the husband’s family. This is common practice in refugee resettlement as it typically ensures a more successful resettlement process. However for Ngozi any dream she had of a better life, away from the camps was stolen from her. She had been kicked out of the home by her husband and forced to fend for herself. We had never seen this happen in our work before, but there she stood, a small torn suitcase in one hand and the other wrapped in her daughter’s tiny fingers. As a refugee, the agency with which I worked was able to provide some basic support services to Ngozi. However the help was minimal and it was imperative that she find work. Unsure of just how to handle the situation, Ngozi was brought to my office by her caseworker to see if I could arrange for special assistance. She stood quietly with her head down, not looking up to greet my eyes. She was slight of frame and it was a struggle to support the bustling activity of her very active little one. Ngozi did speak some English and in an attempt to converse with her, I asked if I could give her daughter a toy and lollipop. The child began playing on the floor, freeing Ngozi’s tired arms. I had lunch delivered for us and the look on her face was quite comical when she held the chicken and vegetable spinach wrap sandwich and fruit smoothie. She had never eaten green bread and looked at it skeptically. However she was hungry and within minutes the lunch had been completely consumed. The next order of business was locating an apartment for her. Concerned for Ngozi’s safety, I was able to find a one room apartment in the same community where I lived. This would remove her completely from the Somali community but provide someone she knew close by in case of retaliation or other emergency.

We were separated in age by only a few years. Somehow this provided her some comfort and her story began to unfold. As she spoke, her long, graceful fingers would sweep the delicate features of her face in shame. I remember thinking how beautiful her hands were considering the struggle that bound them. She was bright, hopeful…even in the face of all she experienced. She dreamed of becoming a teacher. For three months she lived as my neighbor. A few times a week, often late at night, I would hear a slight tapping on my door. Ngozi would stand there, always with an apology for disturbing me, although it never was a disturbance. Her daughter had a severe diaper rash, or she was unsure how to work the oven or she needed help understanding forms for medical and food assistance. I often saw her sweeping…sweeping not only her apartment in absence of a vacuum cleaner, but sweeping the stoop of the entire row of apartments that surrounded hers. As she swept, she would hum. Upon seeing me she would wave her hand with a shining smile. It is really quite amazing…the power of the human spirit to overcome extreme adversity and still smile so genuinely.

Her public assistance ran out and after trying for a few months to find work and take care of her child without any support, sadly Ngozi fell back into the violence of her husband’s home. Overwhelmed, hungry, without food or a job to provide money, she felt there was no other way. Unfortunately there was nothing more the agency could provide to her. The last time I saw her, she still hoped that one day she would find her parents and siblings and return to school. She still hoped.

Ngozi’s story is common to many women and children around the globe and here in our very own communities.  I hope reading her story has made you think and want to take action. For more information and ways you can make a difference, go to: http://www.un.org/en/women/endviolence/index.shtml

The first step in building a society free from domestic abuse and violence is to take action rather than step back. Speak out against violence happening in your community.

When Fear Moves In

Simon Kerrie and Me(Simon with his Star Wars blaster, me and my sister- Kerrie)

As a girl, I loved climbing trees. I would climb until there wasn’t anywhere else to place my bare feet and it was just me and leaves rustling in the breeze. I would imagine different worlds and a different life. At some point, during such a climb, I slipped and in doing so, scratched up my bare knees and elbows, hands and the soles of my feet. This did not prevent me from climbing again. I climbed higher the next time…higher than I had ever climbed before. Only this time, I could not climb down. I was stuck. I remained there for some time…a couple of hours I think, until my dad who refused to climb up and retrieve me threatened to take his belt to my backside if I did not climb down. With tears welling up in my eyes and with absolute fear, I slowly made my way down the big oak that stood in the back yard of Maggie’s house. Maggie was one of my parent’s hippy friends who lived in South Austin at the base of the railroad tracks. She had creamy white skin and shoulder length wavy, brown locks. Her real name was Margaret and she planted Marigolds. This fact always made me chuckle. I thought she was beautiful even though she had the brattiest son I could ever imagine- Simon. All he ever talked about was Star Wars. Even so, he was my buddy but we constantly fought like brother and sister. Stuck in Maggie’s tree that day, as the sun was beginning to fade and a train tooting somewhere in the distance, I could hear that turd- Simon, laughing and no doubt pointing his finger up at me. With caution in the placement of my feet on each rung of limbs, I very slowly made my way down the tree. I still received a spanking for causing a ruckus and climbing so high that I became stuck in the first place. That was the last time I ever climbed a tree.

