Where’s the Village?

(This piece was written for RevGalBlogPals and is reposted here.)

“Well, honey, do you think this work is making a difference?” I ask my daughter, Lucy.  As a college student in New York, her part-time job is to be a Democracy Coach for high school students.  Twice a week, she travels to Harlem on the bus to meet with the students, under the wise eye of the classroom teacher, and work on the skills we all need to live in a democracy.

Each week, she calls after her class and tells me how much she loves the students, and how terrible class was.  The things she knows how to do aren’t working.  The skills she thinks the students will have aren’t there. She has assumed that these students will know the same things she and her classmates knew in high school.

She recalls, “The first day I meet my students they were working on a literary analysis essay analyzing “The Alchemist” by Paul Coelho, but they were having trouble with their analysis. And it wasn’t that their analysis was bad, but that they didn’t know how to do it at all. But beyond that, what stood out to me was their classroom environment. The students were loud, on their phones and most shockingly of all was that they were ok with doing nothing. In fact, they chose to do nothing or goof off instead of doing their essay. And while it wasn’t the whole class it was the majority. And their willingness to do nothing has continued. It wasn’t only a one-day occurrence, but something I see every time I teach.”

These students are just as smart, and the difference between their education in New York and Lucy’s education in our leafy Michigan suburb is depressingly apparent.  Lucy’s high school education was clouded by her battle with depression, and still she had a tribe of teachers and counselors who worked hard to give her options.  I wonder if that happens for these students.  Do they have a hidden village of people working for their good?

As Lucy says, “Nobody goes to school knowing how to be a good student. Everybody gets taught certain soft skills that make them successful in school. But my students never learned those soft skills, and I think that continually harms them to this day.”  Even seemingly simple lessons require going back a few steps.  One day the class is supposed to make phone calls, but no one knows how.  The students have to learn how to request a person by name, write down the name in case they have to call again and then ask for the information they need.  All of it is new.  It takes a frustratingly long time.

I can tell that Lucy learning a lot from her students, including how much she took for granted about her education.  I don’t know what the students are learning from her, if anything.  It reminds me – again – how political our education system is.  It’s so deeply shaped by money.  Parents who have the time and skills to be involved demand quality.  I used to feel a little sorry for the teachers in our school system, surrounded by all of us parents who were socialized to be pushy for the benefit of our kids.  Parents who are poor, overwhelmed and overworked get so much less.

I once asked a friend who teaches high school students in a Detroit school what would make a difference.  I thought she would say more money, or smaller classes, or more social workers to help with the stresses the kids bring to class.  “I need to get the kids in elementary school,” she said.  “I would open a boarding school, where I could make sure they get enough sleep, don’t have too much screen time, eat healthy food and have to study.”  With a sigh, she tells me about one of her students who has a baby now.  She’s feeding the baby Cheetos, because, she says, “he doesn’t like vegetables.”

It’s not news that our education “system” is a patchwork of money, motivation, discrimination and both heroic and indifferent teachers.  As I think about the students around me, and about Lucy’s students, I wonder what I should be doing to be part of the tribe that helps them succeed.  [Read more…]


The January ritual of fortunate people: returning gifts.  This week, I blitzed through the mall, emptying my bag and throwing myself on the mercy of kind store clerks.  (Of course, I didn’t return what you gave me.)

Each and every time, they exchanged my lovingly given but not-quite-right gift for a store credit.  Nary a receipt in sight, but tags still on.  Only once did I even have to show my drivers license.

I used to think that, with the right attitude and a good reason, you could return anything, any time.

Now I think it’s just one more example of white privilege, plus economic privilege. Having things I don’t actually need, plus the ability to get to the mall, plus the ability to step into a store and not be regarded with suspicion are all layers of my unmerited good fortune.

We all have bigger and better battles to fight, but this was one more reminder of how cushioned my life is…and how much I like it that way.

