Friday, June 16, 2017

A Tree Army & a Godsend: The Civilian Conservation Corps

(An updating of a very old piece from The Way-Back Files –The Farmington Valley Herald, July 1979.) 

“I propose to create [the CCC] to be used in complex work, not interfering with abnormal employment, and confining itself to forestry, the prevention of soil erosion, flood control and similar projects. I call your attention to the fact that this type of work is of definite, practical value, not only through the prevention of great present financial loss, but also as a means of creating future national wealth.”
                               -- Franklin D. Roosevelt 

Roosevelt’s Tree Army. That’s what they called it. In April 1933, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps were established by executive order of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Always passionate about conservation – what else would one expect from a cousin of Theodore Roosevelt? – he had set up a smaller but similar program in New York when he was governor and knew that it could work on a national scale as well.

The CCC became one of the most successful and most popular of all the New Deal relief programs, providing unmarried young men between 18 and 26 across the country with work, housing, and food. During its nine-year run, it supervised such projects as the construction of roads and trails through state forests; fire prevention and control; and forest planning. Other projects involved re-seeding grazing lands; soil-erosion control; stream improvement; the erection of fire towers; and the building of wildlife refuges, fish-rearing facilities, and animal shelters.

There were also educational programs in the camps. The success of these programs “was determined by the initiative and qualifications of the Educational Adviser stationed in each camp,” observes the National Association of the Civilian Conservation Corps Alumni. “The attitude and cooperation of the camp commander was also important. These programs varied considerably from camp to camp, both in efficiency and results. However, throughout the Corps, more than 40,000 illiterates were taught to read and write. Since most of this training was on the enrollee's own time, undoubtedly each gained that for which he worked the hardest, be it high school diploma, learning to type, or wood carving.”

In Connecticut and New York state, workers doggedly fought the gypsy moth epidemic, Dutch elm disease, and the European pine shoot moth. When the Colt Dike in Hartford burst in the spring of 1936 and flooded one-fifth of the city, the CCC offered its services to Governor Wilbur Cross.

The state “turned CCC men out of camps to help wherever they could,” recalled former State Forester W. F. Schreeder. The program was, he added “cheap for what they [the government] paid.”

Schreeder, who had worked for the CCC as a surveying engineer, said that when the program began, each state had the “privilege” of maintaining camps. There were 20 of them scattered throughout Connecticut.

George Mueller, one of my parents’ oldest neighbors, had worked in a CCC camp as a young man. The work was, he told me, “a wonderful opportunity for the boys who liked it. Jobs were nil – there just weren’t any.”

Mueller had worked on gypsy moth control with the CCC in upstate New York for a year. He remembered going through given sections of the woods, checking each tree, and cutting down infested brush. Forest rangers would occasionally put up false egg clusters made of clay to make sure that the men were doing the job thoroughly – and they “raised particular hell if they found out you hadn’t.”

The program was semi-military in its insistence on following regulations. Inspections were held in the mornings, and “if you took a day off, you were AWOL, same as you were in the Army.” Repeating offenders would be dropped from the CCC: there were always more men looking for work.

The army “actually ran the camps,” feeding, clothing, and housing the men, Schreeder explained. They received $30 dollars a month: $25 would go home to their families, and they’d keep $5 for personal expenses.

One camp in Connecticut was, Schreeder recalled, made up entirely of World War I vets. They more than appreciated the work. The Hoover administration had denied them their bonuses, and they had suffered heavily from public disapproval of American involvement in the war.

“After World War I, Army enrollment lowered,” Mueller corroborated. “The government didn’t want a big standing army. Being assigned to the CCC camps was good duty for them [the vets].”

Both he and Schreeder agreed that the program was run satisfactorily for the amount of time and money put into it. “If we had a program like that today, the state would be better off,” the latter declared. “It took the boys off the streets, taught ‘em to work, and made men out of ‘em.”

Mueller compared the CCC favorably to some of the current Comprehensive Employment and Training (CETA) programs, which he viewed as being sloppily set up and a waste of money. Perhaps, he speculated, being run along military guidelines kept the New Deal program from taking a similar turn.

“I’m not sure if young men would work for those wages now,” he remarked. “At the time, we thought it was a godsend. People were able to say, ‘I’m still working and supporting my family. I’m earning what I’m getting.’”

Schreeder took a slightly more wistful tone. “I wonder,” he said in a letter written after our interview, “how many people realize that many of the facilities they now enjoy at state parks and state forests were originally provided by the work of the CCC.”

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Twice-Given Gift

I remember waking up with excitement the morning after my daughter M’s birth. The feeling was the same as the one I’d had back in my childhood, when my parents had bought me a “surprise” – a book, a stuffed animal, or some small toy – and slipped it under my pillow. I couldn’t wait to see her. But hospital’s day nursery wasn’t open yet. In the meantime, a friend’s wife came in to visit: they had a daughter, too, and we chattered away about how much fun girls were to buy for, how you could do so much more with them, etc., etc.