In fact, it was not long after this that I stopped doing all sorts of things I once did. I used to twirl around and sing. I often borrowed Maggie’s red cowgirl boots which were far bigger than my feet and clomped around with my long hair brushed straight, parted down the center singing “Don’t it make my brown eyes bluuuuue,” before proudly proclaiming how I wanted to be just like Crystal Gayle. At some point, I stopped singing in front of other people. Sure I still sang quietly to myself, but at the moment someone else would walk in, my throat would tighten up and cease to make the same sounds. I’ve been afraid of the dark for as long as I could remember. I became afraid to ride a bike or skateboard for fear of getting hurt. In my teen years, I was afraid to talk to boys. I was afraid to sneak out of school functions to go to a party with my sister. I was afraid to be home alone. I was afraid to do many of the things my friends did such as drink, take off in cars to drive the drag in town, tepee houses and skip school. I was most afraid of getting in trouble at home. My dad, who while always strict, had become a completely different person. He became violent and cruel with his words. He often would look at me and say, “Don’t think about it…your face is like glass. You will never get away with whatever it is that you and your sister are planning.” Hand to my heart, I swear that we rarely planned anything. As with most teenagers, the few shenanigans we managed to get into were completely spur of the moment and often prompted me begging my sister to just go home instead. I was afraid of getting hit…afraid of having to explain away new bruises. Somehow at the age of 15, I found an internal strength that declared, enough! I was not going to be treated that way any longer and I ran away from home. The day I left, my stomach was sick with fear…fear of being caught while leaving…fear of being found after leaving…fear of my friends who picked me up in their car getting in trouble for their role.

Living on my own, working as a live-in nanny for different families while attending school, the fear did not completely dissipate. One would envision a girl of fifteen, living without her parents to go off and party or get wild. Not me. I was too afraid of being taken advantage of, getting pregnant or something worse happening. In time, I began to open myself up to experiences. In writing a story for the school paper on the campus ROTC group, I was invited to rappel the tallest building on campus. Although it was only three stories high, to me it looked like the Empire State Building. Standing on top of the building, too afraid to even look down, the ROTC members busied themselves with strapping the harness across my chest and between my legs while a team on the ground secured the ropes. I watched several members escape off the edge of the roof and heard the cheers below. It took nearly twenty minutes for me to make the first move of swinging my leg over the ledge and it seemed like another twenty before I would release my grip from the place my hands instantly clung upon doing so. My friend, Jimmy stood above me speaking calm words of encouragement. Then I simply let go and somehow remembered the procedure that we practiced of squatting against the building and pushing out with my legs. In seconds I had reached the ground. Although the ordeal was over in far less time than it took me to start, the feeling of my body, tethered to ropes but swaying freely and at the same time still in complete control stayed with me to this day. It was exhilarating! I felt powerful and like I could accomplish anything.

A few years later, I had the strength and courage to leave all I had known, pack up my belongings into the trunk of my first car and drive cross-country to start a new life in Boston. I made a some tentative connections online, had a couple interviews lined up for jobs and submitted an application to enroll at a small college. Driving through small town after big city, I felt free. Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill had been released a few months before my road trip and it was the soundtrack for the duration of my drive with its snide, angry lyrics and nasally but defiant voice. I sang my way through state lines arriving in Boston with complete faith in myself and without fear. I began to experience life…entered into my first relationship only to be completely crushed, did well in school and was nominated for a position with a U.S. Congressman’s office. I made friends and did things like run into the ice cold ocean without any concern just to feel the waves against my skin or dance until dawn, laughing and enjoying living.

Through the years, fear began to lurk around me once again. Now married and a young mother, I opened the doors and invited fear for a visit. It was told to me on an almost daily basis that I was not good…I was not smart. I was many things, all of which were said with a hiss and sometimes with fists. Eventually I fell back into the same trap of fear, accepted the same lies fear provided…I was not enough. Although it took ten years, once again I found the courage to let go of the ledge, swing my foot over and push away. This time it was without any tethers. I was scared but determined to have a better life. It was tenuous but I manged to start over for myself and my daughter. I made new friends in a new environment and started smiling and volunteering my time again. However I still listened to fear and did not allow myself to do many things…things I wanted to experience and enjoy in life.

