Author Archives: Writing Wahine

About Writing Wahine

Wahine (wah-hee-neh) is the Hawaiian word for woman. I feel like a writer living in a lawyer's body. Hawai'i is where I lived as a child, but I have also lived on the east coast, and I now live in California. I love all things Hawaiian and most things French.

The Teddy Bear

Teddy Bear

A woman I’ll call Ana was tried for the murder of her 18-month-old son in Sacramento, California. A teddy bear should have been the least of her concerns, but it was always somewhere in the back of her mind.

Ana was the breadwinner of her household. She supported her infant son, the boy’s twin sister, their older sibling, and her boyfriend who was the children’s father. Ana worked in a restaurant in San Francisco where the minimum wage was higher. Because she didn’t own a car, commuting from Sacramento to San Francisco would have entailed a costly, twice-daily, six-hour ordeal involving the Sacramento light rail, a commuter bus, BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), and walking. Ana made the difficult decision to sleep on friends’ couches and commute home to Sacramento only when she had days off – two to three times per month.

The coroner determined that when he died, Ana’s infant son had pneumonia, sepsis, and broken ribs that had healed. The infant was also malnourished. Police investigated for almost one year before prosecutors charged Ana and her boyfriend with murder.

After Ana and her boyfriend were arrested, social workers from children’s protective services removed the two remaining children from the home. As often happened with abandoned units, Ana’s apartment became an easy target for break-ins.

At trial, the prosecutor argued that Ana and her boyfriend were negligent in failing to get their son medical care that would have prevented the malnutrition and infection that led to his death. Ana’s attorney presented evidence that Ana saw the baby for only a few days each month, pointing the finger of neglect toward Ana’s boyfriend as the primary caretaker.

There was also testimony from experts that Ana was a battered woman who was not psychologically capable of standing up to her boyfriend’s decisions regarding the care of their children. Like most battered women, Ana had unconsciously recreated her past; her boyfriend was not the first man to abuse her.

Ana and her boyfriend were ultimately acquitted of murder, but her boyfriend was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sent to prison. Ana was released from jail but would not be reunited with her two young children who were now living with a relative in another state.

Weeks later Ana was at a store and saw a man and a woman who were her neighbors at the apartment complex where she lived in Sacramento. She approached them and asked if they recognized her. Not only did they recognize her, they were excited to see her. “We have your bear!” they told her.

What this couple really had was the urn containing the ashes of Ana’s son. Knowing that the urn was inside the teddy bear, the couple had taken it from Ana’s abandoned apartment for safekeeping. These neighbors never visited Ana in jail and never took time off from work to attend her trial, but they managed to perform an important act of kindness that brought someone who had been through hell a needed dose of comfort and happiness.

Long after Ana’s pain, anguish, excitement, and joy have faded, she will need hope to rebuild her life. Whenever Ana looks at her teddy bear, she will think of her son. She will also be reminded that goodness and kindness endured as she went through hell. And she will remember to hope.

 

©Living off Island, Writing Wahine, 2017.

 

 

 

Hungry Boy

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One of the errands my husband and I ran this past weekend was bringing his laptop to the Genius Bar at an Apple Store in one of our local malls. While my husband took his computer in for a software fix, I killed some time shopping and then found a seat at a lounge area of the mall.

While I was scrolling through my phone, someone sat next to me. I looked to my left and saw a teenage boy whose face was still soft with baby fat. His small Tommy Hilfiger cross-body bag hung over his left shoulder and rested at the top of his long, skinny legs. I wondered why he hadn’t taken the seat on the other end of the sofa and left us both with elbowroom in the middle, but I noticed his plastic bag with take-out boxes on the empty seat to his left.

He took a Styrofoam box out of the plastic bag, opened it, and smelled the contents that filled half the box – orange chicken and fried rice. I eat leftovers that have been sitting in my car for hours, so I was impressed by the boy’s careful inspection. “Maybe I should worry more about food poisoning,” I thought to myself.

