learning to give

I grew up with an A-plus volunteer for a mother. Mom began her long career fundraising for Public Broadcast as a volunteer, and then as a volunteer coordinator, before moving up the ladder in Development. Aside from Public Broadcast, she’s been fighting the good fight as long as I’ve known her–for women’s reproductive rights, for peace, and in support of reasonable voices in our government. Once I stopped worrying about whether she’d let me buy a miniskirt at the mall, I realized that my Mom was an amazing individual and that I wanted to serve the community as she always has. Through Mom, I volunteered to support our local PBS stations, generally in the television studio during membership drives, for many years. But it’s taken me awhile to learn what I really have to give and how to do that–especially because I don’t belong to a synagogue or church, which I think is how many people discover the volunteer opportunities that light them up.

My father served as an Air Force flight surgeon during the Vietnam War, a fact that led to my being born on Warner Robins AFB in Perry, GA. His tour didn’t go terribly well for him, and military service did not feature prominently in our family. I was one of those pacifist, liberal arts kids who was both horrified and fascinated by American military culture. I’ve only had rare contact with those who serve. But, as a lasting effect of my father’s Vietnam experience, I’ve remained concerned about military families. When our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan began, and my own students started to consider military service, I decided to support those who serve. I do not support the war–any war. I don’t know another answer to our socio-political woes, but I feel strongly that armed conflict, by definition, isn’t constructive. But the fact remains that, until we find another way to manage our global affairs and abolish war, a small number of Americans will put their lives and the security of their families in danger every day in order to protect the majority of us (who are often at the mall, wondering if we are getting too old now for this season’s miniskirt).

I started supporting the troops by sending packages and letters to service members I “adopted.” I had an extraordinary correspondence with “my” first soldier, who was working transport in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. In extremely polite language, Darrell explained that he was on his fourth deployment in seven years, had two young children at home–and he was from Georgia! That connection to my past gave us a point of conversation and the stories continued through several letters. Darrell loved Little Debbie snack cakes and 80s music and he hated camel spiders (which I Googled with horror). He hoped he’d be able to wind up his military career after this last, highly stressful deployment. His last letter to me was full of what my dad called “double-digit jitters”–just a few days from going home, he was worried about the crowded conditions and frayed nerves as his unit trained their replacements. He asked me to please keep supporting the troops because it made a huge difference to know their sacrifice was recognized.

I don’t know if he made it home alright. I have decided not to cyberstalk him. I think of him and his wife and children often.

After supporting several soldiers in this way (and one “airman” named Pam), I decided to get more involved locally. Unsure how to make this happen, I discussed it with my friend Johanna, who turns out to be an A-plus-PLUS volunteer! Ever practical, she said to me, “Come give blood. I do it every eight weeks.”

Gentle Reader, I learned that I have tiny veins and slow-moving sludge for blood. But I’m persisting! As my involvement as a blood donor unfolded, I discovered some things about the American Red Cross I hadn’t realized:

  • The Red Cross is not funded by the government, but it does have a Congressional mandate to support both civilians and members of the military in times of war or during natural disasters.
  • The Geneva Conventions were proposed by Henry Dunant in 1862 as a means to allow a neutral aid society to bring medical and humanitarian aid into war zones–thus, the Red Cross and a series of treaties in support of its goals were all created in Geneva.
  • Women (like American Red Cross proponent Clara Barton) have played significant roles in the development of the Red Cross. And Dr. Charles Drew, whose work on blood collection, storage and transfusion during World War II led to the development of the Red Cross blood bank program, was African American. This organization has embodied diversity from its very inception!

Most pertinent to my quest for “something to do,” I learned that part of the Red Cross’s job in supporting military families is to manage emergency communications. When a service member needs to know that a family member has died or been injured–or, happily, when a baby is born–their family calls the Red Cross to initiate the emergency message. A mostly-volunteer staff handles these communications, helping service members to stay connected to their families during these life-changing moments.

Ahh! Something I could do! So, what did my Mom say when I told her about the Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces program?

“Yes, I used to do that, while your Dad was in Vietnam. I loved it when the babies were born and you got to pass that message along.”

I hadn’t known that, or I’d forgotten it! But here was another connection from past to future, waiting to be made. So I pursued my training to serve in the SAF as a volunteer caseworker.

Yesterday, I made my first phone call on an SAF case. It was a brief call to follow up on a mother’s request that her son come home to attend his father’s funeral. I talked to the mother. The message had gone through without a hitch and her son was already home. I expressed my condolences on the loss and asked if the Red Cross could do any more for her family at this time. She said no. She said thank you. I said goodbye.

For me, right now, part of my service will be a series of brief calls to say “hello” and “can we help you further” and “goodbye” to the families of those in the military. I didn’t realize that “service” could be so tiny it could fit into a few words.

Or that something so tiny as this could feel so important.

For more information on the Red Cross’s many volunteer opportunities, visit http://www.redcross.org/en/volunteer .

war wounds

Well, the world keeps assuring me that I’ve got work to do. As I mentioned in a previous post, one of the projects on my plate right now is Make Sure It’s Me/nh. MSIM is a play about TBI in military service members, written by Kate Wenner, a novelist and former producer for ABC’s 20/20. MSIM arose from months of research and interviews Wenner conducted exploring the medical and military policy issues surrounding TBI. One of many points she raises in her play is the interweaving effects of repeated “mild” traumatic brain injury (sustained from IED exposure) and PTSD symptoms. This combination makes brain injury difficult to diagnose and complex to treat; and often the psychological and neurological damage increase a service member’s unwillingness or inability to ask for help.

