There are times when I just cannot write from the heart. I need to take a break and focus on physical or analytical tasks that help me find emotional detachment and balance. It’s one of the major reasons I have not posted or visited blogs during the holidays.
I took this photo in the morning
before I learned that a dear friend died
It portrays what days of loss
sometimes feel like to me
My grandson’s other grandmother died
just before Christmas, and this morning,
my granddaughter’s father passed away
2018 was a year of so many losses and changes
It’s the third year I have faced my own mortality
Despite a heavy heart, though,
I still awake each morning
knowing that what I do for others now
in the time I have left matters even more
I have snowy sidewalks to shovel
in the north country I love
There are courses to plan for students
I will learn to care about this year,
and dear family to care for while I’m here
Despite losses I will continue to rise and greet each day
to do what I can to stay healthy and balanced,
to contribute to the light in simple humble ways
and to remain grateful for the wonder and blessings of life
Please know that I am grateful to all of you for being part of my life, too. I send my best wishes to all. May you have a peaceful and wonder-filled new year.
I know I’m not what you were looking for
to ease the loneliness and sadness of loss
I’m too little and the wrong gender
but I really am meant to be your friend
I promise to make you laugh
and touch your heart with my cuteness
I’ll raise my head in song
and trot down the sidewalk
with my waving tail held high
I’ll lick your feet
even though you don’t like it
just to remind you I care
Please be kind and take me with you
to a new forever home
I promise you that you won’t regret it
I know you love me but, oh, the indignity
of this cobbled-together winter suit you make me wear.
Reasons To Be Thankful – II
Endings are often exciting new beginnings. So it was last evening as my colleague and I listened to the students we have been working with during the past semester share their final research and community practice presentations.
This past semester, we focused on the connections between access to clean water and community health. The assignments involved exploring prior research, proposing and conducting a small study, and planning a community event to raise awareness about issues surrounding their community’s drinking water and waterways.
Although final classes often mean saying goodbye to people one has learned to care about, there is also a sense of gratitude for the chance to encourage others to celebrate the wonders of life. Learning how to “do research” can help us remember the wonder and curiosity we felt about life and the world around us as children.
There is no way of predicting what the future effects of these lessons will be, but my colleague and I have done what we can to open hearts and minds to possibilities.
“I didn’t realize how much I learned until I looked back at where I started.”
“I never thought about the importance of water before.”
“Doing this study helped me learn so much more about the issues in my community.”
We ended our final class by sharing part of the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address:
“We give thanks to all of the waters of the world for quenching our thirst, for providing strength and nurturing life for all beings. We know its power in many forms – waterfalls and rain, mists and streams, rivers and oceans, snow and ice. We are grateful that the waters are still here meeting their responsibility to the rest of Creation. Can we agree that water is important in our lives and bring our minds together as one to send greetings and thanks to the Water? Now our minds are one.” (as cited in Kimmerer, 2013, p. 108).
I am truly grateful for the opportunity to teach in partnership with a dear colleague who has worked hard to create a liberatory space and to our students who give me hope for the future.
“In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught” (Baba Dioum)
Some links to explore for more information about the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address:
Note: This semester, teaching has helped me realize something I learned from many past teachers in my life. The importance of mercy. In times when I was lost, they reached out to help me find my strengths and beauty. I have often automatically done likewise with colleagues, staff and students in my own career. Now it’s something I do deliberately because I feel it is even more important to be merciful in mean-spirited, oppressive times such as these.
November has flown by so fast. I apologize for being woefully behind in responding to comments and visiting your blogs. Grading student papers is always a challenge for me because I lose my ability to speak in my own voice so I can focus on helping others find theirs. Yet there is an end in sight. The end of the semester is near and I will have a brief reprieve from teaching during late December and January.
When I took momentary breaks from grading this month, though, ideas for how to edit the beginning of the manuscript I began in 2015 kept flowing. It was hard to put them aside but I had to in order to meet my responsibilities for the students in my class.