And it was fun. I’d always liked kids, but I’d never realized how fascinating babies could be. I watched M. discover her own shadow, delight in the family cats, and sit spell-bound in the tub, watching the bubbles I blew for her. We had our own rituals and, once she learned to talk, our own catch-phrases, too…the most important one being right before she went to bed. “I like you, and I love you,” I’d tell her.

“I like you, and I love you,” M. would sing back.

My husband Tim died in a car accident when M. was just three-and-a-half-years-old. Family and friends did what they could to help. But, at the end of the day, it was the two of us. We watched movies, did board games and puzzles, went trick-or-treating together, and had picnics on an old quilt in the driveway on Sundays. She pulled me out of my comfort zone: I found myself volunteering at her grammar school; putting together a couple badge-worthy programs for her Brownie troop; playing miniature golf with her; and trying to help her learn how to ride a bike. This last one was especially tricky because I’d never been taught to ride one myself. So I just walked alongside her, holding onto the handle bars and doing my best to keep her upright.

At the end of 7th grade, M. began talking about being bisexual. I was surprised – I’d seen no indication at that point that she was attracted to other girls – but I figured it would all sort itself out somehow.

Only some things, I was to learn, don’t sort themselves out nice and neatly. Her confusion was deeper than I’d realized, and it was about a lot more than orientation. It merged with what a psychiatrist told me was “a low-grade depression” over the father she couldn’t remember, creating an emotional firestorm that I didn’t think we’d ever come out of. She cut herself, had suicidal thoughts, and once even tried to run away. There were emergency-room trips, hospitalizations, outpatient therapy, and a slow, often painful re-building of our relationship.

We got it back, though – enough so that when M. told me she thought that she was “full-on lesbian,” I accepted it unhesitatingly. After all, I had family members and friends who were gay, so it wasn’t such a big adjustment. Her girlfriends came over, and we talked about what was happening in her various relationships.

But by her sophomore year of high school, there was a new bend in the road: M. had come to understand that the issue was not one of orientation but of gender. That she was a male trapped in a female body. M. began dressing as a boy and calling herself/himself Zeke.

This was a harder issue for me to deal with but not for the reasons you’d think. There had been a lot of loss in my life already, and all I could think was that I was going to lose the daughter who had been my joy and comfort since Tim’s death. Selfish but true.

A woman said to me, “You have been given as great gift. You had the privilege of having a daughter for many years, and now you have the privilege of having a son.” She was right, of course – my brain realized it the moment she spoke. But hearts take a lot longer to catch up.

Oddly enough, it was Zeke who found the words I needed. They had been written by a father whose daughter, like mine, had realized that nature had made a mistake. “I find that I am not ready to give up the little girl that I loved so much,” this unknown man had written. “She is special to me – I love her and don’t want her to go, even though I know I must. In a way, this is like a death and a birth in the family at the same time. Allow me to mourn the loss of my daughter and, I assure you, I will rejoice at the birth of my new son.”

I sat in on a support group for parents with trans children: mostly, I just listened, but it helped knowing that there were other parents wrestling with the same issues. I went to some of the counseling sessions that Zeke had with his therapist, who was transgender herself, only MTF (male-to-female), and read some of the articles she gave him. And slowly, I came to understand how much Zeke needed to do this.

Then came the surgeries. I went out to Arizona with him for one of them, and we stayed at a condo not far from the hospital. A couple of nights after the operation, Zeke called me into his bedroom. Would I feel weird, he asked, checking the surgery site to see if everything looked O.K.?

I gave a mental shrug. “No,” I replied. “After all, if you had been born in a male body, I would’ve seen it by now.”

That was when my heart and I finally got where we needed to go. I had a son, and he needed looking after. Heart and I were good with that.

In a later episode of “Merlin” – a brilliant re-imagining of the Arthurian legend, courtesy of the BBC – the Great Dragon, who has mentored the young warlock, says, “From the moment I met you, I saw something that was invisible. Now it is there for all to see.” I feel that way about Zeke, and it has nothing to do with his change from female to male. He is living his truth and doing what he can to help others in the trans community live theirs. And, as Albert Schweitzer once said, “[t]he one essential thing is that we have light in ourselves. Our strivings will be recognized by others, and when people have light in themselves, it will shine out from them.”

Zeke has that light. I like him, and I love him, and I still have much to learn from him.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

So Many Windows: Women Going Back to School

Back in 1980, when I was an undergraduate at St. Joseph College in West Hartford, there were the two older women students in my American history class. They were kind of a novelty to me, having just transferred from a very “male” school. And they sure added a lot to the class, I thought: they had insights and life experience that we 18- and 19-year-olds didn’t. They got credit for some of that life experience, too; and that, too, was impressive.

Fast-forward to the present. St. Joseph College is now the University of St. Joseph and has a strong Adult Learning Program, started in 1985.. “My positions have changed,” observes Dr. Raymie Wayne, the university’s Associate Dean of Graduate and Professional Studies. Wayne transferred to Saint Joseph’s back in 1991 and returned to teach in the social work department in 2003. “So, sometimes what you see depends on where you sit….What I see now is that a lot of women have tremendous pressure and responsibility in their lives, combined with drive and motivation.”

