I collected the drawings and said, “I want to teach you an important word.” On the board I wrote “hope’ and I said it aloud several times. I defined it. They all smiled.
Ritu said, “Hope is good.”
—Mary Pipher, The Middle of Everywhere
Randi tells her story–the first part of it anyway: there is a great deal of story left to be written–to the listening board members. She talks of bad choices, alienation, addiction, and denial. She opens her arms when she talks about the program that embraced her, as if to hug it back. At the very right time, it was the very right place for her. She has been in recovery for four years.
When she tried to leave the program, though, she found it too hard to live in that other world. Now she is the peer director of one of the houses; she helps her housemates keep strong in their recoveries, too.
Jim’s eyes reflect his confusion, and his hurt. He thought he had the job; they gave him all the paperwork; they all but told him it was a done deal. Then Friday brought this email: “Thank you for your time; we’ve decided to go in a different direction with staffing this position.”
He doesn’t understand, but that’s a familiar state to him. He often is left clueless by the neurotypical world; he needs a translator. “Why is she upset with me NOW?” he thinks, and he has to go back and unravel. They were having a conversation about cooking; she said she wasn’t a very good cook, and he agreed. Ah. That was wrong, he realizes; in that world, one lies in response when someone insults herself, even when the insult is, actually, true.
By the time he has figured this out, the conversation has forged ahead, and he is lost–lost again. Dazed and confused, he guesses, is his resting state.
Zahra is an older woman from Afghanistan who has lost everything and then landed, improbably, in Lincoln, Nebraska. The only remaining family member not fatally taken by violence, her son, is in a Turkish cell. She cannot write to him. She cannot visit the graves of her bullet-riddled husband or her despoiled and murdered daughters.
She cannot speak the language of her new home.
She sits in her basement apartment and she watches American television, and she believes that she has come to a lewd country where thoughtless people throw away their riches and ignore the needy in their midst.
Mary Pipher writes about Zahra in The Middle of Everywhere, which she subtitled: The World’s Refugees Come to Our Town.
I look up ‘refugee’ in Webster’s Dictionary and its definition is no surprise: “One who flees, as from a war.” It is rooted, of course, in the word refuge,—a place of protection or shelter from danger or hardship. Both words have been around for a long, long time–trailing back into Old French and Latin. Clearly, people have felt at risk in their home worlds for all of our written-down history. And, probably, for long years before that.
Pipher draws on case studies, showing me immigrant children in a United States school–valiant children with valiant teachers, fighting decreasing funding and external bias. She sketches what life is like for teenagers from Vietnam, from Mexico, for Kurdish and Bosnian teenagers, for those who have fled the Middle East—young people trying to find a niche in a foreign world. She takes us into the lives of transplanted adults, who struggle with the language their children learn more quickly, who have varying personal resources on which to draw.
What these folks need, Pipher suggests, is a cultural broker, someone who belongs to the power-culture; someone who can help them navigate. Without that guide, the unfamiliar values and media and the need for language fluency collide disastrously. The structures that have built families in the old countries implode; the balance of power shifts from the revered elders to the youth, who know the language. They speak English and they want, often desperately, to fit in, and they turn, sometimes, to drugs and gangs and lies. The family–usually the most important entity in the original culture–disintegrates and its members are bereft.
Cultural brokers, caring educators, accessible classes structured for their particular needs…
It’s true, too, isn’t it, of those in recovery, and those with mental health issues? They are, really, our internal refugees. They are running from places of danger and trying to make a home in the greater society. How does a non-drinker fit into our Bud Lite culture? How does a person with autism learn to anticipate what will happen next in a land run by neurotypicals?
I picture a big round table ringed by animated people–some with accented English, some whose hands shake ever so slightly. Some have to stop and consider. They look at the person next to them for help, and that person smiles and leans forward, one hand resting lightly on their arm; that person catches them up, draws them back in. A table drawing people of ages, hues, economic backgrounds, and visions that vary drastically in, tightly, together; a table full of folks who feel like refugees and folks who feel like helping.
Pipher suggests that refugees who successfully navigate the cultural intricacies of life in the United States possess one common characteristic: hope. Some colleges use the Gallup Student Hope Poll to predict which students need more support: hope, they say–the ability to tell a positive future story–is a better indicator of success than standardized test scores or high school transcripts.
People in recovery need hope, too. People with mental illness also need to envision a future filled with positive things.
Randi is a brilliant artist; she discovers inside herself the gift, too, of teaching. She can share her vision. She can lift others–both those in recovery and those in the straight and sober world–into heightened creativity. Her art and her teaching give her hope.
Jim writes. He posts his work on websites tailor-made for his brand of fan-fiction; within a day or two, his stories draw hundreds, even thousands, of readers. They applaud his work. They ask, eagerly, for the next installment. His writing and those responses give him hope.
Pipher describes Zahra interacting with a young Afghani woman, Ritu, who is pregnant. Ritu, a widow, is bearing a child conceived in rape, and yet she has surmounted the brutality of the assault. She awaits the birth of her baby with great anticipation. She calls on Zahra to help her.
Zahra pulls herself up straight and tall as she agrees to be there when Ritu goes into labor. “Baby is good,” Pipher reports her saying. “Very good.”
Zahra has hands that can gentle and comfort a wailing infant; she can impart peace and calm to these helpless, trusting wee ones. Her nurturing gives her hope.
And a baby, of course, is our hope–the hope for all of us. A baby means change and growth; a baby is a beautiful missile into the future. A baby is the essential ingredient.
“I reflect on all of the stories from all over the world in which a child comes to end suffering,” writes Pipher. “This may be our first and oldest human story. The Christmas story is one example of the many birth and salvation stories. A family wanders far from home, poor and scared, looking for a safe haven. A baby arrives in a time of darkness and fear. The stars in the sky signal the glory of this event. The newborn brings its family great joy and the hope that he will save the world, at least the small world of the family.”
This is the season of that hope, the season when we celebrate that birth. If there is no one in my direct circle who is struggling to navigate the U.S. as a new country, there are definitely those with neuro differences, and there are those who struggle to live in recovery. It’s my job, maybe, to help make their hope visible. It’s my job, maybe, to look for other refugees hidden among us.
May I be a cultural broker for those whose lives touch mine and who need such guidance.
I am glad of the serendipity that brought me to Mary Pipher’s The Middle of Everywhere at this time, in this place, nestled among these people. Happy season of hope to you, my friends!