Saturday, September 27, 2014

"What I Love Is Near at Hand"

Bill and I started a ritual a couple weeks back.  We go for a Friday after-work walk at Spring Grove Cemetery.  It's a truly beautiful place in the middle of neighborhoods and nothingness, and as you walk through its hilly, calm, planetary atmosphere you start to feel connected to a way of understanding things that's transformative without movement or strife or even thought.  All those gravestones, all that sunlight splashing off of leaves.  And the smell as you go from bright sunlit oxygen into a small ravine shadowed with old trees, musty, cool and secret, the sunshine falling through in short silvery intervals onto gravel and dirt.  It's a smell you remember but can't name (lost rivers, empty buckets, old water-hoses), like a drug you took as a teenager that was so pleasant you can never have that same experience ever again.  Lost time or maybe a dream of lost time is what it is, nostalgia stirred and then left still.

We don't talk that much as we walk. 

The place is expansive, falling off into hills, statues, little mock-cathedrals and marble vaults.  You don't want to talk.  Just walk.  Engraved names and dates, weather-beaten angel faces turning into morphined skulls.  It's not spooky though, just pleasantly exactly what it is.  It's the recent gorgeous weather too:  too clear to get into your head, the sky so fluorescent blue and cellophane yellow you can't really appreciate it without wincing.  Just walking, past all those graves, all those people's lives.  It doesn't feel creepy because it meanders close to what poetry is supposed to make you feel when it's done right.  The whole atmosphere slows down to elements you can worship, or at least ponder without having to understand.  You're there in the moment and everything is sparkling and kind of monumental but nothing is scary or complicated or rushed.  Just walking, like that, through the end of the afternoon.   The prehistoric boniness of the trees, the thickets surrounding the cut grass, the swampy waters stirred by fountains, rock-bridges and patches of dead weeds... 

I kept thinking about Theodore Roethke.  He truly is the one poet I think about the most.  His poems have a beveled but somehow amateurish sense of architecture that makes you feel like you're experiencing Shakespeare and Henry Darger simultaneously, that mix of "high" and "low," or whatever, pouring forth, sculpted and shorn into a constant death and rebirth.  His poems have their own equinox, their own cemeteries.  These are lines from The Far Field:

The weedy edge, alive with small snakes and bloodsuckers, --
I have come to a still, but not a deep center,
A point outside the glittering current;
My eyes stare at the bottom of a river,
At the irregular stones, iridescent sandgrains,
My mind moves in more than one place,
In a country half-land, half-water.

I am renewed by death, thought of my death,
The dry scent of a dying garden in September,
The wind fanning the ash of a low fire.
What I love is near at hand,
Always, in earth and air.

Sunday, September 21, 2014


Earlier this week, I was at a conference organized around the idea that people with disabilities can have better lives if they get jobs with real wages.  This seems like a truly simple and true assertion, but also like anything that seems simple and true the idea is fraught with complications because, well, it's people.  You just can't make assertions like that without considering history, perceptions, experiences...  And you can't really assert anything for sure when talking about "people with disabilities" anyway.  That's a category, not actual people, when you get down to it.  Actual "people with disabilities" are individuals with all kinds of different needs, talents, interests, brilliances, predilections, shortcomings, etc.  In short it's hard to make something concrete out of something so abstract.

But maybe you have to.

The conference gathered together all kinds of folks, from people with disabilities (all kinds of disabilities, developmental, physical, and so on) to their families, from social workers to business people.  There was an energy in the air; maybe I'm making that up, but still...  It felt electric somehow, and serious, and everyone was paying attention to what's currently going on.  Supported Employment for people with disabilities is not a new idea of course, but this time we don't have the luxury of maintaining the status quo while pontificating and talking about "change."  We have to make it happen.  Medicaid rules are changing, and Medicaid funds the majority of supports for people with disabilities.  The changes are about prioritizing toward helping people have as much independence and equality as possible.  The rules changes come from all kinds of places within the federal government, not just Medicaid (Department of Justice and Department of Labor are in on it too, which makes sense, because the issue isn't really about social programs as much as civil rights and labor rights:  95% of people who don't make minimum wage on their jobs are actually people who go to sheltered workshops), so it's really hard to ignore. 

