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Barbara Jessing

Barbara Jessing
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November 04
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Welcome to Radio Free Omaha. Expatriate writer occasionally broadcasts a message to the free world. Late nights mostly.

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NOVEMBER 3, 2010 9:17PM

My 60th Birthday Manifesta

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 Manifesto:  A public declaration of principles, policies, or intentions especially that of a political party.  Or a birthday party.  PS. Manifestos may also be life stance-related.  That’s mine.  Also, when it’s a girl writing it you can call it a Manifesta.

one hundred eighty years2 

On the summer day when I decide that I am going to write a birthday manifesta,   here is my fortune from the China Palace:  “You are contemplative and analytical by nature”.  It’s true.    But in spite of it, I vow to create in this document, the literary equivalent of dancing on top of a bar table. Intensely but briefly, while I can still climb down with dignity.   Please be advised that this is a metaphoric device only.

I am experiencing something different in the days leading up to this birthday.  I have set aside the usual and annual sense of dread that the clock is ticking away, which I first experienced at age 25.  There is no dwelling on bones which I have now actually heard making sounds.  So what.  I am jazzed.  I feel an enormous burst of joyful energy coming on.   I am confident that a table top, probably with a cake on it, is the absolute best vantage point for looking forward and looking back.  Bring no over the hill jokes to this celebration.  Remember that your face will be at eye level with my dancing feet.

Looking back,   I can see the good fortune that got me to this point, and I will pause to take inventory and be thankful.  This part got long, and very well may get longer;  and not everyone will find it interesting, and I moved it to the end -- so skip it if you must. 

Looking forward, I have things to do.  This is my Declaration of Intentions.

 My story is a work in progress but definitely not a journey.  Check out my Facebook Page devoted to metaphoric integrity. http://www.facebook.com/home.php?sk=lf#!/group.php?gid=114112218619288

 

Declaration of Intentions

”I am what I am.”  Albin,  in La Cage Aux Folles. 

 Also attributed, in a slightly different vernacular, to PopEye. (“I yam what I yam” ) in various Saturday Morning cartoonfests.

Why did the sense of dread weigh so heavily on me  on the eve of my 25th birthday, in a way it never has since? Twenty five is all is all about possibilities – who you might or might not meet, who might or might not want you,  what the faces of your children might be like; what the course of your career might be,  whether you are living in the place you should be. Retirement from what one has not done yet:  unthinkable. 

 The sweet thing about being sixty is… those possibilities have materialized.  Someone did want me.  I saw those faces and they were more beautiful than I ever imagined.   A career evolved from those chance encounters of the twenties.  Finding such a rich community,  such necessary and satisfying work, putting down deep roots, on the edge of Nebraska:  I have everything I want.  There is nothing more but to see how it  continues to develop

Today I am younger than I will ever be.  This is a moment to reconsider time.  How I spend it, with whom, and why.

·        Tim, Allison, Aron, and Kaitlin.  Brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles; precious elders in the family:   my time is your time.

 ·        I will get my attention span back.  I want to concentrate more deeply on fewer things.

·        I don’t need to know everything any more.  I don’t mind saying “I don’t know”.  I don’t want to sound like an expert from  “Modern Jackass” Magazine, as Ira Glass put it.   I give up on predicting what kind of winter it’s going to be based on odd behavior  of squirrels. We’ll know soon enough.

·        I have followed the red thread back into our family history.  It’s intriguing and I have leads to follow up.

·        I will make the best of being invisible -- something curious about aging.    I started noticing it maybe in my 40’s;  that to certain people, mostly younger,  I was so  irrelevant as to be unseen.  Going grey, after all, is a form of transparency --  losing color.   But what a great cover for an observer and storyteller.  I hear everything; they see nothing.   With every accumulating bit of invisibility,  my intensity is fired up a notch.

·        Sometime during this decade, I will retire.  I have had the blessing of work that allows for the pursuit of personal and social healing ;  work which demands the active expression  of hope and  compassion;  which presents intellectual and emotional challenges;  which test weaknesses and demand more strength.  I have had the best, the kindest, the most intense colleagues, willing to join together to do what no one person can do.   I find that I am drawn now to the early childhood services we have been developing in recent years – for  new parents, babies, new families, and the best possible start.  It comes back to the basic human connection that starts each of us on a path; that started me on a path.

·        Teaching others what you know means you get to say it out loud, over and over, hear it questioned and challenged,  till you understand it inside and out, and know it is real and true.  And it takes up life with someone else.  It will be left in capable hands.