Thanksgiving break gave a chance to “unplug” from those responsibilities for a week and I did manage to rewrite the preface and first chapter yet again. In the process, I realized that the reason for continuing to work on the manuscript has shifted. This time around, what struck me were all the things I don’t know about writing and how much more there is to know about things I thought I already knew and understood. Continuing to edit and revise will give me a chance to keep learning even if I don’t finish or publish a final product. That’s enough to keep me moving forward.
Here is an excerpt from the new draft of chapter one.
Chapter One – Introduction
Greeting the cold, bright November morning, I once again wonder how to begin a book about the welfare of Ojibwe children. Despite the many different cultures and living beings that share this earth, the welfare of all children is the foundation for our collective survival.
As I sit lost in thought, a little chickadee lands close to my feet and peers up at me before taking flight. He reminds me to be present in the moment. To take time to remember where this journey began.
An essay I wrote a while ago comes to mind.
My first memory as a child is so clear in my mind even though experts in brain development say it is not possible. It was my first Christmas. A February baby born on the cusp of Pisces and Aquarius, I lay in my crib as the winter sun streamed through the window. My mother and father stood on opposite sides of my crib, arguing. The personal pain and insecurities that led to their argument were so clear to me. But more compelling were the strengths and beauty I saw in both of them. I struggled helplessly in a body that was unable to give voice to what I saw. All I could do was cry.
I don’t remember choosing to be born to parents from different cultures, both deeply wounded by their own lifetime experiences. And even though some religions believe in reincarnation, I am unwilling to speculate about things I cannot know for certain. I only know that for my mother, I was both “the one bright star” in her life, and a constant reminder of the shame she carried because of her Ojibwe heritage.
I do, however, remember the day I chose which culture would define my sense of identity. But before I tell the story, I need to back up a little to earlier times. My father grew up with abuse in a dour, cruel Anglo-American family. As a man of smaller stature who joined the marines, he was often the victim of cruel teasing and bullying. He learned to be the first to strike out with biting words, fists, and whatever weapons were close at hand. My mother was an easy target.
Programmed in Catholic Indian boarding school to believe that she was inferior to whites because of her Ojibwe heritage, she accepted emotional and physical abuse without question. No one would help her. My father’s family was certainly not concerned, and my mother’s relatives were too geographically distant. Priests and counselors told her it was her duty to stand by her husband. So she did, until one day when I was four and my brother was one. She left, taking little except me and my brother. I remember the train rides as we sped across the country on a series of new adventures, living in apartments and trailers in a number of states – Texas, New Mexico and finally, Wisconsin. Each time, when my father would find us, my mother would move again. The final stop was at my grandmother’s home on the reservation where my mother was born and raised.
I remember that day clearly, although I was only four-and-a-half years old. We were standing in front of my grandmother’s house when my father arrived. He told my mother that he was taking my brother and me back to New Jersey. If she ever wanted to see us again, she would have to come too. My mother stood there sobbing with my brother wrapped in her arms as my father stormed off to the car. I ran to catch him. He turned and looked down at me as I started to yell. I kicked him in the legs as hard as I could and screamed, “I hate you for hurting my mother. I won’t let you hurt her anymore!” That day, I chose to be Ojibwe, as I consciously chose to become the family scapegoat. I did protect my mother, although she rarely did the same for me. I now understand why she couldn’t. I also protected my brother to the best of my ability until I left for college. I learned how to withstand insults and beatings with strategies that have left me with unique strengths, or serious weaknesses, depending on the context.
But my ancestry is both Ojibwe and that of the descendants of immigrants from Europe. The fact that I chose which cultural identity to call my own has little to do with how others see me. Because I grew up between two cultures, I never felt that I really belonged to either. There were no family members or classmates or teachers to serve as guides to teach me how to walk in two worlds. But I quickly learned that the liminal space between cultures is often a lonely place to live.
