Thursday, March 17, 2016

Brain research and buoyancy and blacked out boxes

Every Monday evening I attend a compulsory foster training course for three hours. We're a fairly large group of people who represent a wide range of society: there are single parents, newly married couples, older couples (gay and straight), and grandparents; there are people who work in professional capacities, as full-time home makers, or who are unemployed or under-employed; some of us have post-graduate qualifications, others didn't graduate high school. We chat easily about our lives, share our commitment to fostering and offer one another support. The meetings are facilitated by the Department for Children and Families, a team of people who are, in all fairness, already stretched beyond measure by the increasing numbers of children coming into the foster care system. Together we are working through a photocopied pack of information which has been written someplace else by someone else. Using lots of bullet points and carefully worded case studies, this pack requires us to engage in pre-defined activities and to learn lots of 'facts'.

Despite doing well at school and achieving a bagful of qualifications over subsequent years, I am not a good student. There are many different learning styles - visual, kinetic, auditory etc. - but my learning style is probably best described as 'difficult'. I don't mean to be difficult, it's just that I have an aversion to 'facts'. (As an excuse for all my question-raising and belligerence, it might be worth pointing out here that the plausibility of Eugenics in the twentieth century was fuelled by 'facts' drawn from scientific research on heredity in animal and plant husbandry while Gregor Mendel's work on genetics provided the 'facts' necessary to support racial segregation in many US states). 'Facts' are dangerous things, particularly when they are borrowed from research which isn't fully understood and used without caution or self-reflection. The philosopher, Karl Popper, stressed that, 'Our knowledge can only be finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite'; but times change and, rather than philosophy or sociology, contemporary childcare advice seems to draw 'facts' almost exclusively from introductory handbooks to neuroscience.

I don't know very much about neuroscience and the neuroscientists I most admire also claim to not know much about neuroscience; unfortunately, they are in the minority. Neuroscience affords a seductive language for talking about emotional responses and learning. Through the use of brightly colored scans of various brains - baby's brains, rat's brains, criminal brains etc. -  and through the development of an assortment of PowerPoint diagrams, 'experts' are able to show, for example, how children benefit from loving attention and an absence of stress in the early years of their development. To pardon the pun, this seems a no-brainer, but the fostering pack presents this as a new research finding within neuroscience. To summarize: there is a highly publicized case study of rats which apparently proves beyond doubt that rats which (who?) have been handled even once during their infancy have active neural pathways which are dormant in rats which have never been handled. Although we are talking about rats, folks, we are then encouraged to make a moral leap of faith from the claim that these particular active neural pathways are GOOD things, to their correlation with the 'arousal/relaxation attachment/bonding cycle' (shown above) which underpins contemporary understandings of early childhood care. All of this leads to a crowd-pleasing finale in which we claim, de facto, that: (a) pregnant mothers should not experience stress (because it messes with the unborn child's cortisol levels and can cause permanent changes in their neural pathways); (b) newborns should be comforted every time they cry; and (c) some of the damage experienced in early childhood can cause irreparable damage in a child's brain.

When I was pregnant with my first daughter, Gina Ford's Contented Little Baby Book was a bestseller. Ford advocated (in fact, I think she might still advocate, although her books now sell in smaller numbers) teaching children to sleep through the night by leaving them to cry, and teaching them to eat by making them adhere to a routine of structured feeding times rather than giving a child food because they had indicated they were hungry. This approach is similar to Truby King's parenting advice from the 1930; he advocated a strict regimen of building character through avoiding giving babies attention on their own terms. In the time between King and Ford, the pendulum of popular thought swung to an opposite extreme where Dr. Spock advocated a wholly 'child-centered' approach. Generally speaking, I suspect there are strengths and weaknesses to both Ford/King's routinized approach and Spock's/the contemporary 'baby-knows-best' approach; my quarrel, however, is with the use of partial evidence to suggest the superiority of one approach over another, and the attempts to limit our thinking within the boundaries of one tiny area of scientific understanding. (Incidentally, given that I dislike routines almost as much as I dislike 'facts', my daughters didn't have a routine and we muddled along on the principle of 'whatever makes the most people happy'. It worked for us, which gives me precisely no grounds from which to generalize!)

A comparison might be made with Physics. In Physics, the equation for buoyancy is, I think, Fb = ρ ρ g V. If one was designing life rafts for an ocean-going vessel, it would probably be advantageous to have a good understanding of buoyancy equations. If you're trying to evacuate a sinking vessel, having an understanding the principles of Physics is of more limited use. My grandfather spent two days in the Pacific after his ship, the HMS Exeter, was sunk. He stayed alive by sharing a floating table with another Marine. I'm fairly sure my grandfather couldn't have worked out the equation for why the table bobbed along, just below the surface of the waves, but, in that instance and at that time, it worked for him.

