Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Wednesdays with Dorothy: Finding Family

(This is part of a series. For Table of Contents go here)
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In our meetings together, I wanted to find out as much as I could about Dorothy’s family of origin. I was sometimes amazed at the things she could remember from her early childhood.

Memories of Mother

“I was nine years old when my mother died. I was laying in the bed with her and my daddy came in. He had been drinking. He picked me up and said, “Dorothy, she’s gone,” and I said “You’re a liar, she’s not gone.” I slapped him across the face because I didn’t understand. He started to crying. He wouldn’t let me go to the funeral because I had the flu.”

*    *    *  

“My mother was really sweet, she had jet black hair and she wore her hair in a ball behind her head like my grandmother (I never saw my grandmother except in a picture). My granddaddy – he had a black mustache and beard, and he had long hair – it came down to his shoulders. He wore them short knee pants and black stockings and high-top shoes. He worked at a saw mill in Sylacauga. He was my mother’s daddy.”

“My mother used to go to work, she didn’t have no regular job, but she worked cleaning off the graves in the graveyard. All of my toys were homemade. I had a pasteboard box that my mother would put my toys in to keep under the bed. I would pull it out to play with them. I didn’t really hear about Santa Claus, not until I was 10 years old, and then I didn’t really know who he was.”

“I can remember when I was little my mother would put me up in the chair and I would try to help her wash the dishes, but I would just play in the water. She used to take me up to Uncle John and Aunt Lula Hosey’s house. We didn’t have no car, we had to walk everywhere we went.  Me and my cousin Louise, we were children at that time. I used to go visit my Aunt Lula and Uncle John. Where they lived there was a big sand pile and a creek. We used to play in that creek. Louise was 5 years old at that time. We got separated and she used to write to me and then we lost contact. Then she wouldn’t have anything to do with me.”

The Songs we Sang

“I remember spending time with my grandfather. He would sing that song to me ‘Chicken’s goin’ in Sourwood Mountain.’

“He would sing it:
            Chicken’s goin’ in Sourwood Mountain, uh huh.
            Chicken’s goin’ in Sourwood Mountain, uh huh.” [singing to the tune of “Froggy   
                 Went a’courtin’”]

It would go like that. And my daddy, he would sing Mexicali Rose, and   Molly and Me and the Baby Makes Three.  When he weren’t drunk, he could sing really good.

I don’t remember hearing my mother sing, but I do remember I had a doll, and I had a little rocking chair. I was rocking with my doll one time and I was singing,  Jesus Loves Me.  I jumped up – I wasn’t mad or anything, but I chunked my doll across the room and went into the kitchen. Then I thought,  Jesus loves me.  And I looked up – my mother had a picture of Jesus on the wall and I thought it was a lady. I said,  That lady is so beautiful, who is she?  My mother said it was a picture of Jesus. I heard that song,   Jesus Loves Me  somewhere, and I just sang part of it then I got up and threw my doll. I don’t remember why I did that.”

Dogs and Chickens and Spankings

“I remember I had this lil ol’ dog.  Every one I got would have fits, and my daddy would have to kill it. I did have a dog, my mother named it Spot, it was a pretty black and white collie, and somebody killed it. I waited for it to come home, I waited and waited but he never did come home – somebody killed it in the woods down below the house. I really loved that dog. It was one of my Aunt Gladys’s puppies. She had a dog named Black Gal, and Spot was one of her puppies.

“I remember one time going fishing with my legal guardian and her husband. She had baited the hook and everything. I got It hung up in a bush, I snatched it off and broke the line off on a bush. We had gone a ways and she asked me if I was ready for her to put my hook in the water. I said, ‘Yes, Ma’am, I am,’ but I had broke [the hook] off. She asked me what did I lie to her for, and I said I didn’t lie, but I did, and she whipped me for lying to her. And then I remembered telling her that my hook got caught in a bush and I broke the line off of it. She whipped me so many times. She whipped me one time for breaking one of her hen’s legs. I was sweeping up in the yard with an old brush broom. I didn’t want the chickens to use the yard for a bath room. I hit one of her laying hens and broke its leg with a rock. She whipped me good for breaking that hen’s leg. She had to put glass eggs down for that hen to ever start laying again.