·        I’m on the lookout for a non-traditional simpler  second career, which must continue to challenge, but mostly amuse me..  It quite likely  may involve the growth of Secular Humorist artworks emanating from the basement.   Recently I became enchanted with the AMC series “Rubicon”,  a twisted tale of conspiracy, corruption, terrorism and other threats to national security,  and had the opportunity to take an aptitude test.   I have recently received a letter stating that I fit the profile of a secret operative.  I tell you this just in case I see  you in public and have to pretend I do not know you.

“I’ve got some habits even I can’t explain…. Why try to change me now?”  Cy Coleman

·        I will have time for sustaining the friendships that span the decades, as many as six decades for those of you whose friendships go back to childhood.  And the ones that were new in Nebraska –old friends in the best sense of the word.

 ·        I am grateful to have arrived at 60 years in relatively good health, with concessions for wear and tear.  I’ll be doing what I need to - stopping just short of tofu bacon – to stay that way.

·        You collect a lot of stuff over 60 years and I love every bit of it.   But I will be organizing it, sorting it, synthesizing and recombining it, sifting out the best, making gifts of it.  Half wondering if I might turn out,  as Allison has warned,  like James Hampton, that guy in the Smithsonian American Art Museum exhibit who built an altar  in his garage, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly,  made of left over aluminum foil

·        So less stuff please. I am, however,  in the running for more adventures.

·        I have been a writer for most of these 60 years.  Readers optional.  I have published half a dozen pieces in recent years .  But now I know that it’s a small circle of people I really want to write for, and it’s you who have made it this far.  So this Manifesta will mark the initiation of Radio Free Omaha, on Open Salon,  where I will continue to publish occasional updates.   

 Inventory of Good Fortune

Yes, it started with a Fortune Cookie.

“A review of life usually considers the facts of experience, the thresholds, the situations and the people who participated with us along the way.”  John O’Donohue

Malcolm Gladwell, in The Outliers, seeks  what it is that explains personal success:

“Personal explanations of success don’t work… People don’t rise from nothing. We owe something to parentage and patronage... (we are) the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies…It makes a difference where and when we grew up. The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievements in ways we cannot begin to imagine.  It’s not enough to ask what successful people are like…It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t.’

I was born into the precise midpoint of the twentieth century, in the year 1950.  If you are one of the 3 and a half million of others born that year, consider this a shared celebration.   We are part of the vast renewal of life after World War II,  a  repopulation of  the earth with its ghosts of more than sixty million lost;   flooding the cities and,  as quickly as ground could be broken,  filling acres of suburbs;  schools bulging out  into temporary trailer-like classrooms to keep pace with the wave of children.  How could we not be hopeful?  How could we not be focused on change and renewal? 

Converging in the year of my birth were families with origins in rural villages of Germany, England and Ireland;  with complex routes of immigration through Texas and New York City;  through   Connecticut,  Minnesota,  Nebraska, Kansas,  Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Colorado.  In the upheaval of the depression and the war years, out of moves  precipitated by everyday family tensions, rivalries, and secrets -- one family settled at last in Southern California; the other in the North, near San Francisco, where a chance meeting of Army boys and local girls brought my parents together for a brief, intense courtship, followed by their marriage in 1949.

In 1950, in the year of my birth, Betty Friedan was a restless housewife and young mother, pushing at the constraints  of  a traditional woman’s life.   

In 1950, the French still occupied what was then called Indochina.    Only a few  years later, American troops replaced the French in what we knew as Viet Nam;  And the new war would give rise to arguments that irreparably divided husband and wife; father and daughter.   It would, as well,  lead to healing and reconciliation

In 1950,  racial segregation in schools, employment, and public services were still pervasive,  though the Armed Services had been integrated after World War II.

In 1950,   people with mental illness or disabilities were still segregated in institutions which offered no hope of participation in or return to community life.

1950 was a threshold in the midst of the 20th Century.  I learned that term, threshold, in  an exploration of Celtic mythology – the power that resides in between places, or  the “thin places” – the moment between night and sunrise, the turning point between seasons, the estuary between land and sea,  the horizon where sky meets water; where one thing becomes another; what John O’Donohue calls “the huge adjacency of possibility..” 

Descendants of Rediess and Jessing created the threshold I crossed over  in 1950:  1544 Ninth Street, Alameda, California.   German and Irish; Baptist and Catholic; southern and northern California. My parents were young,  19 and 21,  closely held within the extended family, especially my mother’s.   In my baby book – which had a lot more strict questions, by the way, compared to modern day baby books -- one of the fill in items was “How does baby respond to necessary discipline?”  And my young mother drily commented, “Indignant, but generally well behaved.” That’s pretty much been my motto all along.  