My main fear about the current popular use of neuroscience to explain children's behavior is the risk that it justifies dictating limited ways to respond to a child's behavior. In a teacher conference for a boy I mentored, I was told that the cortisol levels flooding this boy's brain meant there was no way to teach him right from wrong during periods of anger. The teaching staff used lots of words during this meeting which I didn't fully understand, but the basic explanation seemed to be that the boy's anger affected his brain by compromising the neurons in the hypothalamus. This school subsequently suspended the boy for unruly behavior when he threatened to kill their martial arts teacher (the boy later explained he had been speaking hypothetically about a move he had seen in a Jackie Chan movie; he is a smart boy who can use words like 'hypothetically' and talk happily about the relative merits of Jackie Chan over other martial arts experts; but he doesn't always have the wisdom to let people know when he's joking rather than when he is raging). I have seen the boy angry but never out of control, which all contributes to my sense that I don't understand the hypothalamus at all. The boy's therapist has read a different book on neuroscience and thinks his problems relate to ways in which post traumatic stress disorder have shrunk this boy's left superior parietal lobule. She might be right. When the boy gets upset, I find talking about Justin Bieber helps; that's the advantage of not being a specialist.

Because I am not a specialist, I am leery of looking too closely into neuroscience, or adopting a normative position regarding how we parent. I suspect most of us are just doing the best we can; some 'bests' are more effective than others. On Friday afternoon, I met a distraught woman and, because there was no-one else around to help her, we went out for a hot chocolate. I hoped I might be able to direct her to some person or organization who could offer some kind of proper help. We are around the same age and we were similarly dressed in sweaters and jeans. She was wearing make-up, I wasn't. She took a diary out of her bag - one of those cheap pocketbook diaries you can buy for less than a dollar in a drugstore. She opened it to March and there were lots of blank boxes marking out each day. Only two boxes were colored in: one with a fluorescent marker, the other with a black biro which had been scribbled across the box with such force the paper had torn. The woman chewed her nails, bit at a flap of skin which had worked loose around her thumb, and told me it was her son's birthday the next day. He didn't live with her. He had never lived with her. The state had taken him off her after he was born. She had had several other babies, all of whom had been raised in care. I thought of the foster sons who stay with us sometimes and the children I've mentored and the homeless youth I have worked with, and I thought of all the anger I have felt towards some of their mothers: if their mothers had been different - better, calmer, healthier - those children would have had a better life, I thought. But that anger is nothing more than a different lens through which to see the world, and the woman sat in front of me was crying into her hot chocolate.

We made a plan to post this son a birthday card after we finished our drinks. I told her I would try to find the details of a support group available for women who had had children taken into care. I didn't ask her what she'd done, as it didn't seem relevant. She pointed at the blacked out box sitting among all the empty days of March and told me one of her children had killed himself on that date. I didn't ask what he'd done, as it didn't seem relevant. I picked up a copy of the local free press and gave her the number of a hotline for Suicide Survivors so that she could talk to an expert if she wanted to; sometimes you need someone better trained to help you.

On Monday night, I tried to be a better student - less argumentative, more accepting of the evidence; it's important to learn from the experience and expertise of other people. But every time I looked at the PowerPoint diagrams of cycles and neural pathways I saw a scribbled out square on the blank page of a diary, and I haven't found a way to understand that yet.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Rage, pathos, pity and skiing

Until recently, I have been able to treat my spinal cord as a difficult adolescent: I have lived with it, endured it, and trusted it to either bugger off at some point in the future or to start behaving better. But it's nearly 20 months since I broke my neck and the adolescent looks as though he might be here to stay. Iola has baptized him 'Diplodoscious', a name as good as any other, and he lives with us on a daily basis, an awkward and spectacularly complex mixture of electrical impulses and chemical coding which provokes rage and pathos and pity inside me in almost equal measure.


I am not going to stop doing the things I love because my broken neck makes them more difficult, but sometimes my broken neck whoops my ass. Literally. I have no clear sensation in my left foot so, more than once, I have needed to come down mountainsides on my caboose because I can't trust my left foot in the places where the path is hidden by leaves. I need x-ray vision, a walking pole, and hiking pants with reinforced patches across my bum. It didn't use to be like this.