“The hen lived and her leg healed, but I got my legs nettled for it. One time she whipped me for singing that song, ‘There’s not a Friend like the Lowly Jesus.’  Well I didn’t know the lyrics to it, I thought it was ‘There’s not a friend like the long-necked Jesus.’ And she said, ‘I’m going to whip you for making fun of that song, Dorothy, You are not to make light of that song.’ She whipped me good, almost took the blood where she whipped me.”

*   *   *

“I was ten years old the first time I heard Fats Domino sing Blueberry Hill. At that time I was living with my legal guardian. One night we had gone out to an oyster fry, me and my legal guardian, and I remember her daughter Vera’s boyfriend was in the car with her. Vera really disliked me. I seen him kiss her, and I said, “why don’t you kiss me?” it made her so mad, she hopped out of the car and run in the house. Then she came back out. Later when we got back she said “I could kill that little hussy – asking my boyfriend to kiss her.” I was standing there taking it all in, and I was snickering the whole time. From that day until this, she hasn’t had any use for me. I reckon she’s an old lady now.”

*   *   *   *   *

Finding a Sense of Family and Place

Having a home place was important to Dorothy. After I got to know her, I drove her down to Sylacauga on several occasions so that she could touch base with where she was born, though there was no house or family to go to.  She had told me before that when her mother had died, the family had not been able to afford a headstone for her grave.  Still, she wanted to be able to visit her mother’s grave. On the first trip that I took with her to Sylacauga, I knew it would be a hopeless endeavor to get Dorothy to her mother’s grave. We did find an old cemetery a few miles out of town.  As we walked around the graves, we found one that was unmarked where the ground has sunk down a bit in the outline of the hole that had been dug. Since it was an unmarked grave, we talked some about “what if” that was where her mother had been buried. Knowing, of course, that there was no way to know who was buried there, we still lingered a bit and took some time to remember the mother who had died when Dorothy was just a child.

Dorothy did have some relatives still living in Sylacauga, but none were willing to see her. On one of our trips to Sylacauga, Dorothy gave me the name of a cousin whom she wanted me to contact to see if she could visit when she came to Sylacauga.  I was able to find a telephone number and talk with the individual, but there was no willingness to have any kind of visit.

I had no idea what the cousin’s perception of Dorothy might have been. Maybe they knew each other as children when Dorothy was living with the stigma of being poor and “retarded.”  Perhaps words had been whispered throughout that person’s life about the relative who had to be “locked up in an asylum.”  At any rate, the cousin could not be persuaded to even meet briefly with Dorothy. I felt sad for Dorothy that I would have to tell her that her cousin would not be seeing her. I also felt sad for the cousin who had no idea of the person Dorothy had grown to become and now would never find out.

When I told Dorothy of my lack of success in arranging a visit with her relative, she looked a bit disappointed, but then took it in stride. I think that she had actually attempted to make connection before, but wanted me to try this time in case there was a better outcome. At any rate, Dorothy spent most of her life attempting to create family by keeping trusted friends within her circle of contacts. She also had a way of drawing in case managers and healthcare workers to establish close friendly relationships. Most people who had any kind of professional relationship with her enjoyed that contact. Whether she did it consciously or unconsciously, Dorothy was insuring that those who could help would be there when she needed them.

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Monday, August 27, 2012

Monday Music: You Can Call Me Al

This has been for me the summer of Rhymin' Simon. First I discovered his latest album, So Beautiful or So What, then I bought the 25th anniversary release of his Graceland CD. That package included a DVD of the documentary film, Under African Skies, about the making of the Graceland  album and Simon's return to South Africa for a 25th anniversary reunion with the musicians involved. I enjoyed viewing the documentary and hearing from many different voices about the impact of Graceland and it's controversy during those tense times.

