Sagacity

The last wild woman
I was
is on a road trip to Kansas.

She has packed her pick-up
with peanuts and prunes
and expects
not

to be expected.



She's left me here

with the dogs,
the dishes,
and no 
forwarding address.

      

Common Sense lives
in quiet valleys
between peaks.

Borrowing recipes from her neighbors,
she cooks
for anyone who's hungry.

She fed me.

Left full,
I asked her why
Hard Times never 
comes to see her anymore.

"I don't fatten no frogs to feed no snakes," she said.



Reflection on Pentecost


I, too, longed
for something—a tongue
of fire—hovering.
A sign, a portent to show
God indeed was with me, 
            within me.

I wanted
            a gift.

No wind blew.
No bush burned. 

I spoke no tongue save
the one
I always 
had.

And so I lived.

And I did not feel special to God.

Time had its way
with me—as Time
will.

I began to hear
You are so patient.
            Me?     and
You are kinder than I would be.
            Me?     and
You make me feel calm.
            Me?

I speak God’s love
in the day-to-day.
The gift           is that
others hear.

[2017]
with thanks to John G.

Tired

HE
broke my heart.

Schizophrenic – yes.
Off his meds – yes.

But the cry from his heart is as clear and cogent as a clarion bell.

I rode the small bus.
I took the pills that they gave me. 
I endured the other 
kids pickin’ on me.

I’ve been places:
Detroit, Brooklyn.
I’ve been through this before.
And I’m tired.
When is it my turn to have
a career, 
            a home,
                        a family 
                                    that loves me?

He is so tired.

I walk away for five
minutes to look for 
a blanket, a bag.
When I return
he is sound
asleep in my 
little plastic chair. 
I can hardly rouse him.

Things were good for me awhile in Atlanta.
I had dreds and they called me 
Black Jesus.

Jesus was tired so I told the Lord
I would do it,
I’m strong.

I just want to work
for the Lord.
Why does he keep 
makin’ me go
through this?

I ask if he wants to go back
to Georgia to be
with his family.

I call my sister, she say
she don’t want me.
It say a prophet is hated
by his family.

His eyes brim.

Why don’t nobody want me?

Government Documentation













Surely,

if we can print 
a 3D plastic pistol
            locked, loaded, primed for death

we can issue
a Social Security card
            inextricable from living life
that won’t 
dissolve
            in the rain.

Even 
a one-ride bus pass 
is made 
of
            stronger stuff.


What Can You Say?

Day’s end. 

Finally. 
The nurse is leaving the building.


“You work here?”

I sigh. 
A deep, reluctant, eye-rolling sigh. 
The day weighs heavily
on my shoulders. 

Standing as witness to
a laundry-list litany of
crushing concerns; 
the aching need 
for immediate solutions
I cannot provide 
has drained my cistern
of compassion.

What can I say but
Yes.

“Are you a believer?”

I sigh. 
I don’t want to be 
exhorted, proselytized,
 converted, or sermonized;

I am weary and 
loath to nod 
polite agreement to 
some peculiar mix of 
two parts faith / 
one part delusion. 

What can I say but
Yes.

And he says,

“Pray for me. 
Pray that I can face
everything 
I am going
through.

My name is Michael.”

What can I say but

Harm Reduction: Immunotherapy for the Jaded Heart

Harm Reduction is social worker/health professional speak for practices and programs designed for compassionate damage control in working with at-risk populations.  Harm reduction seeks to minimize the avalanche of unfortunate economic, health, and social consequences inherent in substance abuse and other risky behaviors. Needle exchange programs & no-judgment condom distribution are two examples of this approach. 

Will a clean needle stop an addict from shooting up heroin? Of course not. But it might mean that he is only a heroin addict, not a heroin addict with AIDS. Likewise, condoms won’t prevent participation in dangerous sexual behaviors. But, condoms  can decrease the chances of those behaviors spawning long-term consequences. 

Baby steps, baby.

When we were learning to walk, baby steps were all we could take. 

Baby steps.

When we were learning to read, it was Dr. Seuss not Shakespeare.

Baby steps.

When my patient is dehydrated and sick from a night of hard drinking and a morning of sleeping in this hot southern sun and he is not ready for rehab but he is ready to want to feel better, we think about baby steps. Maybe we agree that he will drink 2 bottles of water today and 1 less 40 ounce beer tonight. And maybe he’ll come see me tomorrow and we’ll talk about how he feels.

Baby steps.

I’m not looking for a cure for his alcoholism or seeking to convince him he needs treatment. Instead, together, we are looking at small, incremental steps that will keep him from hurting himself quite so badly.

 That’s one part of harm reduction. The other part, and the one I like the best, is that with a harm reduction approach, we treat everyone we work with (note I say with not for) dignity and accept them for who they are and where they are in their lives. 