However much money I spend on soap and however much I fiddle with the temperature of the water, it hurts when I wash my hands. It will probably always hurt when I wash my hands. I do a lot of hand-washing because my children are petri dishes of colds and flus and vomiting bugs; my chickens contain an entire poetic lexicon of potentially deadly diseases - salmonella and histoplasmosis and cryptococcosis and more; and our random menagerie of household pets share a familial desire to poop copiously in various shapes and places. That's a lot of hand-washing; that's a lot of pain. My accident has also meant my hands have grown old before the rest of me. Like a little old lady, I need to take a few extra moments when I buckle the dog's collar, or turn the key in the lock; I need to run lids of jars under hot water; light bulbs tend to shatter when I try to change them because I have no way to regulate my grip. Most of the time, I can live with this - my hands got old before me? Meh! I can still write and knit and flap them about me as I chivy the girls out of the house in the morning - but last week I cried in the check-out queue of the supermarket because I couldn't get the coins out of my purse.


I've never thought pity is a particularly useful emotion. I believe in having compassion for and empathy with those less fortunate than myself. But sometimes I pity myself. Not often. Not often at all. But sometimes.


Two weeks ago, I phoned the Smugglers' Notch Adaptive Ski Program (SNAP) and introduced myself. I explained about my neck and my nerve damage and my tendency to fall over unaided while both feet are on the ground. I told them I wanted to learn to ski.
'What level of skiing were you at before you broke your neck?' asked the administrator.
'I hadn't,' I said.
There was a long pause before the administrator said, 'So, you broke your neck and then you decided you wanted to learn to downhill ski?'
I said yes, and she said I needed to meet S-.

S- spent nearly 27 years of his adult life captaining an Atlantic fishing boat, then he became a born-again Christian and dedicated the rest of his life to helping people with disabilities to farm, during the summer months, and to ski during the winter. He's blunt as a mallet, irascible, troublesome and an absolutely fabulous teacher. He's the kind of man who'll promise candy to someone else's ski class of Kindergarten children if they promise to lie down in the snow and refuse to get up; he'll not back down when he thinks he's right but he would never ski past any incident without first checking everyone was ok. At the moment he's living through the final stages of pancreatic cancer: while he calls himself a 'dead-man walking' he also tells me he isn't quite ready to go yet. He's got a job to do - there are a few children he's been working with over the years whom he wants to spend another winter with, and he wants to make me fall in love with skiing.

As well as the skis on my feet, I now have two tiny skis attached to my arms via crutch-like contraptions. They're called outriggers. 'The thing is,' says S-, pointing to all the people under our ski lift, 'all skiing is adaptive.' He describes how each person is skiing differently, using their body differently, personalizing their equipment. Just because I have four skis doesn't mean he's not going to expect me to learn properly.

My left leg doesn't have sufficient coordination for me to be able to slow down by making a snow plow (to borrow Iola's terminology, a snowplow means making a pizza slice with my skis). S- listens, shrugs and tells me I shouldn't be snow plowing anyway. 'You should be parallel skiing,' he says. 'It looks better and it will make you a better skier.'

S- makes me use the edges of my skis to make sweeping turns down the hills, he makes me twist my body and keep my legs close together so I can slalom, he makes me practice ankle pivots and hockey stops.

At the bottom of the run, we get into the chair lift and swing out over the snow and the slope and the dark edgings of the trees, and we talk about life and living and pain and struggle and the wonders of sailing across oceans and the best ski runs he's ever had. At the top of the hill, we ski off the lift and pause for a moment, looking out towards the mountains and feeling the snow on our faces, then we chase the slope back down to the bottom.

Perhaps it is because I don't know what it's like to ski without a broken neck, or perhaps it's something more profound, but at the end of a morning's skiing, my cheeks ache from smiling. All that other stuff - my little old lady hands and the rage and the pathos and the pity - are smaller somehow, because everything else is so big.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015