On an evening two Octobers ago, of what had been any ordinary Monday and having just arrived home from work, I sat while sorting the mail. The phone rang and it was my mother. Although now close, my mother and I do not speak much by telephone due to busy schedules. She started the call by asking, “How are you?” Her voice seemed calm and nothing out of the ordinary. After pleasantries were passed, she told me that my younger sister’s body had been found off a small dirt road in East Texas. My younger sister, the sister I used to have nightmares about while living on my own…the sister who I had returned home to  rescue and protect, was murdered. It is hard to write about her in the past tense. It is hard to type the word murdered when thinking of her. The horror she went through in her final moments broke a piece of my heart. It also frightened me more than I had ever been frightened before. I no longer went out with friends at night. I stopped going to the grocery store or shopping mall beyond a certain time of day. I triple checked my front door to ensure it was locked before sleeping. I began to look in my back seat before getting in the car. I stopped accepting offers for dinner or coffee with men I met. I had been hurt emotionally in relationships…even physically in relationships, but this was different. I wanted to protect myself in a new way that I had not imagined before.

This past Summer marked my 40th birthday. In the months leading up to it, I began evaluating my life and goals, dreams and experiences. I realized that there was still so much that I wanted to experience and that the fear that had begun moving in slowly at first, had eventually dictated my every move. Fear prevented me from truly living. Upon this realization, I began to break through the wall that I allowed fear to build. I made drastic changes, did ridiculous things like join dating sites and even entered into new waters, investigating a lifestyle that from a distance seemed appealing. I believed I wanted that way of life due to parts of myself that I had not yet unearthed but more so out of a desire for passion…a desire to experience deeply…a desire to feel…a desire to be wanted and loved…a need to release fear. So I dove in, head first. I crossed the street without looking in both directions. In so doing, I had exposed myself in a way that had never yet been exposed. I opened myself to a potential for harm that I would never have imagined myself allowing. I had become afraid of being afraid to the point that I was behaving in a way that was not me. I was trying to force fear out. To some degree, the experiment worked, however I lost a little self respect in the process and had to work on regaining some dignity.

Fortunately, this foolish behavior was brief. Logic and reason won and due to writing about my experiences and thoroughly examining my feelings, I regained some balance and once again found my center. I’ve taken stock of fear, carefully chipped away at the majority of what I held and reserved a small portion to preserve my sensibility. While I am still afraid of the dark and also super afraid of heights, I no longer live with fear. It may take a couple cocktails for me to loosen up enough to sing at karaoke with friends, but fear left in search of a new swain. I took back the drawers that I had designated for fear, reclaimed my key and kicked fear to the curb.

Through these experiences, starting over, falling back, being taken advantage of and treated in a way I should never accept, the sorrow of losing my sister and in breaking through fear, I learned a good deal about myself. Funny thing is that what I learned were beliefs I already claimed all those years ago at the age of 15 yet somehow allowed to be taken from me. I have always known myself quite well but had allowed fear to create doubt. I am wiser now than then and although still kind, probably not as honey sweet as at 15. Yet I know that whether it is climbing on top of a ledge or living life alone, singing at the top of my lungs to my steering wheel or traveling across the world, I am enough. I am capable. I am smart. The whole world is at my grasp waiting to be experienced. Through each new experience, I breath in strength and release a little more fear. ❤

 

Thomas, the Contender

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Ten years after Katrina, a life of woe continues in this, the story of Thomas:

While a relatively small city, Orleans Parish, paroisse d’Orléans…the city of New Orleans, Louisiana serves as one of the major ports along the U.S. coastline. The city was established by French colonists and is named for the Duke of Orleans. It is often referred to as The Big Easy due to being the birthplace of Jazz music and its support of Jazz musicians over the decades.

Growing up in the lower 9th Ward, Thomas accepted that he did not have much. Along with his belongings, he carried hope in his two hands. There were not many opportunities for a man of little formal education and poor upbringing. Still, Thomas managed to get by. Life in The Big Easy was not always easy, but he had a job. He had a home. He had a dog. Family were nearby and overall, Thomas was happy. Not happy in the way you see on glossy television shows, but he was happy…at least until August of 2005.

