Thursday, June 21, 2018

The Hauntings of Internment, with job descriptions for working with interned children at the border

An aerial photo of immigrant children at a recently opened facility in Tornillo, Texas. (Reuters/Mike Blake)

Courtyard of the Happy Way 樂道院 (le dao yuan) –  picture and corresponding map – courtesy of Weihsien-Paintings

From the job description to work for Southwest Key: Must be prepared and physically able to respond with appropriate protocol in a variety of dynamic supervision situations with clients of 0-17 years in age. In a sudden or emergency event.

Several letters from the British Crown urged him to return to England from China. My grandfather had been living in Hong Kong, Swatow, and Tianjin since the early 1930s, working as a physician for the Kailan Mining Administration. News of Japan's seizure of Nanking and Shanghai in 1937 did not motivate him to leave. During the bombings of neighboring Swatow, he worked with locals to build makeshift hospitals in the streets to treat the wounded, and still he did not leave China. His colleagues had boarded the ships back to England, but China was his home by then. He had matured professionally and socially more at Shing Moon in Hong Kong than any of the clubs in Kensington.

He wanted to join the 8th Division Army fighting with the Koumintang. It would not have been for the martial law Chiang would become known for, but for China. It would have been as an enemy of the Axis nations and as an ally of China. But with a wife and two very small children, he remained in Tientsin (now Tianjin), with servants "above and below table" (as my grandmother described them) amid the British Concession's rows of stately Victorian homes, and working as a physician.

He did not believe the Japanese would ever be a threat to the English residing in China. He was certain he was safe.

Must be prepared to administer emergency First Aid, CPR or CPI techniques to clients, regardless of the time of day or hour of the staff’s shift, the size of the client, or the staff’s level of personal fatigue.

I reach moments in my life where I don't think about it anymore. I don't think about the cotton badge with the Japanese characters that my grandmother wore stitched to her jacket and that I now have framed with a photo of her younger, smiling self sitting on the steps of her adolescent home in Manila. I don't think about the electric barbed wire my father was instructed never to touch or of the image of my toddler father and uncle licking plaster walls of their compartment within the compound to get calcium into their systems. I don't think of all the prisoners arriving by train in their minks and tweeds, having been told by the soldiers of The Empire of the Rising Sun they were being taken to a resort. Or of their surprise when the toilets backed up and no one came, for three years, to fix them so they built latrines they themselves had to empty with shovels, just one of the jobs they arranged in a schedule everyone participated in because the time of having servants was over. I don't think about my grandmother's stories, for brief periods of time, and I attempt to live my own.

Must be at least 21 years of age at the time of hire.

A trigger is an invitation to explore, again after respite, what it means to be a granddaughter and daughter of trauma. As a survivor of any trauma can choose to "black-box" it for a period, that box has to be reopened and explored for the self to continue growing. Otherwise, that box, in the word of Langston Hughes, explodes. Images of children being led into detention centers recalls the stories of the three hundred children who were separated by war from their missionary parents and transferred to The Courtyard of the Happy Way. I have read their stories as adults. Now I see them as children again. Little girls with their arms reaching all the way up to hold the hand of someone who works in the center--someone whose job description asks for someone capable of working long shifts under challenging conditions in uncomfortable weather, someone with a GED (as opposed to a Masters Degree in Child Care Services). The stories, the time-frame conflate.

Preferred • Bilingual (Spanish/English)

I understand that my family's is a trauma of privilege: if my grandfather had not been a wealthy doctor trained in Scotland and granted an esteemed position in one of Britain's mining operations in China, benefitting from Chinese labor, Chinese land, a beacon of Colonialism, he would not have been in a prison camp. His is also a trauma of hubris: had he not possessed that Edwardian perspective that indeed it would never happen to England, he would have returned when advised.

High School Diploma or GED with experience working with youth either through paid or unpaid positions preferred.

Trauma doesn't recognize race, gender, or 'class.' Despite the privilege, the internment camp tormented its inhabitants for three years of life (and long beyond) under a bayonet's gaze, starvation, malnutrition, hypothermia in winter, sunstroke in summer, illness, and death. In one of my grandmother's notes she wrote, TORTURE, in capital letters. In one of her stories, my uncle was put in solitary confinement at age 5 in a bamboo box placed in the sun.  2250 people in an area of roughly 50,000 square meters. There were no facilities after the first day. War and cruelty equalize, particularly through long-term effects. I think of the children at the border. I particularly think of the 2000 captured by the United States between the start of the separations weeks ago and the executive order to end them yesterday. The 2000 children.

