Update on Fair Pay for Home Health Care Workers in Vermont

Since the new widget on this blog is featuring the info on how Lynne and I couldn’t legally marry due to the way I am paid for her home health care, the good news is…


spouses can now be paid to care for a disabled loved one at home.


So circle the date, we’re hitching up at 11 a.m. on the next Summer Solstice.

And that’s not all.

Since I wrote this dour post this winter, Vermont’s part time state legislature has given state-paid home health care workers like me the right to unionize. We are being wooed assiduously by two very good unions — AFSCME and SEIU — and our election is set for September 9 through 27.

The top concern of the few other home health care workers I have met is to get more hours. Currently even those of us who stay home 24/7/365 with an elder or other loved one are paid for about three hours per day of definable tasks. Laundry. Cooking. Feeding. Dressing. Helping on the stairs. But if you’re just are staying home so this person can have the dignity of asking for a drink when they’re thirsty, that’s not paid time. On the other hand, if the person has trouble swallowing and might choke, that makes you vigilance reimbursable.

The 7,000 or so of us who are paid by the state of Vermont are only part of the home health care community. Others are paid by agencies, such as Visiting Nurses and commercial operations like Home Instead. They are not covered by this bargaining agreement, but we hope to raise the general wage level when we strike our deal this fall.

As to Lynne, she’s doing really well. The other night, as we celebrated the wedding of her niece with a wonderful long-term fiance, my own fiancee came up to dance with me several times. As dancing goes, it wasn’t that much — just sort of holding each other and swaying — but with the right eye contact, nothing else matters.

I Used to Be So Good at Vigiling

Now that disemployment policies (deliberate imposition of unemployment on otherwise willing and able workers, as opposed to “natural unemployment”) have taken so many out of the rhythms of outside work, Books of Hours, Daily Rules, etc, are making a big comeback. Being more of a Christian than anything else, I, too, have frantically searched various such resources for a way to manage my own expanding time.

Here are the three resources on which I have settled:

Music of Silence by David Steindl and Sharon Lebell, with an introduction by Kathleen Norris

Seven Times the Sun: guiding Your Child through the Rhythms of the Day by Shea Darlin

and a reflection series from the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, MA.

It seems I cannot master more than one piece of this at a time, and anything that’s mastered one day is likely to slip away the next week. But here are the ones I’m feeling pretty good about: Terce (the mid-morning break for renewal), Vespers (the end of day wind-down reflection) and Compline (the final, bed-placed spiritual immersion).  I have made some progress on Sext, which is said to be the worst one, because it’s when you pause for the midday meal and rest and then get back to work.

Notice I haven’t yet mentioned Prime — that first morning application of energy to tasks. But it’s coming along.

Nones — the end of day clean-up and preparation for tomorrow? Forget it. Not a clue. Someone once told me they detected some “J” in my Myers-Briggs profile, and I still wonder who they were talking about.

Which leads me to “Vigil.” I hadn’t been paying much attention to this one, and it turns out, I should have done. And when I reread that section of Music of Silence two days ago, it was not about the night before — Erev, as Judaism says — but more about that time one lies half awake before dawn, visions of the coming day darting through a mind too tired to chase them down. For me, at least, the result is a horrible clash of aspiration against mortality. Doomed before I start. It’s a dreaming moment, and I’ve reached an age, and a poverty, in which I know most dreams must be put aside. It seems to be the last part of me that hasn’t caught on to being out of the marketplace, away from the community where people push each other along, and thereby are all more productive.

There are things I still know about what will happen. When my fiancee wakes up, it will be Prime (thank God she’s a morning person and gets me going!) and energy will rise within me. When her Huntington’s Disease knocks her back into sleep about halfway through my Prime, it should be my Terce (coffee break), but often sinks into a premature Sext (lunch hour). But if I just remind myself that there’s lots to be done even later, through dinner and bedtime, it makes me feel better and Sext settles into a calm that refreshes.

But Vigil. That’s the tough one. Right now what helps is blogging (thank you, dear reader), Facebook (God bless Community), and a small list of email check-ins that help me remember what I’m doing.

And, since it’s so verboten to say this for ministers in covenant or search with congregations, my monkey mind relies on judicious and minimal applications of Ritalin to keep it organized. There are many family members now using pharmacological as well as spiritual tools to deal with responsibly diagnosed ADHD.

