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Readers Write about Quandary

A Lucky Lie

The neutral tones of Cairo whiz past the backseat window. Endless rows of concrete buildings form a buff backdrop to crowds clad in tan tunics and black burkas.

“Where are you from?” the taxi driver demands. He cocks a thick eyebrow and glowers at us in the mirror. His eyes are liquid and black and impenetrable.
I pause to consider the question.

It is 2005 and George W. Bush is commander in chief. He has been at war in Afghanistan for four years and in Iraq for two. Despite this, my family and I have been traveling through the Middle East, to Israel, Jordan, Turkey, and now Egypt.

As often as possible, we own our American identity. In some loose, informal sense, I know we are ambassadors. Most people here have never been to America—have never even met an American—and their ideas about us are as warped and caricatured as our view of them.

But when we meet, we can sit together, drink mint tea from gold-rimmed glasses, and explain that we don't agree with our president either, and that, in America, that's allowed. We can also listen, and hear how it feels to live in a world completely unlike the United States and yet dominated by its presence.

In many places, we find people who can discern the thin line of separation between a government and its people, and we are humbled by their generosity. But in others, the current of anti-Americanism roils close to the surface.

Now I need an answer. “Canada,” I lie. I heed my gut. In any case, it's close enough. I grew up in Michigan, a few hours from the border, in a land that shares Tim Hortons donuts and the same flat, bland accent.

“Canada—very good country!” the driver exclaims, beaming at us before darkening.Then, unprovoked: “Bomb the US!” He slams the steering wheel hard with a clenched fist. He depresses the accelerator and recites the details of a vast conspiracy between the United States and Israel that he says led to 9/11. Trapped, we rage through the city's narrow streets. We strike something—a pedestrian, maybe—and keep going. We feel the full force of human hatred, and then we feel it miss.

The pressure wave drums against our throats.

We tell him that he can let us out just here—just anywhere—and reel with relief as he rolls away into the thick, acrid air.

Julia Rosen, Corvallis

 

Roughing It

Several years ago, my husband and I had a lovely autumn trip taking our son back to college.

He was excited to be getting back to his second year of school after a summer term off. He talked with enthusiasm about his return to his classes.

We helped him unpack the car, unfold his belongings, and triage items that didn't fit into the space or were extraneous. We decided which things we could mail on to him in a few weeks. We had a long drive ahead of us, so, after an early dinner in the waning light, we helped him put up his tent, said our goodbyes, and drove away.

Wait—what? A tent? Where's the dorm room with the meeting of roommates? Where's the welcome of the RA and the rumble of youthful voices? Why is our son sleeping in a tent?

Well, our son had a run-in with school rules. Nothing so serious as to knock him out of his educational path, but enough to get him banned from student housing. Unfortunately, he procrastinated on apartment hunting. The result: an autumn college pilgrimage to a campsite.

I felt as if I had multiple personalities. First there was the hovering Helicopter Mother who wanted to call student services to see what support they could give. Then there was the Dispassionate Adult who believed that this was a consequence of not planning ahead and that a few nights or weeks in a tent might be a good lesson for my son.

Finally, there was the Teacher in a Bind: I am an educator at a public university and I wondered what I would do if I learned that a student of mine had come to school without a permanent, indoor residence. Would I be helpful? I have an office—someone could crash there. But I'm not a tenured faculty member. Could I lose my job for an act of kindness?

What would I do then?

What I did, as a mother, still had me wavering. I tried to ease my mind with the dispassion of “logical consequences” while my heart was tugged at by the memory of us of pulling away, leaving my son alone in the campground.

Linda Golaszewski, Portland

 

Breaking the Rules

I met Eugene in prison in November 2012. I was volunteering with the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP). Day one: My group of thirty people arranged themselves in a circle. We were so close our sleeves touched. Eyes scanned the room with hesitation. What happens in a grueling AVP weekend intensive is profound barrier-breaking, honest self-contemplation, and compassionate connection that most inmates have never experienced in their lives.

Day two: Against prison rules, I sneaked in Man's Search for Meaning, a book Eugene regretted not being able to find in the prison library. Tall, masculine, and dark, Eugene was slumped quietly in a chair when he wasn't dominating, a soft sadness oozing out of him. My action took him by surprise, made him smile. In for murder and hoping to get out to a better life, he seemed on a path of self-discovery.

As a life coach, I appreciated the yearning for transformation among the prisoners, but did not appreciate the lack of available resources in prison. I wanted to help more, knowing that I could get caught. Both of us would be in trouble with the Department of Corrections. I could be expelled from the AVP program for maintaining contact with an inmate.

I broke the rules anyway and mailed Eugene another book. He wrote to thank me. His letter was intercepted by prison authorities, who reported my actions to the AVP coordinator. The Department of Corrections banned me from the prison.

Eugene was questioned. He wrote again. I wanted to respond to him, but AVP warned me not to. I could not understand why a program that stresses validating the individual insisted on no contact with this individual.

I solved the dilemma by renting a P.O. Box and writing to him under a different name.

The friendship prompted me to educate myself about the heartbreaking reality of modern-day segregation, the racial biases in the legal system, and the pitfalls of a profit-driven prison industry. I reevaluated my own unconscious stereotypes. I became more sensitive to social justice issues, and more interested in getting to know people despite their labels and their history. I've helped Eugene get in touch with family and friends he'd lost track of. I feel humbled.

I am still one of AVP's facilitators. My prison re-entry awaits resolution.