Interestingly, Wenner chose to write a play to communicate about these issues, rather than a journalistic exposé, or even a novel. In MSIM, she has crafted from her research a small collection of intertwining characters who are meant to be embodied live for small numbers of spectators at a time. Her hope is that this kind of community contact will spur more people to seek out TBI screening and treatment for themselves or their loved ones. And that the military and civilian communities participating in MSIM productions will be encouraged to work together more closely to support the large numbers of returning soldiers who may be affected by this injury. That’s right, folks! A hugely accomplished TV and film producer agrees with us that some jobs are best suited for the theatre. . .

Wenner’s work didn’t stop when she completed her play; she is incredibly supportive of our efforts to bring MSIM to Portsmouth in the spring of 2013, and to develop a series of community outreach events around issues facing TBI survivors and members of the New Hampshire military community. And she continues to raise her voice on this issue, as in her extremely moving op-ed piece from the NYTimes this past weekend, “War is Brain-Damaging.”

In addition to Wenner’s personal endorsement of our work, I’ve had the spooky experience lately of meeting new colleagues (plus one stranger next to me on the plane to North Carolina) who are living with traumatic brain injury. As soon as I started telling people I was working on this project, the stories flowed! None of these folks I’ve met so far sustained their injuries during military service, but all had fascinating (and saddening) details to share with me about their rehabilitative processes and their ongoing frustrations–for instance, being patient with their left hand while it meanders in a shaky zigzag on its way to picking something up. Or having to wear sunglasses in the supermarket so the visual stimulation isn’t overwhelming. Or simply coping with the exhaustion of a 24-hour-a-day headache. My deepest thanks go out to all of those who have shared their experiences with me in the short time I’ve been aware of this issue. I look forward to the many future conversations and collaborations I will have as we work to bring MSIM to the stage. And I send heartfelt wishes for healing to those living with TBI, and to their families.

prison playwrights’ voices raised in NYC!

On Monday night, I was honored to attend the Voices Inside/Out staged readings at the Baruch Performing Arts Center in NYC. Voices Inside/Out is a playwriting program for prisoners at the Northpoint Training Center in Kentucky. Only in its second year, the program sends a professional playwright to Northpoint for one week in July to give master classes and editorial feedback to the prison playwrights. Monday’s readings were the result of scripts generated in 2011 under the tutelage of residency playwright Mac Rogers. I was invited because I was one of ten finalists for the 2012 residency! Although I wasn’t the chosen candidate (the winner was Holly Hepp-Galván), I was thrilled to be included in this special night–to meet the organizers (Lanie Zipoy, Montserrat Mendez, and Synge Maher); to hear the new plays read; and, as it turned out, to breathe the same air as actor extraordinaire Michael Shannon, who shambled onstage for the final reading with no warning or fanfare, pretty much causing my heart to explode. The plays were consistently well-constructed and presented nuanced characters. Overall, this was a strong collection of new writing, beautifully presented, that reflects well on Mac Rogers and the whole Voices Inside/Out team.

I applied to the Voices Inside/Out Northpoint Residency program because I’m interested in playwriting as an expressive outlet for people in extreme circumstances. For the last year, I’ve served as a volunteer mentor for the PEN American Center’s Prison Writing Program. I work with a prisoner in Texas who has spent 22 years inside and has never seen a live performance. His ear for character is extraordinary. He has chosen to write plays after trying both fiction and poetry because he’s inspired by the liveness of the stage space (which exists in his mind only, as he has no stage). He has extremely limited access to a typewriter, so all the letters and scripts I get from him are handwritten; creating multiple copies of scripts is incredibly laborious. But he not only writes, he also submits his work to theatres across the county, and even had a one-act play performed in a festival at Theatre Three in New Jersey several years ago.

All of this is inspiring, of course. It’s also extremely sobering because, in all of this gathering and exchange of energy–the prisoner is going nowhere. None of the playwrights whose writerly voices rang out in the Recital Hall on Monday night were present for the readings. My prison mentee spent the evenings when his show was performed in New Jersey in the same cell or rec area or dining hall in Texas where he spends all his days. I don’t find this situation innately injust–the justice system is badly flawed, for certain, and we need to work towards reforming it. But I am not suggesting that writing a play in itself should be a get-out-of-jail-free card.

What these playwriting programs do suggest to me, however, is that more *listening* must happen if we are to change the justice system. Fiction, poetry, and nonfiction writing can be solitary pursuits. A prisoner can study and practice the craft of writing, and even disseminate their work, on their own (which is not to say it’s easy). Sometimes these lone voices reach us outside and that’s remarkable and worth celebrating. But playwriting–the crafting of a work for theatrical presentation–is an inherently collaborative affair. And a play doesn’t really exist at all (as sad as I am to say it) until it’s been animated by actors and heard by an audience, no matter how small. Playwrights don’t know their own work until they’ve seen and heard them infused with life by collaborators.

So, what does it mean to encourage prison playwrights? It means to partner with them in collaborative work. I means to bring theatre to them, as often as possible. It means to build an audience outside for their words and their vision. It means to create a feedback loop of learning between those inside and outside. And It requires active, creative, compassionate listening.

This is a great place for me to stop–time for me to practice listening. Thanks for your own attention, and thanks to PEN America and to Voices Inside/Out for giving me so much to think about.