This time it's top down in ways it's never been.  And on the ground are large programs/buildings/workshops that have been doing  business for decades in ways that the Feds are now calling unfair and possibly illegal. 

What does this mean?

It means maybe we who have jobs supporting people with disabilities, especially those with developmental disabilities, have been looking at the situation through the wrong set of eyes.  We often see issues for the people we support as programmatic.  How can we alter programs to help people?  But actually we should be looking at not the programs, but the results (the "outcomes" in government-speak) of those programs.  And the results just aren't that great; in fact they have kept a lot of people in situations they could possibly break away from, if only the programs they are in were in question.  In other words, the question should be, "What is happening in this person's life?  Is he/she getting what he/she needs to be successful?"  As opposed to the question we usually ask, "What program does he/she need to be referred to?"

Ronald Reagan (I know a lot of people will probably not like me quoting the Gipper, but what the hell?) once said, "The best social program is a real job."  And even though it's hyper-complicated to make results/outcomes happen, that's basically what we are talking about here:  how do we help people make a living wage?  How do we help people secure success (without the program getting in the way)?  How do we support people to be the best people they can be?
For better or for worse, this process of being the best you can be often has its foundation in what people do for a living.  And if you take that possibility out of the picture, you often are grasping at straws.  I've met a majority of my friends through work.  A majority of my identity as a person is informed solely by my job.  I've spent 36 of my 49 years working in restaurants, libraries, group-homes, etc. Yup.  I started at 13, riding my jankety moped to the Irish Point Restaurant in Pendleton, Indiana so I could be a car-hop and grill-cook.  After that I moved on to Kentucky Fried Chicken, Rax Roast Beef, Ponderosa Steakhouse, and so on.  I developed a work ethic through the process.  I think I may have learned more real lessons at all those jobs than anything I ever learned in school and college because it's all about putting yourself in the middle of things, being "in" the moment, and understanding you are a part of the world that is needed, that you have responsibilities and you are counted on.

By blocking entrance into this sense of responsibility, through programs, through good intentions, we who are trying to help people with disabilities are just plain hindering them.  We've been doing this for, well, since we figured out we needed to be helping.  We've constructed large programs and facilities that are about "training" people, but the training has gone on for decades without any results.  We're good at wanting to help.  Not so good at actually doing it.

So now there's a shift.  And I'm hoping it's for real.  I have a feeling it is.  Because at the end of the day the reason I chose this line of work is to not be a part of a program, but a part of a movement.  That sounds lofty as all get out, reminiscent of hippie BS, but it's true.  I don't have a lot of school spirit, never have, what pushes me forward is making stuff happen:  results.  I think that's true of a lot of social-worker-types, and we just get so caught up in the programs we make, funding them, going through certifications and audits for them, that we forget sometimes what they are there for. 

Anyway, that conference earlier this week truly made me feel like we're on our way toward something, as opposed to on our way to protecting what's already been done.  There may be people with disabilities who can't have real jobs, or maybe who don't want to have them, and that's okay.  What is exciting is that from now on, I think, I hope, the assumption is people can work and have lives and pay taxes and have beers with their buddies after work.  They can be"equal" in one of the truest ways to be equal:  as necessary contributors in getting things done.

Which brings me to Raymond Thunder-Sky. 

