Immigrant Story

2017-01-28-14-42-42This is my Great Great Grandpa Petterson (Peterson) holding my Grandmother on his lap.  He and his future wife came to the United States from Sweden in 1884 and married about a year after their arrival.  They lived in a Swede settlement in Kansas and near/in Beattie, KS for 40 years.  According to my Grandmother, they were “hard working, poor, but respected.  Grandpa was a stone-cutter by trade.”  They went on to have four children, one of which was my Great Grandmother, Ida.  Ida married Jess and they had my Grandmother.  My Grandmother married Gordon Ensley in 1938 and had four boys, one of which is my Father.

I only know all of this because my Grandmother made it a point to write all of this down and give it to all of the grandchildren.  I am lucky.  I know at least some of my history and I cannot forget it because it stares back at me in black and white images and yellowed pages with painstakingly typed text.  And I have tears streaming down my face as I write this because people are being turned away from our country for no reason other than ignorance, fear, and blind hatred.  How quickly we forget when it is not happening to us in the present moment.  How quickly we forget that, unless we are Native American, we are ALL immigrants, the children of immigrants, descendants of immigrants.  The news today is littered with stories of perfectly legal U.S. citizens being turned away, refugees seeking safety being told they cannot come in, of Jews during World War II being sent from our borders only to be murdered by the Nazis.  So maybe, for some, there’s a convenient, privileged disconnect there, some distance that is allowing our leaders and those on the side of inhumanity to keep this from sinking in, but I am asking you, go back through your own lineage, trace your own family path and realize, yes, Virginia, you are the daughter, granddaughter, great granddaughter, of an immigrant.  You might not be here today if not for the once-welcoming lamp beside the golden door.  Lady Liberty is also the Mother of Exiles.

Never forget.  Never let them forget, most of us enjoying the relatively intact freedoms today are here because this country was once open to the possibility of goodness.  Share your story, because most of us have one.

The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


All I Have Is My Story

aca-tracking-infographic-for-releaseThe following is a message I sent to my Congressional representatives this evening.  I have little hope that anyone of importance will read it, let alone listen to it:

All I have is my story.  And because I know my situation is not unique, I tell you my story in the hopes that you understand that there are probably hundreds more exactly like it, thousands more worse off, and millions who will be negatively affected if you ignore our needs.

I am a 39 year old single female who, two years ago, returned to the state of my birth, Kansas, to be closer to family, to start a new chapter in my life, and yes, for health reasons as well.  I have a Bachelors degree from Kansas University and have worked since I was 15 years old.  Now, I am attempting to pursue my passion and begin a second career in the culinary arts, but it is proving difficult as of late.  I have multiple chronic conditions, conditions that before the ACA, prevented me from getting my own health insurance.  Of course, the other reason I could not get much needed healthcare, was affordability.  That all changed with the ACA.  Yes, the rollout was messy and complicated and fraught with problems.  But it worked.  It worked for me, and it worked for millions of others.  Not hundreds, millions.  Yes, some people have had their insurance go up, so let’s address that issue.  Let’s get single-payer healthcare for ALL.  Let’s make healthcare a priority for our citizens so they don’t have to go broke with one emergency room visit.  Let’s rein in the insurance companies and make this more fair for all of us, not strip away the lifeline that so many of us have come to tears of gratefulness over.

I get six usable hours a day right now, and I spend them working.  I am trying.  Millions of us are trying, just to get by.  If you take the ACA away without a quantifiably more fair and just plan to back it up, you are sending a clear message to your fellow Americans that you do not care what happens to them, that profits matter more than people.  And after last night’s vote, it’s pretty clear that’s where things stand currently.  You are telling us that you are so out of touch, that you cannot fathom how one ER visit could bankrupt someone, send them down a financial spiral.  You are telling us that you don’t understand how someone would have to choose between paying their rent, buying groceries, or getting their necessary medications.  And if that wasn’t enough, you went ahead and took away the protections that most Americans are in favor of.  Who thought it was a bad idea to eliminate refusal based on pre-existing conditions?  Who thought it was a bad idea to let people stay on their parent’s insurance until they are 26?  At this point, it just seems petty and personal and vindictive.  Are you so wrapped up in political theater that you cannot remember it is the people you are supposed to be serving?  This isn’t a game.