Vigil is when I have to remind myself of that diagnosis. This will not be the day I do a thousand things. It isn’t supposed to be. It’s just one day, and there are just a few covenants — at best — in which only baby steps will be taken.

Knights used to vigil to prepare for investiture, a changed life. But in my protesting days (and thanks to those of you now able and willing to do this work), it was only a single execution, a single life for which I stood outside for hours.

That’s when I was good at Vigil: when I knew it was about the tension between life and death. How little we can hope to do, how much we can achieve by doing little.

DuBois Was Over-Optimistic

This is hardly a gut moment, not a scholarly analysis. But in that old debate between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DeBois about how to advance African American interests, Washington is totally ahead.

To review: DuBois said empowering the Talented Tenth (of which he was one) would have what might be called a trickle down impact for all African Americans. White folks would see their true capabilities. The success of African American leaders would inspire all the others to work harder, do better in school themselves. It was as if that top level success would transform involuntary immigrants to voluntary ones.

Washington was a nuts and bolts kinda guy. He said every African American ought to have solid work skills and a change to apply them.

Frankly, DuBois wasn’t just wrong about the Talented Tenth for African Americans. it isn’t working for any of us. Washington wanted to empower and honor the working class majority, not provide it with tools to escape. His essential wisdom was that most of us are never going to Harvard — as DuBois did — nor should we have to do so to care for our families, our neighborhoods, our country.

My thoughts often turn to diversities of intelligence as an alternative to diversity of skin tone, language group. There are kinesthetic learners in every race and gender, book learners spread out as well. There’s a place to talk about the empowerment of white folks — qualified with limiters like these. 

DuBois was so wrong. if Barack Obama went out for a walk this Sunday at one a.m. with just one Secret Service agent at his side, the D.C. police would probably wonder what he was doing at that place at that time. How close would they have to draw before they recognized him? Being part of the Talented Tenth has gotten him no advantage, except what Secret Service and The Beast can provide. Money can’t buy it. 

DuBois was only right about this. Obama has eliminated the last excuse for racism. What the Talented Tenth has shown the world that it’s not about work, it’s not about talent, it’s not about patriotism, it’s not about family values.

So now, what do we do?

Radical Proximity Takes on the Presumption of Guilt

Radical Proximity Takes on the Presumption of Guilt

Over on The Lively Tradition, Tom Schade has perfectly set up the topic on my mind this morning: if we’re only to address concerns in our immediate neighborhood, among people who share our values and dreams, where does that leave anti-racism?

Happily, Politywonk is old enough — and concerned enough — to remember the 1970s, and what African-Americans asked of Caucasian allies once the major Civil Rights victories were in.

What they wanted was help forming citizen review boards to supervise local police departments.

This has done some lasting good. For instance, did you know that the police chief in Sanford, Florida was fired for mishandling the initial response to the 911 calls from the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman altercation? He was. He deserved to be, and he was.

But since Reverend Al Sharpton can’t be everywhere, and not every victim family has the strength, dignity, and assets of the Fulton-Martin family, we have to each, in our own neighborhoods, take vigilance.

From my old days doing this work, here’s what I recall. The key level where racism works is indeed in how the police respond to an incident. They are overloaded, underfunded, and now, with all this Homeland Security militarization, completely distracted. What combination could more naturally force them to rely on their “instincts”?

And how can we overcome these socially-taught “instincts” that white English-speakers covered with blood just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, victims of some African American and/or non-English speakingmiscreant?

Or victims of their own hormonal imbalance — the old “boys will be boys” — which somehow only applies to white boys, so far as I can tell.

This is not an isolated problem. Here in Vermont, still one of the whitest states in the nation, our prison population is heavily black. Our police chief here in Burlington is a good man, with the most female officers of any urban force in the nation, but still, this is what’s happening.

So here’s what I propose:


First, let’s use Radical Proximity, my name for Ralph Waldo Emerson’s guide to social justice, to each turn our eyes on our own communities, and work with anti-racism allies to get this solved. If done right, it will help overcome the informal self-apartheid in which we live, which will, in itself, move anti-racism forward. (See my comments yesterday that my union local neighborhood will be mostly Nepalis, not Caucasians.)

