99 New: The Memorial Service

This morning I went to a memorial service for a woman who went by the name Shorty though her given name was June. She had been homeless many years when she died although it probably wouldn’t be fair to say homelessness caused her death but surely sleeping outside on the ground night after night, year after year, hadn’t helped her many chronic health conditions.

Shorty was extremely small, wiry, very animated. She moved with a group of friends who came together into the warming room where I volunteered last winter. I steered clear of her, like I did almost everyone, still being so much inside myself about my hearing issues and unwilling to risk mistakes. I kept to myself and my morning task which was gathering and folding blankets that had been slept on the night before in the cavernous gymnasium of a Lutheran church.

The service today was in the same Lutheran church. I had never been in the church’s sanctuary before; its lobby was mid-century modern, angular with square-cut sofas and glass partition, the sanctuary was sweeping and majestic with all the light centering on the urn containing Shorty’s ashes and an array of red and white flowers. The pastor had already begun, his voice loud because he was using a mic, but mashed a bit for me, the words often lumpy and indistinct. I watched him hard with all my heart. I wanted to know what he was saying and be completely present in that moment.

Everything about the service would counter what you might think about people who have been homeless a long time. Her friends, homeless themselves, described Shorty as generous, kind, and stubborn, so stubborn, the most stubborn person I know, one said. And I remembered being told she had refused an offer of supportive housing because her dear friend couldn’t come with her. Those of us out here, in the housed world, probably think that’s crazy. I would have thought so a year ago. But I don’t anymore.

She loved her friends and didn’t want to leave them. And it was clear today that they had loved her; they’d created a family that was probably as strong and resilient as any family living on this block, this street, this town. They sure seemed to grieve as deeply as any of us might if our own kin died.

The memorial service was arranged by Street Angels, a group I work with and a group that knew Shorty well from years of interacting with her, bringing her meals and hand warmers, and spending time getting to know her. I envied them their knowledge of Shorty and her life but realized I’d cut myself out of knowing much about her because of my own stubbornness. Shorty was the second woman from the warming room to have died in this past year and I hadn’t let myself know either of them. I regret that.

I am glad that I went today. It’s a good thing for people who’ve lost someone they loved to turn around at a funeral and see people who cared enough to show up. I had nothing to offer but being physically present and listening. And I listened hard, as hard as I possibly could.

99 New: Tuned In

I was on Wisconsin Public Radio this morning.

Along with a local county supervisor, I was on a half-hour segment of The Morning Show, part of the Ideas Network. The topic was menstrual equity. I was asked to participate because of my work with Time of the Month Club. The segment is here.

The news isn’t that I was on the radio. The news is that I agreed to be on the radio in the first place. I said yes because I figured I could sit in a studio with a host and read his or her lips if my hearing crapped out on me, which it never does anymore but it did for years so I’m always dreading it. And then my friend, the county supervisor, would be there as well and could cue me if I missed something. So going on the radio seemed like a safe thing to do plus a wise one. If I want to promote women’s right to have access to decent menstrual supplies, this would be an important way to do it.

It was 7:15 am when I arrived and the radio station’s offices were empty with just a single person, a young friendly-looking woman, sitting at the front desk. She led me to the studio and handed me headphones.

“There’s a host, right? I asked her.

“There is but he’s in Superior.” We were in Milwaukee. Superior is a town on Lake Superior that borders Duluth, oh say, about 350 miles away. So the host was going to be remote, as they say, extremely remote. No reading his lips.

“And the county supervisor? She was going to be here.”

“She decided last night to call in on the phone.”

And so my plan to have someone to take care of Deaf Jan evaporated.

Through the headphones I listened to what seemed like whispers, the host was wrapping up the segment before ours. Little teeny panic started to sprout. Everything about this interview would have to happen through my ears, through my cochlear implant in one ear and my hearing aid in the other and the headphones over everything. Maybe the young woman could write the questions down for me. Insane. Quit being such a fucking head case, Jan. Ask her to turn up the volume, for Christ’s sake. You come in to talk about menstrual equity and removing barriers for women and then sit here all baffled and defenseless without a designated ‘helper.’ Jesus.

So we adjusted and readjusted the volume until it seemed loud but right. She got up to leave but I asked her to stay, you know, just in case, and she sat listening and smiling at me for the next half-hour so I ended up having a tender but a modest one, more like a security blanket so I wasn’t ashamed of myself, I just considered it good disability coping.

I did the interview with the headphones and all my other fantastically expensive electronic hearing gear without missing anything that anyone said, even the three women who called in with questions. And when it was done I felt like a million bucks. I walked out of the building, down the street to my car, and smiled at the homeless guy walking toward me. He was smiled back, a gummy smile with just a single tooth in front. He almost seemed to laugh. “You look like you’re having a good morning,” he said. And I was, he was right.

99 New: Ring Ring

“Three years, Jan?”

I’d written a comment to a fellow cochlear implant recipient hoping to console him about not using the phone a month or so after his implant. Oh heck, I said, I haven’t used the phone yet three years later! And he responded by saying this.

“Three years, Jan?”