And because one of my conditions is endometriosis and ovarian cysts, let’s talk about Planned Parenthood while were at it.  If you DO repeal the ACA, that’s where I would need to go, for at least some form of care.  Did you know that the treatment for endometriosis is usually birth control?  That’s right!  It’s not just for controlling birth!  Shocking, isn’t it.  I hate taking it, it’s a terrible drug, but it’s that or the pain.  Do you know how much it would cost to get my birth control without insurance and without Planned Parenthood?  It would be around $200.  In the grand scheme of drug pricing, that’s actually not that bad, but I couldn’t afford it.  I’d have to stop taking it and then we’re back to the pain, in addition to the pain I already cope with.  You cannot take away the only lifelines that people are relying on.  You can’t rush headlong to vindictively remove the ACA, without offering a BETTER solution for all, and then take away Planned Parenthood funding at the same time.  Unless you really don’t care.  Unless winning some political game means more to you than the well-being and day-to-day struggles of actual people.

Do you even remotely understand how important Planned Parenthood is, or the myriad of services they provide?  If you’re going to screw millions of people over, the least you can do is leave some small lifeline.  It might be the only thing that could keep me, and thousands of others, from that ER visit, from a debt spiral.

This is not the K blog you’re looking for.


St. Mary of The Angels school. Upper Ninth Ward. 2007.






Or maybe it is.  I don’t know.  I’m feel like I need to apologize for even writing this at all, but we all gotta do what we gotta do, right.  And for some of us, that means writing it out of our systems.  I’ve been trying not to post very much K/Federal Flood updates on social media, to not trigger the PTSD of the people I love, but know that I’m thinking of you today, and (quite literally) every day.  There are some things the rest of the country needs to remember though, things the rest of the country gets wrong, forgets, doesn’t understand.  And that’s where I live now, the Rest of The Country.  I won’t detail the errors, omissions, flat-out lies.  I’m even tired of the coverage.  But like the signs said, “Think that you may be wrong”.   At 16, I never thought I’d live there, then, at 30, I never thought I would leave.  I never did, really, not completely.  I didn’t go through it, I am not claiming that sorrow and that strength.  But New Orleans is my true home and it always will be.  You can’t take that from anyone.

So today I will be trying to feed the ever-hungry monarch caterpillars, driving to Eudora to pick up three baby bunnies, then driving to Operation Wildlife to drop them off and do my rehab duty.  At some point, I will make bread pudding.  At some point, I will stand over the Kaw and pour a little whiskey in.  Y’all let me know when you get it.

Today is also the day I drag this horse outta the barn.  Because it’s helped me before and it’s helped others before and it’s a Damn Fine Poem.

“Local Heroes”

Some days the worst that can happen happens.
The sky falls or evil overwhelms or
the world as we have come to know it turns
toward the eventual apocalypse
long predicted in all the holy books—
the end-times of old grudge and grievances
that bring us each to our oblivions.
Still, maybe this is not the end at all,
nor even the beginning of the end.
Rather, one more in a long list of sorrows
to be added to the ones thus far endured,
through what we have come to call our history—
another in that bitter litany
that we will, if we survive it, have survived.
God help us who must live through this, alive
to the terror and open wounds: the heart
torn, shaken faith, the violent, vengeful soul,
the nerve exposed, the broken body so
mingled with its breaking that it’s lost forever.
Lord send us, in our peril, local heroes.
Someone to listen, someone to watch, someone
to search and wait and keep the careful count
of the dead and missing, the dead and gone
but not forgotten. Some days all that can be done
is to salvage one sadness from the mass
of sadnesses, to bear one body home,
to lay the dead out among their people,
organize the flowers and casseroles,
write the obits, meet the mourners at the door,
drive the dark procession down through town,
toll the bell, dig the hole, tend the pyre.
It’s what we do. The daylong news is dire—
full of true believers and politicos,
bold talk of holy war and photo-ops.
But here, brave men and women pick the pieces up.
They serve the living, caring for the dead.
Here the distant battle is waged in homes.
Like politics, all funerals are local.
–Thomas Lynch
Fall, 2005.