Included on the DVD were some music videos, including this one I found on You Tube. I think it is great fun to watch, the way Chevy Chase takes over the song and Paul Simon proceeds with that deadpan dejected look.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Ayn Rand Redux

Ayn Rand is the natural spokesperson for Libertarian ideals.  Her novel, Atlas Shrugged, portrays a dystopian society in which the government suppresses individualism, creativity and initiative. The turning point comes when protagonist John Galt leads the people to stop productive activities, thereby starving the government of its revenue and bringing down the oppressive system. The idea being that human achievement should not be suppressed, and that oppressive structures only exist with the tacit approval of those being oppressed. When the structure collapses, then people will be free. Thus Ayn Rand presents her ideal of a world in which those who work hard get what they deserve, and those who are lacking in worldly goods are poor because they are lazy or morally defective. 

"Objectivism" was Rand's philosophy; individual rights along with the pursuit of one's own happiness was the essential morality that she espoused. She saw laissez-faire capitalism as the most logical milieu for nurturing the values of her philosophy.  Little wonder that Republican Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan was enamored with Ayn Rand and loved her book so much that he gave it out to people. Rand was voicing what the right wing Tea Partyers are extolling: no more government handouts, no more taxing away our money that belongs to us because we earned it.  Government bureaucracy is inefficient and bad, private enterprise is good.  All of these ideals are to be found in Ayn Rand’s philosophy.

Paul Ryan is now backtracking because he found out that Ayn Rand was an atheist, or maybe it’s because she favored a woman’s right to an abortion.  The whole Ryan/Rand incident exemplifies something that I see that is wrong with politics and the media sound bites of our day. For one thing, Paul Ryan should be able to articulate which aspects of Ayn Rand’s philosophy he agrees with and why, and which ones he disagrees with. The problem is that such articulation would require a sophisticated understanding of the world that is not made up of simple black-and-white issues.  Such an explanation would also require more than a 20-second sound bite and unfortunately Ryan’s followers may not attend long enough to hear an explanation.

Ryan has made his political capital on Tea Party issues of private enterprise, no taxes, no government handouts, and family values. He is free to hold his economic and political views, though they are not views that I hold to. As much as I would love to make an issue of the “Godless Free-Market Capitalism” of Ayn Rand and pin that on Paul Ryan due to his past exuberant embrace of her philosophy, and as much as I would love to point out to Tea Partyers that their family values have been sold down-river by the money-mad right-wing politicians, I shall refrain.  It is important, however, for anyone to take stock of what they say they believe and to consider what the consequences of political actions would be.  The ethic that I hold to affirms that we are to take care of one another. The morality of a society is seen in how the weakest and most vulnerable are treated.

Blogger Bob Gifford has very succinctly written about his own conversion from Ayn Rand libertarianism in “My Politico-Religious Journey.” Darrell Grizzle, who has read extensively from the works of Ayn Rand, posted a timely piece on his Blog of the Grateful Bear just last week. I have talked about my views of what makes a society work for the good of all its citizens in “Politics and the Common Good.” Check out each of these short essays and ask yourself what it is that you envision for our society, and how can we get there?


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Wednesdays With Dorothy: Outings, Hysteria, and Prayer Meetings

                                            (This is part of a series. For Table of Contents go here)

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Dorothy Faye Burdette was born February 18, 1930, at the beginning of the Great Depression. She tells a story of growing up in utter poverty. Her father was a mechanic who could not hold a job; her mother did odd jobs to bring in some money. By her own telling, Dorothy was a slow learner and was prone to behavioral outbursts that sounded like fits of fear and rage.

“My Daddy and Mother used to take me to the carnival on the fair grounds.  There was something about that carnival music that really scared me. I would try to get out of my daddy’s arms. I would get scared and nearly wring my daddy’s arm off.  If I got loose I’d break and run. My mother took me on the Ferris wheel. We would get way up to the top and I would rock that seat back and forth – my mother had to make me stop. I guess I was born with some kind of hysteria.

