Thursday, December 09, 2010

When Writers and the Homeless are One and the Same

My friend Mira Bartok has a remarkable blog on grants. We've  been known to lend each other informatioin for each other's newsletters and blogs. She has a phenomenal memoir scheduled for release in January titled The Memory Palace, and I'm tickled for her, but that's not the reason for this post.

While I'm happy for her, she has a bigger project on her plate worth mentioning, and if you find it in your heart, you might be interested in it. I'll use some of her own words here, because she states it so well.

My mother, Norma, a brilliant pianist (see picture above, an illustration from my book), was struck down by schizophrenia early in her music career. For the last seventeen years of her life, she was homeless, and her life story and the story of how I found her late in life at a women’s shelter in Cleveland, is told in my book, The Memory Palace (coming out mid-January).

Recently, the shelter where my mother lived, the Community Women’s Center of Cleveland, was rebuilt and renamed in her honor. It is now called The Norma Herr Women’s Center and is sponsored by the Mental Health Services, Inc. of Cleveland. It is a safe haven for women who have fled domestic abuse, substance abuse, homelessness and poverty. There they can receive food and shelter, friendship, counseling and assistance in employment.

One of the things the shelter does is encourage the women to keep a journal. They also hold poetry workshops when they can get funding or a writer to volunteer his or her time. This writing process is key to their empowerment. When I found my mother at the end of her life, I discovered that she kept a storage unit at U-Haul all those seventeen years. When I opened it up, I found seventeen years of diaries.

My mother wrote each and every day to help keep her imaginary voices at bay. She wrote descriptions of flowers in the park, she wrote poems, screenplays and soaring lyric prose. I read each and every one of these diaries and was blown away at their beauty and power, and yes, their sense of tragedy, delusion and loss. But ultimately, I realized how much keeping a journal helped my mother navigate through the world. I believe that she found a certain strength in writing every day—it gave her a different kind of sustenance than the food she received at shelters and from strangers. It gave her a voice.

This is why I am starting a project this year called My Words Are My Shelter. I am sending a box of hardbound journals made from 100% recycled materials, along with a pen and a pencil, to each and every woman at my mother’s shelter in Cleveland.

Mira pours her heart out to writers, finding grants and residencies galore, some of which I'd never heard of before meeting her. She's quite the generous person. The cost of such a journal kit, journal/pen/pencil, is a mere $5. The PayPal button is at her blog at Mira's List. Even if you cannot donate to her cause, she asks that people consider shelters in their hometowns. For instance, I donate monthly to our shelter, The Oliver Gospel Mission, in Columbia, SC.

And if you can't donate this year due to your own circumstances, say a prayer or take a moment to wish good luck and hope to those who are homeless this holiday season.

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