As the years of my grandmother’s life accumulated toward 98, I heard variations on this comment from many of the grandchildren:  the experience in her presence, of being at that moment, the most important and beloved child in the world; in a way that no one envied, because it was equally true for all. This fundamental sense of fairness and multiplicity and abundance took root in me very early in life:  the power of attachment.  If every single one of  her six children, every one of our six children, every one of nineteen cousins, can experience loving fairness, should it not be possible  everywhere?

My family wasn’t perfect.  But it might has well have been.  I had a rough day once.  I can’t remember the details.  I  was probably eight years old.   In the tangly web of extended family, we were spending the night with the Miller cousins.  I took whatever hurt it was to bed with the kind of hiccupping sobs that you outgrow eventually. My sweet and patient Aunt Helen sat beside me, said nothing; defended no one, accused no one; placed  her hand wide across the middle of my back, grounding and calming.  This is the muscle memory I carry of family.  I still feel that hand on my back once in a while, perfectly balanced, steadying but nudging forward too.  You can survive this.  Later I learned how hard-won this sense of fairness had been.  How women with courage transformed hardship, unfairness, and worse, harsh treatment, what we’d call abuse today, into the evenness I felt that night.

My mother converted to Catholicism after her marriage to my father; presenting me with a spiritual and intellectual challenge in early life.  By age 16, I had finished wrestling with angels.   I left with one precious learning though:  a sense of social justice, to build upon the fairness I breathed in from the family; a lens to bring focus and clarity to events around me. Protesters – the first time I remember seeing the now ubiquitous peace sign -- around the gate of the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory where my dad worked; the deaths of four girls in Birmingham, Alabama,  exactly my age;  Betty Friedan’s   book, The Feminine Mystique, turning up in our house, on my mother’s side of the bed;  the election,  then the  death of a popular young president, the first Catholic to serve in that office.   If family life can be even and kind, why can that not become  true in the  wider world?  It wasn’t; but it seemed compelling to try and make it so.  It made for a life’s work.

The accident of our new address put me in line for a new high school, built to keep pace with the baby boom.   It attracted a young and talented faculty, willing to experiment with new ideas --   modular scheduling; student directed learning; critical thinking and clear analytic writing applied to the very air around us as it changed:  the Civil Rights movement,  the war in Vietnam.  For one destined to be both indignant and well behaved,  it was a small Utopia.  Berkeley and San Francisco were close enough for school excursions; then, as suburban life began to chafe at some of us, these places became the longed for cultural mecca we would escape to very soon.   Meanwhile,  young men from our town were either enlisting in  the military and leaving for Viet Nam, or trying to figure out how not to get drafted.

Sometime during those high school years, I remember a field trip to Sonoma State Hospital. We saw ward afterward of fragile and profoundly disabled patients in cribs and carts; children and adults, and in retrospect I wonder who ever let a busload of high school students see a place like this? But one moment stayed with me. Crossing the threshold of what was euphemistically called a cottage; I met a young woman in her early twenties, red hair and brown eyes, strapped into a wheel chair,  who I can still picture clearly to this day.    She had cerebral palsy; back bent into a curve, arms twisted, hands and fingers no longer mobile.  She had gotten none of the positioning or therapy that might have mitigated the damage done over the years to her growing body.  She found my gaze, and returned it steadily, with a small smile.   In some ways I still feel locked into that gaze with its sense of intelligence and compassion;   that young woman, like a twisted Buddha with serene brown eyes.  It put me on a path.   I wanted to know about that locked in world which seemed about the very basic question of who is human and who   is valued.   

The best thing about being born in 1950 has to be that you come of age in 1968.  Possibly the biggest and best year ever.  So Far.  And the best soundtrack too.   That was the year that I was accepted at the University of California as a Regent Scholar.   I never saw a tuition bill.  It’s the only thing I can even faintly imagine thanking Ronald Reagan for. ( But I won’t)  It was a geographical move of forty miles, but a cultural move of much greater magnitude.    More like eight miles high.  My dad drove me to my new life in Berkeley. What did I have with me:  some very serious questions about fairness and social institutions.  The war machine, the institutional warehouse, the entrenched privileges of white culture; the marginal place of women.  And I was landing in a place and time to fan those flames.  That became quite literally true.   I expected adventures.  I did not expect to see an armed TAC Squad occupying the campus, which happened by the end of the first year.

