Readers write about Safe

Baby on Board

I'm a first-time mom. My baby is still in my belly, so I guess some people would not identify me that way, but I am. And I'm accident-prone.

I lost teeth at Southeast Thirty-Second and Lincoln a few years ago when I did a curb shot over the handlebars of my bike. I nearly broke my ankle running trails in the gorge. I slip in boots when it's raining, and I'm an LA driver.

I can be both reckless and sloppy. And now I am the temporary house of a dependent and fragile and scary-to-handle-for-the-first-time tiny human.

I was an awful babysitter. The last time I had that job, a baby rolled off the sofa under the coffee table, and I think I was probably paid $12.

On Mother's Day I fell down a flight of stairs at an estate sale. I tumbled out of control and somehow continually fell on my back to protect my precious cargo. I had to be monitored for twenty-four hours. The hospital provided respite, the illusion of a guarantee of life, of immortality.

Returning home I realized how unprepared I felt—I did not want to be left alone with the job of carrying this little one. But I know that my baby is covered in prayer and amniotic fluid, and—even though I'm a klutz—I realize it will never be safer than it is floating in the space of my inner sanctum.


Crossing the Line

Before I could get the door open, he said, “We can't miss this.”

I thought, “There is no way.” But I felt, Hell yes.

It was August 9, 1966, and sweltering. I was fifteen and Randy was sixteen. The 1966 Detroit “mini riot” had broken out. Detroit was a segregated city; at that time one of the dividing lines between the African American and white neighborhoods was Conner Street. By day, people moved back and forth across Conner to work and conduct other business. By night, white people like me lived and slept in our protected neighborhoods.

That day, rumors had spread from the troubled corner of Pennsylvania and Kercheval that police had attacked members of the Afro-American Youth Movement. The hot summer just got hotter as police roamed, snipers prowled on rooftops, and buildings went up in flames. On the way to Randy's motorcycle I yelled, “Mom, Randy and I are going swimming.” I didn't wait to hear her answer.

We headed up Kerby to Kercheval. As we crossed Conner, the unmistakable smell of burning tires and wood filled the air. Windows had been smashed, and glass, trash, and fire hoses littered the streets. A policeman yelled, “Get the hell out of here!” We took off up a side street to Jefferson Avenue just in time to see the police amassing for the assault.

While we were stunned by the sights and sounds, two policemen ran up, yelling. The gist was, “Are you crazy? Get home.”

Realizing the danger that we had put ourselves in, I felt pretty stupid saying, “We just wanted to see what was going on.”

In mock anger, one yelled, “Watch the news!” The policemen laughed, releasing the tension.

“Really, boys,” he said, “there is a curfew, and by all rights we should arrest you. Get home. Your parents must be worried sick. Stay on Jefferson until you cross Conner. With all the police you will be okay. Just get out of here now, and don't let me see you again.”

As the first smell of tear gas wafted into our consciousness, we headed down Jefferson under the watchful eyes of Detroit's finest. Almost fifty years later, as I reflect on what has happened in Baltimore, New York, Ferguson, and many other cities, I wonder what would have happened if we had been two black boys on a motorcycle that hot August night.


What Will It Take?

Sometimes I can feel the eyes staring. Or maybe it's just how the interviewer looks at me, then looks at my résumé, then looks at me again. Do I risk speaking my truth, or do I continue to go along to get along? I know I make many people feel uncomfortable. But is it my responsibility to make them feel comfortable?

My problem is not about being trustworthy or cautious, or being a risk-taker and controversial. The very fact that I am black in America with the audacity to speak about the implications that brings threatens my sense of safety. I don't feel safe when I must fear being denied a job or a home or admission to a good school because someone may not like the color of my skin. This circumstance can automatically deem me as untrustworthy. I cannot hide my physical appearance. My very existence is in danger because of stereotypes and fear. I am not safe.

When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, my mother draped a black cloth over his portrait that hung on the hall closet door of our public housing apartment. His willingness to be a risk-taker and controversial should have meant that I would be judged by my character and not by my color, period. We shall overcome. And yet each week we hear about another unarmed black/brown/red person being gunned down. The biggest risk to our collective safety is seeing color as the “other.”