My office co-workers reminded me recently that my car’s brake light bulb was out.  “Oh, yeah,” I remembered.  “I have to get that fixed.”  But I had the luxury of not rushing to do it.  I drove around for a couple of weeks before the repair place could fit me in, with no trouble.  The first time my daughter, who’s black, borrowed the car, she got stopped a mile from home.  Grateful to be with her, I was torn between letting her dig around in her purse for the registration (good lesson) and handing over my copy to get away as quickly as possible (mama terror.)

I am confident that I miss so many places of my own privilege, but I’ll be thinking about them as I use these gift cards, praying to be much more attentive.




Visiting my daughter, The Teenager, recently, I notice she has a new travel mug, which seems to be…not so new. It has deep cracks in the plastic, fanning out from the lid. “Oh, I bought it at the thrift store,” she tells me. Looking at it, I feel divided between pain and pride.

The Teenager lives with her aunt and cousin these days, looking for a fresh start after depression stole two years of high school, and rearranged her life.

As her friends were applying to colleges, and celebrating their acceptance letters, she felt like there was nothing left for her in our little town. Every success reminded her how far she was behind the typical schedule. It’s hard to understand, at seventeen, that life has lots of paths.  Few happy people have hit every scheduled milestone.

Now, in a new city, she manages her own life, with wise advice from her aunt. She rides the bus to class and work, manages the small amount of money we put in her bank account and organizes her own days. She’s shed my daily, anxious reminders to take her medication.

The travel mug shows me how she’s figuring out how to make her life work.  It’s also an image of her story – cracked by depression, and still functional. Her years of high school are lost, but she has a new sensitivity to how fortunate her life has been.

The cracked reminds her that she’s resourceful, clever at managing her own life, a feeling I want her to always have. You can live on that feeling for a long time.

Keeping silent about the mug, I think about how cracked my own life is, too.

Like everyone, I have places of disappointment and loss. Failures pile up along with the wrinkles. Time goes by too fast. I sometimes think that if I were a better mother, my daughter wouldn’t be struggling. I feel sad about the things that I have lost, too – the chance to take prom pictures, be at the senior banquet and graduation. I miss the sweet feeling of success as a parent. I miss the parents I’ve known since kindergarten, but when I see them, I don’t know what to say to them.

My cracks reveal other truths.

Now, I finally glimpse the pain of parents who have kids with special needs, where there is never any typical path. I know what it’s like to lie awake worrying about a child, a sorrow I avoided for a long time. I see that the success grown out of bleak places is even more precious than anything expected.

The secondhand mug is a lesson in honoring the cracks. There is only our one “wild and precious life,” as Mary Oliver says, and the wild and precious joys we wring out of the broken places.

Dear JP Morgan Chase,

JP-Morgan-Chase-1[1]Dear JP Morgan Chase –

Big news this week, that you’re coming to Detroit to invest a hundred million dollars.

Any money looks good right now, so people are excited.

I know, I know, some people think it’s a PR stunt, after the mortgage mess.

Other people see you laying the groundwork to make big profits, when the city privatizes services, just like with Chicago and the parking meters. 

Here’s my worry.

I heard one of your executives explain that you’ll be sending people here for a month at a time to work on Detroit’s issues.

All good ideas are appreciated, but I wonder how much they can know about Detroit in a month.  Maybe if they spend all day walking around the city, talking to people, they can get an idea.  Or will it all be meetings and computer models?

They’ll never know Detroit until they meet people like Aralia, a single mother of two perfectly behaved kids who can sit quietly for hours, if they need to.  Their mom has been looking for work for months, and finally found a job in a fast-food restaurant.  Two buses get her there so she can earn a little over minimum wage.  The training is all on the computer, as the employees practice making the sandwiches and layering the ingredients quickly.  When they have it all memorized, they can start work.  I’m not so sure I could manage it.

Once  she visited my office to make a business phone call, and I asked her kids as quietly as I could if there was food at their house.

“Canned food,” her daughter told me.  I gave her and her brother each an apple from my lunch bag, and they ate them down to the tiniest possible core, something I’d never seen a kid do before.  The kids I know assume there will always be another apple.

Your plan for Detroit – will it benefit people like Aralia?