“I was real hysterical back then. I would break and run and my mother couldn’t hardly catch me.  Sometimes I would look at the boards on the porch, with some of them bucking up – for some reason that would scare me. I would run up under the porch – that’s really how hysterical I was.  I remember I went running out onto the porch and I wasn’t paying no mind, I just ran off the end of the porch and knocked the breath out of myself.

Sometimes I would grab my mother by the legs and she couldn’t get me off of her, She would have to pry me off her legs and get me up to where the light was. I don’t know what it was, and I would get scared of the dark and everything, and I’d wake her up crying, 'Light the lamp! Light the lamp!’   And I’d try to climb the headboard of the bed – it was an old iron bed.”

Her behavior must have been a source of distress for her parents. There were few parenting resources available at that time in the rural South. Spanking and extended family were about the only resources, especially among the poor. Dorothy told me about a time when her parents appealed to a Higher Power in their desperation for help:

“There was a colored preacher and he told my mother – and I can just barely remember him tellin’ her – that he could pray for me and whatever that was would go off of me and it would never come back over me. Well, it did, but I was still pretty scared sometimes. Now that I’m older I’ve got where I’m not so seized or scared.”

Dorothy also shared some other experiences she had with religion when she was a child:

“Going to church, sometimes we went to them old tent meetings they used to have. One time we went to this church and they didn’t have no piano or nothin’ and they used to beat on buckets and sing. Then at our house there was a man and his wife – he worked in a shoe store in Sylacauga – and they were Holiness. They lived on one side of the duplex and we lived in the other.”

On future visits with Dorothy, she would tell me about her experiences in public school and the difficulties that arose both from her lack of ability to learn at the same pace as the others and from her difficulty fitting in socially. Living with developmental disabilities can present multi-layered difficulties. All too often those with the least coping skills are asked to navigate themselves through a complicated and often cruel world.

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Monday, August 20, 2012

Monday Music: Oh Happy Day

I thoroughly enjoyed watching the movie, Secretariat. That was such a feel-good movie. It brought back memories of watching that race on television at the time and hearing my father say, "Look at that horse go!" The movie soundtrack also reminded of what an inspiring song "Oh Happy Day" was when it hit the airwaves. The Edwin Hawkins Singers showed us all how to sing that old hymn on a whole new level when it first topped the charts in 1969! Here is the original version that we heard on the radio:

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Wednesdays with Dorothy: A Blog Series

My friend Dorothy Faye Burdette was laid to rest in April of 2012. For a life that began in crushing poverty and abuse followed by harsh institutionalization from the age of ten until she was forty-five, she had her own unique style. Because she was willing to tell her story, her memorial service at Glen Iris Baptist Church included some of her own recollections about the struggles she endured. It was a fitting tribute to her life. I am using my blog to tell Dorothy’s story by sharing of some of the conversations I had with her. The series is called "Wednesdays with Dorothy," with a new post to be added each Wednesday.

The following posts may be found by clicking on the title:

2.  The Life Story Project

Early Childhood

Wednesdays with Dorothy: Beginnings in Sylacauga

(This is part of a series. For Table of Contents go here)
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On the first day we met to talk about Dorothy’s life story, after we got settled and made some small talk, I just turned on the tape recorder and asked her what she wanted to talk about. I had a micro cassette tape recorder with 90 minute tapes – 45 minutes on each side. Usually 45 minutes was about as long as Dorothy could stay focused on the topic of her life history, and then it was with frequent questions from me to get her to elaborate.  Often she would be talking about something in her past and suddenly think of something else she wanted tell me that happened just yesterday.  Keeping her on track was usually my main task during our sessions with the tape recorder, but not on this first day.

Dorothy immediately began with what was the essential story of her life as she saw it. It defined who she was, where she came from, and what she had endured:

 I lived in Sylacauga, Alabama until I was ten years old, then I was took away. The way they got me there [to Partlow State School] is they told me there was a big shopping mall and we could go anywhere we wanted to and do whatever we wanted to.  When I got there they didn’t do nothin’ but lock us in. We couldn’t even go off the premises.

My daddy was living in Sylacauga, him and my mother. One time there was an old colored man had a little ol’ calf. My daddy went down there and got that calf and killed it, and that colored man didn’t know it. He brought the beef to the house but my mother wouldn’t cook it because she knew he stole it.

