Thanksgiving Reflections November 2022

At this point in my life, I greet each morning with gratitude for all of the gifts I’ve been given and for the ancestors and wise beings who have been a guiding and protective presence. I ask only that they help me hold center with compassion, patience, and integrity in good times and bad as I walk my path, perhaps chosen consciously in a previous lifetime. I try to follow the wisdom conveyed by the Ojibwe principle of “doing things when the time is right,” and I hope that this is the right time to share where I am in my manuscript editing journey.

This morning I awoke with a deep but gentle sorrow and tears in my eyes thinking about what my ancestors endured, and what too many people around the globe are experiencing now because we have failed to learn from the past.

In a few days, November 24, 2022, people in the United States will be celebrating Thanksgiving. It’s a holiday meant to honor the sharing of food and companionship between colonists fleeing from oppression in England and the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island (now referred to as North America). But a mere three centuries after that romanticized celebration of unity, the following excepts describe the consequences of hospitality for those who helped the new arrivals survive.

This post will not be an easy read for those with tender hearts. It’s drawn from the chapter that stopped my editing process eight years ago. I often say I stopped because I was too busy teaching. That’s partly true. Mostly I stopped because it was too difficult for me to set aside my deep sorrow each week in order to be fully present for students. Yet my muse tells me it’s time to move on, and time to share these excepts with others.

***

Although centuries of colonial domination affected all aspects of the lives of Native American people, the effects were, in Peter’s* language, “off the radar.” Few outside of tribal communities knew about the dire conditions Indigenous people endured before 1928. That was the year the “Miriam Report” was published, 891 pages in length, documenting the social and economic conditions of tribes. The report,

… revealed an existence filled with poverty, suffering, and discontent. Indians suffered from disease and malnutrition, had a life expectancy of only forty-four years, and had an average annual per capita income of only one hundred dollars. The report reached two basic conclusions: (1) The BIA ** [Bureau of Indian Affairs] was inadequately meeting the needs of Indians, especially in the areas of health and education; and (2) Indians were being excluded from the management of their own affairs. (O’Brien, 1989, pp. 80-81)

            The conditions for children and families documented in the Miriam Report have direct links to the present issues that Carrie* [the tribal child welfare coordinator], Peter* [a State regional field representative who worked with countries and tribes], and Karen* [the counselor for the tribal alcohol and drug addiction treatment program] described in their interviews. Given the crucial importance of the issues the Miriam Report researchers covered, excerpts from the report follow. The excepts also illustrate how prevailing beliefs and perspectives at the time the study was conducted influence the interpretations and analyses reported by otherwise highly qualified and objective researchers.

***

Family and Community Development. The Indian Service has not appreciated the fundamental importance of family life and community activities in the social and economic development of a people. The long continued policy of removing children from the home and placing them for years in boarding school largely disintegrates the family and interferes with developing normal family life. The belief has apparently been that the shortest road to civilization is to take children away from their parents and insofar as possible to stamp out the old Indian life. The Indian community activities particularly have often been opposed if not suppressed. The fact has been appreciated that both the family life and the community activities have many objectionable features, but the action taken has often been the radical one of attempting to destroy rather than the educational process of gradual modification and development” (p. 15) …

Strains Imposed by the System of Education. Indian families are subjected to peculiar strains growing out of their relation to the government. Some of the projects of the government, notably the appointment of field workers to deal with home conditions, have tended to strengthen family bonds. But on the whole government practices may be said to have operated against the development of wholesome family life.

Chief of these is the long continued policy of educating the children in boarding schools far from their homes, taking them from their parents when small and keeping them away until parents and children become strangers to each other. The theory was once held that the problem of the race could be solved by educating the children, not to return to the reservation, but to be absorbed one by one into the white population. This plan involved the permanent breaking of family ties, but provided the for the children a substitute for their own family life by placing them in good homes of whites for vacations and sometimes longer, the so-called “outing system.” The plan failed, partly because it was weak on the vocational side, but largely by reason of its artificiality. Nevertheless, this worst of its features still persists, and many children today have not seen their parents or brothers and sisters in years… (pp. 573-574) …

The real tragedy, however, is not loss by death but the disruption of family life and its effect on the character of both parents and children. The personal care of helpless offspring is the natural expression of affection no less among Indians than among parents of other races. No observer can doubt that Indian parents are very fond of their children, and though the care they give may be from the point of view of white parents far from adequate, yet the emotional needs of both parents and children are satisfied… (p. 575)…

Effects of the System upon Children. The effects of early depravation of family life are apparent in the children. They too are the victims of an arrested development. The experience of the white race abundantly demonstrates that institutional children, even with the best of care, have greater health and personality difficulties than children in families. Affection of an intimate sort is essential to development. Recognizing this fact the better societies for the care of dependent white children have for many years been placing their wards out in families as rapidly as the very delicate adjustment involved can be made. Even in institutions for the care of dependent white children the children are there because they have no homes or because normal home life is impossible, and very few are taken forcibly from their parents. But many children are in Indian schools as the result of coercion of one kind or another and they suffer under a sense of separation from home and parents. Since initiative and independence are not developed under the rigid routine of the school, the whole system increases the child’s sentiment for dependence on parental decisions and children in their teens go back to their mother with a six-year old’s feeling for her.