Or people like Geoff, who paid his rent faithfully every month, and spent his weekends fixing up his home because he wanted a better place to live.  Turns out his “landlord” didn’t really own the house, and Geoff got evicted by the actual owners, who were really happy with his hard work, so happy they moved right in.  Who would ever think to check that the landlord was really the owner?

Your plan for Detroit – will it benefit people like Geoff?

Or, Daniel, a young man in the neighborhood of my church, who wants to go to college, and has to pay for it himself.  He’s so desperate for a job that pays well that he recently had his dad drive him to Ohio for a job interview.  What he’s going to do if he gets the job, I’m not sure.  Then he’ll need a car, which will cost more money.

Your plan for Detroit – will it benefit people like Daniel?

Instead of bringing people here for a month, why not employ Detroiters for a month?  They can teach you about the Detroit you’re here to help.

I’ve lived in this area for ten years, and worked in Detroit for five, and I’m just starting to understand the city.  The deep city-suburb divide.  The ancient history that feels like yesterday, with people holding grudges for generations past.  The pride in a city that hustles harder.

You can’t know Detroit until you know the mixture of hope, passion and resignation in countless professors, attorneys, and educators who live in the city and pay what they call “the black tax” to stay here.  Higher auto insurance rates, alarm systems, and private security to patrol the neighborhoods because the police force is stretched too thin to do it.

You can’t know Detroit until you meet both the motivated high school students, heading from the elite high schools to college, and the equally bright kids who have given up, sure that nothing is ever going to be better.

You can’t know Detroit until you talk to the single mother working double shifts as a nursing assistant to keep her kids in dance, music and judo.

So, welcome to town.

But be sure you’re coming to help, not to make more billions off our pain.

Dante the Dog Whisperer

Image via Shutterstock.

Image via Shutterstock.

On the way to work, a dog runs in front of my car on a busy street.  This is not unusual in Detroit.

I can see it running frantically from side to side of the road, trying to get away from the cars.  People slow down, and go carefully around, but it will surely get hit in a minute.  Putting on my flashers, I open the car door and call to the dog, wondering what in the world to do if it comes.  Put her in the car and then what?  A collarless dog, roaming around my office all day?  An unwanted gift for my allergic husband?”

The dog runs around the corner, and I make a u-turn and follow.  A young gentleman in a battered jeep, music thumping, does the same.  Rooting around in my trunk, I find a box of dog biscuits left from a long-ago dog walking job.  Embarrassing, but handy.  I take a handful and offer him the box.  He tosses them toward the dog, slowly, one at a time.  We try to coax the dog toward us.

“I was afraid she was going to get hit,” I tell him.

“Yeah,” he offers, “I saw one car hit her already.”

By now, he has the dog in front of him.  She rolls over hopefully.  As we rub her belly, we can see scrapes and bloody spots.  After we play with her for a while, I ask, “Do you have a collar?”

“No, I’ll just pick her up.”  He does just that, and I walk in front of him to open the door of his car, still running, music still playing.

“Can I take some more of those dog biscuits?” he asks.  “Of course” I tell him, and then say,  “I’m Mary,” extending my hand.  He smiles at me. “Dante,” he says, as he shakes my hand.  We grin at each other, and get back in our cars.

Now as I drive that way, I think about the things I wish I’d asked.  He had nice clothes on – was he going to work, his day now burdened with a bloody dog?  What did he end up doing with her?  What did the elegant calligraphy tattoo on his neck say?  And where did he learn to be so kind?

One of the things I love about Detroit is that anything can happen.  Any stranger can make your day – or ruin it.  Life is so fractured that things happen in the gaps.  The cracks of everyday life have endless possibilities for connection.  On the way to work now, I watch for Dante, curious to hear the end of the story.


Pauline Saves

Pauline comes down the stairs from her bedroom each morning, wraps her robe around her thin frame, and starts making coffee. At the tippy kitchen table, she reads a worn Bible until it’s ready. Always, the plastic counters gleam in her kitchen. Fortified by the coffee and the Bible, she goes down another flight of steps to the basement, where her son lives.