The police came and took my daddy down to the jail house and he had to own up to it. Then he had to go to court. I told that colored man that I was sorry that my daddy did so.  The colored man said, “Well it was my calf, and Mr. Burdette got it.” Then they took him down to the jail and the next thing I knew, they sentenced him to prison. He stayed there a good long while then he finally got out.
In 1939 my mother died. Then my daddy and I moved to another part of town.  One day my daddy and I went on a fishing trip. We went off down to the woods and my daddy tried to do something I didn’t want him to do. I hit him with a limb and I got up and ran. He cussed me and he told me if he caught me he’d kill me, so I was really afraid. I ran up to the house and hid under the bed where he couldn’t find me. Then I went to the police after going to a neighbor’s house. They took me down to the police station.

They finally sentenced my daddy after he went to court for the second time. They sent him to Kilby Prison in Montgomery.  He stayed there until he died on July 28, 1944. I didn’t know it until ten years later. My Aunt Gladys came and told me, when she came to see me at Partlow.

*    *    *

These were the defining moments of her life as she saw it. A little girl with limited coping skills (as we shall see as Dorothy tells more of her childhood) was born into crushing poverty. Her mother died and her abusive father was sent to prison.  After enduring such hardship, she was sent to live in an institution. She was far from family, far from anyone she knew.

Once when Dorothy was visiting at our house for Thanksgiving dinner, she talked briefly about her father. “My daddy could be real mean and hateful, I was scared of him a lot of the time and didn’t like him, but when I think about it there was some part of me that really loved him, somehow.”

I would learn more about her father and her mother through our taped discussions in the weeks ahead.


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Monday, August 13, 2012

Hooray for the Nuns!

Both in my personal encounters and in my reading of what American nuns are doing,  I have seen that the nuns represent what is best about the church as well as what is best about Christianity in general.  They are educating people, helping the needy, ministering to the sick and bringing hope to the hopeless.  On matters of theology, they are never stagnant but always caring and relevant.

One Benedictine nun explained an interesting phenomenon regarding nuns and their theological education. Most priests get all of their theological training in a time frame of four years of seminary. After that they are off to the parish and many get no further education beyond that.  Nuns, on the other hand, are often busy teaching in the schools and to get their theological studies they must go during the summer. The process takes much longer, but as a consequence their education is much more current than that of the typical priest.

Service and Integrity

Nuns have consistently provided much needed service in matters that contribute toward the common good.  They are the most reliable group for distributing charitable funds.  While other charities are sometimes plagued with men at the top embezzling funds or allocating monies away from the needed service and into administrative offices, you never hear of a nun absconding with cash or goods intended for the needy!

These are some of the reasons I applaud the “nuns on the bus” and celebrate their recent statement that they are rejecting the Vatican’s plans for a take-over/conservative make-over.  In these times, we should lament that there are fewer women choosing to be nuns rather than cracking down on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious over a few single-issue rallying points of some stogy old men.

A Witness from the Baptists

In the denomination I grew up in, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Women’s Missionary Union (WMU) was among the strongest and most reasonable voices within the denomination. On top of that they consistently did good work. The beauty of that organization was that it was an “auxiliary organization,” meaning that it was beyond the administrative reach of the denominational leadership. They gave 100 % of their efforts to the denomination, but they were their own separate organization. That arrangement became even more beautiful when the conservative (and fundamentalist) wing of the Southern Baptists took control of the denomination.  The all male leadership that wanted to keep women “in submission” had no way of touching the WMU because it was not a part of the SBC institutional structure. It was self supporting and served to raise money for missions (which the SBC gladly accepted) but the SBC leadership had no means of “reining them in.” They could not fire officers or withhold money they way they were accustomed to operating.

Carry On, Sisters

So to the nuns and all women out there I say, don’t lose heart, keep on doing what you are doing. 
Both the church and the world are better each day because of you!