Must be able to stand, bend, or stoop for the entire duration of the shift, as necessary.

I taught GED at a facility for incarcerated youth in Black Mountain back in the late 90s. I saw how being in a facility like that can bring out the worst abuses of powers in the adults positioned there to supervise. No human being is equipped to treat another human in captivity well. The duress of the shifts, the intensity of the conditions, the entire matrix of the work all nourish nothing but violence. The guards placed bets on which inmate would win a fight the guards would then instigate by stealing from one and placing it under the mattress of the other. My students came to class with broken wrists and still tried to write so they could get out of there. It would take years of deep meditation and spiritual education to prepare anyone to nurture within such a place. Instead, they hire 20 year olds with no education of the soul to recognize the soul in others.

Staff must be able to maintain clarity of thought throughout the entirety of a shift and be able to respond quickly to duress or circumstances requiring immediate action.

What we know of trauma is enough to know that this experience has already broken a part of these children's minds. What part? Aren't children resilient? Don't they all heal? The part that welcomes the world in bit by bit, truth by truth. The part that builds a story of the world, beginning with the love and support immediately around them and developing into an understanding of finding this love and support beyond the realm of the family. This story is now fractured if not blasted: this part now is a gash in the narrative of world-making.  All children are not resilient. Children break. No one wholly understands how some children thrive and others do not. Alice Miller observes that Hitler and Wittgenstein attended the same prep school. Explain about nurture and nature again. She also observes that for children to survive and thrive, a benevolent witness must appear at some time during development.

I tell the children in a whisper, the entire world is watching.

Staff must be at all times physically able to run, jump, lunge, twist, push, pull, apply SWK-approved restraint techniques and otherwise manage or coerce the full weight of an adolescent.

Source of job description:;jobs#htidocid=Vpl-TR6D6UvYTbakAAAAAA%3D%3D

Monday, June 11, 2018

Summer Reading: or, My Daughter's Modeling Gig, with Auschwitz Survivor, Henri Landwirth

As with many parents, I have always tried to let my daughter know that I'll listen to her wishes. In keeping with this, I submitted her photograph to a modeling agency when, at age 7, she said she wanted to be a model. By sending one photo I'd taken of her at Niagara Falls, I felt I was keeping my promise while also not being quite so dogged about it as to lead anyone to think I actually wanted this path for her.

Within two months of submitting the photograph, I got a call. Someone wanted her to pose for a statue. Yes, fully clothed, holding a stuffed animal, the agent replied. As a poet and artist, I felt this was as good a modeling job as I could wish for. I accompanied her to the location where I was informed of the nature of the assignment: she would hold her teddy bear (named Oatmeal) and smile at a man. The man was Henri Landwirth. While a photographer took pictures for the sculptor to use, Mr. Landwirth's assistant told me his boss's story of how as a teenager he had been in Auschwitz.  My daughter's first (and so far only) modeling job now had taken on a meaning deeper than I could possibly have imagined. The statue was to commemorate his leadership in developing a Disney-adjacent-though-little-known amusement park for terminally ill and developmentally disabled children, entitled Give Kids the World. It would be life-sized, bronze, and a permanent part of the park. 


I read Mr. Landwirth's books, which he gave to me as a gift. In Auschwitz, he writes, his engineering skills allowed him to stay alive while building rockets for the Germans. As part of the Resistance within the camp, he miscalibrated rocket after rocket at degrees so miniscule no one would notice until the missiles simply failed. Because of his work, he discovered tablets for his typhoid fever under his pillow when he fell ill.

Upon D-Day, the guards given the command to execute the last of the Jews simply opened the gates, as though weary from killing, pointed toward Belgium and said, "Run." Henri ran. At one point he encountered a nazi soldier on his path beside a lake. He felt he could kill the soldier, or he could pass by him, and in the feeling he was aware that each choice would shape the rest of his life in entirely divergent ways. He passed the soldier and continued to Belgium.