“I gotta eat,” I heard the boy say to himself, so I decided to let him eat in peace and not strike up a conversation.

When I saw the boy get up, walk to the nearest trash can, and empty the chicken into the trash, I thought the chicken must not have smelled okay, because I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like sweet, fatty, deep-fried orange chicken. He returned to his seat and ate the fried rice. He then took the second Styrofoam box out of his plastic bag, opened it, smelled the food, and ate the contents.

When he was finished, he took both boxes and the plastic bag to the trash can and disposed of them.

He then began to rummage through the trash can for beverage cups. He took lids off, sniffed, sipped, and decided what he liked and what he didn’t. He fished out a small empty cup, filled it with liquid from a bigger cup, and walked away with his drink of choice.

My eyes followed him as my brain scrambled to understand what I just saw.

The boy’s careful inspection of food suddenly made sense. He wasn’t smelling his own leftovers; he was smelling – and then eating – other people’s trash.

The boy was clean, well groomed, and decently dressed. He looked like any other teenager hanging out at the mall on a Saturday afternoon.

When the boy said, “I gotta eat,” he wasn’t speaking of his hunger. He was psyching up to eat trash.

I looked up at two surveillance cameras that must have captured what this young man just did, as if to ask some security employee watching a wall of monitors in a room somewhere in the mall, “Do you see this regularly? Is this not a big deal? Do you ignore him as long as he doesn’t make a big mess or bother people?”

If you’re like me, you live with the common misconception that the majority of hungry people in our communities are homeless and mentally ill. As I’ve learned since watching this hungry teenage boy eat and drink out of trash cans at a mall, the majority of hungry people are families who need assistance with food so they can afford rent and utilities. Some of these families are headed by adults with jobs. Some are headed by primary-caregiver grandparents whose fixed incomes don’t even cover the cost of their medications.

Unlike homeless and mentally ill people, hungry people aren’t as easy to spot. They don’t stand out. They hide in plain sight by blending in and looking like they’re doing fine. They look like teenagers hanging out at the mall, like children walking to school, like productive members of society doing their jobs, like elderly people picking up their prescription medications at the drug store, and like disabled veterans who appear capable of taking care of themselves.

These are the people we don’t see when they’re standing in line at food banks. These are the people we still think of as the lower end of the middle class. These are the working poor whose incomes don’t leave enough for food after they pay for rent, utilities, medical costs, and other expenses like gasoline, bus fare, diapers, and baby formula.

The hungry boy at the mall never said one word to me, but my glimpse into his life spoke volumes.

 

©Living off Island, Writing Wahine, 2017.

 

Nature Therapy

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Sunset at Ocean Beach. Copyright Living off Island, Writing Wahine, 2017. 

Northern California has had so much rain this winter that it’s been in the national news. After five years of drought, the last one finally bringing water use restrictions, record-setting rainfall has caused flash flooding and has compromised the dam at the state’s second largest water reservoir.

This past weekend brought a welcome break in storm systems. People, my husband and I included, came pouring (pun intended) outdoors to enjoy the sunshine. Ocean Beach in San Francisco was busy with people strolling on the sand and dogs chasing seagulls. We were soaking up the sunshine and storing away vitamin D as fast as we could. At the end of a wonderful day, we were treated to a spectacular sunset.

For me the day was a metaphorical respite from the current political climate in our country. With each day bringing heart-stopping headlines and Twitter battles, it feels like ominous clouds never give way to blue skies. If only our country could catch its collective breath like I did. My beloved land of the free and home of the brave needs a day of sunshine.

 

©Living off Island, Writing Wahine, 2017.

The Pedaling Shepherd

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Sister Libby Fernandez of the Sisters of Mercy is legendary in Sacramento, California. She has been the Executive Director of Loaves and Fishes, a private charity that serves the hungry and the homeless, for 11 years. She joined Loaves and Fishes in 1985 as a volunteer. In the 32 years that she has been with this organization, it has blossomed to have a budget of six million dollars, 80 employees, and 12 programs with services that include hot meals, restroom facilities, showers, day and overnight shelters for women and children, medical and mental health care, and a school for children between the ages of three and fifteen.

