The View from the Parking Strip

When I’m really, really mad, the best thing for me to do is to garden. Garden HARD.

And so I spent my days off last week re-planting the parking strip outside our Cully clinic. I’ve been wanting to do that for years, because our parking strip is a desolate swath of rocks and weedy grass that our landlord has to mow with an ancient, smoky gasoline mower every few weeks from March to November.  I’d been planning to do it anyway, but in terms of my mental health, the timing was perfect. On Saturday, I read the ACAOM’s decision; on Sunday I weeded; on Monday I planted strawberries for ground cover; and on Tuesday, with lots of help from Joseph and Erin, I spread compost and planted bare-root natives: Oregon grape, wild nootka roses, a funny little shrub called kinnick-kinnick. I got soaked and muddy and really tired,  and I had a lot of time to think.

A lot of time to think, and a new perspective from which to do it. A parking strip is an odd place to spend ten hours or so. It’s nowhere in particular, and not very scenic: right in between our parking lot and the sidewalk of Cully Blvd, with cars whizzing by, lots of asphalt and concrete and not much else. It would seem to have a lot of potential for boredom. But I wasn’t bored.

For one thing, patients talked to me. People coming and going to the clinic came over to visit, to see what I was doing, to chat. Some of them stood there for a long time and got rained on. I learned things about them I never knew before, even though I’d been treating some of them for years. I found out that one woman is both a self-taught astrologer and very knowledgeable about health care legislation, because she gave me a little lecture on how the planets are influencing Tom Harkin. Another patient, a locksmith, taciturn in the clinic, described in detail a PBS documentary about harvesting native plants that he had watched the night before.  One of my patients who is a teacher told me that she just found out that her new favorite co-worker happens to be another WCA patient, and how cool is that? Yes, I said, our patients are the coolest people ever.

Neighborhood people, walking by, also talked to me. In my unscientific opinion, I would say that Cully has a higher-than-average proportion of peculiar little old ladies. You see them waiting for buses, wearing weird hats and striped knee-high socks like Pippi Longstocking. Once when I was walking my dog I came up to one of them who appeared to be stuck, unable to cross Cully because she wasn’t at a crosswalk, traffic wouldn’t stop for her, and she couldn’t move fast enough. We crossed the street together (because nobody’s going to run over a golden retriever and a little old lady at the same time) and walked along for a little while, she complaining about her grown kids and I thinking how frail she seemed. This went on for a block or so until we were passing a run-down little house with a chain link fence — and then a huge pitbull came barrelling off the porch and flung itself at the fence, snarling at us. I jumped, my dog jumped, the frail little old lady didn’t bat an eye. “Oh, that’s just Peaches,” she said, digging in her pocket and producing a bag of dog biscuits. “You all better go on, she doesn’t like other dogs.” I left her cooing to the pit bull, feeding dog biscuits one at a time through the fence and scratching a blissed-out Peaches’ ears. (Later I found out that the mailman gives Peaches neck rubs.) This all happened maybe a block from the clinic’s parking strip, so I was not too surprised to see this same little old lady (at least I think it was the same one)  moving slowly down the sidewalk. She asked what I was doing with the parking strip. I explained that I didn’t like grass. “I like grass just fine,” she snapped, “but that wasn’t grass, that was nothing but weeds!” and she headed off, slowly but with purpose, in the direction of Peaches.

A couple of Latino guys who didn’t speak much English stopped and looked with great interest at what I was planting. “Native strawberries,” I said, and showed them. “Ah!” one of them said. “We walk to work this way, we stop, we eat!” We all laughed. The other one, who didn’t say anything, seemed to have something wrong with his eye, the kind of thing you’re not supposed to see in supposedly first-world countries where people can theoretically get health care.

I thought: if I spent enough time hanging out on this parking strip, eventually I’d become part of everyone’s route, a fixture like Peaches; people would bring me cookies and talk to me, maybe start giving me neck rubs. 

An alert reader sent me an email about my last blog, pointing out that I missed one of the ways in which ACAOM moved the goalposts in the FPD comment period: who was included in the definition of “stakeholders”. In December,  “prospective students” were on the list of stakeholders; by January, they weren’t anymore.  I thought about this as I was digging holes. Was that really moving the goalposts, or was it just a detail that was beneath the ACAOM’s notice? Which is worse? Can there be a useful conversation between two parties when what one party considers meaningless is the same thing that the other party considers central, precious, vitally important?