Then, let’s take the hard-line fairness embodied in mandatory sentencing, and put it where it belongs: mandatory charging. Yep. When a cop finds a youth driving over a golf course late at night, no matter who it is, they have to charge them with criminal trespass. When a caller identifies two people fighting, the cops have to haul them both downtown, no matter how they’re dressed, funded, etc. If they want to lawyer up, let them do so after being charged.

Third, of course — all though this apparently doesn’t happen — even if it’s a Stand Your Ground state, all gun deaths must be forensically investigated immediately and properly. Yes, forensics is a murky science, but there are basics, and they were not done in the death of Trayvon Martin. And there were witnesses who never got called.

And finally, equality often dies in the sealed rooms of grand juries and inquests, where well-intending citizens and professionals have a chance to apply their own racism in sorting out what happened in all these altercations. So there need to be community watches at this level, to see who is being charged with what, and call attention to inequalities. (Politywonk learned about this while protesting reinstatement of the death penalty way back when.)

During the mid-1990s, Politywonk had the honor and obligation of serving as a Unitarian Universalist parish minister in the neighborhoods where Boston’s legendary community policing program was being developed. As much as many police officers hated the residency requirement then imposed on Boston Police — preventing them from living in suburbs and driving to work — it gave them a personal connection with the folks living under the scourge of high crime. I don’t advocate that now, because the arguments over it would totally drown out all other options. But we who live in mixed neighborhoods can be joined by people who care, to bring that kind of eyes, ears, hearts to what happens. And folks who live in de facto white neighborhoods have a special obligation to be sure our own neighbors — and their kids — get charged when they break laws.

This suggestion comes from the many hard workers trying to end domestic abuse and violence. In analyzing the ultimate “reluctance to charge” situation, they recognized that what we call discretion — even forgiveness, that generally lauded religious value — is actually all a conduit for social prejudice. Let’s apply to ALL victims of violence — including property crimes — the same learning. Yes, it will cause a rethink of what police departments buy and pay for: less military hardware (sorry, gun dealers) and more social work training, more officers on more streets, more forensic scientists, properly trained and certified.

Unitarian Universalists have always supported science. It is the opposite not only of ignorance, but also of wishful thinking. Let’s get busy. Let’s get local. Let’s get it done.

Emerson’s Illumination on Luke 10:25-37

“In this refulgent summer” – well, actually, hot as hell, but those first words of his Divinity School Address (DSA) so fully enthrall, after all these years, and summon up that first love experience so many of us felt when we read the DSA for our first time. Yes, figuring a summer must always be refulgent if one is spending it with Emerson, I turned myself yet again to reading his better-known essay “Self-Reliance”. It might well be the most beloved thing written by an American since The Declaration of Independence. Over and over, I see it cited by freedom fighters, artists, community activists from parts of the world I never would have expected. It’s gotten so familiar that I believe it falls to us, the clergy group to which he belonged, to subject his text to the same types of analysis we apply to scriptures of other religions.

This is not the first time I have started “Self-Reliance,” but the first sections always stop me before I get too far. A brief scan of other scholars confirms these negative impressions:

Too masculine, taking no regard of the wife’s work to maintain the home while a man is out pursuing his so-called genius;

  • Too individualistic, dismissing the benefits of covenants embodied in organized religion and traditional family;
  • Too privileged, overlooking the gift of inherited wealth (from his first wife’s premature death) as the foundation of his own opportunity to seek both higher calling and innovative covenants.

Let me start by admitting that I have read relatively little scholarship about the man; he shows up usually as a player in other folks about whom I am reading. And I’ve participated in countless conversations about him, mostly with other Unitarian Universalist clergy. (By “relatively little” I mean, according to academic standards; for an average person, it has been respectable and consistent.) My main guide into “Self-Reliance,” by far, was the late C. Conrad Wright, Professor of American Religious History at the Harvard Divinity School. This is too bad for RWE, because Conrad hated the way Emerson derided pastoral covenants and parish ministry. Secondly, Conrad scorned RWE because at least one parishioner had claimed the man was not capable of meaningful pastoral care when it was needed.