It’s not Sister Libby’s prodigious work with Loaves and Fishes that recently caught my attention, however. She has announced that she will leave Loaves and Fishes to start a new ministry called Mercy Pedalers. On an adult electrical tricycle, she (and volunteers, in case you’re interested) will go to meet homeless individuals where they are instead of waiting for them to come to Loaves and Fishes, something which may never happen for some.

Unfettered by the administrative duties of being Executive Director, Sister Libby hopes to bring people more than needed supplies. She wants to build connections and trust. By helping people to build self-respect, she hopes they will decide to move forward with their lives and trust her to link them to the services that will help with that next step.

Imagining Sister Libby on her tricycle searching for people who feel forgotten or unwanted in order to help them believe that they matter and are loved, I can’t help but recall the parable about the lost sheep and the shepherd. Jesus taught that the good shepherd leaves his flock of 99 sheep to find the one lost. I get it, Sister Libby. Ride on.

 

©Living off Island, Writing Wahine, 2017.

 

Man in the Vestibule

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This photo of homeless protestors outside Sacramento City Hall appeared in an article by Steve Milne in Sacramento Capital Public Radio News on January 26, 2017. 

A homeless man died outside Sacramento City Hall the other night. He was the second man to die outside City Hall in a week. It has been a wet and cold winter so far, and homeless people have left their campsites at the river’s flooded banks. Some of them, like this man, found spaces to sleep under the well-lit overhangs of City Hall.

The paper said the man had nothing but the clothing on his body to keep him warm. This immediately brought me back to a homeless man my husband and I were startled to find sleeping in a parking garage two weeks ago. We had dinner downtown and were returning to our car, parked on the roof of a public parking garage. The elevator doors opened inside a tiny vestibule that offered some shelter from the cold and the rain. Our laughter was abruptly cut short as we stepped out of the elevator and saw a man sleeping on the floor to our right.

The first thing that struck me was how long his body was. He had to curl up into an almost fetal position to fit into the space between the elevator door and the door that led to the garage roof. His face was light tan. His skin was clean and unwrinkled. He was clean-shaven and handsome. His black hair was streaked with long strands of white. His pants and coat were dark.

I didn’t want to wake him. It was well before 8 p.m., but how was I to know if this would be the only rest he would get that night? I didn’t stand over him and stare – it felt invasive to catch the glimpse that I did – but I saw so much in the few seconds it took me to walk past him.

“He had nothing,” I said to my husband when we were a few steps beyond the door that led out to the roof. “He had no blanket, no backpack, no bags. Nothing.”

And then came the silence in the car as we tried to process what we just saw. Wrestling with helplessness and guilt, we started to make our way down to the first floor of the garage. We spotted a young man carrying a broom and a dustpan. The wet spots and smell of urine in the elevator when we arrived; the wet, washed floor of the elevator when we were leaving; the man sleeping in the vestibule; and the anxious look on the attendant’s face as we passed him – it all made sense. Would the police come to escort the homeless man from the garage if the attendant called? Would the attendant let the man sleep there as long as no one complained?

I felt sad when I read about the second homeless man to die outside City Hall in a week’s time, but the sight of that man sleeping in the vestibule that night was personal. If you don’t want to be racked by helplessness and guilt, look away from the homeless. But if, like me, you happen to glance at a homeless person and see this person – really see this person – you’re screwed. You might be haunted into action.

 

©Living off Island, Writing Wahine, 2017.

Bless Me Father, For I Disagree

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Graphic by LikeSuccess

In his homily this past Sunday, my pastor said that sin darkens our intellect and obscures our ability to see the truth – God’s truth, God’s will. Even when we see the truth, sin causes us to have a hard time obeying and following it.

As an example, my pastor said Hitler had a brilliant intellect, but his darkened intellect kept him from knowing the truth that Jews are equal to, not inferior to, Aryans. In the same way, our nation’s darkened intellect kept us from knowing that Blacks are equal to Whites.