That's one of his drawings up there.   (Many more can be seen at   Having a real job was Raymond's obsession, and he had a few (and also worked for a long time in sheltered workshops), did well at everything he tried, but the job that he truly craved, being a part of a construction crew, eluded him because he couldn't get a driver's license (that's one of the major prerequisites to being on a crew).  So he created a job for himself:  he began drawing sites, setting up shop on the periphery of demolition and construction sites with a toolbox filled with markers and paper. He became a ghost-worker in many ways, sublimating his desire for an actual gig with what he could actually do.  I'm thinking, in the climate of today, he may have been able, somewhere along the line, to get a license with some help.  With some persistence from both himself and his supporters he may have been able to at least try to have that career.  Maybe he would be both a participant in the real world, and an artist commenting and documenting his participation in it.

Anyway you look at it, this is an ongoing saga...  I hope, I truly hope, this time there are actual results.


Sunday, September 7, 2014

"As If the Top of My Head Were Taken off"

Kelly Reichardt doesn't make movies.  She makes trances that have characters, plots, settings, and images that somehow culminate into glum, deeply felt, genius poetry.  Night Moves is her newest one, and it has such grace and marble-hard technique you see it in your dreams halfway through seeing it on Pay Per View.  The story is simple:  three loser eco-terrorists blow up a dam in Oregon. That sounds cliché, and yet the movie doesn't have a cliché-bone in its body.  The actors play each part of the triangle with a serious nonchalance, and that triangulation never yields what other movies might make it yield -- no sexual jealousy, no dissolved allegiances, just a sort of raw utilitarian anxious group-think, and also a group-fear that none of them know exactly what or why they are doing what they are doing, outside of following a story they have told themselves since they started being "activists."  I kept thinking of Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment:  the politics aren't the point.  It's the stringy worn-out philosophy that motivates these guys, and that line of thinking is slowly losing its appeal, even while the action, the devastation, heats up. 

Jesse Eisenberg is the central Raskolnikov figure here.  He skulks through the movie with a tentative hatred for the world matched (in his eyes) with a hidden love for its goodness.  In a scene that kicks off the dam-explosion plot, he is driving with Fanning (who plays his sidekick with a sweetly sardonic and yet somehow completely open innocence) to their destination (PeteSarsgaard's grizzled Iraq war vet) when they spot a dead deer at the side of the road.  Eisenberg pulls over and kneels beside the deer, and pronounces that she's still warm, and pregnant.  He says he can feel the baby inside the deer.  It's wet dusk woods here, and the deer is slumped face down.  Eisenberg, at that moment, has the expression of someone trying to figure out how to solve a problem there's no solution to.   That dead pregnant deer is an easy symbol, of course, but you don't know really for what, and it's never given an answer in the rest of the movie.  But still when he pushes the dead deer down the side of a hill, and you hear it slowly slide down the gravel, and then that nothing outside sound of rain dripping off leaves happens, you understand how empty and meaningless this character's life must be, and why he's doing what's he doing, even though he obviously really doesn't.  That is Reichardt's gift as a filmmaker right there:  that slowing down of experience to an essence that doesn't match up to drama, except to create an environment of longing, dread, and exposure.

Reichardt also made Wendy and Lucy a few years back, a beautiful sleek tone-poem with Michelle Williams as a homeless woman who gives up her dog because she can't afford to keep it.  Again a simple concept given a complicated sense of importance.  I sobbed at the end not because of the dog or even because of Williams' performance (although it was genius) -- I cried really hard because Reichardt was able to manufacture a massive echo out of an easy sell:  the emotions felt completely real, not maudlin or even earned, but somehow organic, branded into the very air and light and spaces she filmed.

That same sense of completion haunts Night Moves, that inevitable click that indicates a movie isn't about anything except itself, snapped shut with a purposefulness close to an Emily Dickinson poem.  Dickinson made verse from lonely domestic nothingness, created punctuation and capitalization willy-nilly, and yet her skillful alignment of words and image and thought are the closest comparison I can make to Reichardt's tenacious sense of style and economy.  Dickinson once wrote, "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry."  That same statement can apply to movies like this:  something physical spins out of the metaphysical, as style merges with substance, and you have a symmetry of meaning and not-meaning that somehow trumps reality and becomes more real.