Rupert Ross (1992), an Assistant Crown Attorney in Canada observed, “When you try to be a bridge between two cultures, you should expect to get walked over by some people from both sides.” (1) This is true from my experience, but not the most difficult challenge to overcome. Because I was in-between, I had to learn to listen and observe others intensely to try to understand who they were and what was important to them. Not surprisingly, this often meant I learned to bridge many differences. Because I learned how to stand up against abuse, I was most interested in working with people whose experiences were in some ways similar to mine. By watching and listening to people from many different cultures, I became increasingly aware of the larger structural issues that underlay their shared oppression. But to be an observer who also sees a broader context is a space of distance that prevents one from really ever just “being” with people.
For years, I tried to avoid living in this liminal space. I started college, switching settings several times before leaving. I tried chemistry and biology, then French and philosophy, before dropping out with more than enough credits to graduate if I had ever decided on a major. Instead, I traveled and worked at minimal skill jobs – a nurse’s aide, a telephone operator, a doughnut finisher, a seamstress, a receptionist who couldn’t type but who was skilled with people, and a waitress in elegant restaurants and greasy spoons. I did find a reason to choose living in the liminal space between cultures again when I took a job as a kitchen aide, and then as an attendant, in a horrific institution for people who had cognitive and physical disabilities, a “State School for the Mentally Retarded.”
. . .
Decades later, I am grateful for the decision I made to assume the responsibility for doing what I could to not only address injustice, but more importantly, to experiment with ways to live from a stance of liberatory praxis, combining theory and action. My graduate studies focused on understanding organizational theories and social welfare policies from dominant cultural perspectives and subjecting them to a critical analysis from an Ojibwe worldview. During my career as a policy developer, administrator, program developer, educator, and researcher, I experimented with ways to consciously work toward liberating people rather than merely imposing approaches that encouraged conformity and powerlessness.
In this last phase of my life, I feel a sense of urgency to use my remaining time as constructively as I can, even though it means remaining in the liminal space between cultures. I have begun writing a book about the child welfare system from a critical ethnographic Ojibwe perspective, an approach that explores not only what is, but also what was and what could be. As I revisit the stories I gathered from Ojibwe people of all ages about their childhood experiences, I often find myself wishing I could simply blame colonial oppressors for all of the atrocities indigenous people have suffered throughout the ages. But as Bourdieu, Fanon, Foucault, Freire, Gramsci, and so many others point out, it is not really that simple. (2)
Hegemony remains in place because of our everyday decisions to take the easy road, to keep too busy to care about the world around us, to remain silent about the injustices we see, to sometimes use oppressive systems to gain our own piece of the pie, or to invoke the power of the police state to resolve disputes instead of dealing with them constructively ourselves. To blame all of the world’s ills on the ruling elite robs us of our free will, our personhood. It would be like blaming my parents for all of the mistakes I have made, sometimes because I was clueless, sometimes because I was lazy, and sometimes because I just wanted to self-destruct….
Blaming others for the past is a waste of time. We cannot change it. However, it is crucial to understand the history of colonial oppression and the consequences that have continued to affect subsequent generations of subjugated and marginalized peoples. Unfortunately, history textbooks and ethnographic accounts rarely convey experiences through the lenses and voices of populations without power.
Dominant narratives convey messages that help preserve the power of those who benefited from conquest, land theft, enslavement, and the imposition of structures of social and economic inequality. We need to understand the past through other lenses in order to address the legacy of harm and avoid repeating the brutal mistakes of the past. That is not always an easy task on either a national or personal level.
A frantic phone call from my father in the autumn of 1981 presaged my realization that it was too late to hear my mother’s stories about the old days and old ways. “Please come quickly,” he said, his voice filled with panic and tears. “Your mother almost died. She’s home from the hospital now but she is having trouble walking and seems confused.” I told my father I would be there by noon the next day. It was too late at night for me set off on the five-hour trip north to the Ojibwe reservation where my mother and father lived – the reservation where my mother had been born sixty years before.
Rupert Ross (1992). Dancing with a ghost: Exploring Indian reality. Markham, ON: Canada: Octopus Publishing Group, (p. xx).