The basement is Damian’s kingdom, with a huge flat screen tv, always on. The dark wood paneling and big, squashy sofa and chairs seem like a different world from the light, spotless kitchen upstairs. More removed from the world, more manly. Damian is in his twenties, and he seems both younger and older. Younger because he lives at home, where his mother cooks his meals, and watches over his day. Compared to other men his age, with jobs and kids, his life is easy. But the awareness of his illness makes him seem older.

After a lifetime of coddling, Damian is dying now, but Pauline won’t talk about it. Not to me, her hospice chaplain, not to her family, not to our nurse. He has lived a long time with an inherited disease, and she is sure he can keep going. Her life is about caring for him, and Pauline insists that he’ll be fine.

Grief guru Alan Wolfeldt says he doesn’t like the term “denial.” He likes to think of it as “resting.” We’re resting from what’s too hard, too awful, too painful to think about. That feels right. Pauline is resting from the knowledge that she’s about to lose her third son.

Her oldest son carried the family stresses until they became too much for him, and he turned to drugs. He died of an overdose a few years ago. Her second son was killed in a shooting. She doesn’t say much more about it, and I don’t ask, but I know that a mother’s grief is no less or more even when a child makes poor choices.

Her third son seemed safe from all of that, with the illness that kept him at home.

Now she is resting fiercely from the knowledge that Damian is dying.

She sorts it out in her own way. “We don’t need to know why,” she says. “We don’t ask God why things happen. We just trust.”

Her daughter Francie, a mother herself, pulls up in her van between trips to drive her kids home from school and on to football practice. Francie knows how tired her mother is, and she begs her to take a break, but she seems to know it’s impossible. Her mother won’t let go of Damian.

I wonder if Pauline keeps moving to keep her grief away. If she sits down, it all comes back.

I understand because I do the same thing. I can’t seem to sit still, except when I’m at work, hearing someone’s story. I can’t read anymore – it doesn’t hold my attention. No one else’s drama on the page can compare to the drama in my head. I think I must be hard to be around, but no one is brave enough to complain.

My work as a chaplain for this hospice started ten days after my brother took his life.

I wouldn’t recommend this, except that it saved me.

It was already planned, and I was too tired with grief to call and quit. Oddly, going to work with dying people seemed easier than calling a normal person to tell my story.

I had been to orientation, given an employee badge, and shown to my new desk, covered with a big pile of folders, full of people who needed visits. Then I left for an already planned vacation. It didn’t turn out quite the way I’d planned.

I came home from the funeral, and went to work.

Out in the suburbs, I would have gotten lost in my own story. Self-pity would have taken me over. Driving around Detroit, it was hard to feel sorry myself when so many stories were just like mine, or worse.

The mothers of Detroit become my teachers. The woman whose son went out with friends one night, and was beaten up, left with a head injury so severe he can’t work. The mother and sisters who visit the woman in a nursing home bed, unresponsive for six years, after an attack one night. The mothers of men paralyzed in shootings. They feel fortunate, compared to the sorority of women who’ve been to funerals and trials and only have framed pictures of their brothers and sons.

“We don’t need to know why,” they all tell me, in one way or another.

“But I want to know why,” I wail silently in response, but never say out loud. I want to know why. All I want is to know why.

Slowly, the truth of what they’re saying sinks in. Why doesn’t help. There’s no solace there. The truth is still the truth. Grief is still grief.

I never tell them my story, but I wonder if they see it in my eyes. Slowly, my teachers save me, and, in the silence, I hope they hear the power in their stories, too.

If You Give a Moose a Muffin…

Book by the amazing Laura Numeroff

Book by the amazing Laura Numeroff

On Mondays, I read children’s books.

My partner co-conspirator is an impossibly tiny first grader, with perfect braids and miniature sparkly Toms shoes.  In the winter she walks toward me in turquoise Ugg boots.

Our matchmaker is the Reading Corps for the Detroit Public Schools.  [http://detroitk12.org/readingcorps/]

When I pick her up in her classroom, she brings work assigned by the teacher to get her reading at grade level by June.  In her small hand is an easy reader book, or a word finder, or sentences to practice.  We walk upstairs to the bare room assigned to the Reading Corps, talking about her weekend.