What will it take for us all to feel safe? Self-reflection and a willingness to release a position of privilege. A desire to celebrate difference. A tearing down of walls that separate in the name of safety. An understanding that institutionalized racism perpetuates the idea that black people are beasts. Schools, government, media—all have taught us that we are not good enough. You are taught that and we are taught that. We are angry and everyone should be angry. We are not safe.

As an artist, I must speak out. I cannot afford to be “safe.” I take pleasure knowing that, in my persistence in taking risks, I contribute to the development of a safe world where all voices are allowed and judged on their ability to move us forward as members of the human race.


Both Inevitable and Near

Who has the riskiest, most controversial job at Oregon Health & Science University, up on the hill, towering above downtown Portland? The surgeon mending the malformed heart of the newly born? The internationally famous cancer specialist, debuting experimental chemotherapy?

I believe I had that job. For nearly twenty years, I was the hospital's palliative medicine physician.

At an institution “where healing, teaching and discovery come together,” as the slogan goes, I was responsible for pointing out when that promise would remain unfulfilled.

Seemingly every day, I had to reveal to patients and their families that hopes for healing were no longer sustainable, that treatment had failed, that death was both inevitable and near, that the time had come to prepare thoughtfully for the end.

Typically, the response would be tearful acceptance, often accompanied by expressions of sincere gratitude that someone had been willing, finally, to break the veil of silence.

Not infrequently, however, I would be torched by a spouse, parent, child, or sibling—never the afflicted—for having the temerity to take away all hope, give up too soon, pull the rug out.

I came to appreciate these emotional backlashes as unavoidable complications of a risky but indispensable procedure. To avoid such complications would mean not engaging at all, depriving all other patients of the benefits of an honest and timely conversation.

Sometimes I would transgress professional boundaries, usurping a senior physician's prerogative as ultimate arbiter of when enough is enough, and suffer that colleague's wrath.

I remember the moment I realized I had lost the stomach for risk.

“Your catastrophic abdominal injury has caused permanent intestinal scarring and blockages,” the senior surgeon explained carefully to the youngish man. “You failed surgery. You will never eat again. Your only other option is lifelong total parenteral nutrition (TPN) by vein—which is not an option because you already show signs of liver failure from TPN.”

I waited for the surgeon to reveal the inescapable truth: “This means you will slowly starve to death over the next several months.”

Instead, he followed with an upbeat “So let's keep trying!” I, too, played it safe, too weary to engage.

Caring for the dying is not wearying. Laboring against the resistance to dying is.

I left the youngish man to twist agonizingly in the silence. And I twisted as well, for a few more months, before leaving OHSU for good.
PAUL B. BASCOM, Portland


A Kind World

I've always felt that my fate is the same as that of the other animals that share this planet. When I was a child, it hurt me to see the farm animals butchered. Back then, no one imagined such things as factory farms, which would increase the misery of farmed animals. In the fifties, in my family, punishments were severe and positive reinforcement was not a concept. I felt I was in danger from my parents, as the animals were. I knew how the animals felt, presided over by beings who had no understanding of them or concern for their welfare.

I just read The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, and it reminded me of what I already know—that human beings are destructive and unable to empathize with forms of life, including other humans, that they consider to be unlike them. Or maybe I should say “sympathize,” because some humans do know they are causing pain, and they enjoy that knowledge.

I live on a large piece of land, and I don't permit hunting or the killing of trees or wildlife. I eat only plants. I pretend I live in a kind world, where heartless killing does not take place. That's what it would take to make me feel safe—a respect for all life, not just human life. But as we all know, human life is not respected either.

Just think: If people thought twice about killing a mouse, would they harm or kill another human? If humans respected other animals' lives, would they be destroying their habitats with coal mining, oil exploration, clear-cutting? Would species be hunted to extinction? Would humans reproduce without considering the animals who will be raised and killed, as if they were inanimate objects, to feed our increasing numbers? Would our earth be in the danger that it is in now?

Human life may continue, but we may continue on alone, without the animals. What kind of world will that be?