Pierre Bourdieu (1994), Structures, habitus, power: Basis for a theory of symbolic power. In N. B. Dirks, E. Eley, & S. B. Ortner (Eds). Culture/power/history: A reader in contemporary social theory (pp. 155-199). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.; Frantz Fanon (2004). The wretched of the earth. (Richard Philcox, Trans.). New York, NY: Grove Press.; Michel Foucault (1979). Discipline & Punish: The birth of the prison. (A. Sheridan, Trans.). New York, NY: Vintage Books.; Paulo Freire (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed (30th anniversary ed.). New York, NY: Continuum.; Antonio Gramsci (1999). Selections from the prison notebooks of Antonio Gransci (Q. Hoare & G. N. Smith, Eds. & Trans.) New York, NY: International Press.
As I watched the electoral maps change when the election results were tallied this week, the micro-divisiveness within and among states was so obvious. So much for “the united states!” I was momentarily saddened because the “blue wave” that was supposed to end poverty, war, hunger, homelessness, imprisonment of migrant families, police brutality, and oppression didn’t happen. And then I realized that many of the races, especially at the national level, were almost equally divided between the “blue wave” and the “red tide.”
From the perspective of someone who has witnessed the divisive effects of 50/50 “democracy” for Indigenous forms of consensual governance, that’s not surprising.
While watching the maps change, I thought about the students I have taught in the past and continue to work with now who come from many of the slightly tinged “red” or “blue” communities. It’s a nation divided. It’s not what I want the next generations to inherit.
To be honest, I don’t have time to write a thoughtful well-researched analysis. But I do want to make a point about the value of education. Hopefully, education can help pass on the knowledge and skills that enable us to reach across divides to understand each other and build common ground. We do, after all, need to work together if we really want a peaceful world and healthy environments and communities.
These reflections bring to mind Jane Addams and the women of Hull-House. Their legacy is often unknown, even among newer generations of social work students. Together, they demonstrated how to work with knowledge, empathy, and passionate compassion to build solidarity and create respectful, inclusive alternatives to discriminatory, divisive, and punitive policies. They lived among the poorest new immigrant arrivals in Chicago. Instead of fostering divisions, they brought people together to learn and share. Among the issues they successfully addressed were child labor, unfair treatment of workers, infant and maternal mortality, tenant rights, city sanitation, and the creation of juveniles courts.
My hope is that the students I work with will learn from the examples of the Hulll-House women. Students are already familiar with life in divided communities in the forgotten little towns of this nation.
These are the kinds of students I prefer to teach. Early in my late-life career when I entered academia to become a scholar and educator, I made an important decision. Instead of choosing to work in prestigious research universities that served students from privileged backgrounds like the schools I had attended, I chose settings with students from backgrounds similar to mine. My father had a 9th-grade education, and although my mother did have a degree as a Registered Nurse from a prestigious university, she grew up poor on an Ojibwe reservation. Her education was made possible by the kindness of a wealthy Euro-American woman who owned a resort where my mother had worked as a teenager.
My mother repaid this gift by sending me off to school in the city where she studied decades before. Chicago. It was there that I met the educator who showed me how to teach, Sister Lorita. I wrote about her gift in an older post, “The wonder of life in a blade of grass.” Her example and caring affected me more profoundly than I realized at the time. I was my grandson’s age then, 19.
I am much older now. And I am very fortunate to still be able to teach a subject that is perhaps the most important foundation for life, research. As a former colleague, Maxine Jacobson, observed, we are born researchers, inquisitive about the world around us. We lose our sense of wonder and curiosity as we age, though, through the processes of socialization. My job as an educator is to try to unlock those gifts once again, to help students remember how to be curious. To notice, explore, observe, reflect, and test the limits of what they’ve been taught and what they know.
I wonder what would happen in all of the “red” and “blue” communities if the people who lived there had a chance to be curious. The phenomenon I would like them to consider and explore is the miracle of life in a drop of pure water. Water is something that connects all life on our plant. We can’t live without it. I wonder if there is a way to refocus peoples’ attention on things that really matter.
