The Value of Cussedness

Day 25 as a non-smoker.  After many previous attempts, I’d decided to try a different approach (hypnosis) on a day (May 1) that encouraged easy calculation of how far I’d made it.

I truly have no desire for a cigarette, but pings of anxiety are not receding quite as fast.  I’m leaving behind this habit at a time when I feel I’ve  ‘lost my place’ in the world, or maybe it’s that I’m not entirely sure how to reinvest my considerable energy after four years of Oakland Women’s Center. I’ve been living solo all month as Dave does his migrant cameraman gigs in DC. May weather mostly bleak and overcast from the nippy dawn to 4pm-ish,  when an outbreak of sun may occur for a hour or two, then low grey clouds reclaim the sky.

Reading paradise
Inside the book tower at the Prague Main Library

It’s a compelling process to leave behind a habit as demanding as smoking,  I’d had to fill the ‘void’ with something useful and satisfying.   Gardening and mosaic art – both of which soothe me. Friends are inviting me over to spring clean their yards, an activity I find splendidly entertaining.

I read all the time – pretty much anything that draw my interest. To me, libraries are sacred places.

Slowly I’m returning to writing.  Working two major projects: a nonfiction book almost finished; and the VOG (the muse dazzles me with the one) just beginning.

Meanwhile, I drifted for five twilight-zonish hours in the DMV to replace a license plate that was stolen or jolted off the car.  Florescent glare; cubicles in circle-the-wagons array; clots of numbers streamed in an automated voice over a loudspeaker, flashed on large screens shared with assorted news, propaganda, and the weather; people of all sizes, shapes, colors, and afflictions shuffling to windows, the State raking in fees; everybody  resigned to waiting.  I was intrigued by one fine proposal from a fellow queue-stander on how to eliminate the choke points.

Overall, a week of hideous self-doubt that I’ve beaten back out of cheer cussedness. Giving up is not an attractive option.

Mayday Storytime

I used to write to help me understand my life experiences – especially when I traveled. Creating journals and stories satisfied my need to ‘process.’

I return to that now as a practice I have sorely missed. I expect to dedicate myself to restoring and extending my skills.

First up:  The Story of Susan Becoming a Non-smoker.

My father took up smoking at the age of 19 when he was sent off in 1944 to the Battle of Leyte, the largest naval battle in the history of the world. He never gave up the habit, even when he suffered emphysema. Smoking killed him.


I was there to see him off, breathing tubes and all.

His habit influenced all of us in the family.  4 out of my 6 living siblings smokes, including me – ending three days ago.  I’d started and stopped many times over the last 20 years or so. Generally, I did my best to be a closet smoker, ashamed that I could not to put down the nasty habit when so many others had abandoned it.  Some of my associates must have sniffed it. But, since I was not overt, it all seemed to go unmentioned – except by my daughter and my husband, who both have had their stints as smokers.

I learned an important distinction: smoking is a habit, not an addiction. Addicts go through physical withdrawal; smokers get cranky. The subconscious has successfully overridden the front brain’s protests that smoking is self-inflicted harm on a human body, which already has enough environmental pollutants to contend with.

Most significant for me, smoking repudiates optimism. I have seen and experienced enough unjust shit, seen and heard enough egregious behavior to justify utter and complete pessimism.

However, I don’t have as much time left as I’ve already lived.  Being gloomy and cynical isn’t fun. I’d rather pump up optimism, and enjoy the goodness it draws from people.

Chop Chop.

Ironically, when I slow down, I see details more clearly. The habit of speeding through the days and years no longer appeals.

Day Three as a non-smoker has presented only a few moments that needed ‘management’. My daughter reassured:  “You’ve got this.”  Yes, yes I do.


The massively unmet needs of poor women, particularly black women, have fueled my thinking since I began working in Africa two decades ago. In my hometown, Oakland CA, I see as little progress stanching the pain.

Over the last eighteen months, I’ve grown more intimate with the realities of the sisters’ piled-on issues. Obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, breast cancer, addiction, abuse (historic and current), custody battles, low-wage quicksand jobs – because finishing high school never happened.

owc-logo-colorHealing the accumulated trauma requires a lot of courage. And support.

Every woman’s gotta pitch in to bring up every other woman.

Then we actually can reshape a vibrant future around what women are uniquely capable of doing. We are so much more than we’ve learned to be.