Henri's first job in the United States was as in reception at one of the first Holiday Inns in Orlando. As German engineers collaborated with American ones in more rocket-making, Henri once had to deliver "more towels" to one of the hoodwinked yet torturous commandantes from Auschwitz, and did so.

Soon, Henri bought his own hotel, as the space race surged, and as Disney World emerged on the Florida inland, soon Henri owned several. He hosted astronauts and film stars. These guests became the benefactors of Henri's dream of a universally designed amusement park for children whose medical conditions prevented them from enjoying Disney World. Disney characters, Jonas Brothers (my daughter's eyes widened), and all the free ice cream anyone can eat all awaited the guests at Henri's park, all of whom received, with their families, free travel, free accommodation, free admission, and free food, all paid for by movie stars and astronauts.

My daughter's summer reading this year is Night by Elie Wiesel.  When she told me, I went to my antique letter-writing desk to retrieve the one book that always stands in one of the compartments. The desk itself belonged to my grand-father when he lived in China, a British surgeon attending the health of miners in a British mine. When the Japanese seized their belongings, servants hid the desk with other fine pieces in a secret room below the basement of their house in Tientsin's  (now Tianjin) British concession. After my grandparents were freed by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki from the internment camp in Weishen (now Weifang), the servants shipped the antiques to Canada. From the compartment, I pull my beloved copy of Night and hand it to her. 

We worry together that summer reading is so often material that is most needed to be read in a community, with witness and guidance. Instead, our children last summer read They Killed My Father First by Loung Ung with no one to ask questions to, no one to hold space for the horror, the real meaning of horror. Worse, they read it with awareness that there would be a reading quiz to test to make sure they'd "done it" rather than a colloquium for mission statements, witness-bearing, a teach-in. 

My daughter announced this summer's selection with the complaint that summer reading is so sad all the time. I consider this. So sad all the time. The 30-years-of-experience teacher in me recognizes that the safer books are taught in the syllabus while the memoirs of genocide are placed outside the school year, presented as the one school thing children do in the off-months. For my daughter, and many of her friends, books like this should be the syllabus. The questions that emerge from them should be school. She recognizes quite clearly that while we make the space to laugh together and enjoy our friends, the world is sad all the time and these stories don't lie to us. But their placement in the reading calendar does.

My daughter knows about the children being snatched from their parents and daycares and detained in cages in abandoned Wal-marts and unmarked spaces. She knows the world she lives in and understands that "summer camp," "internment camp," and "death camp" are three very different things and all three are occurring in her world right now, somewhere, maybe here. 

When I hand her my beloved and beaten copy of Night, I imagine her face as she will read, one rainy afternoon at camp, about Juliek and his violin, about the long walk in the snow, about that drink of water toward the end. I realize I can't let her read it alone. I say it: "Don't read this book alone at camp. Let's read this out loud to each other this weekend or next week. My darling, this book holds a story that broke open a silence, and I don't want you to be alone when it breaks in you." All the English teacher me sort of startles her with intensity. I recognize the look as that of my students as they thought, "Wow, Ms. Hope is a bit crazy." I tell her, "This is about the camp that Henri was in." I remind her of the numbers on his wrist, and the meaning of her first modeling gig expands. 

I tell her, "I love this book with my whole heart."

I discovered while writing this and gathering the photos here, that Henri Landwirth died in April of this year, just over a month ago. He lived to be 91. I haven't told my daughter yet, and I'm having trouble accepting for myself the death of man who actually did give kids the world, a world that he as a child was robbed of, a world so many of us still seek to save. At the very least: to remember.

And I'll keep my promise to her to read Night again beside her. There are books in the world that, just as there are experiences that cannot be endured without a witness, should not be read alone. If Elie Wiesel taught me anything, if meeting Henri taught me anything, it is to give what I can. In the case of reading Night, it is to hold the words with my daughter, because they are too heavy, for her, for anyone, to hold by herself. And as I read, I'll hold up the words in my heart for not only my child, for all the children who are missing tonight, for all the children in the world.

Saturday, June 09, 2018

The Suicide Push

In the two days that presented us with celebrity suicides, I have been quiet. I saw the posts and acknowledged the tragedies. The fame and fortune of both Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain--and also the charm each possessed--nestled in with the personal notes from friends and relatives to script fragments of stories together that will never be whole. Like the poems of Sappho salvaged from ancient ruins, this is all we are left with. I had nothing to say, and I'm often one who can say something.