What called me to this effort was the discovery of a moment when RWE, with no public fanfare, exerted himself to support a ministerial and social justice colleague and resolve the parish conflict which threatened that colleague’s important station on the Underground Railroad. And, I defy any religion and any congregation to show me a cleric whose pastoral care satisfies every supplicant. Still, Conrad was right on the first point. “Self-Reliance” includes this quote: “I will have no covenants but proximities.” What does that mean?

What jumped out at me in this summer’s reading is its comment on his era’s debate – still relevant today — on Luke 10:25-37, The Parable of the Good Samaritan. As in our own era, traditional institutions of care and order were overwhelmed by changes in both the quantity and quality of population, technology, and economic power. People of all faiths were uniting across congregational lines to form philanthropic societies. These forerunners of today’s 501(c)3s attempted to provide services far beyond the reach of traditional Town Meeting arrangements. Some deliberately erased religious, ethnic, or racial divisions to assist folks simply on the basis of need. The Good Samaritan was the guiding passage of Christian scripture, then as now. I doubt I need to summarize it here, for even today, it motivates many folks who otherwise claim no Christian affinity at all.

So why was Reverend Emerson objecting to a culture of Good Samaritans?

“Do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom  by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison, if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousandfold Relief Societies; — though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.”

Several years ago, I began feeling in this passage less of a rebuttal to The Good Samaritan and more of a contradiction to the assertion of C. Conrad Wright that Emerson had neither heart nor talent for pastoral care. In this paragraph I see a pastoral approach to social justice:

  • Emerson here rejects the use of categories of need, in favor of seeing everyone as individuals.
  • He derided the indirect goal of legislative redress, in favor of providing personal assistance.
  • Even more impersonal, to RWE, was donating to funds for ameliorative relief, rather than personally undertaking a relational empowerment of the object of one’s concern.

Reverend Emerson excelled in Christian scholarship, so his rebuttal stood on solid scriptural ground. In Matthew 26:6-10, The Woman Who Anoints Jesus with Oil, the disciples deride a poor woman for selling a precious object to buy oil to place on Jesus. The disciples’ criticism is that “She could have given that money to the poor.” Jesus dismisses that concern, saying, “The poor you have always with you, but you will not always have me with you. She is preparing my body for burial.”

Usually people cite this passage as a cynical excuse to avoid giving money to charitable causes. By no measure could Reverend Emerson be called callous, selfish, insensitive. He provided financial assistance to friends whose eccentric brilliance cast their families into constant poverty. He helped organize and fund radical measures for freeing African-Americans. In so doing, he used a standard he called “The Law of Consciousness.” He did not seek covenants of heritage, but assembled kindred spirits into enough cultural presence to form a critical mass that attracted others. The Transcendentalist community at Concord, Massachusetts was the both the tangible evidence of his generosity and the enduring evidence of his method. Find your own genius and then seek others who share it. Indeed the Parable of the Good Samaritan begins with just that criterion: “A man was journeying along the road to Jericho.” Emerson might be referring to that phrase – usually such a throwaway line – when he says charity begins not with the suffering of another person, but in choosing one’s path in life. It is natural, in concern for that road, to address any crisis affecting a person who shares it with you. It takes courage – for which  Emerson openly still prays – to accept the callous consequence of this criterion, which is to overlook the suffering of strangers within what other’s consider one’s own community.

“Know yourself,” is considered the takeaway of “Self-Reliance”, just as “Know God” is the catchphrase of “The Divinity School Address”. In our pressured era, most of us are wondering how to set criteria for donating our too-few dollars, hours, tears. Emerson’s “The Law of Consciousness” says, “Don’t ask your television. Don’t even get it from your congregational Social Justice network. Do what promotes the calling you follow, and if you know yourself truly, work with concentration, people of all descriptions will happily do it with you. You will naturally help each other, not as charity, but as part of working together toward some difficult dream.