One of the deep pleasures of motherhood, for me, was reading to my daughter.  When the stresses of the day had worn us out, we would read piles of books.  At bedtime, I was always a sucker for “one more.”  When we needed something to do, we went to the library.  As she got older and could read to herself, I read to any other kid I could get to sit still.

There’s lots of research about the impact of reading to children – about language acquisition, the number of words they hear before they talk, about learning how language is put together, and I believed it all, but mostly we read for fun.

As far as I can tell, no one has ever read to Taylor.  She says there aren’t any books at her house.

Her parents are busy with younger siblings, and maybe they’re not readers themselves.

The first week, when we finished our assigned work, I got a picture book out of my tote bag, and asked if I could read to her.  The cover picture of an African-American girl made her whole face light up.  The next book, If You Give a Moose a Muffin, made her grin at first, and then laugh, a sound I’ve come to cherish.  Now I pick books that I know will make her laugh, just for the joy of hearing that sound from a serious girl with a serious life.

We hurry through our assigned work so we can get to the tote bag of books.

The learn-to-read books for first grade are written by experts, well-chosen to teach certain sounds and words, but picture books have a magic they lack.  Richer, more complicated words.  The flow of a story.  The charm of seeing the world through someone else’s eyes.  Illustrations that reveal something new every trip through the book.

It’s all new to Taylor, and with her, I see the power of books for a young child.  Always surrounded by books and readers, I never saw it so clearly before.

We walk back down the hall to her classroom, her sparkly shoes twinkling, and I wish I could come every day.

Hope in the Grass

Courtesy of PhotoBucket.

Everyone in Detroit seems to be mowing someone else’s lawn.

I spent a half day this summer at Sears (long story, bad computer system, great customer service) and so I had plenty of time to talk to everyone else who came into the waiting room. On the hottest day in July, all of them were there for lawnmowers.

A tiny, wiry woman in overalls told me she needed her lawnmower to mow lawns for all of her elderly neighbors. “I need a sturdy one,” she confided. “Some weeks I mow thirty lawns.” Her repaired mower arrived, and she gave her seat to an elegant looking gentleman. He mopped his forehead with a cloth handkerchief, and told me about the mowing the lawn behind his own, plus the yard of the neighbor who abandoned his house and moved away. “I can’t blame her,” he said, “but I don’t want to block to look bad, either.” He also does the yards of two elderly neighbors. His brand new mower arrived, and the waiting room was quiet until two men arrived. As they talked to each other, I overheard that they mow the city park on their block, now that the city of Detroit has run out of resources. A neighborhood group mows other parks. A co-worker mows the lawn next to his house, keeping up appearances so no one will know the house is abandoned.

One lawn at a time, people are struggling to take care of the city.

Detroit is full of people keeping chaos at bay, one lawn at a time. Every news story about Detroit is about the vacant lots and empty houses, about crime and vandalism. Gunshots get the air time, but the unseen Detroit is the sound of lawnmowers, and determination.

Better Bathrooms

broken-beer-bottle-0424209-lgI came to love Detroit, in spite of the bathrooms.

When you work in hospice or home care, driving around to visit people, you have to find your own.

When I saw people as their hospice chaplain, I wasn’t a guest.  I hated to impose the worry of a clean bathroom on already burdened people.  So, fast food places, and libraries became familiar stopping places.

I used to cover both the city of Detroit and the suburbs as a hospice chaplain, until we had too many patients.  My boss told me I had to choose – Detroit, or the suburbs.

The suburbs meant lots of places to eat lunch, and plenty of nice, clean bathrooms in libraries and gas stations, plus coffee shops.  People like me, white, suburban, familiar.  Choosing Detroit meant really learning the city, not just going in for a concert or the museum.

In the end, I got Detroit.  And Detroit got to me.

For the first five years I lived here, I served a church in the suburbs.  I missed city life, missed the culture and the diversity and the food, but I didn’t think I could find any of that in Detroit.  Detroit was burned out buildings, hungry people, unemployment, long-closed factories and despair.

