Posts Tagged ‘addiction’

Two people told me about this book recently, one who loved it and one who did not even like it. I decided to give it a try, and I’m glad I did. I think it is an important story, one that touches on important issues in our culture and also tells a compelling story. It’s heart-wrenching, but there is also a redemptive piece that makes it more lovely than sad.  wouldn’t say it’s a hopeful book, however, given the realities of our country.

Sing Unburied Sing is set in coastal Mississippi, and it’s the story of JoJo, a thirteen year old boy who lives with his mother Leonie (although she isn’t always there) and her parents, Pop and Mam, as well as his toddler sister, Kayla. His father, Michael, is in a prison called Parchman, the same prison where Pop was sent as a young man, back when Jim Crow still ran the South. Pop tells JoJo stories about his time at Parchman, and they all feature a boy around JoJo’s age, Richie, who was a prisoner with Pop.

Michael is white, and his parents, especially his father, think of Leonie as a “nigger bitch.” They have nothing to do with her or their grandchildren. Pop and Mam are poor, but Pop grows a garden and tends animals and keeps his family well fed. Mam has been a healer all her life, making herbal remedies and praying to a mixture of Catholic and Voodoo saints. Mostly, they provide the children love and a kind of stability.

The book follows these characters through a period of just a few tumultuous days, as Michael is released from prison, Leonie takes the children and her friend Misty to go pick him up, and Mam’s cancer reaches a critical stage. But even though the action only takes up a short time, we learn a tremendous amount about the characters. How Given, Leonie’s older brother, and Richie, the boy Pop knew at Parchman haunt them. How Leonie and JoJo each deal with those hauntings. How addiction and mass incarceration and systemic racism and the long shadow of lynchings and police brutality and more everyday violence and the hard work of being poor impact them all, deeply, generationally, indelibly.

The hauntings and the faith in VooDoo comforts like a gris-gris bag Pop gives JoJo and the stones Mam asks Leonie to gather from the cemetery as her life withers away make this book more than a straight up narrative; there is a sense of mysticism to it. Somehow Ward makes the characters seem both concrete and symbolic, people with real lives and also people who represent millions of lives, millions of souls touched by the myriad harms of being poor and black in America.

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Friday night we stayed home and read books. The Computer Scientist was trying to finish a library book that was due Saturday. I started A Street Cat Named Bob: and How He Saved My Life by James Bowen. And finished it about an hour or so later.

James Bowen was barely making ends meet as a busker in Covent Garden, recovering from years of homelessness and drug addiction, when he came home one evening to find a ginger tom cat in his apartment building in north London. Bowen nursed the injured cat back to health, dubbed him Bob and delighted in their new friendship. One day Bob followed him onto the bus, settling into his guitar case when Bowen set up to perform. He quickly realized Bob was a draw. People also treated Bowen better when Bob joined him. People who’d ignored or judged him before looked at him differently: “Seeing me with my cat softened me in their eyes. It humanised me . . . . I had been a non-person; I was becoming a person again.”

Bob’s antics – he watches horse races on TV, smacks a menacing dog with a swift paw, rides on Bowen’s shoulders, and teaches himself to use the toilet — are quite entertaining. And the way that caring for Bob brought Bowen new purpose, structure, and love as he put his life back together makes this a heart-warming read. Bowen’s compelling personal story reminds readers of the discrimination and danger street musicians and vendors face daily and the challenges that remain even after a homeless person finds a safe place to live. And of the difference small acts of kindness and community resources (like libraries, where Bowen often used the computers) can make for someone putting his life back together.

I’ve seen the softening effect of our own stray cat on my family these past three years — when someone is upset or stressed, she has a way of relieving the pressure and bringing us into the present moment. Being the object of a pet’s affections is a great way to get out of your own head. Our local paper has covered both our human homeless population and a colony of feral cats downtown. As I read A Street Cat Named Bob I couldn’t help but wonder whether these two communities have something to offer each other.

That might sound silly, but I think one of the strongest points the book makes is that Bowen became more determined to take his life back because he was responsible for Bob. For someone who’d lost touch with his family and whose friends sometimes offered the temptations of his old life, having a pet was an anchor. Bob offered more than companionship — he gave Bowen a reason to be his best self.

For now I don’t have the resources to start a nonprofit “sheltered housing”*/pet shelter. But I wonder if anyone’s every tried it? Leave a comment if you’ve ever heard of an organization helping get both people and animals off the street together.

*Sheltered housing in the UK helps the elderly and “vulnerable” people live independently with support and services to help them stay that way.


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