Can personal interests really lay a path to diversity when we live today in such a socially segregated culture? It depends on how we define what we are doing, stepping back from social justice and pursuing what I here call Radical Proximity? The social justice workers of PICO – following on The Highlander Center – have found it useful in what they call the One-on-One technique. And in our house, yesterday, I tried it for myself. Instead of demonstrating in memory of Trayvon Martin, Lynne and I listened on C-Span to a panel of geeky African American social historians talking about the history of medical injustice for African Americans. Later we headed out to a meeting for caregivers like myself to obtain a union. In a room of about twenty, our family of three were the only non-Nepalis; the translator was for us, not for others. These are folks I see in our neighborhood every day, walking, chatting, catching the bus; I sometimes even shop in the local Nepali market. But it was only in sharing our stories, baring our needs, that we quit passing each other and joined on a road to Jericho. Reverend Emerson would be forgiven for gloating, in whatever Heaven he inhabits, when I conclude from this little experiment that focusing selfishly on my own interests guided me toward other covenants and reduced the tensions inherent in unfamiliar proximity.

“Church History” and Trayvon Martin

The day just closed marked the anniversary of Reverend Ralph Waldo Emerson’s invited address to a small collection of students, recent alumni (Theodore Parker), and community members (including Elizabeth Peabody) at what was then known as the Theological School at Cambridge. The Divinity School Address, (DSA) as it is now known, has been called the foundational document of Transcendentalism, not so much a shot across the bow as into the powder magazine of the nascent congregational Unitarianism struggling mightily to hang onto respectability, power, and cultural relevance in a fast-changing world.

Today on Facebook, one scholar chose to highlight a theme which comes up many places in Emerson, that is, the primacy of instinctive religion over received religion. I am currently reading Self Reliance, where, if anything, church history takes a much more sustained hit than anything Emerson says in the DSA. But when I put down my Emerson to take in several hours of MSNBC commentary on the recent acquittal of George Zimmerman, in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, church history jumped out from every word.

I agree with Emerson, this is no time for quarreling over whose congregation was established first and whether or not so-and-so was ordained by such-and-such a congregation or by some other. But this IS a time for remembering the very church history made by Emerson and his allies of many faiths in reacting to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. For I heard commentators tonight, speaking about New York City’s stop and frisk policy, as well as about the acquittal (not exonoration) of a self-appointed neighborhood vigilante. For me it all came together in this video, when Joy Reid and Rev. Al Sharpton explained that this says to African Americans  that any white person, civilian or official, can challenge the presence and conduct of any black person — child, youth, adult, senior, anyone — for any reason.

These are the words of the Fugitive Slave Law, that is, to empower every white person to put every black person in the place that white person considers to be that black person’s place. The law’s intent was to institutionalize every African American in slavery, or scare them out of the country (it spurred a HUGE increase in flights to Canada via Underground Railroad). Today there is no slavery to send them back to, but perhaps our penal system has taken over that function.

And when the Fugitive Slave Law was passed, states like mine (Vermont) moved immediately and officially to disqualify our officials from taking part in it. This little-remembered fact led the South to abandon — until now — its push for a strong central authority supporting slavery, moving back to states’ rights as the fallback. (This explains why liberal religion needs to focus is social justice not at national television cameras, but at state legislatures.)  A Vermont lawyer in Missouri helped a family who had been living as free people despite official slave status to appeal this law. It was the Dred Scott Decision which took the question of citizenship out of the hands of states and federalized it, by declaring that Africans had no right to citizenship, no matter what state they inhabited and whether or not they were free.

And here is where church history — not omitting Rev. Emerson’s own works — becomes relevant. Unitarians, Universalists, Quakers, Congregationalists, Methodists, Baptists, and other liberal religious stood up against this pervasive persecution  to say we would not participate. Moreover, as Caucasian religious organizations, we would do everything in our power to protect African-heritage individuals from every form of second class citizenship, beginning with this omnipresent fear of persecution and endangerment.

I’ve been wrestling for over a year with the Transcendentalist conviction, which Emerson states in Self Reliance, that a person should not be distracted from the work to which they are called by anything, not even pleas from philanthropies, charities, and neighbors with whom we have no other exchanges. Does this mean we UUs ought to limit our commitment to social justice? By this definition, Emerson’s life contradicts his writings. But tonight what it means to me is that since I have brother and sister Americans who feel, in effect, that the Fugitive Slave Law is still in effect, then as an American, this is my genius, this is my locality, this is a neighbor with whom I have business. If we have to retool our focus to state-to-state emphasis, in order to counter the current strategies of oppression, that does not mean we are pulling back, but moving forward.