Monday Music: God Is the Light

Our Muslim friends are celebrating the holy month of Ramadan and tomorrow is The Night of Destiny. Therefore, on this Monday Music day I am sharing "God Is Light" by Yusuf Islam (formerly known as Cat Stevens).

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Meteor Showers (or Not)

Perseid meteor appearing near the Milky Way
(photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Darn those City Lights

I did not see any meteors hitting the atmosphere with the latest visitation of the Perseid Meteor Showers. Part of the reason, no doubt, is that I didn’t want to get up at 3:00 a.m. to catch the best viewing time. Another reason is that I live in the city and I was reminded once again of how little we can see of the night sky with all of our city lights.

As I sat in my back yard gazing up into the night, I recalled how dark the sky was in my little hometown, and how big and bright the stars. I recalled how it was simply routine to walk out at night on the way home from band practice or a football game and spot the big dipper hanging in the sky. I remembered how the celestial band of the Milky Way was ever present across the night sky. Last night as I looked up, I saw just a few stars. As my eyes adjusted, a few more came into view. Here in the city, a bright moon along with Venus or Mars are the heavenly bodies most visible.

A Flood of Memories

The night was not all lost, however. As I looked across the sky I recalled one ominous moment that occurred maybe 15 years ago. As I was stepping out our back door to feed the dogs I happened to see a huge meteor briefly streak across the sky, breaking up as it went – and that was in the city at twilight, not even completely dark. Sometimes amazing moments occur just by chance and we feel lucky to have witnessed them.

 Still another memory came back to me last night. For a while, I stood in the middle of the yard to view other sections of the sky. At one point I looked straight up, craning my neck so that my head was almost at a right angle to the rest of my body. As I felt the skin of my throat stretch and the back of my neck cramp, a distant memory was triggered.

I would have been three or four years old. We were living in Wedowee, Alabama at the time. On this particular night, the adults (my parents, and a couple of their friends who were visiting) went outside to see if they could spot the satellite. They had apparently heard that it was possible to actually see the satellite as it orbited the earth. I was not sure what to look for, but all the big people were intently studying the sky. I stood out by the car in the driveway looking straight up. I bent my neck so far back I could feel my throat stretching. My mother was noticing and she told me she was afraid I was going to break my neck if I kept looking up like that. Mothers are always afraid children will break their necks, don’t you know, so they have to keep a close watch (but we should all be glad that someone was paying that close attention to us when we were young).

I don’t think anyone saw the satellite that night. As I was thinking back on that event, I wondered if it was Sputnik that we were trying to catch a glimpse of.  My research on the internet showed me that Sputnik was launched on October 4, 1957. That would have made me not quite three years old. However, the first successful U.S. satellite (Explorer I) was launched February 1, 1958. By the time the weather warmed up enough to make outside viewing comfortable, I would have been a solid three and a half years old. That would have been more like it! Furthermore, Explorer I was an exhilarating American accomplishment while Sputnik, right there in the middle of the Cold War, would probably not be a thing that all the big people in our household would want to look for.

A Glad Remembrance

My gaze unto the night sky yielded no shooting stars but it evoked bright memories. It took me back to a time when the stars were luminous, the sky a velvet black, and manmade satellites were new and exciting (there being only two in the sky at the time).  It was a time that heralded the beginnings of NASA; it was a time of the International Geophysical Year and the discovery of the Van Allen Radiation Belts that surround the earth.  It was a time when good mothers kept their children from breaking their necks over something as silly as a satellite.

From the 2010 Perseid Meteor Shower
(Photo by the European Southern Observatory) 

Friday, August 10, 2012

Cross-Cultural Communication

Last week I attended an End-of-Life Nursing Conference (ELNEC) and heard several excellent presentations regarding care for patients who are in the final stages of life.  One of the sessions dealt with cultural considerations.  I have posted blogs before on matters of cross cultural communication. Sometimes it has been in regard to interfaith dialogue, sometimes it has been on matters of immigration. The crucial fact to consider is that more and more we are living in a pluralistic society and communication across cultures is becoming more and more important.