The women students she deals with are definitely juggling a lot of balls. They’re not only parents, but they may also “be caregivers for their parents or other aging members of their families. They very often have demanding jobs that are not flexible. Sometimes even their supervisors feel threatened that they’re going back to school and don’t do the things that would make it easier.” Many have “tenuous living situations” and/or demanding husbands or partners. “Families vary in how much they understand being a part-time or full-time student, so they vary in how much support they provide or, alternately, in how much they distract.”

The Adult Learning Program currently offers majors in five areas: social work; accounting; management; psychology; and an RN – to B. S. in nursing, which allows students with associate’s degrees from state community colleges to earn bachelor’s degrees in science. Each has “some accelerated path to graduate studies,” Wayne explains. “In some cases, the student would have to apply. No guarantee, but the opportunity is there.”

Wayne is also working on revitalizing and expanding the university’s prior learning assessment – that life-experience piece of the puzzle that seemed so new and radical to me back in 1980. “It has had different names and different configurations over the years,” she says, “but what has remained the same is the commitment to working adults who are returning to school[,…] provid[ing] them with the small classes and individualized attention and caring community that is St. Joseph’s.” In her eyes, they are simply honoring the core values set down in its mission statement. The Sisters of Mercy, who founded the school back in 1932, “were a truly amazing progressive group,” determined to create a learning environment where professional studies and the liberal arts were in balance with one another.

“A majority of the students surveyed were between the ages of the ages of 35 and 49,” the associate dean remarks, “but there have been plenty of students that are older than that on campus as well.” Very often, she adds, they are “the first in their families to be attending college. They are so committed. But the driving force is not that they only want to learn and better their lives but also be a role model for their children.”

Roberta Rogers, the assistant director of the Individualized Degree Program (IDP) at Trinity College in Hartford, has been on both sides of the academic fence. (Her mother was actually in the graduating class with Louise Fisher, who started the program in 1973.) Rogers attended Baypath College in Longmeadow, Massachusetts and then went to work at The Hartford Insurance Company. During that time, she took classes at both the University of Hartford and the University of Connecticut but still had this strong feeling that something was missing in her life.

She finally applied to Trinity. That application process was, she remembers, “the biggest hurdle….I felt that it was a long shot, and I wasn’t sure that I could bring to the table what they were looking for. I hadn’t been to school regularly for very many years.” But Rogers was accepted into the IDP in 1999; and there, at her mother’s alma mater, she found the “intellectual challenge and stimulation” she’d been missing. The classes were small, and she “felt that it was easy to engage with the professors.” That she mattered. “Every school isn’t right for every person. But Trinity was right for me.”

During that time, Rogers went through “a couple of developments that were personal and extremely painful” – her child’s serious illness, which necessitated regular trips up to a Boston hospital, and her divorce. “Both things could’ve derailed the course,” she reflects, “but my friends [in the IDP] and faculty mentors helped me stay the course. They provided support and encouragement. I was able to do teaching-assistantship and research-assistantship work for credit as opposed to carrying a full course load. It gave me the flexibility I needed. And that happens regularly with our students.”

Jan Neuberger, who graduated from Trinity in 2013, also spoke enthusiastically about the IDP. The actress was in the original company of “Wicked” when it hit her that the experience “was killing my heart and soul.” Hoping to get into a classical drama program, she searched for “a graduate program that didn’t require an undergraduate degree.” No luck. Then she happened upon the IDP.

The program changed her “in a very fundamental way,” she says, “because it opened so many windows.” And she, like Rogers, came away from it feeling that she had received “a tremendous amount of faculty support.”

Neuberger was 56 when she entered Trinity. There has always been “a wide range of ages” in the IDP, according to Dr. Diane Zannoni, the director. A member of the IDP council back in the 1970s, she has seen the program through a number of changes over the years. Students aren’t just focusing on their college coursework, she observes – they’re combining school with work and family. And many of them are coming in from other institutions with “an accumulation of credits. It could have been from a community college or a college they went to for three years. The idea is degree completion.”

Of course, she still sees many non-traditional students who are just starting out. But she sees “more people coming having already started. Many, many of our students are mothers with young children – not young women who are staying at home but who are working [and] with children.”

There’s another difference, says Rogers. The students entering the program are “more self-directed steadily moving women. I see more women who are returning younger.” And what’s more, they’re “very supportive to other women. I hear our female students talking about it, and they really appreciate it. I think it stimulates generosity.”

Friday, July 1, 2016

The Joy of Story: Elizabeth Goudge, Part II

 (Writing fiction about a real-life character isn't as easy as you'd think.  I don't know where this is going, but I'm going with it.)