On August 28th, 2005, the mayor of New Orleans declared a city-wide, mandatory evacuation; the first ever in New Orleans history. For days, the National Weather Service and National Hurricane Center had been tracking a storm that started over the Bahamas. Originally believed to be a potential threat to Florida, the storm- now officially Hurricane Katrina- shifted and New Orleans would be at its core. With the majority of the city under sea level, it is protected by levees built by the Army Corp of Engineers in the 60’s. Upon receiving the mandatory evacuation notice, poor residents in areas such as the 9th Ward, did not have any other place to go or the resources with which to get there even if they did. All along the Gulf Coast, some residents just simply did not believe the threat was significant.

By the time Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana on August 29th, Thomas along with some 14,000 other residents had escaped to the Superdome arena where temporary shelter was offered. They knew their small tract homes would not survive Katrina’s 125 miles per hour winds. Before leaving, Thomas tried to find his dog but no amount of whistles or calling his name resulted in his return. Frightened and unsure of what tomorrow may bring, Thomas waited for the hurricane to pass. He could hear the wind howling and beating against the walls of the Superdome and rain poured through the roof in a few places. Eventually the howling stopped, but the nightmare continued for worse than the force of Katrina’s winds was the water. There was so much water. Some 53 of the levees surrounding the city were breached. Up to 80% of New Orleans was submerged in water, with water coming inland up to twelve miles. The Coast Guard and Army Reserves had not prepared enough for this sort of damage. The Superdome was dry but her doorway was flooded with residents seeking aide. Food and water were scarce. Babies cried as mother’s tried to console them. Thomas felt imprisoned but was thankful to be alive. To keep his mind off of the devastation they were hearing on the radio and to keep his thoughts from worrying about his dog, Thomas volunteered to help soldiers process the influx of people. An officer of some sort, maybe a reservist, asked Thomas and a couple of other men to follow him. They were led down a hall to another room where upon entering Thomas immediately felt sick. Rows of gurneys were set up, some empty but some containing body bags. Over the next few days, he helped soldiers carry in bag after bag. Thomas did not want to count them but believed there to be hundreds. By the third day, they had run out of bags. Although he kept his face from looking into their lifeless eyes, Thomas could feel the puffy, cold flesh in his hands through the latex gloves he wore. He became sick after carrying in the remains of a young man whose body had been ripped apart by the jaws of an alligator.

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How does one simply go on after experiencing what he had experienced? Thomas later found his home to be completely destroyed. Everything he owned fit into a plastic grocery bag. His dog never returned. Thomas bounced around between the generosity of friends and the few shelters operating in the city, all of which were overrun with other souls not any better off than was he. He worked odd jobs to help pay for food. At night, his mind would fill with memories of the Superdome…memories of the bodies. The air around him still reeked with the stench of death. He became a prisoner to darkness and a slave to alcohol. After several years of barely getting by on the damaged streets of New Orleans, Thomas managed to save a little money and took a bus to Houston. He had heard of others who came to Houston and were able to find work and get off the streets.

The day we met was a stunning early November morning with crisp air and soft rays from the Sun. Thomas had been living on the streets of Houston for nearly six months. After sharing his story, I offered him a couple granola bars from the camera bag and the few dollars I had on me, to which Thomas raised his hand in protest and simply said, “thank you, it was nice to have someone to talk to.” We said goodbye and wished one another more blessings tomorrow.

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Hurricane Katrina first struck the U.S. on August 25, 2005 and tore through the Gulf Coast, ravaging homes and cities until August 29th. She took the lives of 1836 people. Several hundred people are still missing or unaccounted for, including prisoners of Louisiana jails who either escaped or were swept away by water. Animals and wildlife suffered equally with thousands of homeless pets left after the water receded. Hurricane Katrina is one of the fifth deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history and damage estimates totaling some $108 billion. The city of New Orleans is still in recovery nearly ten years later. In this moving rendition of Bob Dylan’s 1967 song- I Shall Be Released, famed New Orleans Jazz musician- Al “Carnival Time” Johnson is backed by New Orleans brass band- Bonerama and OK Go, from the You’re Not Alone lp that raised funds for displaced New Orleans musicians, including Mr. Johnson who had become homeless as a result of Hurricane Katrina: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mDz7i1sgD8M