During that ELNEC session on Cultural Considerations, we were given a model for cross cultural communication. I thought it was a good model that could actually apply to other fields than just healthcare. The model is taken from an article in The Western Journal of Medicine (1983), “A teaching Framework for Cross-cultural Health Care," by Elois Berlin and William Fowlkes. (You can read the entire article here). 

Berlin and Fowlkes use the acronym L-E-A-R-N to outline their model:

     L  -Listen with empathy and understanding for the patient’s perceptions of the problem
     E  -Explain your perceptions of the problem
     A  -Acknowledge and discuss differences and similarities
     R  -Recommend treatment
     N -Negotiate agreement

The starting point in cross cultural communication should be to realize that there are differences between cultures in terms of customs, values, interests, needs and priorities. We in the dominant culture should never assume that our way of seeing things is the best, especially for someone who is coming from a different culture.  For true communication to take place, we must indeed listen and try to understand the other’s perspective. 

In matters of healthcare there may be a treatment that the healthcare provider sees as beneficial, but there may be some aspect of the treatment that is misunderstood by (or even offensive to) someone coming from a different background. It is crucial for the healthcare provider to understand where the patient is coming from in order to explain why a particular treatment is recommended. It is also important to realize that our way may work just as well if it can be accommodated to their cultural practices or preferences.

I can see this as an important model for any cross-cultural interaction. Today more than ever we need to let down our barriers and defenses and truly listen to those from other backgrounds living among us. I can also see this model being beneficial when we are talking in terms of politics, lifestyles, and community action. Might we use this model in the so-called "culture wars" in the U.S. that we see referred to so often in the media? We must at some point lay down the polarization that comes when people insist that their way is best and no other way is acceptable.


Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Wednesdays with Dorothy: The Life Story Project

(This is part of a series. For Table of Contents go here)
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The telephone rang early one evening.

“Charlie, was that you that tried to call me just now?”

The voice on the other end of the line was that of my friend, Dorothy Burdette. “No, it wasn’t me, Dorothy.”

“Well – a while ago the phone rang and I couldn’t get to it right away, so by the time I got to the telephone they had hung up, and I just wondered if it was you, Charlie.  How’ve you been doin’?”

“I’m fine, Dorothy, how are you?”

“I’ve been doin’ pretty good, but you won’t believe what happened to me today, Charlie.”

Dorothy then began to recount some of the highlights of her day.  By the time we were through chatting, we had arranged a time and a day to meet together for lunch. I thanked Dorothy for keeping in touch. It was her usual way of beginning a phone conversation, on the idea that perhaps a call she missed might have been me. I don’t know if this was just her way of finding an excuse to call, or if it was her way of easing into a conversation, or if a missed phone call just reminded her of her desire to talk to someone. I always found it amusing, and it was a technique that worked well for her.

Dorothy had been living on her own in her little apartment for years. When I drove up to her three unit brown brick apartment house, she was sitting on the front porch waiting. We went inside for a few minutes. She had a small “shotgun style” apartment with a font room that served as her bedroom and living room.  Straight back from there was a small pantry that had a couple of cabinets and a table where she could sit and eat. The room then opened on to a small kitchen. She always kept he apartment meticulously neat and tidy.

The Joys of Coffee and Shopping

After we decided where to go for lunch, I knew that our visit would end with a trip to the supermarket so that Dorothy could pick up some grocery items. Her shopping would always include packs of toilet paper, boxes of crackers, and some bags of candy, though she also loved to keep fresh fruit on her table. Coffee was another necessity. She treasured her morning ritual of awaking to make a pot of coffee which she would savor either at her small kitchen table or in her chair on the front porch. Once she told me about a church social she had been invited to, describing all kinds of great food and friends gathered round, then ended her account of the night with a despondent expression saying, “And they didn’t even have no coffee!”

Shopping was a great joy for Dorothy, having spent so many years in an institution and being unable to go out on her own to shop for anything.  She was now in her elderly years and relied heavily upon friends who could drive her to places she needed to go. In her early days of independent living, however, she walked to several places in her neighborhood to do her shopping. She told me once, with remarkable candor, about one of her early shopping experiences at the little neighborhood grocery store named Milton’s.