                             PROLOGUE:  MARCH 31, 1984

          “There you go,” Jessie said.  She set the tea tray carefully down on the little table.
          Elizabeth smiled up from where she sat.  She picked up the dented but still elegant-looking coin silver spoon…one of the survivors of the set given to her parents as a wedding gift…and stirred her tea, remembering that long-ago day when she’d first met Jessie in the Providence Cottage garden in Devon.  Mother had just died, she recalled, and I was so horribly alone…glad that her suffering was over but feeling cut off from everything, even my writing.  And then Jessie came in response to my letter, her hair like a horse chestnut a-fire and her eyes clear and direct, and the loneliness began to let go of me….
          Jessie’s hair had gone rusty, and her figure was a tad thicker; but the face with its broad cheekbones was dearer.  Twenty-one years together had worn away all their edges, and they could talk about anything because they knew each other and each other’s stories inside-out.  The young woman who’d come to her as a companion had, in a sense, become the daughter she would’ve like to have had.
          All this and more passed through Elizabeth’s mind as she studied Jessie’s tired comfortable face….”I’d give anything to be able to go out into the garden,” she said with sudden wistfulness.
          “I know, love.”  Jessie’s voice was sympathetic yet matter-of-fact.  “But it’s much too damp for you with your arthritis.  Give it time, Elizabeth – it’s not as though there’s anything much out there to look at yet.  It’ll be warm soon enough for you to sit out there and soak up the sun while I get busy with the flowers again.”
          “You’re just itching to get your hands back in that soil, aren’t you?”  Elizabeth played with half her sandwich:  she wasn’t really hungry, but Jessie had gone to such trouble.  “And the dirtier you get, the happier you are.”
          Jessie grinned.  “You know how it is with me, Elizabeth.  I’m my best self when I’m gardening.  I come alive like one of the flowers and lose all sense of time.  It’s like what you feel when you’re writing, I expect.”
          Elizabeth abandoned her sandwich and reached for the tea.  She sipped it appreciatively.  One of Jessie’s own special teas, brewed from the comfrey she grew in the garden and thickly laced with honey.  And as she drank, her mind flitted about, landing like a butterfly first on this thought and then on the next.  “I wonder what those readers of mine would think if they knew that you’re the one who gives me the information about flowers and herbs that I work into my books,”   Elizabeth chuckled.
          “Ah, some of that’s from you,” Jessie replied.  She slipped a cushion behind the older woman’s bony back.  “And the soul behind them, that’s all you.  I can’t lay claim to any of that.”
          Elizabeth glanced up.  She tried to keep a straight face, but the corners of her mouth quirked up.  “Why, Jessie, you’ve been reading my books!”
          Jessie had come into her employ never having read any of her novels, something that Elizabeth had found refreshing.  She had always loved the letters from her readers, of course, but she’d also worried that they might have this impossible-to-live-up-to stained-glass image of her.  People never could separate fact from fiction and were always so sure they knew you better than you knew yourself after reading your books.
          “Well, I was bound to come to it sooner or later, wasn’t I?”  Jessie demanded with mock fierceness.  She walked over to the front window and began twitching the drapes unnecessarily.  Elizabeth sat there, nursing her tea.  You got the best revelations by holding yourself still and waiting; she’d learned that much over the years.  “I like them, Elizabeth, I do at that,” Jessie said slowly.
          She tilted her head to the side with an expression that made Elizabeth think of the robin from The Secret Garden“You know what I think?  I think you’ve got to read your books more than once.  Once just for the story, a second time for the descriptions – they’re rich, they are, Elizabeth – and a third for the meaning.”  She smiled – a warm, awkward smile like a fire slow getting started.  “So I expect I’ll be reading and re-reading them for quite some time.  Rest of my life, probably.”
          Elizabeth folded her thin hands, letting them rest on the edge of the table.  It had been worth waiting over thirty years to hear Jessie make such a speech and sweeter than any review she’d ever gotten. 
          Jessie ducked back out into the kitchen, leaving Elizabeth staring out the window.  Such a gray day, she thought.  Tomorrow would be April.  Her month.  I’ll be 84, she told herself and shook her head.  I don’t feel 84.  She glanced down at her hands lying so veined and fragile against the table’s wood and grimaced.  Mother was right:  your  hands do show your age faster than the rest of you.  And, of course, there was the osteoarthritis.
          She reached down and stroked her skirt, her right hand moving against the fabric with a kind of rhythm despite its swollen joints.  She’d always liked pretty clothes and things.  Never had thought much of her own looks, although she had rather liked her figure.  Tall and slim, she’d been, a feminine version of her father.  And her hair.  It had been long and beautiful….
          My knees didn’t bend outward back then, and I walked straight, Elizabeth remembered.  That’s what he said I was, straight and slender as a birch.  A dryad come to life.    She found herself yearning over that young woman, unencumbered by osteoarthritis, bright of eye (no thought of cataracts then!), and in love for the first time.  And she found herself yearning over Julian, too.  He had gone to dust and ashes years ago, and yet he was more real to her now than anyone, excepting Jessie.
          He had been married.  That and her upbringing had kept them in check.  But the memory of his touch still sent the blood in her veins thrumming…still made her paper-thin skin feel as though it was about to burst into flame.  It’s surprising how hot a man’s lips can be when he desires you, and there are times you think his arms will crack your ribs, and yet you glory in it.  The words of Harriet, her people-wise old woman from The Rosemary Tree, wandered unbidden into her mind just then, and she smiled wistfully.  Funny how the characters from her novels and the people she’d known were beginning to blur together in this last stretch.  Maybe it was because so much of her life had gone into her books.