Because sin will always be there to hamper our ability to see the truth, we need people through whom God can lead us. We all have the potential for such spiritual leadership, so we shouldn’t be afraid to fulfill our God-given potential, lest we deprive the world of a leader – “a fisher of men” as Jesus said in the Bible.

Here’s where my pastor’s homily took a weird turn. As an example of a man who is not afraid to become all that he can become, my pastor chose Donald Trump. My pastor added that he does not agree with all of Trump’s decisions or all his goals, but he nonetheless approves of his attitude in striving to be all that he can be.

My pastor marvels that Trump is not afraid to be all that he can be.

My pastor is not repulsed that Trump is not trying to be more than he can be.

My pastor seems to assume that everything Trump will be will be good. Why? Because Trump’s anti-abortion position endears him to the religious right?

Am I supposed to be impressed that Donald grew up affluent; went to private schools; didn’t have to serve in the military; got through business school; went into business with seed money from his dad; made a lot of money; went through several bankruptcies; stayed mega-rich while he stiffed contractors who worked on his buildings; and then decided to become president so he can single-handedly save our nation from economic malaise and a lack of worldwide respect? Is this a man trying to be all that he can be?

Could Trump try to do more? Could he strive to be: Mindful of the working poor who can’t afford healthcare? Compassionate toward immigrants seeking safety and a decent life? Informed about science that warns of imminent dangers to the planet we share with all the other countries of the world? Embarrassed by his locker room talk about grabbing women by their genitals? Ashamed of publicly mocking a person with a disability? Aware that lying is forbidden in God’s Top 10?

Should this man of such privilege, and now of such power, be wary of all the wrong things he can be – like the intellectually darkened Hitler? And if he is not wary, does that give us all the more reason to be?

My pastor might be correct that Trump always goes for it when it comes to becoming all he can become. But Trump goes unchecked by Christian values rooted in love. His anti-abortion stance does not give him a pass for the Christian directive to love one another.

Does my opinion make me a bad Christian? A hypocrite? Many will condemn me as such. It’s my struggle, a matter between my conscience and my God, but I cannot love with one hand and hate with the other. If Trump is a fisher of men, I pray he does not catch me in his net.

 

©Living off Island, Writing Wahine, 2017.

Love Must Push Back

 

 

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Lady Justice with her scales and her sword. Source: Internet, no credit found. 

Like many Americans, my mind is swirling with many questions about the 2016 presidential election, particularly its results. As I did during the contentious 18 months of campaigning, I am reading opinion pieces and articles to try to comprehend why people, especially people of differing opinions, think the things they do. Peace starts with empathy. One journalist asked why people are still touting the “Love Trumps Hate” slogan after the election results proved it wrong.

“Love Trumps Hate” is for me a belief rooted in faith, not a mere slogan. Since God is the source of all love, then God trumps hate – ultimately, seldom instantly, but in a sustained fashion. Being a person of faith means accepting that things happen in God’s time, and we are not privy to the reasons. Waiting is hard for us, especially when times are hard. And we are quick to forget that we need to work, to fight, and to sacrifice for things worth having.

Why did hate – in the forms of disrespect, bullying, misogyny, bigotry, racism, and xenophobia – get tolerated and perhaps rewarded in this election? Were people so filled with rage born of fear and resentment that nothing else mattered? Were people were so filled with distrust and laziness that they did not bother to vote in rejection of these things?

Women, racial minorities, immigrants, veterans, the LGBT community, and disabled persons were all made to feel less than, unwanted, intimidated, and threatened during this election. Now that the responsible person is in a position to affect their lives, many people have reason to fear and doubt. Now more than ever, I need to cling to my belief that love trumps hate.

Love sometimes requires courageous, difficult, and unrelenting work. To act in the name of love means to act with patience, respectfulness, and humility. When hate pushes against and looms over some of us, we have the choice to stand together, lock arms, and push back.

 

©Living off Island, Writing Wahine, 2016.