Actually, it’s probably more like seven years. I actually remember one of the last conversations I had. It was with an editor asking me very picky questions about a piece I’d written.  I heard most of what he said and just said yes to the rest.

“Three years, Jan?”

I’d stopped getting embarrassed about not using the phone long ago. Screw it, I thought, it’s very hip not to use the phone these days. Everyone texts. I’d tell people I don’t conduct business on the phone so if they wanted any business-like response from me, they needed to send me an email.

“Three years, Jan?”

Telephone conversations were hell for years leading up to my cochlear implant – hell, total hell, flaming hell, indescribable hell. But much of conversational life was so it was hard to isolate the telephone as a particular evil. Still, it was one I could ditch. So I did.

“Three years, Jan?”

A cochlear implant basically replaces one’s natural ear with an electronic one. It’s programmed to hear stuff, a lot of stuff, actually it’s programmed to hear everything. So since getting a cochlear implant three years ago, there really has been no excuse for not using the telephone.

“Three years, Jan?”

My blogging friend’s comment shot right through me.  What precious little duckling are you that you got a cochlear implant and you are still not using the phone? He didn’t say that, I just read it into his three-word comment. Indeed.

“Three years, Jan?”

Yeah, so, two calls in the last three days. Long ones, too. With an actual human being. Conversations like one might have in a living room. Dialogue, back and forth, shooting the breeze, gabbing.  I got my little phone attachment charged up, everything synced, Bluetooth heaven, clear as a bell, yessiree. Jan is talking on the phone. But don’t call me. It’s too complex. I’ll call you.

___________________

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

Humming

Some days the best thing to do is to make hummingbird soup and wait for the guests to arrive.

Today, for example, with that bluest sky, cloudless all day, just a slight breeze, sometimes kicking up a bit, but lovely all day, sweetness like you pictured summer to be like when you’re on your deathbed and remembering that summer spent sitting at the end of the dock swinging your feet and thinking about diving in, the thinking about it being the feeling you’ll remember, the anticipation of the cold, the weightlessness, candy in the cupboard waiting for you, promising.

10 Butterflies

I am changing my writing life. First of all, I am having an actual writing life rather than a writing pastime which is what I had before. I still look at sundown as the cue to start writing and start drinking, those two activities having gotten linked years ago. I’m disentangling the two, though it could take time. I am learning to write with coffee.

The biggest change, by far, is that I have stopped rushing valuable pieces to publication and started realizing that what I love in a first draft could end up being too much in the light of day like a black leather jacket with fringe on the sleeves that is badass in the dark and desperate at dawn. Patience is a new, kind of unexplored virtue for me so to have an essay laying around with different dates noted on each copy seems weird like I long ago should have sent it somewhere. Anywhere. Or published it here which, if I do, means I generally can’t have it published elsewhere. Not having that immediate – push that button! – experience after finishing a piece can be murder. No cigarette for you, Jan.

I’ve also stopped being my only critic. Today, I sat in bed and read a new essay to my husband. I asked him to look out the window and not look at me which he did and when I was done, he said, well, I’m not a writer, but I think the second half is stronger and sounds more like you, that’s where a reader would really get engaged. And, of course, this was contrary to what I thought but looking at the words on the page I saw that he was right. The first part of the story made me uncomfortable and self-conscious and it was the ending where I felt sure of myself.

So I will take the same essay to my writing group on Thursday and sit still while each person tells me what they think and they’re writers so they think a lot. The piece will be stronger for their insights and I’m now smart enough to know that. Whatever is written can be made better until it’s finished, until, as my Dad used to say, one more brush stroke would be too much.

It’s a time of change, seriousness, learning, growing up. These are ten things I am doing.

  1. Letting things sit.
  2. Reading pieces out loud.
  3. Joining a writing group.
  4. Critiquing other people’s work.
  5. Reading more.
  6. Digging deeper.
  7. Listening without discussing.
  8. Working during the day.
  9. Protecting other people less but enough.
  10. Polishing the silver.

I’m not sure where I’m going. I don’t know what the goal is. I just know I have this time and I want this life.

__________________

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Unsaddled

I am only now realizing how tiresome I must have been back in the days when I had to be the smartest person in the room or die trying. Correcting people’s facts, adding ‘clarification’ that no one asked for, and always, always wanting to have the idea or turn of phrase that everyone kept repeating thereafter. The underlying theme was being right. I really had to be right, there was no middle ground.

I got an email from someone the other day that reminded me of myself when I would let people have it electronically. There’s a chick on her high horse, I thought. Oh, I know about high horses. I not only rode around on one, I kept it in a stall in my office, fed it alfalfa and fresh carrots, and braided its mane when we were to make an especially important appearance.

So this email made me laugh. Oh Lord, I thought, I used to sound like this all the time in meetings and discussions. But I don’t anymore. It got whipped out of me by my hearing loss. You see, if you can’t hear, you better shut the fuck up or you will often look like an idiot. Whether you respond to the right thing, pick up the right thread, riff to the right beat is a crap shoot. And there is nothing worse than letting it fly and watching your crazy words flap around the room like crows just released from a too small cage.