My writing buddy Isha's early morning run
 through Lodi Gardens in New Delhi, India. 
Since moving to America, I have become a fan of Facebook. I love checking in at the start of the day and finding posts from friends and family about their exploits. Many of these include running in some shape or form. Two of my brother-in-laws are experienced marathon-runners, another - Stephen Corke - will be running the London marathon in May to raise funds for Arthritis Care (if you'd like to sponsor him, please let me know!). Photos are posted from training sessions across the world, and I've cheered friends and family along when races post virtual real-time updates.
My brother-in-law, Sam Ainsley, preparing for the starting line of the
Grindleford Gallop (21 miles, with a 3,000ft ascent), in Derbyshire, UK. 
Since school, I have only participated in one race, although the term 'race' is altogether too impressive a term for the small collection of writers and poets who gathered together at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in August 2015. The course had been sketched out in pen on the back of some recycled sheets of paper and fitted closely into the genre of fiction. Eventually, after heading off in different directions, we reconvened at the Conference Center to discuss and compare our routes. Prizes were given out at random to people whose stories were closest to the 4 miles they were meant to have run.
Su Nutton, one of my best friends from my school days, after completing
 the London marathon. She lives and trains in the UAE. 
I take pride in the running achievements of my friends and family, and celebrate their every success. After my accident it seemed I would be unlikely to run again: there were concerns about the impact on my neck and the risks associated spinal cord damage which has left me with limited sensation down my left side. For a while I worked with a physical therapist - let's call him the Doctor - who voiced concerns about my involvement in any physical activity. During each hourly session I was required to lie on the therapy couch and tense my left hamstring repeatedly while the Doctor told me my body was out-of-synch, unbalanced, and non-symmetrical. He is a large man with a booming, authoritative voice; he wears expensive waistcoats and likes to put a lot of letters after his name. Perhaps I would be there still if I hadn't met another of his patients in the waiting room who whispered to me, in a deeply worried voice, that she had to attend twice weekly physical therapy sessions because her body was out-of-synch, unbalanced and dangerously non-symmetrical.
After a break of 8 years from her marathon running, my writing buddy Sharon is racing again. Here, she has just crossed the finish line of a 5K in New York, her first in many years. Since I began this blog, she has run in her second.  
I wanted to start running again this summer. We planned a huge family holiday across Europe, and I imagined running with my daughters in cities in Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and France, but it didn't go well. For a while it seemed the Doctor was right: I strained my left calf and struggled with the increase in the pain in my neck. It was tempting to think about returning to the Doctor's couch, from where I could have announced the impossibility of running again. But running isn't easy for any of my friends, wherever they are in the world: they battle injuries and days when they lack motivation, they struggle to fit training sessions into busy lives. Motivated by the Facebook posts and blessed by a little serendipity, I found a formidable trainer called Nakeeya who runs Spartan Races and believes our bodies can be wonderful things. She's doesn't share the Doctor's fascination with my left hamstring, but is interested in how my body can move as a whole, both because of and despite my broken neck and nerve damage.
My trainer and friend, Nakeeya, doing what she loves. 
Recently, I've started running by stealth. I put my running shoes by the front door in the evening so that, in the chaos of the morning, they will end up on my feet. I trick myself into thinking my running bras are the only ones which fit well. I put my jeans away in their drawers and leave my running pants on the floor by my bed so that they become the things I'm most likely to wear. And then, after dropping the children off at school, I find myself on the dog walk fully kitted out for a run and, even if my neck hurts and I feel stiff and sore, I find it easy to convince myself to just run a few strides. And then a few more. And so it goes.

I love running. I run for the sense of space between the foot falls when I am suspended in the air; I run so that the sounds of the world become muted by the rhythm of my breathing; I run because it slows my thinking until I hold only the thread of a single idea in my mind (perhaps other runners can think about lots of things when they're running - I can't. When I try, I fall over.) I run because I love the sensation of having been thoroughly cleansed, inside and out, at the end of a run; and I run because sometimes there are moments of magic. This morning, I ran through the woods and a red-tailed hawk swooped above me through the trees: just me, the dog, and a red-tailed hawk. We were all looking for something, I guess, and while I love seeing it written into the faces posted on Facebook, it feels great to be out there looking for myself.

Monday, August 24, 2015


He wasn't with us for long: a foster child, a troubled teen, a child who can't read or write, a future statistic of poverty and social exclusion.
I'm required by law to keep his identity secret, but his story belongs to children whose names begin with every letter of the alphabet. Today I'll call him J.

The mother is a drug addict.
The step-father is a drug addict.
The father is a drug addict.
The grandmother is a drug addict.
(More than 10% of Vermont's population are drug addicts: the number has doubled in the past ten years. The most common route into drug abuse begins with pain meds prescribed by one's doctors and ends with heroin. It is cheaper to buy heroin in this state than marijuana).