In the spring of 1970,   I was completing my second year at UC Berkeley.  I was listening to Richard Farina and Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan.  I was reading JD Salinger, everything he wrote, over and over and over again.... For Esme,  with Love and Squalor being among the favorites.  I loved the juxtaposition   of Love and Squalor;  it seemed so ominous.  I had just declared my major in Psychology  --  I went for the art of it, but they were teaching science:  how neurons work,  how rats remember.   I wanted to understand the creation of an identity,  start to finish,   from the cradle of the family to one’s two-footed,  solo adulthood.  Or so it looked then.    I wanted to understand the process of psychologically separating from one’s family.  And in my life that same family was in the process of separating at its own root.  Were the splits in the culture reflections of splits in the family, or was it the other way, that families divided, and a culture lined up on either bank?

“An invisible red thread connects those who are designed to meet,  regardless of home, place, or circumstance.  The thread may stretch or tangle, but never break. “      

(Chinese Proverb)

On  that  spring day in May of  1970,  the news cut through my  anxious and unproductive introspection. In the days after Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia -- though of course,  he said it was not an invasion-  four students  lay dead on a college campus in Kent, Ohio;  the government killing its own children.  Ten days later, two more students murdered at Jackson State College in Mississippi.  I remember sitting on a bench, tearful in brilliant sun, for the hurt families,   the dead students; the vengeful government; the unforgiving fathers.    This cannot be a day as usual; I remember thinking this, and joining the student strike; civil disobedience.  Indignant and not well behaved.    I did not know Tim then; but there was a red thread:  we met eight years later in Nebraska.  He was in Kent, Ohio that day; a young woman named Allison was one of those who died that day, and her name was given to our daughter born 10 years later.

My major in psychology brought together one of the legacies of President Kennedy  --  the Community Mental Health Act, which began the movement for de-institutionalization and community services, and that young woman’s gaze, which I had not forgotten.  I was working in an institution for kids with developmental disabilities; I was learning as a psychology major what science now knew was possible for human learning;  and I connected with the ARC movement, in which parents lobbied for  community services. 

That brought me across the threshold of Lotte and Al Moise’s small  wood sided house on Sherwood Road, along the Navarro Canyon road outside Fort Bragg in Mendocino County.  It would become a second home, and Lotte would become a lifelong mentor.  In fact, it was in her living room that three of us gathered to hear about her world tour of progressive services for those with disabilities – with stops in   England, Denmark, and Omaha, Nebraska.  We’d heard of the first two – but actually had to get out an atlas to sort out which of those square states in the Midwest actually was Nebraska.   The summer after graduation, we hung a right onto Interstate 80 and headed for Nebraska, following Lotte’s red thread, to work for ENCOR,  the Eastern Nebraska Community Office of Retardation.

The people I met at ENCOR in the early days – Shirley Dean, Tom Miller, Roger Harms, Mary Slaughter, Patty Smith, Bob Perske, Linda Marchello -- and so many more – were single focused and passionate.  Roger recently described this era  as unique in its clarity of purpose, vitality, fervor, wild experimentation, and dedication to cause.   It seemed like the natural progression of the civil rights victories of the sixties.  We agree that nothing since has ever matched it.     It felt like being part of a huge global wave of social change.  Like creating it, not just being in it.   This new movement was, in some ways, simple:  to include people with disabilities into the normal rhythms of community life; to accentuate commonalities over differences.

 Over the course of a few years, most of the population of people with disabilities in this five county area, who had been living in the large state institutions,  came home, and most children, from that point forward,  never had to go away.  They stayed at home, or lived in group homes or foster families.  Went to school with age peers; worked side by side with neighbors; bowled in bowling leagues with other portly Nebraskans.  

This work environment brought together young workers just starting their professional careers with a new ideology.  It was a powerful combination and it forged friendships -- including my own marriage -- that continue to the present day.   Old and established social institutions were the target,    and the result was more change than those institutions wanted,   and less than what we on the cusp of change had hoped for.    Here, those glory days were over in about ten years. Professionally, those friends and colleagues now populate the state governments and non-profit service providers of a dozen different states, part of the permanently altered culture of human services.  

“Meet me at the Dundee Dell after work”.  It was a message that would circulate a couple of times a week, sometimes because it was Friday, sometimes because it had been a rough day.  We had things to prove:  convince legislators to keep funding community based services; convince parents that community life was right for their young adult children; struggle with those young adults to break through years of inertia and disconnection with the outside world.  We deconstructed our days, our lives, our culture and what it valued or devalued;  tried to make sense of change and resistance,  love and desire,  oppression and rebellion,  on the large stage and the small.

