The Girls and I Carry Our Vulnerability

I really hate danger!  Believe it or not, I’m someone who can be quite happy without it.  I don’t need it to give me a charge, or purpose.  I love sitting on a beach soaking up sun, or walking my dog, as I did in the US, or working in my garden, puttering, playing with photoshop, writing haikus, and even books….. I love to daydream, and I can lose myself in stupid TV.  I love the rush of falling in love, but not the subsequent fall…. I don’t seek danger, but it seems to come with the things I choose to do.  I think it’s because I don’t really factor it in my decisions.  “‘I’d rather not think about it, and then deal with it if I have to.”

0-wires_2425_wOur neighborhood criminals have started cutting our phone lines repeatedly, each time we have them repaired or repair them ourselves.  I think one of the men is obsessed with us, like a stalker.  He stands outside at night taunting our guard that all our cameras will never catch what he does. (He is right.)   He knows that ultimately we have no protection.

That’s exactly what I have to learn to accept.  

Last night I thought about moving, but it’s unrealistic.

  • Neither Shishur Sevay nor I personally, has the funds it would take.
  • Where would we move?  Some of our most committed teachers live nearby and teach when their kids are in school.  If they have to travel, too much time will be lost.
  • Property values have gone way up, but our house at the end of the lane would not bring us enough to get another comparable place and renovate.   I’ve looked from time to time at property and at houses — nothing we can manage.  Having children with disabilities requires a lot of specific alterations.
  • If we move locally, can we be sure we won’t be followed by our criminal stalkers?
  • If we move further away, where we are not known, can we be sure we will be safe?  Many homes for children live by undeclared policies that allow local men to have access to the children.  The criminals here ultimately want access to our girls.  That has been a source of conflict since the first days.  They wanted to be able to “come and go” as they wished.  It will be the same wherever we go.

I came to understand that the girls and I carry our vulnerability.  This evening we all talked, and the girls asked why I’d been sad looking.  They hadn’t all known about the phone lines, and I talked about my worries, how it had gotten worse.  I talked about my thoughts on moving but wasn’t sure we would be safe anywhere.  We are female.  I am not anyone’s property and as orphans they are considered everyone’s property.  It was personal and it was intimate.  I acknowledged that they had each lived in far more dangerous situations.  And then one of them said that when she got married and had a baby she was bringing her baby and her husband here to live.  Another suggested we have a building with flats and they could live with their husbands in the same building.  The ones who say they never want to get married want to stay here too.  I have no idea what the future will bring but for now, this is clearly home, their home… it was a beautiful evening.

On another note, this is a drawing done by one of our girls, an illustration for my children’s story:  Dreaming Wishes For Prince Dobu.

Princess Tikka and Prince Dobu in the Land of Dreaming Wishes

Princess Tikka and Prince Dobu in the Land of Dreaming Wishes

Danger Is Back

Many months ago the police finally cleaned out the criminals.  They cleaned out drugs, prostitution, and guns.  This was all right next to our home at the end of the lane.  One of the criminals, wanted for murder, is still on the run, though he has made brief appearances.  His son, whose family is here, is apparently out on bail.  He has come around at times, but mostly stayed away.

He is back, in full force.  He has been trying to involve one of our girls, though he has a wife and child, and other children around of course.  He tried to get her to steal money to give him.  He harasses us outside out gate.  It’s been annoying, but now for the last three days he is blaring music throughout the day and long into the night.  He is playing love songs so loud that with our windows closed it still comes in very loud.

Bijoy threatened him when he learned he was going after on of our girls.  That took courage, but I think the music is also revenge.

Two nights ago I went out late and asked him and his mother to turn the music down, which they did eventually.  But it was a Pooja celebration and I thought it would stop the next day.  This is the third night.  Yesterday he almost ran down one of our Board Members who was coming.  I heard that one neighbor had complained.  This criminal is supposed to be under close police supervision but one never knows which side the police are on.  And I guess everyone is afraid of him because I can’t be the only one whose home space has been invaded by sound.

In the past, the local “CLUB” and the police were involved with cleaning them out.  For whatever reason I feel more vulnerable now, maybe because as bad as his father was in some ways, he also kept his son in check at times.  And he is targeting us.