If you keep going down Cully Blvd, past Peaches’ house, and take a left at 60th and then another left at Killingsworth, you’ll get to my church, St. Charles Borromeo. In online arguments about the FPD, I found myself, oddly, writing a lot about St. Charles. People there are interested in acupuncture, they ask me about it, a lot of them are patients; also, St. Charles has an interesting demographic makeup. A hundred years ago, even fifty years ago, it was an immigrant parish, and the immigrants were Italians; hence the name and the annual spaghetti dinner. Today it’s still an immigrant parish, but now the immigrants are Mexican, Vietnamese, Laotian, Ethiopian, and Tongan. This means that the older parishioners are mostly white, and the kids in the parish are every color of the human rainbow — mostly not white. St. Charles reflects not only the future of Catholicism, but the future of Cully and the rest of America. By 2042, white people will be a minority here. About that same time, I’m going to be another one of Cully’s peculiar little old ladies, wandering around in striped knee socks, with dog biscuits in my pocket. I doubt I’ll ever retire — not my style — but I don’t doubt that one day I’ll die. That’s definitely going to happen, and who is going to replace me at WCA? You know who I wish would replace me? Any of the high school kids in the youth group at St. Charles. They’re good kids, serious kids, they care about their community. When I wrote about St. Charles in the context of the FPD, I was trying to explain why none of those kids are going to go to acupuncture school. It’s not just that the cost of OCOM would leave them $100K in debt, it’s the cultural climate of acupuncture school, the same cultural climate that has been so favorable to the FPD. 

The issue of prospective students is not a trivial detail; it has everything to do with who gets access to acupuncture in the long run. Check out this abstract on patient-provider racial concordance.  Acupuncture students in the US are overwhelmingly white, which prepares us nicely for a future in which we will have even less concordance with our patients than we do now. And as we have said over and over, the best way to diminish diversity is to make something expensive.

Unlike many of the other white parishioners of St. Charles, I wasn’t born in Cully. I ended up in this neighborhood because it’s where Skip and I could afford to buy a house on public health acupuncturists’ salaries. I fell in love with Cully over time. I’m part of it and it’s part of me. It’s where I work, where I worship, where I have grown into myself.  The issue of prospective acupuncture students, of who is going to work in my clinic when I no longer can, is not abstract, it’s part of my relationship with my community. I can’t separate it from everything else that matters to me. This isn’t about being idealistic or politically correct; it’s about being rooted.

When I started WCA, I tore up the conventional business model the way I tore up the parking strip. Because it kept me from being connected to my community. That was a kind of desperate gut impulse. Now, eight years and thousands of patients later, it’s not so much that I’m desperate about not being connected, it’s that I can’t imagine not being connected. Acupuncturists told me that working class patients wouldn’t value acupuncture, and I was furious; now when I hear that, I just wonder what planet they’re from. The ACAOM has moved the goalposts, and they are moving forward with the doctorate. Prospective students don’t matter to them. Be that as it may. It doesn’t change the fact that in 2042 WCA will need acupuncturists from Cully, who look like the people who live in Cully. I don’t know yet how we’ll get there, but we’ll figure it out. Because where else could we possibly go?

Author: lisafer

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  1. kinnick-kinnick

    Thanks, Lisa. I really enjoyed reading about you ripping up the monoculture grass and thinking about diversity in our profession.

    As CAN’s accidental cartographer, I have the pleasure of adding all of the new clinics to the Locate-a-clinic map. From that lovely seat, I get to see the movement growing and spreading out, reaching into geographically and economically diverse areas where acupuncture is a rarity. Every CA clinic, every day, is increasing access, extending the reach of the medicine to people who have never tried it before. And they haven’t tried it not just because it’s expensive. In the same way that you note that the kids in your neghborhood won’t go to acupuncture school because of the culture, many people who would never consider using acupuncture stay away because of the prevailing culture of private-room practice.

    CA changes that. The culture of a CA clinic is distinct, and we’re not just offering the same thing at a lower price. Group treatments, minimal conversation, respectful clinic policies and practices… all of these express a new acupuncture culture, and allow a new group of patients to comfortably enter the door.