My silence indicated to me that it wasn't a reflection of not feeling anything or not having anything to contribute to the communal grieving and raising of awareness. It indicated that there was a block in me. I was blocking the grief and even the witness.

Back in the 1990s, I was engaged to Tom Andrews, the beautiful poet. The story I tell most often about this fait-incomplit of an engagement is that at his memorial service a friend of his turned around in his chair and asked me if I was "one of the fiancées." Sure enough, there were five of us there, including the one on whose wedding day Tom had slipped into a coma that would turn into his death from a rare blood disease. Tom was a hemophiliac, but he did not die of hemophilia, a fact that rather fit tidily in his own self-recognized narrative of having been the one that beat the odds repeatedly, and this narrative he celebrates in the collection The Hemophiliac's Motorcycle and later in Random Symmetries and stunning medical narrative, The Codeine Diary. He had been one of the 2% of people who had received blood transfusions and survived when the blood supply was discovered to carry HIV.

When his best friend, who was going to be Tom's best man perhaps at all his almost-weddings, called to tell me he had died, the first thought through my mind was "he finally did it." I didn't mean he'd finally had a fatal bleed. I meant he'd finally succeeded at suicide. I don't tell the story of Tom's suicide attempt because the "five fiancées" story is such a winner, complete with all of us being seated together at the reception and his father's commenting "my son had such great taste in women." That story is a killer. It's the other story, the one I don't tell, that kills me.

The story I can hardly bring myself to tell is the one of how he broke off our engagement. Abruptly. We had bought a house together and had just adopted a puppy. We had rented a villa in Tuscany for the honeymoon, and Tom had bought me a grand piano as a wedding present. There were pieces in place that looked to be a wonderful picture. One afternoon I was listing off prices for various flooring options for the new house when he told me blankly, "I can't do it."

"Parquet?" I asked. "Well, we can go with the berber."
"Laura, I'm not talking about flooring."

I didn't fight. I dislike scenes and have long known I'm far too good at them and that my words can eviscerate when set loose with anger. I told him I'd take the puppy, and I loaded up my truck with the items I'd moved into our house months before. He was resolved that he didn't want to marry me. I was resolved that I didn't want to convince him. If he changed his mind, he'd call me back to him after a time. Why risk ruining everything with words now? I drove east over the Ohio, stoppping every few hours to let myself and the puppy pee.

I found out weeks later from our best man that the day I left, Tom had driven out to the new house and attached a hose to the exhaust pipe of his car, sealed it with duct-tape then fed it through a slightly opened window and duct-taped all open air out. A neighbor had come by to meet the "new couple" who'd bought the place. Tom was unconscious and rushed to the hospital then admitted into psychiatric care.

I had been hating him the whole time, telling myself with every day that he didn't call me that Wow I really should have let him have it.

After hearing what had happened, I wondered if I had expressed my feelings, if maybe I'd been harsh, if maybe I had done what I tried hard not to do and said something that had driven him over the edge.

Two years later he was seated next to me on an airplane, a 6 a.m. flight from Cincinatti to Asheville. I was returning from a visit with friends in L.A. He was arriving to teach creative writing at the school where we'd met. The chances of our being placed side by side astonished us both enough to over-ride any awkwardness. I felt his arm's strength through his leather jacket. He'd put on weight. He was happy, in love with a woman in Athens, Greece. They were engaged.

We met for a walk with "our" now full-grown puppy, Zoe. He told me that he had gone off his medication when we were together because "I was finally happy." He had told me shortly after we'd met that he was a "citizen of Prozac nation" and was on other anti-depressants. He now told me he'd gone off them months before breaking up with me--around the time we visited friends in frozen Minneapolis I thought as I pieced the narrative together, remembering I'd driven home in Spring. In short, he said, I hadn't stood a chance against the depression that was swallowing him. He was saying it wasn't me.

A few months later I got the call from our best man: he was dead. The blood disease he must not have known was emerging when we walked had taken him. It was his second death, I felt. If not his third, if you count the near-miss on the infected blood supply. I thought about how maybe he had willed his own death, having failed at suicide years before. I caught myself. He was dead. I had to grieve him, not understand him. Months later at his memorial, I was surrounded by his other fiancées. Again, I had to grieve him, not understand him.