The mother was and is and might always be abused by the step father.
(Among other things J's stepfather has: burnt down J's mother's house; destroyed everything the family owned; broken restraining orders which should have kept him away from the family as they moved from motel to motel; abused J.)
J's mother runs away. Goes back. Runs away. Goes back.
She always goes back.
We cannot be surprised that she, in turn, abuses her children (the oldest is old enough to leave home, the youngest is a baby).
Social workers removed J from his mother's home several years ago. They sent him to live with his father.
The father is a violent man.
(Among other things J's father has: smashed everything in J's room; smashed everything J thought was precious; smashed J's teeth so that they are still broken in his mouth.)
Social workers removed J from his father's house over a year ago. They sent him to live with his grandmother.
J does not speak of the abuse he suffered at his grandmother's hands but, after the court hearing, she became the only family member he is not allowed to see in the future.
J is now one of 1326 children who are in the custody of the Department of Children and Families (DCF) in Vermont.
That is 0.2% of the state's population. Each day, DCF try to find 60 new foster placements.

The anger inside me is not for J's family. The mother is a victim of domestic violence and the actions of each of the family members suggest they also had dysfunctional childhoods which have damaged them almost beyond repair. (I include 'almost' in that sentence for my own sanity: because if there is no hope of repair, then what can we offer to families like these?) Blaming them is as futile as picking the scab off a wound. In all likelihood, J will one day treat his children in the same way and what will happen then for the love I have for him now?

And the anger I feel tonight is not directed at the social worker responsible for J's case, even though he has given us a long litany of broken promises and guilt trips, even though he told us J would only stay with us for an emergency 3 day stay but had still failed to arrange a new placement for the boy 3 weeks later. The social worker knew today was the very latest, the absolute latest, the ultimate latest we could host the boy, but this afternoon he stood in front of J and said it was a shame I no longer wanted him in our home.

The anger I feel tonight is not even directed at the woman with the dark flowing hair and the expensive bike who chatted to me in the park afterwards. She listened, head slightly cocked to one side because she was an 'artist', while I said I was sad because I'd needed to end my foster son's placement. She told me about two of the women at her school who fostered and who would never send a foster child to another home: even if their oldest daughter was about to start high school the next day and the weeks ahead were dominated with school meetings; even if the foster son's special school was an hour's drive from their home; even if their husband worked away from home and their desks were covered in drafts of a novel they hoped to complete. These women, she told me, were angels.
'Have you ever fostered?' I asked.
'I've thought about it a lot,' she said, 'and I think I would be very good about it but I had a cancer scare last year and I'm an artist.'
'I'm sorry,' I said.
'It turned out to be nothing,' she said, raising one exquisitely plucked eyebrow, 'but my son is sensitive.'
Then she shrugged and tossed her beautiful dark hair and got onto her beautiful bike and cycled away, no doubt condemning me for the damage I have done to J by ending his time with us.

No, I'm not angry with any of them tonight, but I am angry.
I am angry with the lack of support given to foster families, the shortfalls in funding which deny foster children the therapeutic help and support they so badly need, the deficiencies in planning and the excessive workloads placed upon social workers.  
I am angry because there is a direct correlation between children who are abused and neglected and the homeless and prison populations of this country; and I am angry with the inevitability of it all. If a child is abused and frightened, stripped of self-esteem and hope, denied security and safety, then we cannot be surprised when they fail to grow into well functioning members of society.
I am angry because the State budgets $50,000 a year to keep an inmate in prison, and only $30,000 a year to support a child in DCF state custody. An additional $20,000 might provide J with mentoring and counselling and - Goddammit - some chance at having a bit of childhood before he becomes another alphabet letter among the prison population.
And I am angry because J has done nothing wrong. He has done nothing to deserve the life he is living; nothing to warrant the neglect and abuse and violence he has both suffered and witnessed; nothing to earn him a position among the ranks of the unlucky. His story is no different from so many others and no child deserves that.

I don't write to assuage my guilt - I will do that alone - but I write to share the anger which tastes like sulphur on my tongue.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

"It's been a funny old year..."

When I was growing up my family used to watch a sit-com called 'Open All Hours'. At the end of each episode the main character, Arkwright, reflected upon the events of the day while clearing away his shop front. "It's been a fer-funny old day," he'd say, "And that's a lot of sky to be a shopkeeper under." The comedy documented the minutiae of life in a world where very little happened: the occasional eccentric customer, a cash register which always trapped people's fingers, the passionate unrequited love Arkwright held for Nurse Gladys.

I've got a touch of the Arkwright's this evening.

On May 25th 2014 I turned 41. I was living in an apartment in Cambridge, MA, just up the road from Harvard; I rode everywhere on my big orange cargo bike and worked on my second novel for at least 3 hours a day as well as producing a regular column for Spare Change News, the local homeless newspaper. Back then, I was nearly 5'9".