                  Or maybe it was simply because her characters had always been so real to her.   Harriet…the Eliot Family, whose trilogy she still loved best of all novels…Fronigna, her white witch.  She still remembered that day so long ago, when she’d seen the beautiful woman step through the hedge, then vanish, though Elizabeth had never taken her eyes off her.  And that had paved the way for her novel The White Witch.
          Harriet…the Eliots…Fronigna….There was a pattern forming, if she could just grab hold of it.  Moving about the room – any kind of physical activity – helped whenever she was wrestling with something.  And movement wasn’t something that came easily to her these days.  Elizabeth frowned, biting her lower lip.  Jessie would be cross with her for risking it.  But she had to try.
          Grabbing hold of her wooden frame, she slowly got to her feet, every muscle and tendon screaming in protest.  She teetered and almost pitched forward.  What if her barely healed leg gave way and she did further damage to her already disintegrating spine? But then, just as suddenly, she righted herself and inched over to the front window.  “’Creep-mouse, creep-mouse,’” she murmured, the words of the old childhood rhyme tap-dancing in her brain.
          Finally, she stood, leaning into the glass, her eyes greedily taking in the landscape.  Didn’t matter that it was sodden and without any redeeming touches of green.  That would change, and she would be here to welcome it once again.  The familiar walls fell away, and she stood – well, metaphorically speaking -- on the threshold of yearning, unable to tell where the pain left off and the joy began.  But, then, it had always been that way with her, even in the days when her love for Julian had colored the picture, spilling over the lines.  Nothing had ever been unmixed for her:  tears in the midst of laughter, blessing bleeding heartache and piercing her soul.  I, crucified, become real.  More words, and she wondered which of her poems they had come from.
          And then she remembered.  It was the poem she’d started to write after Julian had left Ely; unable to finish it, she’d torn it up and fed the pieces to the fire.  She hadn’t thought of it since.  But this little ghost of a line had somehow survived and come back to haunt her now…
          Elizabeth’s eyes traveled to the large crewel embroidery piece hanging to the right of the window.  She’d done it years ago, just as the arthritis had started creeping up on her.  Two stags rested face-to-face under a tree; flitting under the tree’s flower-starred branches  were several birds, able to move freely while her fingers grew more swollen and knobby and her joints screamed at her to stop reaching, stop moving…
          She hobbled over to the needlework and touched the satin-stitched wing of one of the birds.  “’But they that wait upon the Lord shall have new strength,’” she murmured.  “’They shall fly with wings as eagles; they shall run and not grow weary; they shall walk and not faint.’”
          She found herself thinking back to her stay in hospital a few years earlier.  How she’d been lying there in the public ward after her fall, feeling pretty weary herself – weary of the pain, weary of everything – when a poem had come to her.  And because writing had always been a spiritual thing for her, the poem had been a sign.  A finding – or, rather, a re-finding – of faith and brought on by something as simple as Ida, one of the volunteers, wheeling the tea trolley on that Easter morning, “rattling and banging,
          Swaying and singing down the long ward
          Like a ship in full sail was Ida
          Crying aloud the tidings of joy
          ‘Cup of tea with sugar?    With sugar”’
          …The risen sun filled the ward with light,
          We held out our hands for his bounty,”
Elizabeth murmured, remembering.  And the remembering sent out ripples, widening, ever widening….
          She turned from the embroidery piece, and there he was again.  Julian with his kind, amused eyes that missed very little…his lean face lined as it had been when she’d last seen him, then young and smooth as tanned leather.   The two faces flickered back and forth…a magic-lantern show…and she could not honestly say which she loved more.
          Loving him had been easier than breathing; the holding back had been the hard part.  And yet with them, the non-physical had been as powerful as the physical.  Perhaps more.  They had been circles overlapping one another, their souls somehow recognizing each other right from the start.  She reached one arthritic hand up, wanting to touch that face just one more time:  it flickered brightly, then gently faded away.
          Elizabeth sighed, her shoulders slumping.  She would’ve liked for Julian to stay longer.  She couldn’t always will him back, any more than she could always recall the words to her poems. Still, he seemed to come more often these days.  One of the perks of growing old, she supposed.
          Slowly, biting her lip, she made it back o her chair.  That certainly took the starch out of me, she thought, leaning her head back against the cool chintz fabric.  She glanced at the sandwich on her tray.  I’ll eat later.  A catnap is all I need now.
          She closed her eyes, letting the room wrap its silence around her.  Only as she was on the verge of dropping off did she become aware of a breeze flirting with her hair, which seemed oddly longer.  The curls were brushing against her neck, and the smell of sun-warmed raspberries teased her nose.  And then, suddenly, she was swaying and stumbling as she made her way along the tree-shaded path, the flecks of summer sunlight dancing on the leaves.  There was someone she had to find, but the trees confused her, there were so many of them, and they were so much taller than she remembered them being.
          Then Elizabeth saw him.  She had forgotten how slim and quick-footed her father had been in his younger days, had only remembered the frail old man she had sat with during his final illness.  He moved among the raspberry bushes now, picking the fruit and completely unaware of her.  Mother must’ve sent him to do that, she thought, knowing how much he hated doing anything domestic.  She hastened to catch up with him.
          But her legs had grown shorter and her skirts bunchier.  She tumbled over.  “Papa!”  she cried, but he was already disappearing among the nearby trees.
          Tears stung her eyes, but she blinked them back.  The sky was darkening, and the trees crowded around her, trying to keep her from him.  But she could still see a bit of the path…could just make out that long-legged well-loved figure disappearing down it….
          There was only one thing to do.  She picked herself up and ran on her stubby little legs after him.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Shifting Facets: Gigi Kast