100,000. On a Good Day

2015-06-26 19.10.29
I had not planned on writing this. I was supposed to update about a mural project I assisted on in Hutchinson. But I just came home from (foolishly) trying to get to the library, in the heart of tiny Downtown Lawrence. What should take five minutes, took twenty. And I get that it’s small potatoes compared with other cities, with other “sprawling metropolises” (metropoli?), but sprawling metropolis is not Lawrence. God forbid the people that actually live here have to go to the community pool or library on a hot, Summer Sunday. And then it struck me, in that moment, I could, for one brief instant, see the OTHER SIDE behind this whole East 9th Street corridor. If I, someone who is adamantly against this expansion, could be so annoyed and frustrated and wish EVERYTHING didn’t have to be run through a five block stretch (or a fifteen block radius at best), then everyone else could too. So maybe this, this too-big-for-your-britches Free State Festival and this bike race and everything else that has been shoved under the LAC umbrella, is all just part of the plan. Maybe if they frustrate and annoy the parents, the West Siders, the middle-agers, the low-middle incomers, who have no solid feeling one way or the other, so much that we just say YES, YES.  OK. Anywhere but just here. Run it through another area and relieve some of the pressure. Fine.

Except it’s not fine. Lawrence is a town of 100,000 people, on a good day.  And gone are the days of Summer reversion when the students leave town.  So I pull out the New Orleans card again, I pull out the Kansas City card with it. These are bigger places, with longer histories of events and more room to do it. Someone, is thinking, wishing, hoping beyond their means. I know who it is, and maybe you do too. I also know who’s set to make money off these dreams, and I hope you do too.  And I hope you’re thinking about it.

On the way back from my eventually successful trip to pick up a book, I had flashbacks of Mardi Gras. How we would mock people who got trapped behind a parade, or didn’t avoid Uptown or St. Charles on certain days/times (ha! they’ll learn). And sure, people have to live there too. It’s a common issue for any city hosting a big event. But, Mardi Gras isn’t being forced upon them, not really (the Super Bowl, is another story). It’s part of a long history and they’ve got crowd control and parading down to a science. And, in New Orleans, as small as it actually is, you can escape it, if you wanted to.  There are options.

But perhaps the more appropriate card to pull out of the deck, is Austin. Because Someone wants this to be SXSW, or rather, NXNE. Except Austin is a town of 900,000+ people which leads me to believe someone is jumping the gun just a little bit, or padding their resume for the next gig. How confident are we that these place-makers, these noble “arts” saviors, are here to stay? Today, the topic of new residents vs. old guard came up in conversation. It’s something, since leaving New Orleans, I’ve thought about in passing, but hadn’t seen much evidence of, the notion of native vs. non-native outside that setting. Diaphanous and loaded meanings aside for now, the Outsider Mentality comes up a lot in New Orleans. I get it, to a point. It’s protection and fear of exploitation after a history of just that. In the case of New Orleans, we’re talking hundreds of years, but Lawrence, KS, is a different animal. Or is it? There is a culture and a history to be protected here as well, even if you’re not a part of it, or aren’t really aware of it, it’s there, and there will be lines drawn in the sand as this continues. I, personally, have not been called into question, not to my face. Yes, I am a renter, so I’m sure my opinion carries little weight, and I’m also a “native” Kansan, so maybe a little more is added on. But I’m not FROM Lawrence. At what point does that become an issue. In my view, for this place, all opinions matter, but that comes with the caveat that one must consider the dog in the race, and the ticket-holder’s willingness to listen to dissent, to give it more than lip service in retort, to understand that socio-economic status and “how you got here, how long will you stay”, the friends you keep, all factor into this, for everyone, not just Someone.