The Big Stuff and Baby Steps

I admit it. I snarl in my soul, though it may come to pass I make the actual sound. Getting older permits the restraints to come off. I snarl, feeling the contortion in my face, when women (young ones in particular), from whom I irrationally but with utter certitude expect brilliance, settle for half-assing their way though a day or a project or a career.

In one of the most painful and astonishing years of my life, I’ve add two new entries to the logbook of wise stuff:

The “Keep the Donkey Out of the Ditch” Rule:  When you develop and set in motion a vision for a project, one must insist always on the highest possible standards for problem solving. It is elemental to The Work. A big vision will snarl at dithering solutions on the path to full expression.

The “Wrinkles Rule” Rule:  I’m mightily relieved there are places in the world where advancing age still accrues social benefit. Traditional (though eroding) Kenyan reverence for the wisdom of elders informs me that I’ve been no slouch learning the ropes of humanitarian work. In fact, at 61, I’m damn sure of the exceptional quality of my wisdom. Kudos to Kenyans for enabling this insight! That said, I also endorse firmly sidelining an elder who’s a perennial grouch, autocrat, cleptocrat or self-absorbed pain the ass – in order to reinforce and preserve the best of this tradition.

Working in Africa, where the sublime and the wretched jostle side by side on bad roads, and spending my days with people whose practicality and humor I adore, always leaves me saturated with wonder and bewilderment. Though my soul finds grace in its spiritual home, my mind roils at lives and environments so vastly degraded and restrained. I see the women struggle to find any potential in their lives. The woman in us who knows we can do anything is powerful beyond imagining. We are learning together how to become her.

Back in the land of lux resources, I cannot grasp why a chance to grow, a compelling or even quotidian problem to puzzle through, seems not to hold allure, especially for the young. A worthy life faces up to, tackles, subdues and vanquishes the challenges inherent in being and awake and sentient. The splendid interaction, the task completed with verve and grace, the failure that recalibrates our horizon, become the newest stories you will laugh or cry over with the family you are constantly creating.

My intuition: there’s just too much distracting, disabling noise jamming up the works.

An essential step in putting a fine frisson into life is this:  Turn Off Your TV. Recycle the damn thing. You will go through withdrawal, but it passes and then you’ll start reading books again and writing letters on real paper and having clear, extended trains of thought and resuming the hobby that made you joyful until you put the stuff in a box in a closet where it silently upbraids you whenever you open the door.

Free of this major and debilitating toxic agent, you get to practice every day the behavior that makes, at the very least, for a more civil world (when do we resume greeting people passing us on the street?) or, at best, transforms the tenor of the day and refashions the future for folks who may be tuned in. It can be that big. Baby steps – the daily practice of play your edge –get you there.

Joy is the Ticket

These days, the journey of a group of real women has been more compelling source of material than any fiction I could write.

In many ways, I barely know these ladies. I know their names and faces but I might not recognize them if they change their hair or take off their headgear (hats or wraps)

I have seen where they live – urban slums and displaced persons camps – and decided that no human being ought to suffer such deprivation, especially when those lucky enough to have been born in the “right” place are awash in luxury. Resources can be shared in so many ways.

I’ve devoted years to understanding the lives of women in Africa, yet I have no illusion that I truly know their experience. Except when I visit them, I have always had enough to eat, clean water from a tap, light at the flip of a switch and a working toilet. For the most part, I have been spared the random violence they live with day after day.

Although I have never been money-rich by Western standards, my life is one of bounty and opportunity. I live with hope that derives from never having survived at the bottom of the resource chain.

But, I connect with them as women. We share the same joys and fears of motherhood. We’ve adapted, usually and tragically without loud protest, to the dearth of viable options for birth control, for redress to the violations of rape and abuse, for the loving care of our children when we must work, for the inequity of our income relative to men.

I connect with their woman-ness. I admire their resilience, buried but ready to pounce on any good opportunity for change. I grieve the ones whose vacant eyes tell me they are lost, irretrievably, because no resources can be marshaled to bring them back into the warm sun of hope.

This I know:  working with these women is my life’s purpose. The avalanche of information, questions, needs, and unanswered requests distracts me. I get frustrated with always having to bootstrap forward. I struggle to find my way into the network of powerful women with resources to share. It’s out there for the finding.

And then I remember: I have never been so fully and joyfully engaged. This I can share.