Sound gets to me.  I’m reminded of Penn Station in NYC where they blast music at night so people can’t sleep in the station. I tell myself I may just have to learn to live with it.  I even tried telling myself I might enjoy the music if I let myself.  I have lots of ways of trying to convince myself!  They aren’t working.

I lived with death threats here for years, with riots, with police here when I could get them.  But I thought that was all in the past. In the US, you look for a house in a cul-de-sac because it’s safer for children to play.  But here it’s the opposite.  If you live at the end of the lane, you are vulnerable to everyone along the way to your house.  If they have enough power they can stop the police from coming, which they mostly were able to do.  When I was doing renovations the criminals would stop the contractors and demand money.  

Sometimes it’s not easy, what I’m doing.  But then, that’s why I’m here.  I’m the wall between the girls and precisely that harsh and dangerous world out there.


Seven Years Together at Shishur Sevay

A few nights ago I dreamed I was trying to put our records together and that required that I establish records on the moon first, which I did, and then replicated here at Shishur Sevay. I kept asking, “How can I explain to people that I had to get this done on the moon first?” I’m working on a blog post about the past seven years here. Maybe that’s the answer as to why the dream.  I’m feeling a lot of pressure, trying to write about what it’s been like, and probably holding back a lot on what it’s really been like. I’ve been to the moon and back…. that’s what was required.  It was cold and lonely and void of vegetation.

Shishur Sevay today is thriving.  It’s glowing.  It’s what I’d dreamed it would be. So here is the blog I was working on before I went to sleep, before I understood I’d been to the moon and back.  The process of building Shishur Sevay has been brutal, but the product is beautiful.

Seven Years Together

A picture of all the girls of Shishur Sevay and Dr. Harrison on her birthday

My Girls of Shishur Sevay and Me

The first twelve girls came to Shishur Sevay in February 2007, so for me this time of year is always one of reflection.  They came with an array of abilities, disabilities, and medical conditions.  All came with scars, emotional and physical.   They all were socially and educationally deprived, and had led lives filled with violence and deprivation.  Then at some point, each had lost everyone and everything: parents, siblings, extended family, and community, and eventually were placed in a government institution.  These are the children I’d sought, the ones considered not adoptable in India or abroad. They had been rejected by adoption representatives before they were sent to me for “rehabilitation” by Order of the Child Welfare Committee.   With adolescence, three of the girls became too unmanageable, with behaviors that put us all at risk. My decision to return them to government care was very difficult, and taken after many attempts over the years at various treatments and therapies, but necessary if Shishur Sevay was to be the safe place it is.  I had not expected ever to have to do that.

This year we started an inclusive school, Ichche Dana Learning Center because educating the girls in outside schools “did not work.”  The girls are beginning to put their efforts back into learning.  There were several factors interfering.  One was their early deprivation that left them far behind their classmates, while they were also older than their classmates.   Science is now giving us information on the effects of this early deprivation.

At school the girls were seen as “different” because of their origins, and they felt different. Teachers lowered expectations; some gave them false high grades because they “felt sorry” for them.  Others ignored them, or queried them about their origins and caste. The Indian system of rote memory left them too frightened to learn anything but the paragraphs they had to memorize and give back, an impossible task when you don’t have the foundations of language, any language.   Ideas of self-discipline, hard mental work, and delayed gratification were as foreign to them as I was..  If work was hard it scared them.   They lived in fear.  It was time to bring them back and start anew, which is what we are doing and so far it is working very well.

Girls taking notes at the botanical gardens.

Taking notes at the Botanical Gardens

doing a presentation of trees of botanical gardens

Presentation about the trees of Botanical Gardens

The girls did a presentation of their work to volunteers from Equal Health,a team of Australian educators who were with us  in January.

Ganga Presenting

Ganga Presenting

Ganga and Bornali both presented by use of the iPad and the recorded script.

This is inclusion.  Everyone is able to learn something and to contribute.  Some of the coursework has to separated by level of understanding and skills in reading and comprehension, but the ideas and subjects and methods of presentation can be done by all.  And our children with the most severe disabilities, even if they can’t join in, they still make wonderful and appreciative listeners.  Everyone has a role.