A year or two later,  our friend Sandy Baxter, who was forever saying "there are 2,000 people worth knowing in this city", sketched it out for me on the back of a napkin in the Dundee Dell after work one Friday, and so I started knowing what it was called;  the Omaha 2000."There are 2,000 people and they are in these tribes, maybe 12 or 13 of 'em. Many of 'em know each other and most of them pass through here - the Dell  on any given Friday afternoon.  You've got the Lost Generation, the Trend Setters, the Dell-Dwellers, and your Artists, Poets, and Musicians.  Then you've got the Human Service Corps, the UNO Intelligentsia, Unrepentant Hippies and Old Market Groupies.  Then there's your Feminists, Gays n' Lesbians, and those we refer to delicately as of Altered Consciousness, and the self-proclaimed Democratic Party Radicals.  And finally, your East and West Coast Transplants.  That about covers it.  Everyone worth knowing."

I first laid eyes on Tim in the Dundee Dell, on March 31, 1978.   It was another one of those red thread moments.  After service in Vietnam and a return home to Ohio,  and attending Kent State University, he had gone to Washington, DC to work for Vietnam Veterans Against the War;  where he met Sandy Baxter.  They  worked together in Washington, DC, and she lured him to Nebraska after she moved back here.  He was on his way to live in Seattle,  but interviewed with me by phone,  and accepted a job I offered.  He  didn’t mind a year or two in Nebraska.  He took up residence in the Fontenelle Family House,  a holdout hippie commune and the best party house ever.  Two rules: don’t  park on the lawn, and don’t clean the oven.   

We hung out at the Dundee Dell,  and the Fontenelle House.  Then, at the very end of 1978, on New Year’s Eve,  this friendship turned into a marriage.  The wedding was actually 10 months later on a beautiful fall Saturday in Nebraska, with friends and family in attendance,  but it was already a marriage early on.  I have studied the subject of marriage from many directions, earned a credential in marriage and family therapy; spent many years helping people heal and repair relationships.  It’s hard to predict what will work out and what isn’t going to.    All of it reduces to something quite simple at the heart of it:  love needs  mutual patience, tolerance, and respect to last.  Especially when you are dealing with a legacy of indignation, well behaved or otherwise.  I always wondered who would tolerate me.  Now I know.  I could not have wished for a more wonderful man, a better partner or a better father; to build a home and family with.  

About nine months and a day after the wedding,  we carried Allison Margaret over the threshold of her first home at 2440 Fontenelle Blvd.  The hippie commune party house now had a baby in it.  And what a great starter baby she was !! We learned as we went.  Having watched her enchant an entire room full of adults with a gesture as easy as a tiny forefinger to the mouth, I understood something very fundamental about the characteristics of first born children.  It actually led me later to a study of family systems theories of birth order.  She continued to charm crowds,  large and small.  Bright, curious, creative.  Verbal from an early age.  There has been no end of surprises,  including a surprise wedding about 28 years later.  But that’s another story.

Loving the neighborhood and the neighbors,  we moved  by four houses up the street to our own home to celebrate Allison’s first birthday.  All three of us were firstborn children.  Four years later, I became pregnant with our second daughter, Kaitlin Rose.  “I hope”, Allison said seriously, in anticipation of becoming a sister,  “that you don’t plan to keep this up.  And that the baby will know that the stuff that’s already here is mine”.  So Kaitlin, with clear blue eyes,  made her own place, made sure we knew how much she was her own person;  that each child needs a different twist on parenting; that parents need a good balance of humility and confidence.  Nothing has been more amazing and awesome than seeing the arc of these daughters’ lives,  the unfolding,  the  creativity,  the wonder.  They are our best work. 

Speaking of work – everything  I have done in 30 years at Heartland Family Service has its origins in secure and loving family – the one I grew up in,  and the one I helped to create and still come home to every day; peaceful; renewing.  More often than not, a very nice man has prepared a fabulous dinner.   My work is a variation of that steadying hand that I still feel in memory from time to time.  It is fueled by the success of my own parents, and the village around them in their new young days together,  in creating a bond that still holds firm with my sisters and brother;  and which I see in our own children,  in marriage and friendship, and among their cousins.  The red thread.

So we are accidental Nebraskans,  but Nebraskans none the less.  It’s a harsh climate at times.  We are feeling that acutely on the day after the 2010 elections.  Red state,  maybe --  but this is a blue house, and we know of many others.  At least 2,000.   

Raising our children here has truly been an experience of knowing that it does take a village – for parents to do their best.  Our kids have been surrounded by a circle of friends, who taught and encouraged and challenged and loved them; and the same for us.  “I need spare parents”,  Kaitlin once said.  And they’ve always had them.

The cool thing  about being born in 1950, is you get to turn 60 in 2010.  It’s a great year to be alive.

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