(From The Way-Back Files -- Just Cats!, July/August 2000)

Sometimes the answers come to animal healer Gigi Kast through images. Sometimes a story will come to her, she explains, and “the healing may be in the mental story. The problem that’s going on, whether it’s emotional or physical, may have its beginning in another time. Because the emotional body is a timeless body, it doesn’t know when it [the problem] is happening.”

Basically, the Walpole, Maine woman tries to leave herself open to whatever the animal is psychically sending her way. “My healing is not of a typical straight-ahead kind,” she cautions. “I work intuitively and have applied that to animals….My strong spot is helping the spiritual or emotional bodies clear by spontaneously going to the root of the problem.” Often, Kast adds, a healing will occur over the phone while she talks with the animal’s owner, “and I energetically work with them. I channel however this is to happen – perhaps through sound, movement, or seeing the vibration shift with color.” For her, each is simply another facet of the prism.

A former emergency medical technician (EMT) and assistant midwife, she has been working as an animal communicator and energy-field healer for roughly the last 17 years. But even as a child, Kast felt a powerful connection with nature and had a number of intensely spiritual experiences. “I went through a period of time where I wasn’t validated,” she recalls. “But the images were always there. They don’t come all at once, and they come in different ways. You have one particular talent, and mine is direct knowing over the visual or the auditory….The whole animal thing has been in my life from the very beginning, especially with wild animals.”

Seventeen years ago, however, she had “a really in-my-face” psychic experience following her cat Ruby’s disappearance. After a few days of frantic and unsuccessful searching, Kast remembers saying to herself, “Damn! I’m going to find her in a dream.’” That night, she did: “The next morning, I found her body exactly where I had in the dream.”

Then several visual and auditory psychic occurrences took place, and Ruby appeared the front and center in all of them. “She wasn’t going to leave until we got the message, so her spirit stayed with us for awhile.” The message was that Kast would become pregnant in three months’ time…and she did. Kast believed that there was a spiritual connection between the cat and the child she was carrying: when her son was born, his hair was exactly the same color as Ruby’s fur. More than anything, it “showed me the interweaving between the animals, my psychic abilities, and humans.”

These otherworldly experiences involving animals – especially wild ones – kept happening. She’d drive by an animal lying dead in the road, “and I’d have to turn around or stop right there to help them pass over. Sometimes they have an issue they’re worried about – like they’ve left their babies – and you counsel and comfort them. Sometimes an animal would merge with me while I was working, and I would come to understand the animal by becoming the animal.” In that sense, her approach is organic or shamanic, Kast says. “You’re traveling to other realms, as in soul retrieval, bringing back a part of the soul that’s been lost or separated.”

She isn’t a homeopath. But she will sometimes suggest homeopathic remedies to clients, “then refer out because I basically don’t want to have that responsibility over the long haul.” She also makes use of flower essences.

A lot of what she does, however, simply falls within the category of “energy work.” As she puts it, “You’re energy-shifting and healing whatever the attitude or the problem is. So you go back and do a healing coupled with counseling.” She focuses on getting the energy to “shift, so often what comes through me is sound. That promotes a shift in the vibration. Sometimes the sound will come in and break up a block, just like the water vibrates and begins movement. The other thing that sound does is promote regeneration at a higher vibration.” Something as simple as a lullaby can be “a really healing thing.”

Actually, Kast’s messages from the animals – especially those who have passed on – can themselves be as simple and healing as a lullaby. Case in point: a recently euthanized 10-month-old kitten. “I see a strong golden light about her,” the healer says thoughtfully. “This is about loss and letting go, connected with light….This particular light has a very strong glow. That light, whether you’re in body or not, continues.”

(Update: Gigi Kast now lives in Velarde, New Mexico. And she’s still talking to animals.)

Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Joy of Story: Elizabeth Goudge

     (This is part of a work-in-progress.  Over the last few years, I have spent a considerable amount of time in Elizabeth's company, and I have learned a lot from her both as a writer and as a seeker of truth in all things spiritual.)