Our eventual plan is for the girls who are able, to enroll in the National Institute of  Open Schooling which will allow them to sit for Class 10 and 12 examinations. We will send to college those who are able.  We will look at job training for others.  Some of our older girls may need to stay with us.  I’ve promised marriage to those who want.  We talk about dowry because it’s integral to the world they live in.

This year though, I find myself thinking a lot about our girls with the most profound disabilities and looking at the therapies and methods that have and have not “worked.”  The children thrive on attention, especially one on one!  If I were in the US, I’d be thinking about finding teenagers to just play with them, floor play, songs, things I’m familiar with.  I haven’t found that here.  My experience (and I add the caveat that I can only speak for my involvement with families since 2000) is that teenagers do not “babysit” or work outside their families.   Play happens sometimes as “therapy” by professional therapists, but that means it’s a very limited and expensive resource. As for cognitive tasks, my little ones would rather be dancing.

She'd Rather be Dancing

She’d Rather be Dancing

One day I will tell the story of what it took to get here, but Shishur Sevay is a wonderful place now and that’s how the journey must be seen.

A Life’s Journey to Shishur Sevay

Medical School Graduation Picture

Medical School Graduation Picture

I was born with vision.  It’s just how I am.  I watched everything and everyone around me, studied them, studied the world I lived in, the worlds I read about.  I thought a lot about God, applying my nine years old scientific abilities — with no definitive answer but deciding it didn’t really matter, because I was going to live as if God existed.

I can’t remember when I wasn’t aware of orphans and orphanages.  I write these things because my establishing Childlife Preserve Shishur Sevay is the logical outcome of my visions and my life.   My childhood and adolescent heroes were Margaret Mead,  Dr. Albert Schweitzer and Dr. Tom Dooley.  All of these figures have now been vilified for their politics, for who they were.  But they were the pioneers and pioneers often don’t get everything totally right.   In the years just before I started Shishur Sevay, I remember thinking that it’s easy to be a critic.  The real question was whether I could do better.

From my adolescent heart, a high school essay about “The Meaning of Life.”  The essay was important enough to me so I managed to keep it throughout my life.

From my sixteen year old heart

From my sixteen year old heart

I became a doctor and practiced in the low country of rural South Carolina where people had never been to a doctor.  I opened a clinic on St. Helena Island, in a building that had been the first school for freed slaves.

I became a mother, finding myself alone with my child in South Carolina.  I put her in a backpack and practiced medicine that way.  I was the official doctor for the Special Olympics one year.  I later became the medical director of Beaufort Jasper Comprehensive Health, one of the the first government funded comprehensive health care programs in the US.  I supervised a staff of 200.  My daughter, first an infant and then a toddler came to work with me.  I’d hired a caretaker and bought a van so she was with me as I covered the eight clinics in the two county area.  I covered obstetrics for our program in the local hospital.  Eventually I left South Carolina because of violence and threats against me.  I moved north with my daughter, my dog, and my cat.

Mothering and doctoring were connected.  I wanted more training in Obstetrics and Gynecology.  I became the first part time OB-GYN resident in the US, accepting a position in Boston in a Harvard teaching hospital.  I wanted part time (80 hrs a week instead of 120) so I could also mother my child. I only lasted seven months, but the part-time residents who followed me did very well.  The people who break barriers are a different breed from those who follow.  We tend to question and challenge more of what we see; we tend not to be obedient.

I published my first book, A Woman in Residence (Random House 1982, Kindle 2013), in 1982, an autobiographical account of  that training in Obstetrics and Gynecology.  The book is from my journals and is about the abuses of women as patients, and the moral conflicts that led to my leaving.  I published my second book, Self-Help for Premenstrual Syndrome also in 1982.  I was the first doctor in the first US clinic treating PMS, and my book was the first in the US.  At the time I could not get Random House, the publisher of my first book to take the book about PMS.  So I self-published.  It sold so well that Random House then bought it from me.  Years later I published a third book, The Pre-Teen’s First Book About Love, Sex, and AIDS.  It took ten years to get a publisher, and then it was taken by American Psychiatric Press, after peer-review.  I’m persistent.