Now I'm only just 5'7", I drive everywhere in an SUV, and my drafts of novels gather dust in a corner of my study because I no longer have the endurance to parent my two girls and my foster son and to sit down and write books. I live on the side of a mountain in Vermont, a long way from colleges and cycle paths and coffee shops and the person I used to be.

I love Vermont and I am happy to be here. I love watching the mountain change her colors through the course of each day; I love the evening chorus of barred owls and blue jays and the constant two-note calling of the chickadees; I love the smells of the pine forest and the meadows and the metallic spring rush of the river. This past year I have been more aware of seasonal changes than ever before: the flourish of autumn, the colors of fresh snowfall, the skid and slip of spring mud on dirt roads, the sudden explosion of plants and weeds, the promise of fireflies and blueberries in July.

I've also been more aware of time passing because of the accident. It's 11 months since I broke my neck, 10 months since I re-learnt to walk, 9 months since two of my dearest friends provoked me, with laughter and art and endless camp fires, out of the dark place which had begun to surround me. The bouts of rage and hopelessness associated with my traumatic brain injury began to abate around 8 months ago and for several months my recovery rocketed along. And then it seemed to stop. This isn't unique to me - anyone with a major injury notices colossal improvements to begin with, if they are lucky, but then things plateau as any improvement become so minuscule as to be almost impossible to notice.

I can live with being 2 inches shorter than I used to be. It's unfortunate my head now topples forward slightly like a little old lady, but it gives me a good view of my feet and that's useful because I don't have many nerve-endings down there now. I can live with the low level of pain which accompanies me through each day and I've been working hard to regain the strength I used to have (I've started training with my daughter's taekwondo class and I've hired a personal trainer to try and remind me what my shoulders used to feel like.) The thing I don't like living with is the loss of my "cycle-ability". I've tried (every month I try!) but I can't ride my bikes. After a few hundred yards, I feel as though someone is drilling into the base of my skull (which, given the amount of metalwork I now have in there, is probably a reasonable sensation). I've blogged about this before and generally I don't like to complain, but I went to see a new doctor a month ago. We'd not met before. In the US, people have annual medical examinations and my new doctor eyeballed the notes from my 2014 annual examination - how were my shin splints, she asked?  Had I followed the doctor's advice and cut down on my running? How were my eyes? Did I have any new medical concerns?

When I talked about the things which had happened in the past year she was flabbergasted, and when I told her about my despair about not being able to ride my bike she started to cry. I started to apologize for sounding ungrateful, but she was already on the phone. Vermont is a small state, her friend is the Director of Occupational Therapy, a friend of her friend is a man called Eric - he's a physiatrist who is also a keen cyclist. He likes a challenge.

This evening, Arkwright-like, I have been tidying away my daughters' bikes from the front lawn and reflecting on things. In the shed are the bikes I used to ride, the bikes Nathan rides, the tandem which Nathan's grandmother bought us for our wedding, the bike neighbors generously gave us so that our foster son would also have something to ride. Eric is working on a bike solution for a newly-42 year old woman who lives on the side of a mountain with a broken neck. He's hopeful and his solution will be a birthday present to myself.

"It's been a fer-funny old year and that's a whole lot of sky to be a Zoe under."

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

And then there were 5...

As a family, we've never been people to let the grass grow under our feet. We like change, we thrive on the new, we believe in grasping every opportunity with both hands and shaking it, just to see what might happen. We've also always known we have more than enough love to go around and enough space in our lives to welcome another person or two into our family. I learnt this when Iola was born: we didn't need to more carefully ration out the love we had so everyone had an equal amount, we just had more love because there was Iola. That's the way love works, isn't it. Love isn't quantifiable, it just is, and the more you throw out into the universe, the more you seem to get in return.
One of the reasons we bought a bigger house than we needed was that we imagined sharing it one day with someone who needed a home. I've wanted to foster for a long time but I wanted to wait until the girls were settled and resilient and totally on board with the idea.

