Anne Whitehouse is the author of the poetry collections, The Surveyor’s Hand, Blessings and Curses (Poetic Matrix Press, 2009), Bear in Mind (Finishing Line Press, 2010), and One Sunday Morning (Finishing Line Press, 2011). She is also the author of the novel, Fall Love. We at Healthy Artists really admire Anne’s literary work, teaching history, and distinguished career in development work with non-profits, so we decided she was the perfect Healthy Artist to feature in our first issue. We asked her some questions about her work and views and learned that she has an extremely personal and passionate connection to universal health care.
What can we do to improve health care, as a society and as individuals?
There’s a lot of misinformation going around and there’s a disconnect between our elected officials and their constituencies. Some of our representatives are beholden to special interests, and they don’t feel they have to represent the people who put them in Congress. Among our electorate, our country is greatly divided. We’ve developed an “us and them” mentality. In large part, it’s a problem of education. When it comes to health care, we haven’t been good at educating our citizenry about the real social benefits and the real social costs.
A lot of people think that the big problem is the debt and the debt ceiling, and that we simply have to cut spending everywhere and that’s the solution to our problems as a country. However, the real problem is the current system and the way it benefits the few at the expense of the many. For the past 40 or 50 years, we’ve seen a growing gap between our richest and poorest citizens, with the result that, among the developed nations, the United States is one of the most inequitable societies in the world. We’ve been told that our society can’t afford universal health care for its citizens, that it’s simply too expensive, and millions of people will simply have to do without. I say the opposite: if we want to progress and grow as a society and if we want to foster growth and economic vitality, we can’t not afford to have universal health care.
Not long ago, I heard my college classmate, Dr. Sonia Ehrlich Sachs, give a presentation about the Millennium Villages Project, which, under the aegis of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, has established 14 health clinic sites in ten underdeveloped African countries. In her work, Dr. Sachs discovered that a healthy population is a precondition for robust economic growth and development in business, agriculture, education, and other sectors rather than the result of such growth. What is true for these underdeveloped countries is also true for us. In order to thrive as a society and a nation, we need to invest in the health care of our population.
Do you have a health care story?
When most people hear of “senior health care,” they tend to think of Medicare. It’s true that Medicare is the backbone of medical coverage for those over 65, but contrary to popular belief, it does not cover their long-term supports and services either in their own homes or in nursing homes. After they have depleted a lifetime of savings and assets, 65% of nursing home residents pay for at least some of their stay with Medicaid. Some states also allow seniors to fund home and community-based care with Medicaid as well. It is in this way that numerous seniors rely on Medicaid for their care. My late friend Barbara Sapinsley was such a senior.
Thanks to Medicaid, she was able to live comfortably and happily in her familiar home of over half a century, with the care of loving aides, until her recent death in March 2011 at the age of nearly 93.
Here is her story:
Barbara Sapinsley was born in 1918 in New Rochelle, NY and raised there and in Providence, RI. She studied at Bennington, Columbia, NYU, and CUNY. She lived her entire life in New York City while traveling widely. She never married or had children and worked in magazine (Newsweek, Television Age, and others) and television journalism (she worked for nearly ten years for the award-winning CBS documentary series, The Twentieth Century, narrated by Walter Cronkite). She was also the author of nonfiction books, most notably, The Private War of Mrs. Packard.
In her early eighties, she began to show signs of Alzheimer’s disease. By this time, her closest relative, her brother, was dead, and she had no other relatives who cared about her. In 2003, at the age of 85, she fell and fractured her hip, necessitating a complete hip replacement. The surgery was successful, but on her release she was no longer able to live independently and required 24-hour live-in home care. Within two and a half years, she had completely spent her savings paying for this care.
Without Medicaid to continue to provide for her home care, none of the circle of support that surrounded Barbara and made her life happy in her last years would have been possible. Because her aides were relatively low-paid, the care was not more expensive than nursing home care would have been. Medicaid was vital in ensuring the quality of Barbara’s life after she had spent down her savings on private home care and ensured that she still had a social connection to her community of over 50 years.
More states should provide access to this important source of care. In her day, Barbara was a fierce advocate and supporter of those who cannot advocate for themselves. She would have been pleased to think that her example of living at home in the community with the support of Medicaid despite Alzheimer’s disease might be held as an example for others.