We moved a lot, always due to the work I was doing.  By 1980, I wanted a second child and pursued adoption.  Did I “choose” India?  Not really.  I had in my mind there was a child I was to raise, but I didn’t really know where she was.  I left that to destiny, to God, and the place in my heart to find my child.   So, my younger daughter arrived from Kolkata, India at 10 weeks of age.  I re-lactated and nursed her.  I hired a secretary willing to care for her in the office, and I took my daughter to work with me, as I had done ten years earlier with my first child.

There is a theme here….. about finding a way to weave together a life of mothering and work.  In those years I practiced medicine, wrote books, taught at medical schools, studied…. steeped myself in issues of medical ethics and reproductive technology.  At the University of Pittsburgh I taught Psychiatry, and Medical Ethics.  I immersed myself in the issues of reproductive technologies, surrogate motherhood, embryo transfer.  I defended the rights of surrogate mothers and was closely involved with the Baby M case and others. I wrote Op Ed’s — had one in Wall Street Journal…, and impressed my daughters (finally!) with an article in Glamour Magazine.  I did the book tours, TV, radio.   But I was still a single mother raising children, trying to titre our economic needs with having time to be with them.  I never let the “glamorous” aspect of my life define how we lived.  I never mixed up what people said I “deserved” with what I could afford.

I don’t think there has ever been a “smooth” time in my life, because in between my accomplishments there were usually conflicts of values.   I’ve been a whistle-blower more than once, and have been punished for that.  I’ve personally been through rape and a head injury.  But I’m like one of those sand filled children’s toys that you punch down and it pops back up.

The question of my corporate life often comes up, and why I left that for the life I have now.  The real question though is why I went to Johnson & Johnson.    They recruited me as they were looking for leadership in Women’s Health.  I accepted because I wanted the skills that the corporate world would teach me.  I wanted the discipline, management skills, the international experience with the private and public sectors.   By going to J&J I would also be economically freed for the first time.  The money I made in those years made it possible for me to establish Shishur Sevay.  The skills and experience I gained were the training  I needed to do what I am doing now.  I love telling stories:  One day when I was with J&J I was having a particularly difficult time.  I was alone in an elevator when I started to chat with God.  I asked, “God, why another test?  You keep giving me tests, and I keep passing them.  Why another one?  This is boring.”  (My God enjoys my sense of humor.)  Anyway, I got an answer.  “This isn’t a test.  This is training.”  I liked that.  I’m pretty well trained, but I also think we are always in training….

Ironically, I accepted the job at J&J while I was still in cognitive rehab for the head injury I’d sustained while at the University of Pittsburgh.  I’d been told I would never be able to handle a stressful job again.  At J&J I was criticized a few times for being too dependent on my secretaries — and that was a result of the injuries.   But they never knew and I’ve never really written it til now.    I spent three years as Worldwide Director of Medical Affairs in one of the consumer division companies.  I had broadened my scope to R&D, Quality Control, Regulatory Bodies, Advertising, PR, and Marketing.  I handled consumer and professional education, and represented J&J with the EU and the European Trade Association of Non-Woven Goods.  I was then promoted to Executive Director of the Johnson & Johnson Institute for Children, a worldwide philanthropy program coming out of the Corporate Social Responsibility Department.   I’m not sure it’s anywhere on record, but I was able to get J&J to give their Mumbai office $10,000 for the Tata Insititute of Social Sciences to bring Childline to Mumbai.   But in other situations, I also watched money we gave out being used in ways that never reached the intended recipients.  I thought about that when I decided to start Shishur Sevay:  how could I take my relatively limited amount of money and actually make something happen here… money to action, accountability, and a vigilance about how easily it can disappear.

In 1999 I discovered I had Stage II breast cancer.  I’m still here, but the cancer had a profound effect on me…. a cliche… and brought me full circle back to the orphans I’d written of in high school.  This time though, those orphans were real.  When I adopted, I always wondered what happened to the children not adopted.  I learned in my stretches of time here in India working with NGOs that the real orphans were in the government institutions, and that the general attitude was that “nothing could be done.”  So I set about the challenge of starting a home, to show what could be done.

When I was a child I looked up in the sky and saw a flock of migrating birds.  I turned to my father and asked, “How do they know where to go?”    He said, “It’s the address they get.”  So here I am, doing what I’m supposed to be doing.  Shishur Sevay is the address I got.  

A Beautiful Life

A Beautiful Life

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