And because this is a small town (own it, Lawrence), there is a good-to-definite chance you are being talked about, could be labeled, could be, yes, blacklisted. At that point, livelihoods become threatened, people stop speaking up. Some people don’t have to worry about this, and that is the difference. Some people don’t have to worry that stating how they feel could affect their job search, or their current job, or future endeavors. Some people. What would it be like if we could have a real, honest, open conversation, a dialogue in a neutral space where we could all speak out about these changes without fear of repercussion? Is it even possible? Can the small potatoes and big tubers get together and hash(brown) it out? Or would we leave there, scared for our future, or adding names to that dark list?

I don’t know. I just know this is something we should all be talking and thinking about, not just East Siders, not just artists and homeowners, not just new residents and old guard. Consider those who stand to gain, those who stand to lose, the timing, the long-term sustainability, the current sustainability.  Consider the process.  Consider your neighbors, your friends, your kids, your grandkids.  Consider quality, quantity.  Organic growth vs. big development.  Consider the angles.

With that, below is the letter I sent at the last minute before the work plan acceptance meeting. It was written in haste, so isn’t perfect. It was also written using that sweet, free internet at our wonderful library, right in the heart of our crucial Downtown.

I realize this is coming in at the last hour, and may not even be read, but I cannot attend tonight’s meeting to make my voice heard.

I am a former Lawrence resident who, until last November, has been living in New Orleans, LA for the past 6 and a half years. I relocated back to Lawrence, to be closer to family (who are all in Topeka). And I chose Lawrence, as I always do, because it is a more open-minded and progressive city, one with a decent understanding of the importance of art, music, and culture.

Maybe that’s why I am so dismayed to see the fabric of Lawrence neighborhoods so quickly ripped and up for sale. I live in East Lawrence, XXXXXXXXXXX to be exact, and already see the changes. I am a struggling artist and chose East Lawrence not just for an affordable place to live, but for the people that live there. Coming from New Orleans, I feel I see a future that maybe not many others have seen, a city that prides itself on culture, music, and art, where schemes cached as “economic development” have discolored and gentrified entire sections of once vibrant communities. It is heartbreaking to see it beginning on a smaller scale here. You cannot refurbish and plop down a handful of trendy warehouses and call it a “district”. You cannot run land grabs through thriving communities and call it improvements (for their own good, right?). From what I can see, it didn’t need to be improved. No one is denying that basic infrastructure and street repair is needed, but attaching basic needs and services to forced cultural “improvements” (and grant money) is like trying to shove a square peg into a round hole. Lawrence is not yet big enough to sustain this path. The endless festivals, the tourist economy, works for New Orleans because they’ve been doing it for decades. It’s not perfect by a long shot, but it generally works there because it fits. But shoving pre-approved (NON-LOCAL) art (and soon, entertainment) right through the heart of a community just smacks of a development scheme and poor planning. True art and culture havens are born organically, not forced upon the people with a fistful of dollars and bad design. Too often, these plans are only abandoned in a few years because they cannot be sustained and the flock has moved on.

I urge you, slow it down, or shut it down. Be open, transparent, and let’s work together on a plan that works for EVERYONE, not just a few.
Thank you.

2015-06-26 17.03.14

Hwy 24

hwy24 poem collage

© Jill Ensley

Like the first robins of Spring,
Summer signified in the first yellow and white carnival tents,
Collecting and dispersing Chinese gunpowder and smoke, or
Fried fare and pantomimed nostalgia.
To celebrate our clutched victory, our headlong rush,
Down our own dark path

Rickety, transient Ferris wheels in rear-view mirrors,
Framed by pastel twilight, sherbert sunset.
In periphery, a cell phone pulses a rhythmic silent blue, indicating
Alerts and updates, thoughts and validations,
Answered in the fields of fireflies surround.

Endless coal trains, headed South, to the Gulf, off-loaded.
Past sleeping towns, on the outskirts.
Tracks and black dust weaving,
Subtly settling through the North, West, East.
Our penchant for blowing ourselves up.
A bloom of chemistry, of rain, of campfire.

It’s been a week.

-J. Ensley