No Ordinary School

They come to me in shades of gray. Gray gym shorts, gray gym socks stuffed into plastic flip­-flops, and hair gelled into elaborate formations atop their heads, yelling Que pedo!, which literally translates to “What fart?” in Spanish. Their speech may blur to gray as well, blending slang from Central America with that of northern Mexico and the occasional Spanglish word. I enter into this fray every morning to direct the flow of traffic to school.

We are in Portland, Oregon, far from the US–Mexico border, far from the students' native countries, and far from where they were apprehended by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. This is no ordinary school: all of the students are male, between the ages of fourteen and seventeen, and in the custody of the federal government. Many are coyotes, foot guides who led groups of migrants across the Rio Bravo on the border between Texas and the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. In this staff-secured facility, it is not a long journey from the dormitory where they sleep across the courtyard to the classrooms, yet each movement is carefully directed, monitored, and scoured for signs of inappropriateness or misconduct.

As they line up for school, I stand before them, shoulders squared, feet placed apart. I return their grins and carefully ignore any lingering glances. My small stature and fair skin, not to mention my femaleness, stand in sharp contrast to their gray masculinity. I bid them good morning and announce any changes made to the daily schedule, pausing for questions. They may yell a couple of unrelated but benign expletives. This is how the school day begins.

Despite the boundaries that the program continually reminds us to reinforce, these young men manage to make me feel boundless. In our close quarters, with the ugly carpets and the recycled air, they teach me to see things as they truly are, with their outbursts and their reticence, their honesty and their frustrations. I teach some of them to read, some of them to play guitar, and some of them to love learning. In the precious moments when their eyes fill with joy at a new discovery, I see a full spectrum of color and emotion that flares and burns insistently. Each day reminds me of the importance of seeing them and letting myself be seen in this miraculous, contradictory time and place, and in a world where we would otherwise be completely invisible to one another.


Everything Is Held

All around my house, things hold things.

Above my dresser, hooks hold necklaces and sparkly bracelets. A funky piece of window screen from my old house in Aurora holds earrings, the posts slipped through the tiny holes, the clasps pushed on from the back. On my bedside table, a small bamboo tray holds cream and a clock.

My kitchen cupboards are filled with jars that hold filberts, pumpkin seeds, dal, kasha, rice, coconut, almonds, oats. The tiny bowls we brought back from Portugal and Mexico hold a tea bag or a few olives.

Everything is held.

I remember when you held me, when I was sleepy or laughing or sick. Wrapped in your arms, feeling contained somehow made me feel stronger. Before you, aching to be held was that too-loose, edgeless feeling. I know why my grandson wants to be swaddled.

You put something in something. Give it a place. A holder, not to constrain it, but to frame it to its best advantage, to protect it from harm, to offer it up.

I love those stores where you can buy things to put things in. Who thought to make a thing just for that? A clever design with just the right shapes. Bespoke.

Everyone should have that feeling of a thing fitted just so. Made for you, to hold you, whatever you are. A tilted hook a bracelet won't fall off of. A clean jar, scrubbed of sticky labels, for round brown filberts. Not to achieve superior order, but to be known. For the world to acknowledge your presence. This is you. This is your place, this bamboo tray. This is your shape, this tiny pottery bowl.

A few years after our house was finally paid off, our neighbor's home on Terwilliger Boulevard slid down the hill, crushing the house below it and damaging two others in its path. Not long after, we had ours bolted to its foundation.

When insomnia pesters me awake, I lie there and breathe. No tray or bowl can contain my nighttime thoughts. I still have work to do.

But when I look around, and I see things cupped, as in palms, and if I can trust, as Rilke wrote, that life has not forgotten me, that it holds me in its hand and will not let me fall, then, for that moment, I feel safe.


Belonging, Death and Dying, Environment, Family, Immigration, Race


1 comments have been posted.

Thanks to Paul Bascom for his joltingly honest piece. It's hard enough to stand square and true in front of one's own unknown, to be present in our own life moments. But to be charged with standing beside another person facing that fear, and then to have to do so in the company of supposed allies who choose to lie to a human at that most vulnerable time...well, no wonder he left that job. Thank you for your many years of real service to those who were ill or dying, and for writing about your experience with such heart.

bija gutoff | August 2015 | portland

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