You could say hearing loss took the starch out of me. Sometimes in my little egotistical spinning world of self-pity, I’d sit in a meeting with my cracked hearing and think, you guys don’t know what a force I used to be, which now, I realize, was really saying I used to be more insufferable than you could ever dream.

That was one of the weird blessings of hearing loss. I was forced to gather myself, keep my own counsel, study things and people, and keep my mouth shut a fair amount of the time. I ventured out on the ice only when I was sure of its thickness and then because of the rarity of the occasion, I chose to be spare in my words. Maybe the fear of humiliation lead me to humility.

Even now, after a cochlear implant that has vastly improved my ability to hear and maneuver in the world, the habits of my hearing loss years have stuck. I feel rewired. I used to have something to prove – that I was smart, aggressive, clever, fearless. But now there is nothing to prove. I am the proof.

______________

Photo by Jez Timms on Unsplash

 

 

Morning Hug

It is four in the morning. I check my phone and turn off the alarm just as it is about to ring. I have been awake for several minutes, looking out the window at the white stucco house across the street and waiting for it to be four and now it is. My husband is sleeping.

I go to the bathroom and put on the clothes I laid out the night before. Underwear, socks, blue jeans, bra, black pullover, black hoodie. I wash my face, and brush my teeth. I wet a brush and tame my hair. Then I look for earrings. I put in the small silver hoops with a tiny row of diamonds but then decide I shouldn’t be wearing diamonds to an emergency warming room for homeless people. It’s a queer thing to think, like anyone would notice or care, but it seems not right to me so I switch them for a pair of plain silver hoops.

I go downstairs and pack up the seventy hard boiled eggs I made last night, heat up coffee in the microwave, and layer on my parka and mittens. I drive across town on the city streets. The moon hangs in the early morning sky like a kid drew it there. Steam rises off hot things, vents of buildings, and I remember when the electric company put a fence over a steam vent to keep homeless people from sleeping near it. I keep an eye out for people who should have come to the warming room but I don’t see any. I pass a parked police car on a long street with no traffic; the car pulls out from its spot and starts to follow me. It makes me nervous for no reason.

There are fewer cars in the parking lot of the church than the last time I was here. There is a single space marked “elderly” and that is where I park. Elderly people show up, I think to myself, they’re not afraid to show up with their boiled eggs. And so I put my travel mug of coffee in my jacket pocket and carry the eggs inside. The heavy metal door squeaks when I open it.

Two volunteers, a man and a woman, both in Street Angels sweatshirts, are sitting at the check-in desk and smile at me from the shadows. There is a tiny bedroom lamp lighting their faces. They have been here all night and I am just coming now. I tiptoe across the gymnasium, past fifty people sleeping on thin sleeping bags and fleece blankets. They lie on their backs, on their sides, some curled up, others sprawled, their arms and legs carefree as if in their own bedrooms. Each one has their space, not one too close to another, unless they mean to be. There are couples who sleep like couples do. They are all here because they could freeze to death if they stayed outside. It is 7 degrees.

I help set up breakfast in the other room but the breakfast lady needs little help. She has a system so I decide not to intrude. We bring out dozens of donated boxes of pre-made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Little frozen circles of bread. There is cereal and milk and my eggs. I wish I had a frying pan and a hot plate and could make scrambled eggs for people but there are too many people and not enough time for that. A man who has gotten up early and is looking at the breakfast offerings asks me a question but his voice is low; I hear just a murmur even with my cochlear implant and all my hearing equipment. Not being able to hear is why I picked this morning shift; it’s about cleaning up, folding blankets, wiping tables, not talking. But here he is talking to me. I find someone to help him. Maybe I shouldn’t be here.

At 5:30 we begin to wake people up. It is dark as I walk around the big gymnasium with other volunteers but still our presence, our movement, seems enough for people to stir. When people leave their sleeping bags and blankets, we fold them up and carry them to stack in the store room. I’m careful about doing this because last week a man got angry that I’d rushed him, flashing me a look that stuck with me for days. There is a blanket that smells like vomit and I throw it in the trash. I find the peppermint gum in my pocket.

A few yards away, a black man in a plaid flannel shirt who I remember from last time, sits up and smiles at me and I wave at him. He is wearing khaki pants, LL Bean boots, and a thick leather belt. He is trim and handsome. I watch him as I gather other sleeping bags and blankets, wanting to make sure not to show up too soon. He isn’t the same man as the angry man but I’d learned my lesson. Finally, he folds his blankets and puts them in a stack and that’s when I walk to him and I say, “Is it okay if I take these now?”

“That’s it?” he says. “No good morning? No how are you?” He is smiling at me.

I smile back and he holds open his arms like I am the sister he has been waiting for at the bus station all afternoon and into the night. And I hug him and his flannel shirt, feel his sturdy arms around me, hear him smiling, and, in that moment, I am glad that I came to this place out of the cold even if I couldn’t hear the man who asked me the question I couldn’t answer. I am here to help. I can be imperfect and help. I don’t have to hear everything. I just have to be here.