This semester, my colleague and I are trying an experiment. Students are working as teams to explore the quality of water in their communities by designing little research studies, talking to community members and staff in local agencies in charge of water treatment about the quality and threats for this resource, and planning community awareness activities. As “emic” (insider) researchers in their communities, what they learn is more likely to be useful to other residents including their own families.
I also wonder what would happen if education focused on awakening curiosity sooner than college. Youth would grow up more aware about the health of their communities. That is exactly what happened in a Photovoice study of water that involved Indigenous youth. I wonder if similar initiatives during elementary and high school years could bring the children from red and blue families together to understand, care about, and protect a precious resource they all need in order to live.
I do envision the possibility of a “blue wave” in the future, but it isn’t one that divides people along political ideological lines. It’s one that unites us to care for each other and the “pale blue dot” we all share in common.
This morning, I revisited one of my first posts and decided to share it. Perhaps this will be one of my last entries. I have joined NaNoWrMo for the month of November to provide structure and motivation for working on final edits for the manuscript I began in 2015. It’s time for me to take the risk that I’ll once again be sharing my authentic voice in a darkened auditorium to the censure of critics. The message the book contains about the importance of preserving even limited tribal sovereignty in order to preserve cultures that value life is too pressing to ignore for me in these times.
As a child, I would often run through the woods behind my house so I could sit next to a little stream and sing for hours with the music of the water as it washed over and around the rocks in its path. As a little girl, I dreamed of being a singer when I grew up. I loved to sing. My parents were too poor to buy the piano I desperately wanted to learn to play so I could sing with an instrument, but they did finally buy me an instrument they could afford. It was one that I found awkward and embarrassing — an accordion. For a tiny stick of a girl, it was a funny sight for me to imagine — this huge appendage strapped to my chest as I struggled to move the bellows and press keys at the same time. I was never good at playing it, although a kind musician at the summer camp where my family sometimes spent vacations asked me to perform with him when I was about ten. I was too excited to experience the fear that would later overwhelm me at the very thought of standing on a stage. That would come later.
By high school I sang in choirs and loved blending my high soprano voice in harmony with so many different voices. I tried to start a small singing group with three others: an alto, tenor and bass. But our first performance was embarrassing. Some of my partners forgot the words as we sang and others forgot the chords. We lived through the teasing and embarrassment, but the group didn’t last. I wasn’t sure if I ever wanted to sing in public again, but I still loved to sing. It was my way of connecting with a deeper part of myself to let feelings and creativity flow. When I got to college, I met a few other women who loved to sing. They taught me a little about playing the guitar and introduced me to a little coffee house in an ethnic Chicago neighborhood. On our first visit, it happened to be “open mic night,” my friends dared me to sing. With my knees like rubber, barely able to breathe or swallow, I walked up on the stage and somehow managed to sing something despite trembling fingers that missed many chords. To my astonishment, the owner offered me a job singing on weekend evenings.
Stage fright became a constant reality. I didn’t know many songs, I wasn’t very good on the guitar, my soft voice needed a mic to be heard and didn’t have a wide range for lower notes, and I could never predict if the sounds that emerged would be cloudy or clear. I needed to learn and practice new things. But where could I go in the windy and wintry city to practice? Then I discovered the college auditorium, often deserted on late evenings during the week. I would walk up on the stage in the dark room and sing for hours, safe in the knowledge I was free to experiment and make as many mistakes as needed.
The first weekend when I walked to the coffee house for my new “job,” it was daunting to see my name in lights above the door. Despite nausea, weak knees and trembling hands, I made it through that weekend and several more without any truly embarrassing moments. Practice didn’t ease the terror, but it helped me reach ever deeper to sing from my heart and my spirit. But my career abruptly ended one evening as I was finishing my practice session in the auditorium. As I was kneeling to put my guitar into its case, a voice from the back of the darkened auditorium caused me to pause. “YOU DON’T SING FOR PEOPLE!” As I peered out at the row of seats, I could barely make out the darker shadow of someone seated in the very back of the room. The dark shadow rose and walked into the slightly lighter aisle. I could see the middle-aged white priest in his vestments. He repeated his words, “You don’t sing for people.” Then he turned and walked out without another word. It was the last time I ever sang on a stage. I diplomatically resigned from my weekend job, packed my guitar away, and didn’t open the case again for many years.