       Elizabeth deBeauchamp Goudge (1900 – 1984) has been called “the greatest ‘unknown’ writer of the 20th century” ( She was a bestselling author in England and America for four decades; her book Green Dolphin Country (published in this country as Green Dolphin Street) became the basis for a movie starring Donna Reed and Lana Turner. Goudge came back into the public eye in 1993, when Indrani Aikath-Gyaltsen plagiarized her novel The Rosemary Tree (1956).  Paul Kafka, who had initially given Aikath-Gyaltsen’s Crane’s Morning a positive review, conceded his mistake, saying, “If something comes from exotic parts, it’s read very differently than if it’s domestically grown….Maybe Elizabeth Goudge is a writer who hasn’t gotten her due.”
          Goudge’s readers have always been a loyal crew.  (It was through an Ontario reader that the plagiarism was discovered.)  Many of us met her for the first time in The Little White Horse (winner of the 1946 Carnegie Medal) and Linnets and Valerians when we were little:  we lost ourselves in the magic of the stories she wove and were totally at home with her because she could see things through a child’s eyes, something that she never lost the gift of.  And we found her again as adults in novels that were brimming over with magic of another kind – that of forgiveness and God’s grace.

          Elizabeth is a spiritual writer first and foremost:  she does not preach, just kindly and quietly follows her characters on their quests for truth and redemption, and that is where the power in her novels lie.  The soul mattered immensely to her – not just because she was a clergyman’s daughter but because she, a well-read free-thinking woman (one of her novels, The Middle Window, deals with reincarnation), was on a similar pilgrimage.  Her novels reflect that.  Her characters suffer, lose heart, lose their way, and sometimes even die.  What matters is that they find their soul-truth; ultimately, it is their spiritual triumph that matters.
          Elizabeth, who was so very open when it came to matters of the soul, was very reserved about her heart.   There is a brief reference in her memoir The Joy of Snow to a love affair when she was a young woman…glimmers of it in her novels…and a strong sense that this is a writer who knows all the shapes that love can take and who empathizes with her characters accordingly.  But that is all. So, for the purpose of this novel, I have put forward a theory of my own, one that I believe is in keeping with both the woman and the writer.  I think that Elizabeth would have understood.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Loving Till It Hurts: Women, Dementia, & Caregiving

During what turned out to be our last phone conversation, my Guideposts editor, Phyllis Hobe, talked about a book that she wanted to write: it was going to be based on her own experience as a caregiver to her stepfather, and she wanted to call it Loving Till It Hurts. She died before she had a chance to write a single word. That title haunted me, however. This is my small tribute to one of the best editors I ever worked with.


Dementia, my oldest brother once said, robs you of your personality. We had ample proof of that in the three-and-a-half years that the disease sucked away our mother’s personality, leaving her a stranger both to us and to herself. The most poignant image I have is of Mom sitting in her chair during her last holiday with us, holding gifts that she ordinarily would’ve delighted in – a pretty pink-and-white afghan, a stained-glass bluebird – and just staring us, her beautiful brown eyes completely blank.

For Rebecca Penarroya Blanchette, her mother’s dementia meant trading places with her. “I was feeding her,” she says. “I was changing her diaper. It was like a 48-hour work day.” When Blanchette came home from work, she would change her mom and brush her teeth before she even thought about starting supper.

Then there was the financial burden. “You’re not prepared for it,” Blanchette says. “They can live one year to twenty years. Every person is different.” The only silver – well, pewter – lining in the scenario was that her mother knew her most of the time. “I adored my mom. I am an only child. To see her slip away into dementia was devastating. She was good at everything.”

“The truth is, there is no knowing,” observes Carol Child, who writes under the pseudonym Samantha Mozart. “Every situation is different, and every moment within that situation is different: expect the unexpected.”

There’s a reason I start with three stories/quotes from a female perspective. Caregiving is, of course, largely a women’s issue, though some men do take on the role. “Yes, it’s a cultural thing,” agrees Patty O’Brian, the North Central Regional Director of the Alzheimer’s Association, Connecticut Chapter. “It goes back to roles in the family, roles in the community. Specifically in the Latino culture, it’s the female that takes on the role – it could be a daughter, a daughter-in-law, or a granddaughter.”

Most of the caregivers I’ve known over the years have been female. In fact, three out of five unpaid caregivers are women; 2.5 more women than men provide 24-hour care for someone with Alzheimer’s. And 20 per cent of the women caregivers with jobs have gone from working full-time to working part-time because of those caregiving duties.

“Within our complex system of long-term care, women’s caregiving is essential in providing a backbone of support,” maintains the Family Caregiver Alliance. “In fact, the value of the informal care that women provide ranges from $148 billion to $188 billion annually. Women provide the majority of informal care to spouses, parents, parents-in-law, friends and neighbors, and they play many roles while caregiving—hands-on health provider, care manager, friend, companion, surrogate decision-maker and advocate.”