After I moved from the church to the hospice, the first few months were all about geography.  I struggled to plan my visits so I wasn’t driving all the way across the city and then back.  People always told me that Detroit is large, geographically.  I didn’t understand until I started driving it every day.  It’s huge, and often empty.  One day I drove down a four lane street, and block after block was empty.  Then, around a corner, one board bungalow in the tall grass.  Children in their underwear played outside, making me feel like I had somehow traveled back to rural America.  One Sunday I visited a neighborhood church.  A member had to come and unlock the door, covered with metal bars, for me.  She waited until all the stray dogs ran away before she opened it.

Driving around, I came to love the energy of this city, too.  The art in unexpected places.  The creativity of the people who pop a beer garden in a vacant lot for a month, or a store open on the weekends.  The grit of the math teacher who warns off the gangs when they come to recruit at the middle school.  The guy who reluctantly agrees to coach kids, and ends up teaching not just basketball, but about being a man in a perilous place.  The girl who changes schools every year, but keeps up her A’s.

Nursing homes in the suburbs are quiet.  In the city, the staff plays dance music for the residents.  People sing, and talk more.  Listening to the staff is an education.  As the fall grows chilly, the talk turns to heat.  “You run up the electric bill in the winter, and then you need the summer to pay it off,” one of the health aides says, as the others nod their heads.   “I’m not ready,” she adds.  “I didn’t get it all paid off yet.”  Other times they talk about the dads of their kids, and the struggles to get them to show up, and to pay up.

My patients taught me the history of Detroit in the story of their lives.  Many of them came here from the South for work in the auto plants.  The Great Migration of history books is alive in them.  Now they’re moving toward the end lives of hard work and discrimination.  Story after story reveals the backbone of this city.  It was these people in the factories, making cars, that made Detroit famous.  Now the backbone of the city is the nurses and aides, women mostly, who care for the now old and sick, and keep the city running with their own hard work.

One day I got out of the car to make a visit, and the sidewalk was covered with broken glass.  Ironically, from a bottle of Barefoot wine.  Anyone who was barefoot here would need a trip to the emergency room.  This is a street where kids walk home from school, the younger ones in the care of the bigger ones, no adults in sight.  I opened my trunk, got out a plastic bag, and started picking up the pieces of the bottle.

Crouching on the sidewalk, searching for more glass, I knew that I had come to love Detroit.

Stained Glass in the City

westminster-detroit-windowStained glass inside and broken glass outside.

The church I serve, Westminster Church of Detroit, lives at the crossroads of church beauty and urban blight.  Our neighborhood is still nice, as people say, but surrounded by all the woes of  Detroit.  Our building is stunning, but too big for the congregation.  It costs a fortune to heat, light and insure.

Then there’s the fact of being Presbyterian.  Some people who visit on Sunday expect a longer service, a more lively sermon, and a more imposing pastor, and go away puzzled.

It’s not a secret to anyone that traditional churches seem like an anachronism now.  It’s a hard place to be for people who can’t sit still, people who can’t see what good it’s going to do, and people who feel like the church doesn’t approve of them.  Why bother to go?

I live four miles from the church, in a whole different world.

The women from the church tell me where they go walking at the mall, or a park in the suburbs.  I walk around my neighborhood, in the dark of the morning or the dusk of the evening, well aware how fortunate I am.

My child goes to the neighborhood middle school, with classmates who’ve traveled together since kindergarten.  Around the church, some kids change schools every year, as the city of Detroit closes school after school.

My grocery store is full of anything I can afford to buy.  I don’t have to shop at the convenience store.

What can I possibly have to offer this church, I wonder?  Still, it feels like a God-thing to be their pastor.

westminster-detroitOur church is at the crossroads of growth and decline, in the midst of being a part of our city and different from it.  The church in general is visibly, painfully struggling, at the intersection of tradition and forced change.  As a parent, I’m at a crossroads, aware that the little kid is gone and the teenager is here.  As a daughter, I’m at a crossroads as a daughter, as my mother declines into dementia and my father ponders his future.

All of life’s contrasts are alive and well in the church, too, and so we travel together, seeking the light through the stained glass, and picking up the broken glass.