At the time, I wasn’t able to understand my reasons for allowing these words to silence my voice. But it did make me realize one of the reasons for my stage fright. I really didn’t care if people thought I sang well. It was more a fear of revealing my heart before strangers in such an open and unprotected way. What if they found me lacking depth or substance as a human being? What if they found my words silly and trite, too angry, too melancholy, or incomprehensible? It was not the priest’s unkind words that silenced my voice. It was his uninvited presence and his harsh, unasked-for criticism. The words uncovered my greatest fears. As someone between cultures, could I ever learn to reach across divides to understand others and be understood? This priest was a stranger. How did he know how to craft strategic word-weapons to wound a stranger so deeply? And why would anyone ever do so?
I have never found the answers to those questions, but I did make the decision that night not to share the songs in my heart with strangers again with such naïve vulnerability. I don’t regret that decision. The priest’s unkind words didn’t silence the songs in my heart. The songs patiently bided their time, looking for other ways to emerge.
Years later, I remember those words every time I teach a class or speak in public, and every time I post a new essay on a blog or send out a manuscript for editing and peer review. I ask myself “Is this true? Does it come from my heart or my ego?” As a singer, I both did and did not sing for people. I sang because there was a song in my heart that needed to be given voice, and I hoped for people and hearts that would listen and sing back their songs. It’s the same with writing. I write because there is a story that won’t let me rest until it is spoken. Once written, it only comes to life if others read it and join me in dialogue. Dialogue is like the voices of a choir adding harmony and counterpoint, depth and breadth, dissonance and resolution, to the stories that unite us in our shared humanity. Yet even if dialogue doesn’t come immediately, I know that I have contributed what I can to touch the hearts of others.
Recently, it has been increasingly more difficult for me to find time to write posts for my blog. At the moment, I have a batch of student papers to grade and two more assignments coming in this week. I have been wondering what to do with my blog. And then it occurred to me. When I first began blogging, a new-found friend with a huge following featured some of my early posts on his site, instantly helping me connect to a wider community.
One of the things I have loved most about being part of a blogging community is the opportunity to meet so many talented artists, photographers, poets, writers, and storytellers, and so many kind and decent people. This morning, I read a story written by one of them, Raymond Roy, at goroyboy. I was inspired to ask Ray, a writer whose work often touches me deeply, if he would allow me to reblog his newest story, Bella’s Elixir. He graciously agreed to allow me to share this work.
Mid August-The Perseids (meteor showers) were in full swing. Named Perseid as the shooting “stars” originate from the constellation Perseus (A Great Greek hero), slayer of monsters and most notably, the Gorgon Medusa.
High winds made for a clear night. A gamma ray infused meteor ignited as it entered earth’s atmosphere. With evaporating layers of ice, rock and carbon, a vapor trail streamed across the night sky. With a loud thud, the meteor landed in a small pond, just outside a scrap metal junkyard in rural US of A.
The impact of the space rock stirred a little dust in the makeshift den, a scrapped 69 Chevelle. A cob web broke free, shimmering in the sliver of white linen moonlight floating for a moment, then landing onto the nose of a soft fluffy fur ball named Bella. Bella was solid black from head to toe. In…
Recently, I have received unkind comments on a number of posts. From my perspective, there is more than enough mean-spiritedness in the world today. I made a difficult decision not to post those comments because I don’t want this blog to be used to give voice to disrespect toward others even though I have been the primary target. Witnessing the abuse of others hurts me, and I suspect many others have the same response.
A welcoming space for resistance to the forces of oppression and hegemony.