In other words, we’re playing that same caretaker role that women played in earlier times. And the cost is very high, as the Alliance points out. Aside from the physical and emotional toll, caregiving “places a further strain on the precarious nature of many women’s retirement income, particularly since time out of the workforce does not only have short-term financial consequences. For most women, fewer contributions to pensions, Social Security and other retirement savings vehicles are the result of reduced hours on the job or fewer years in the workforce.”

“Anyone who has been a caregiver knows that no matter how much help you have, when you are in the middle of it, you are alone,” writes Mozart/Child in Begins the Night Music: A Dementia Caregiver’s Journal; “you feel guilty for not doing better – and you wonder if this moment, this hour, these hours will ever end, if you’ll ever get out; and when you do, then what?” Mozart’s book – and its sequel, To What Green Altar – should be required reading for all caregivers. She writes about a world peopled by health aides who don’t show up on time and doctors, hospice workers, and agencies with red tape coming out their ears, the better not to hear you with. About what it’s like watching her mother “gradually shutting down” and how she feels as though she’s “shooting in the dark, often blindsided and with the strength of a jellyfish.”

“One of the things we always repeat during our caregiving seminars and support group is that it’s O.K. to ask for help,” says Elizabeth Marquis, the director of marketing at McLean in Simsbury.

It’s important, too, she adds, to acknowledge that a loss has occurred, even though your loved one is still physically present. “With that dynamic, you can feel sad. You can feel the loss of that relationship. It’s O. K. to pause and notice how this change has impacted your life.”

It’s easy to forget all that when you’re in the trenches. And it’s even easier to let go of friends and activities you enjoy. But they’re precisely what caregivers need to hold on to most.

“It’s those relationships and those things you like to do that sustain you through the process of caregiving and beyond,” Marquis insists. “They sustain and support you and can provide balance and well-being.”

Connecticut now has a statewide respite care program, courtesy of O’Brian’s organization, the Area Agencies on Aging, and the Connecticut State Department on Aging. This program “offers relief to stressed caregivers by providing information, support, the development of an appropriate plan of care, and services for the individual with Alzheimer’s disease or related dementias.” (Remember, dementia is, as the Alzheimer’s Society in the United Kingdom points out, “an umbrella term....[and t]here are many different types of dementia although some are far more common than others.”)

Under the Connecticut program’s guidelines, you, the caregiver, can go the traditional route and obtain said services through agencies. Or you may hire a companion/aide of your own choosing. Either way, there is a maximum of $7,500 in services available on a yearly basis, subject to an Agency on Aging Care Manager’s approval. The individual you’re caring for may also receive a yearly maximum of 30 days of out-of-home respite care services. (This does not, however, include adult day care, which is a godsend to many caregivers.)

You need a doctor’s written statement that yes, said individual does have dementia. And then there are the finances. You have to show that the applicant/patient has income of $44,591 or less and liquid assets of $118,549 or less. Income includes Social Security (minus the Medicare Part B premiums); Supplemental security income; Railroad retirement Income; veterans’ benefits; and any other one-time or recurring payments. Liquid assets include checking and savings accounts; stocks and bonds; IRAS and certificates of deposit; and any other holdings that you can convert into cash.

Last, but not least, a co-payment of 20% of the cost of services is required unless the Care Manager decides to waive it on account of financial hardship. So, this is not necessarily “easy money.”

Caregiving may be a women’s issue, but so, unfortunately, is dementia. Nearly two-thirds of the 3.2 million people suffering from Alzheimer’s are female. Women in their 60s are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s as they are breast cancer. “Once a woman hits 60, the figures really change in regard to breast cancer and dementia,” observes O’Brian. “At age 65, women without Alzheimer’s have a one-in-six chance of developing Alzheimer’s; for men, it’s one in eleven.”

Alzheimer’s is considered the sixth leading cause of death in this country, ”but we should be higher,” she adds. “We still have a lot of questions and not a lot of answers. We still have a long ways to go.” For instance, nearly of quarter of men and women mistakenly believe that “Alzheimer’s must run in your family. But everyone is at risk. This is not a disease that discriminates.” And yet Alzheimer’s research is significantly underfunded compared to other diseases.

So caregivers slog on the best they can. On a personal level, you can’t help wondering where the person is that you knew so well. Occasionally, you see firefly glimmers of that old self.  "It is difficult to watch a loved one’s life slowly slipping away,” observes Mozart/Child. “[I]t is hard to know what goes on in the mind of a dementia patient – other than ‘movie trailers’ of seeking lost loves, of being lost and trying to find the subway and the way home.”

Blanchette has her own response to what has been called “the Alzheimer’s crisis”: a silver bracelet that she has designed in her mother’s memory. Twenty per cent of the proceeds go toward Alzheimer’s research. It’s a very simple bracelet with a single rectangular charm that reads, “Dementia, find a cure one bracelet at a time.”

-- Alzheimer’s Helpline. (Lines are open 24/7). 1-800-272-3900.

-- For more information on the Connecticut Statewide Respite Program, call 1-800-994-9422 to be connected with the Area Agency on Aging representative nearest to you.

-- Rebecca Penarroya Blanchette’s bracelets can be purchased at

-- Samantha Mozart’s books can be purchased on