If a person is coming to me in one of my homeless clinics, I can pretty much assume without fault that she has experienced some sort of trauma. It could be a big trauma like having been on the streets for fifteen years or a relatively moderated one of being thrown out of her mother’s house the night before. It’s all trauma and it all hurts. It’s not my job to rate it and provide services based on a 1-10 scale. 

It is my job to accompany my patients in the moment we are sharing.  When I can avoid being judgmental (and I confess, I don’t always), I avoid the marginalization that stereotyping inevitably generates. That doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t see them clearly, nor does it mean that I can’t envision them in a moment better than this one. It is my job to be caring in my care.

Accepted professional verbiage would say that I attempt to bring compassion to my patient encounters. I’m not the rebel I used to be, but I am not fond of the word compassion as it is applied to the work I do. Compassion has a slight whiff of I am somehow better than my patient because I have a home and I’m not suffering from a debilitating mental illness and I’ve had the luxury of running water every morning. That whiff could all too easily grow into the noxious stink of self- righteousness. 

I’m not better. Today, I am just more fortunate. 

I prefer, instead, to seek to be kind, always. 

You can’t fault kind. Kindness is the ultimate harm reduction vaccine. 

We should practice it with our patients and our partners, with our children and our parents, with those we love and those who challenge our tolerance. And yes, we should strive to practice it most of all with those whose circumstance, religion, or politics places them squarely as “other” in our perception.

I’m still working on that one.


Broken They Found Him

Broken, they found him
            barely breathing       stretched
            on top of a sheet
            of ice.

Broken, they bound him
            to the gurney                        and saved 
            what was left
            of his life.

Bundled to hospital
            his life
            re-covered.


At the shelter,
his story fell out in pieces.

He was pretty sure about his name,
could not recall the day of his birth.

I was in the hospital.

He touches his side.
            There was a bag here,
            my poop came out in it.

He hands me two sacks.
            I have medicine.
            I don’t know how to take it.
            Can you show me?


Broken, still
            a bed              and three meals
            are not
            enough.

In this city 
            of 900,000 souls
            the are 10 respite beds 
            for those
            un-homed.

Ten beds
            are not
            enough.
           
                                     Broken.

Psalm

The Lord hears
the cry            
            of the poor.

And,
as his people,
            so should we.

So too,
should we attend
            to their song.



Last week, I fell 
hard on 
            unforgiving asphalt.

And could only sit
bleeding / stunned
            searching for breath.

A woman I did not know,
a woman who owns
nothing           but
her body        and
the contents of
the pack she carries

Rushed to my side
            and
                        raised me up.




Ken Wears Pajama Pants

Ken wears pajama pants

            printed with comic book heroes
            and a knee-length blue duster
            emblazoned               with a Texaco star.

And always, a smile.

More, he owns a chessboard.

Today he shows me
a series of newspaper cuttings
protected 
by folded cardboard
taped into
            a sleeve.

Bobby Fischer chess games.

He beams.

“You know, they give you the opening gambit                    
            and the last move.
            The puzzle 
            is to figure out
            how to get
            to that last
            move.

            And you know,
            most of the time        I can!"
           

used with permission and blessings


Ken's photo is used here with his permission and blessing.

She Wanted to be a Nun

Poison ivy
doesn’t suit her

It doesn’t grow
 in Liberia

how was she to know

when the police drove 
her from the sidewalk 
            and backed
                        her into the bushes

Later
arms covered
with blisters the size
of pea-hen eggs 

she doesn’t complain

just asks for help in
wrapping the gauze 
around her
wrists

Warmed by her sweetness, I wished
her God’s speed in 
finding 
            housing

Oh, no, she said
my work is with the poor




Giving Back

Virgil brings
me one of his
careful & crumpled
multi-colored notes.

It’s a reference for
a movie he thinks I’d like to watch.
Paramedics After Dark
“It takes place in the city of 
Detroit America
1999 year.”

He has a curious mind that 
collects a magpie’s store 
of facts.
Most of them pertain
to HomeLessness
in our city.
Empirically studied,
notes taken on the heart.

In another world 
where 
he didn’t have to struggle 
for education, 
            for literacy itself
against poverty and learning
                                    disabilities
he is a respected historian
speaking to
raised and expectant faces


instead of to this old nurse.




The Neighbors

Their stories
are not
mine
to share.

But,
our moments  
together

are.

LeDon Sits

LeDon sits
with a thump. 
He scrolls through his phone
to show me
 a phrase:

Racial Equality

He sounds it out.
“What that mean?”

It means everyone    should
be treated equally and with
respect
regardless
of the color of their skin.

“That’s what I thought. Do you
believe that?”

I do.

He shakes his head   —

“It’ll never happen.”






Sagacity

The last wild woman I was is on a road trip to Kansas. She has packed her pick-up with peanuts and prunes and expects not t...