I used to write a regular column for Spare Change News, New England's homeless newspaper. I based it on vendors' life stories. Over coffee (and normally donuts, because this was Boston and all the best conversations take place over donuts) vendors would tell me about their lives. Nearly all of them had spent at least part of their childhoods in care. It doesn't matter which country you are in - the UK, the US, Australia - the statistical trends are the same: children who have been in care are more likely to have lower educational successes, higher likelihoods of homelessness and poverty and drug use, and far higher risks of poor health. Newspaper stories tend to look at the adults in this picture: the people in prison, the drug addicts, the shadowy criminals whom we rarely see but who are the reason we lock our doors at night; but I think, instead, we should be looking at the children who don't have safe, permanent homes and who become likely to grow into these people. That there are national shortages of foster families - in the UK, in the US, in Australia - correlates with young people growing towards marginalized, disaffected lives. Can you imagine as a child not having any kind of security? Not having a hot meal each day, not having clothes to wear which fit you, not having anyone who cares whether you go to school or not, not having a safe place to sleep at night? And sometimes this is a short-term problem: the family has faced a crisis and just needs a short period of support to get back into a position where they can provide the love, security and comfort a child needs; and sometimes the problems are more chronic and require a greater period of support or an alternative solution. But the bottom line for me is that it's not the child's fault. I've never seen a baby who is evil, I've never met a child who is truly 'bad', I don't understand why some children have fabulous childhoods with all that love and material stuff and great opportunities, while other children's lives can be defined by how much they have suffered. Rather than worrying that our young people are growing into people we don't want them to become, perhaps we should be questioning the kinds of care we offer to the children who are vulnerable within our society.

Anyhow, we had our initial conversation with the Department for Children and Families (DCF) a few weeks ago. They looked around the house, talked about fire extinguishers, and listened to the rant I've outlined in the paragraph above. We explained our life plan, such as it was - sometime in the Fall we might be interested in providing respite fostering to a child around the same age as our own children, mainly at weekends... The DCF people smiled and nodded and ticked boxes on their paperwork and it was all very pleasant. Less than 72 hours later they telephoned to tell us about K. K needed a home. Immediately. 

We said 'yes', of course. We said, 'Bring him over.' We said, 'If he wants to be here, he's welcome.' And it's a short term thing because he's one of the lucky ones whose family loves him to bits and can't wait to be able to have him back home with them. But that's the funny thing about love, because our hearts have opened to him too. It feels as though he's always been here. He's the one to make Iola laugh when she needs her vaccinations by plonking his baseball cap on her head so that she can't see; he's the one to jolly Maya along when she's in a bad mood because her new braces mean she can't play her French Horn as well as she used to. He's taught the dog a long list of new tricks; he's given the chickens new names; he's rebuilt the tree house and beaten Nathan at pool; according to Iola, who knows about these things, he swims like a killer whale, and he fills the house with his catchphrase - "I've got this!"

He's not a perfect kid, and we're all breathing a sigh of relief over that because who is? But we love having him here while life straightens itself out and maybe, if we're lucky, it might make a little difference to his life. It's certainly made a big difference to our lives, but then - as I've already said - that's the way love works, isn't it.  

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Curious Incident of the Sirens in the Night-time

There was another winter weather advisory last night - snow storms and strong winds. For several months now Vermont has been breaking records for the lowest temperatures ever recorded in the State. Because the snow isn't melting we have several feet on the ground and the trails through our woods are almost impassable.

Karla, my beautiful Mexican friend, was very worried when she learnt we were moving to Vermont. Did we know about "de Narcos", she asked. Vermont, she had heard, was chock-full of crack labs and drug dealers.

Since moving here in May 2014, the only State Troopers (cops) we have seen are parked near Stop signs to catch the people who don't stop, and parked on roadside verges to catch the drivers who are speeding. They're nice guys who spend a lot of time in their cars.

Last night I was woken, just after falling asleep, by the sound of police sirens. Lots of police sirens. A half-thought passed through my sleep-fuddled mind: isn't it great to not live in the city anymore. When we were based in Cambridge, MA, the fire station was at the end of our road and every night was filled with the sounds of emergency vehicles. In Cambridge I would go back to sleep because the sirens were normal, but now we're the last house before the road peters out into a winter car parking area and there has never been a need for the police to come here.

I hoped my neighbors were safe, I hoped there wasn't an electrical emergency, I hoped there hadn't been a car crash...

I rang our nearest (and dearest) neighbors, who were fine.
I checked our electrics, which were fine.
I looked out the window at the flashing blue lights and listened to the sirens wailing.
And then I thought, 'de narcos'. Why else would there be so many cops? So many cars? My imagination, already warmed up by my early-sleep-dreaming, ran ahead: right now the police would be intercepting a drug deal and 'de narcos' would be running through the cover of the forest to wreak havoc upon my house and family, because where else would they go when a blizzard was blowing and the temperatures were well below freezing?

I'm not easily frightened. Most weeknights I'm here alone with the children. I have escorted snakes out of our downstairs loo, chased mice from the cellar, given the raccoon his marching orders when he took up a position in the tree outside our kitchen window. When we've lived in cities (too many cities to list here) I have worked with people at the margins of society: the dispossessed, homeless, unemployable, drug addicted and mentally ill. I've spent time with those we label as 'scary' and 'dangerous' and I've always been committed to listening to the voices of the broken people who stand behind the scary 'bogeymen' our society makes out of them.