“I was doin’ some of my shopping at Milton’s Grocery and I saw some air freshener that I wanted. I didn’t know if I had enough money for it so I thought I was goin' to be smart and get out of there without payin' for it. I put it in my bosom before I got up to the checkout counter with my groceries. Mrs. Milton was ringing up my bill and she said, ‘Dorothy, what’s that you’ve got in your dress?’

“I said, ‘I ain’t got nothing in my dress,’ but she kept on and said she knew I had something I was hidin’ so I finally took it out and when I looked at it, it wasn’t even air freshener! It was one of them things put in a bird cage! I didn’t have no use for that anyway.”

So Dorothy learned early that you must pay for what you get, and to look more closely to distinguish between air freshener and cuttlefish bones.  Fortunately, Mr. and Mrs. Milton who operated their little grocery were members of the community, knew Dorothy well, and they could all laugh about it with no hard feelings.

Initiating the Life Story Project

On this particular day, after going out to lunch I took Dorothy to do some shopping at Publix. Publix Grocery was on the other side of town and it was a rare treat for Dorothy to walk its isles. She might find something unusual to go with her coffee. It was on a day like this that I posed the question to her about writing down her life story.

“Dorothy, I often hear you talk about your life growing up in Sylacauga and then at Partlow State School.  How would you feel about taking some time to sit and talk about your life so I could record it on tape? Then we could get it written down on paper.”

“Oh, yes!” was her immediate reply, “You can come by anytime you want to and I would be glad to tell you all about it!”

So that was how we set out to record Dorothy Faye Burdette’s life story. Next week I’ll share about the first time we sat together with a tape recorder and Ms. Burdette told of her beginnings, and of a life of poverty, sorrow and abuse which eventually unfolded into something she could celebrate.


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Monday, August 6, 2012

Monday Music: Aerial Boundaries

When my wife and I had been dating for about three months, I bought her the 1984 Windham Hill Sampler. To this day, it is one of my favorite recordings. I am sure one of the reasons for my fondness toward it is that we listened to it during those early days of courtship, but it is also full of great music. One of my favorite tracks on that album is “Aerial Boundaries,” by the late Michael Hedges. Hedges was a true genius at his craft. His first two albums, Breakfast in the Fields, and Aerial Boundaries were ground-breaking events in acoustic guitar music. Hedges used various alternate tunings for his songs, and a number of techniques including slap harmonics to achieve his unique style.

Here is Michael Hedges' Aerial Boundaries:


Saturday, August 4, 2012

Spamming Some Laughs

This is a funny one from the “I am not making this up” department. The Spam filter on my email is pretty good about weeding out those unwanted Viagra solicitations. This week when I checked my spam summary I had to laugh at these two. 

The Abbey of the Arts is “an online global monastery without walls offering retreats, classes, books, and resources to nurture contemplative practice and creative expression.”  Writers’ Digest is a magazine offering tips and advice on writing from the experts. See if you can figure out why these two email entries were blocked by my spam filter:

From The Abbey of the Arts:  “Infinitely Enlarge Your Life + New option for Women on the Threshold!”

From Writer’s Digest: “4 Ways to Improve Plot/Climax in Your Writing”


Friday, August 3, 2012

Gore Vidal, 1925 - 2012

Photo from Wikimedia Commons
The world lost another great writer this week. Gore Vidal died Tuesday at the age of 86. He was a versatile and prolific writer, not without controversy, who enjoyed being a public figure. The New York Times has an article well worth reading which you can find here.

Two novels of his that I especially enjoyed reading were were Burr (which gave a slightly different take on our founding fathers in early American history) and Creation (which was a fascinating tale set in the middle of the wondrous Axial Age and revealed some of the roots of our current philosophies, both West and East). Both of these books made quite an impression on me and the stories he told therein have stayed with me for a long time. 

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Writers' Digest has a tribute "Remembering Gore Vidal: 10 Quotes on Writing" which you can read here.

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