He is the boyfriend my mom and step-father agree was the One. Charming, brilliant, hilarious, kind, blessed with excellent social skills and capable of long, meandering, insightful conversations. I remind them: Bipolar. Off-meds.

What would have been enough, I wonder when I allow myself to wonder.
He was smiling and waving at me as I drove away. Smiling and waving. He was pushing me out of his life so he could end it. Smiling and waving. Making room. And rather than being able to tell me and express his fear of what he might do to himself, the suicide was already in control. The suicide had seized him weeks or months before. It saw me as its enemy, something in the way. Maybe before the new house or the puppy, and he had been fighting back against it with these tokens of a life we'd create together. But he had not won. Smiling and waving.

The suicide was already there. In our lives. In our bed. In our story.

My silence at the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain are because of this. I think about the people surrounding them. I think about the urgency with which we are told to reach out, to support, to be there for each other and know from my experience that that wasn't what it was about. The scariest thing in the whole world to me is that there wasn't a single ask. Not a single request that I sit and listen. No request for help and no sign of suicide that would happen that same day. There was a wedding gown, a puppy, a villa in Tuscany. These were the signs of suicide for Tom.

This is my story of Tom.
You can see why the other story I often tell is the favored one.

This one is just too terrifying.

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

"We Don't Give Bad News On Friday"

Thank you, friends, for asking about my trip yesterday to Hope Breast Cancer Center. It is timely that this happened as I was gazing at a deadline for a grant for a conference on Narrative Healthcare--because these past three days have been vexed by an experience that shows me just how badly we need narrative training for doctors. In the end: I'm fine. It is, as I suspected an infected spider bite or an infected blister from a Canon camera strap. Because some bites can be very poisonous, I went to a GP on Friday afternoon to get some nice antibiotics so I didn't slip into a coma in my sleep as the worst stories go. I left with a worse worst story.

My regular GP wasn't available so I went to another. Seeing the infected bite, she was taken aback and immediately said it could be inflammatory breast cancer then left the room to make an appointment for ultrasound and mammography, leaving me there with my phone which I immediately googled IBC on: presents at stage IIIb, highly aggressive, rare, basically really hard to treat. Doctor came back into the room and was surprised I was crying, "Oh, you're crying." She handed me an appointment sheet for Monday. In three days. She said it might not be cancer and left. As I drove to meet my mom at the steps of All Souls Cathedral, I went through the details of dying in my head: will is done, power of attorney is done, daughter's trust is done, I can jump off the bridge over the French Broad to save everyone the trouble. . . these thoughts. Thoughts that perhaps come with every possible Stage IIIb (line from WIT comes to mind, "there is no stage V") diagnosis or possible diagnosis. I spent the weekend holding my daughter close and fading in and out of naps and Parks and Rec episodes. Not thinking about double mastectomy and head-shaving (both of which I'd do in a heartbeat if Monday came back positive). On Monday, I made my first trip to the breast cancer center. I am third generation, that we know of, so I felt that this was my natural progression of events, only more aggressive and challenging than my mother and grandmother's. Maybe this was my turn.

It wasn't. But here's the narrative side of things: in medical school people learn to diagnose, but they don't learn how to share that diagnosis. It gets delivered like the answer on a multiple choice test (because it once was), not like the incredible life change that, in cases like cancer, it is. Cancer was the first reaction. In narrative training, that first response is a quiet starting point then the "reader" inquires more. Practitioners learn that the diagnosis is a plot-twist and that plot-twists challenge a character on every level. Reading more about inflammatory breast cancer and seeing the actual oncologist on Monday, I learned how many more questions there were to ask, and how telling my story about photography and the possible spider bite directed his attention to polysporin and bandaids, a much more welcome treatment.

Yes, the GP ought to have considered cancer, yet the way she revealed it (first impulse--surprised outburst) and the way she managed the situation at 4:30 p.m. on a Friday were damaging, difficult beyond belief, even traumatizing.

I am still reeling.
That GP is part of my story now forever, the story of the Friday I heard I might die. She could be another character in another story: the story of the Friday the doctor asked me about what I had been doing lately, suggested bandaids and polysporin, and then gently suggested that I call back on Monday as my other medical office does because "we don't give bad news on Friday."