But, last night, I was terrified at the thought of a whole tribe of 'de narcos' staggering across our blizzard-blasted meadow while the police stared hopelessly at 'de narco's' abandoned cars. I phoned 911...

... which might sound extreme to anyone except the person who answered the phone.

'What is your emergency?' asked the woman with the Vermont accent.
'I don't know if it is an emergency,' I began.
'Oh, you're at 122 Mountain Road, aren't you,' she said, as though we'd just bumped into one another at the supermarket. Either her computer had immediately tracked the number and location of the phone I was using, or we had already met and she recognized my English accent.
'Yeah, there are lots of police cars outside my house,' I began, wondering if she might understand my sudden fear of 'de narcos'.
'There are,' she reassured me, 'You need to call the State Troopers,' She gave me their number.

The state troopers' office was expecting my call.
'Sorry to disturb you,' the telephonist said to me, which was a bit weird because I was about to say the same thing to her.
She explained a skier had got lost on the mountain. When he phoned 911 his cell phone signal showed he was lost on our land. The police cars were blaring their sirens and flashing their lights so that he could use them as a beacon.
'Is there anything I can do to help?' I asked.
'Switch on your house lights.'
I switched on every spot light, lamp and light switch in our house until we were bright as a Christmas tree and then I phoned the State Troopers back to find out if they needed anything else: tea, coffee, cookies, a warm fire, access to broadband...
They were fine, she told me, they were warm in their cars with their engines running.

My bedroom is on the third floor and looks out towards the woods and the river. I stood there for a while, still in my pyjamas, imagining the poor skier lost in the blizzard. Someone was shining a light in the area where the river creates a boundary to our land, and I imagined the cop wandering along by the edge of the water hoping he wouldn't find a body.

After a while, I phoned the State Trooper again. The telephonist didn't seem quite as pleased to hear from me this time.
'How is the search going?' I asked.
'We're not searching,' she said, and my heart sank. For the skier to have been so close to getting off the mountain and to have not made it. For the skier to have died in our forest, so close to our house.
'I'm so sorry.' The lump in my throat made my voice sound hoarse. 'I've been watching the guy out there and I've been praying and... and... that's just awful.'
'We don't have anyone out there searching,' repeated the phone operator. 'There's no point to us sending our men out in this weather: it would be like hunting for a needle in a haystack. They're ordered to sit in their cars and to wait for the skier to come to them.'

I decided the light I was watching must be the skier. I described his location and the cops brought their cars further up our driveway and parked so their lights angled across the meadow. I stood in the upstairs window, praying and hoping and watching the light pause and flicker and pause and move. Occasionally I checked on the girls, who were sleeping through the whole thing. After a while, I became convinced the light was a reflection from the police cars and I realized I should go downstairs and tell the cops I had been wasting their time. Before I did that, I decided to check on the light myself: if I put on my snow shoes, I could walk across the meadow to the source of the light and find out if it was the skier or a reflection. When you've been scared of the nightmare monster of 'de narcos' parading towards your house, the thought of the forest in a blizzard at night holds no real fear. The cops had been ordered to stay in their cars so there was no-one to help but me and I know the trails down to the forest pretty well. I changed into winter clothes, put on my coat and hat and scarf, picked up my snowshoes and was just letting the cop parked closest to my house know where I was going when the light cleared the forest.
From my whoops and cheers, the skier might have thought he was arriving at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. The cop just clicked on his radio and said, 'He's coming out now.'
The man who reached us was in his 60s.
'Been a long day,' commented the cop.
'Yeah,' said the man.
'You cold?' asked the cop.
'No.' The man clicked off one ski with edge of his ski pole. 'My kit's ok for this weather.'
'Hypothermic?' asked the cop.
'No. Just a bit tired,' said the skier.
'Can I get you anything?' I asked, and repeated the list I'd offered to the cops earlier - coffee, tea, whisky, cheese and biscuits, a blazing fire, use of a phone...
'I'm fine,' said the man, taking off his other ski.
'Give you a lift to your car?' asked the cop.
'Thanks,' said the man.

I watched them drive away and, one by one, switched off the lights in my house. I checked on the girls, who were still sleeping, and slowly undressed.
There's something about prayers coming true which always makes me cry.
And there's something about Vermonters which means that whatever happens and however bad it might be, they'll make the minimum of fuss with the minimum of words and then work out how they're going to drive back home.