Valentina Petrova, Morro Bay, California

 

Out to the Washhouse

I come from a short line of do-gooders. My grandparents were flappers, so it was up to my mother to establish the family norm. She was a city girl, plucked from San Francisco and dropped onto a dry-land Eastern Oregon wheat farm by the handsome GI of her post-war dreams.

Most of mother's good deeds took place in town, where civilization was. Meanwhile my father sat on his tractor, ignoring his memories of the New Guinea campaign by hosting political debates in his head. He was a charming man turned reluctant recluse until one day his passion for politics got the better of him. When the county clerk came calling, my father agreed to open our home on election days as the newly designated polling place for Rural Precinct 28.

My parents took the oath in 1960, the year of Richard Nixon's five o'clock shadow. They swore to keep the vote secret and to count the ballots truly, to drive them straight to town by midnight and to deliver them directly to the county clerk herself. They promised to supervise the volunteers, and they acknowledged that tampering could land them straight in jail.

There was just one problem. Deep in the fine print was a rule forbidding alcohol at polling stations. My parents looked at each other. The Greatest Generation was no bunch of teetotalers.

Fifteen steps from our house was a structure called “the washhouse.” It was smaller than the chicken house, smaller even than the “little house,” that spider-infested bunkhouse where my mother had spent her first years of marital bliss. It was the place, as its name implied, where the washing was done. It was also where pheasants were plucked, sturgeon were gutted, and popsicles were stored in a chest freezer stuffed with a year's worth of beef cut to my mother's exact specifications and wrapped in snow-white butcher paper.

The night before each election day, we would nail a billboard-sized “VOTE HERE” sign over the garage, set out colored sample ballots and indelible pencils in the dining room, and padlock the wooden ballot box, with its stenciled, white “28.” The next morning, before the casserole-bearing ladies arrived and the polls opened precisely at eight o'clock, my parents would remove the Jack Daniels and the Gallo Red to the washhouse. At five, we knew where to find them.

Joyce Cherry Cresswell, Portland

 

Safety Not Ensured

On September 1, 2010, I got down on my knees in an emergency room cubicle and begged to be locked up.

Having lived with bipolar disorder for almost a decade, I knew my illness well enough to recognize the signs of relapse, and was willing to trade my freedom for a week on a secure psychiatric unit to ensure my safety.

But my safety was not ensured. An hour after being admitted, I was sexually assaulted by a young man whose hallucinations commanded him to molest women.

In the aftermath of that attack, I struggled with questions about what justice should look like. Who was at fault, the hospital or my assailant? Was a civil suit against the hospital worth jeopardizing future treatment or signing away my right to speak freely about my ordeal? Would forcing a mentally incapacitated man to stand trial serve as anything more than a re-traumatizing exercise in futility?

As I pondered these dilemmas, I studied the robust body of work produced by grassroots activists with lived experience of mental illness, and I came to realize that my attacker and I were both failed by a broken system often hostile to alternative models of care.

In the end, I did report my assault to police, but focused my attention upon the hospital. We settled out of court after several state and national investigations, but I held out little hope of lasting institutional change.

When I admitted myself for a brief tune-up last February, however, I was amazed at the difference in the unit, which had previously felt like nothing more than a chaotic holding pen. Nurses now stepped out from behind their desks to sit down with us and actually listen. In the hallway, a poster displayed a graph showing that, in the two years since I'd reported it for negligence, the unit had implemented a recovery-oriented model of care that had resulted in a 60 percent reduction in patient violence.

Sixty. Percent. I was so amazed I made my husband take a photo to prove it was real. As he snapped the picture, he jokingly suggested I should borrow a pen from the nurses' station and autograph the bullet-point list of statistics with: “You're welcome.”

Jenn Crowell, Portland

 

Her or Me

I know nothing about the woman who, on a bright August day, leapt from the roof of the building directly across from my own: neither her name nor why she chose that day, that building, that exact moment to step off the edge.

I didn't see her leave or land. I'm left with only the space in the middle—the few moments of free fall that, for her, must have stretched out nearly into forever—and the aftermath: frantic phone calls, EMS sirens, a quickly clustering crowd that, just as quickly, evaporated.

She haunted me, this unknown woman, in the following days. I kept an eye on the roof of the building, sizing it up from a distance, gauging just how far and fast she fell. I looked it up on Google Earth, maneuvered myself to peer over the edge. Odd triggers—turns of phrase, innocuous questions, a quick shadow—would start my heart racing.

I was sad and angry at once. It made me slow and dull. My objectivity was useless, pushed aside to hold a story I didn't know or want. I cycled through endless permutations of why and who, wondering if maybe we'd passed on the street once—anything to build something stable out of so many broken pieces.

I couldn't forget her. She'd altered me—or maybe I'd let her. I'd taken her death on and mined it for meaning. Our lives, however briefly, were connected—I owed her a vigil, didn't I? I couldn't just abandon her, could I? So I lugged her around for weeks. But the longer I held on, the heavier she got. And the answers never came.

In the end, it came down to a choice: her or me.

So I buried her.

One morning a few close friends gathered in my backyard garden as I laid her down. There was no eulogy, no clean end, no grave or marker. Only more questions: of responsibility, of bearing witness, of mourning. I let them all go up in the smoke of a small signal fire of apple wood and sage, drifting off with the ashes I later turned back into the dirt, where hopefully something beautiful or nourishing, something lively, will grow.

Graham Murtaugh, Portland

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Feel-Good Feminism

Boxed In

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Gone Astray

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