Home care is a more cost-effective and a more compassionate way of caring for our seniors. But not only do cuts to Medicaid make it even harder for states to take that step, the threats to cut it by a third put all Medicaid services at risk, including financing of nursing home care. What will future generations of seniors do then?
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
As soon as I learned to write, when I was about five or six, I used to create illustrated stories with ballpoint pen or pencil and sometimes with crayon. When I was about nine-years-old, I wrote longer stories in installments that were read by my younger sisters and my friends. At the age of 16, I read Wallace Stevens’ poem, “The Snow Man.” The triple use of the word “nothing” in the last stanza made me want to write poetry.
Why do you write?
Writing begins in desire and need. I write because I feel incomplete without writing. I write out of a love for literature, reading, and language. I write to convey what is authentically mine. I write because of a wish to create something durable and permanent from evanescent experience.
What books or stories have most influenced you as a person?
As a child, I had The Golden Book of Greek Myths. I vividly recall my shock when I first read the story of Oedipus. And the truth is, every time I read it, I still feel the shock. What a story! Writing doesn’t go any deeper than that. The Biblical story of Joseph is another one. The family is the basic human social structure, and our deepest conflicts and yearnings; our desire, terrors, and taboos, go back to it.
In a larger context, The Iliad has never been surpassed as the great story of war and society and capricious fate. As Simone Weil wrote in her wonderful essay, “Its bitterness is the only justifiable bitterness, for it springs from the subjections of the human spirit to force. This subjection is the common lot, although each spirit will bear it differently, in proportion to its own virtue. No one in the Iliad is spared by it, as no one on earth is.”
Do you have any advice for other writers?
Whatever subject you choose to write about, be sure that it interests you enough and you care enough about it to devote yourself to it the way that you’re going to have to. There’s no doubt about it, the practice of any art requires a great deal of sacrifice. It’s hard for people who don’t feel that need and passion to understand why anyone would give so much effort and love and time—at the expense, often, of one’s family and friends—to what seems to offer back so little, certainly in terms of a financial reward. In the end you’ve got to please yourself, or it’s not worth doing. It’s too hard, and it’s too demanding.
Don’t expect other people to understand why you write, not even people you love. For example, one of my closest friends invariably comments when my poetry is published, “I hope you made money on that, Anne.” I know she loves me and she means well; deep down, she wants me to make money on my poetry, because she doesn’t understand why else I would write it. Yet I can’t quell a sense of despair at her familiar comment. To demand of poetry that it be profitable is to burden a frail, delicate creature with such a weight that it can’t take off, much less fly. I thank G-d that I don’t have to make a living from poetry; otherwise I couldn’t write it.
My fiction, alas, has proved to be as much a labor of love as my poetry. That’s the way it is, and I accept it. Society doesn’t value literature, not really. Or else, there’s no telling if society will value it. If society does value it, it’s probably for a reason other than a literary one. As Yeats wrote in one of my favorite poems of his, “Adam’s Curse:”
A line may take us hours maybe
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather,
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.
I often reflect that the literature that has been passed down to us is what has survived arbitrarily. There may well have been other, greater works that we will never know about, because they were destroyed and their authors forgotten. Think about the tales of Kafka, or Anne Frank’s diary–how easily they might not have survived. One might indeed invent a hypothetical catalogue of destroyed literature. Perhaps this is something Borges wrote about. It sounds like a Borgesian idea. I hope I’ve written something that will survive in some way, but I feel properly humble. As I wrote of my character Althea, an artist, in Fall Love: “…if the thought of leaving a couple of items to a catalogue of thousands didn’t daunt her, then perhaps she deserved to have something survive.”
My last bit of advice is practical. Make sure you get enough sleep and are well rested. Writing is a huge mental effort. Some of it is frustrating. You are creating something that was not there and has never existed. You have to stick with it day after day, abiding with it. When my writing has gone well, my mind feels great afterwards, as if it’s gotten a lot of exercise. Some days, on the other hand, it’s hard to accomplish anything. Yet I’ve also come to realize that the frustration is part of the writing process and often precedes the insight. I try to be patient with myself and give myself permission to follow my instincts and inclinations. And if it’s not working, I don’t force it. I do something else, anything else, even dusting the bookshelves.
Where can we find your work?
Please go to my website for my publications, news, and bibliographies. Two of the poems published in Healthy Artists, Rose’s Dream and After the Accident are included in my poetry chapbook, One Sunday Morning, which will be published this fall by Finishing Line Press