    Since patient-provider racial concordance is such a major influence, building a more racially diverse profession is critical to our mission of accessibility. And I think every CA, every day, is helping by providing acupuncture access to a more diverse patient base. I hope that for patients who are first exposed to acupuncture through CA, this is what acupuncture culture is.

    I agree that the education and licensing systems are ridiculously, prohibitively expensive, and the FPD makes a bad situation worse. As we work for change on that front, hopefully we can take heart in knowing that the work is also happening in each of our clinics, every day. Every day, a diverse group of people who never thought they’d find themselves at an acupuncturist show up to CAN clinics across the country. Some of them are young and considering their career. Some of them will go on to acupuncture school. And when they do, they can’t help but bring their expectations about acupuncture culture with them. Expectations they gathered from our clinics.

    Thanks again for a lovely post.


  2. roots

    “This isn’t about being idealistic or politically correct; it’s about being rooted.”

     I love this sentence!  Sounds like you’ve got your stake in the ground and are fighting for your home.

  3. soaked and muddy

    Now, eight years and thousands of patients later, it’s not so much that
    I’m desperate about not being connected, it’s that I can’t imagine not
    being connected.

    thanks to you, WCA and CAN, it only took me a couple of years. i cannot imagine working any other way ever again.

    thanks for another good read!


  4. parking strip grows community

    Lisa, the parking strip looks great. I saw it on my way to visit friends. There is a “grow shop” right next to my clinic, and we share a mini community garden out back (in the sunny parking lot) with peas, radishes, lettuce, arugula, spinach, daffodils, tulips, sweet peas, and various herbs, so far. We are growing in pots and wood-sided raised beds. Occasionally the people working there come in for treatments. Thanks for your insightful writing after your weekend of gardening.Catherine Lowe, Seastar Community Acupuncture

  5. thanks for sharing your

    thanks for sharing your experience.  great writing. nothing else like getting your hands into the earth. and i love the part about visiting Peaches. kind of like,  hi I’d like you to meet my giant sabertooth tiger, daffodil.

  6. garden love



    thanks for this beautiful post. so many times this year, the metaphor of the garden has sustained Kelly and me. Our clinic has turned out to be a s(low grower–a determined little “turtle,” slow and steady–until recently when it is really taking off!) sometimes it was the only way to get through the week was to remember that we were always planting seeds, with every flyer, every conversation, every free day and out in the community event, and, as Michelle put if so beautifully, every time someone new comes through the door and leaves, having re-envisioned what acupuncture is and can be in their lives.

    i know that is true for CAN also. forgive my clumsy metaphor but you have been carefully, diligently planting for years and look what’s popping up like Spring all over the country! each time a clinic opens, i know that there is and has been months of the physically hard work that is preparing a garden–the thankless breaking up the cracked, dead surface, building strong beds, adding new life-charged soil and ammendments, the carefully chosen seeds and the daily tending to all the details: water, sun, weeds, adding love, having patience. sometimes it is weeks or even longer before the seeds turn into what they will become. but all we have done to prepare and keep tending pays off and there is new life to delight and sustain us.

    let them have their carefully manicured UMC values vase of store-bought flowers and their FPD and their crisp WHITE coats. OUR garden’s coming up strong and wild and mixed and delicious and the seeds are blowing around all over the damn land–yeeeehaa!


    Good health is not a measure of adapting to a sick society.

    When the power of love outshines the love of power, the world will know peace.

  7. nice!

    I love when someone takes a good metaphor and runs with it.  And I think in terms of seed-planting and cultivating a lot too.

    *comrade love*

  8. CAN needs a mascot

    …and peaches gets my vote. Can we put his/her photo on the homepage? Who gets to be peaches personal trainer and acupuncturist? The bigger question is who will get to dress up in the peaches pit bull costume to deliver the next round of FPD petitions. Now there is a real photo opportunity. Thank you Lisa for sharing this great story!

  9. damn

    i feel cheated.  and here i thought you had Whoopie and the rest of my favorite gals from ABC daytime tv on location from your parking strip (although it’s soooo not the same without Rosie.  F$%K YOU ELIZABETH, YOU A-HOLE!!!).

    would you please show more care in your blogging and not upset the idiots amongst us.  i would appreciate it!


  10. as they say in the Princess Bride, ZF,

    “get used to disappointment”. Everybody else, thanks for the love and the great comments. I’m working on getting some pictures.