Under normal conditions the experience of family life is of itself a preparation for future parenthood. Without this experience of the parent-child relation throughout the developmental period Indian young people must suffer under a serious disability in their relations with their own children. No kind of formal training can possibly make up for this lack, nor can the outing system when the child is half grown supplement what he has missed in his own family and with his own race in earlier years. (pp. 576-577).

***

This is just an except from one chapter of a rather long manuscript to try to show a small part of the legacy of loss that has continued to affect each generation of Native Americans in the US, as it did for me this morning and many other times in my life. It’s a deep, often unhealed, wound survivors of genocide and colonial domination carry and pass on to the next generations.

I don’t have the answers for resolving these issues. Perhaps I will have a few ideas when I finish editing my manuscript. But for now, I offer this post in hopes that it will inspire others to be both grateful for the gifts they have been given and compassionate for those who suffer.

*

* Note that these are not people’s real names.

** Here’s a link for more information about the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA): https://www.bia.gov/bia

Works Cited

Sharon O’Brien, American Indian Tribal Governments (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989), pp.  80-81.

Lewis Meriam and Others, The Problem of Indian Administration. Report of a Survey Made at the Request of Honorable Hubert Work, Secretary of the Interior, and Submitted to Him, February 21, 1928. (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1928).

Acknowledgement

In loving memory of my mother, a gentle and gifted healer, who was born on an Ojibwe reservation on March 1, 1921, and died on October 10, 2010, just before what would have been her 89th Thanksgiving.

mother 1

 My mother, age 7, before removal to a Catholic-run Indian Boarding School

mother 2

My mother on her Confirmation Day. It wasn’t until her later years during the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease that she told me how much she hated the Catholic Church because of what they did to her. She never shared those stories.

mother 3

My mother at home after Boarding School. She was the first Ojibwe from her reservation to attend the local public high school in the nearby Euro-American border town and, despite discrimination, or perhaps because of it, graduated as salutatorian of her class.

mother 4

Retirement from the tribal clinic she helped establish on her reservation.

Horses and the ABC’s

Recently, a blogging friend “liked” this old post. It had been long forgotten. When I read it, it made me laugh just as it had when I wrote it years ago.

I hope it makes you laugh, too.

I think we all need more laughter these days.

***

How I wish I had seen the movie, The Horse Whisperer, before I met Amos! Unlike Sara, I didn’t grow up on a farm surrounded by horses and hogs. I didn’t ride until I was in high school and it was an experience I haven’t been eager to repeat. I honestly can’t remember exactly why I agreed to go riding with classmates on a field trip to a national forest. But here I was, a tiny teenager assigned to Amos, the smallest horse of the group that we would ride along the forest trails. Amos and I were to be first in line behind our guide because Amos had a problem – he bit other horses.

Even though Amos was small compared to the others, he was big and intimidating from my frame of reference, and I’m certain he could sense my fear. But I climbed on his back and off we all went. Things were fine for the first few minutes until we came to a small pond. Amos decided he was going for a drink and left the line to wade into the pond and have a sip. And there he stayed. The guide told me to pull on his reins and gently kick his sides. I did and Amos sat. And sat. And sat. He wouldn’t budge. And the rest of the group gave up on us and rode away! And Amos sat. Finally, a boy scout who was hiking through the forest saw our predicament and took pity on us. He waded into the pond, reached up and took Amos’s reins in his hand, and led us out. I was so grateful. I have no idea how long Amos would have remained otherwise.

When we reached the shore, Amos immediately took off at a gallop to catch up to the rest of the horses, with me clinging tightly to the horn on the western saddle. I’m sure it was a funny sight! (It still makes me laugh when I think of it.) We did catch up and I learned why he was originally first in line. As he passed the other horses, he bit each one in turn as he assumed the lead position again. We made it to the end of our trail with no more stops, but I wasn’t eager to repeat this experience.

It took a special incentive. I didn’t ride again until I was faced with the Physical Education requirement for college. (I stopped playing competitive sports when I was in seventh grade – after being deliberated clubbed in the head by someone on the competing team during a field hockey game. I guess I stole the hockey ball one too many times and outran the other team toward the goal. For me, it wasn’t about beating others. It was about challenging myself.) The other options for PE, modern dance and bowling, were also rather funny. Too uncoordinated to dance, and with wrists that were too small to remain unsprained with the weight of even the lightest bowling ball, the only other choice was horseback riding. It’s when I met Buster.

Like Amos, Buster wanted to be the boss. He was also a biter, yet we did fine on the days when we rode in the indoor arena. But the days on the trail were a different story. Buster was a master at trying to dislodge me from his back, and this time, I was using an English saddle without a horn to cling too. I only had my legs to wrap ever-more tightly about his middle. He could “trip” with his front foot, lurching forward – causing me to lose my balance, and he would rub against tree trucks to try to force me off his back. Yet we both survived the ordeal. While my peers learned to jump, I was content to know that I could simply pass my semesters by staying in the saddle.

It would be decades before I would climb on another horse. And this time I have photos to illustrate my daughter’s amusement as she witnessed my lack of skill riding horses. We were in Maui in September of 1998. My daughter, Jnana, is far more courageous and adventurous than I. Bicycling down the steep winding road that encircled Haleakalā, the volcano in the center, was not my idea of fun. Instead, we compromised and decided to go horseback riding midway up the mountainous heights. I’m embarrassed to admit I only remember the name of my daughter’s horse, Brandy. My horse’s name began with a “C.” It could have been named Calypso (like Sara’s horse, whose story brought back these memories).

horses 3

We arrived at the riding center mid-morning, after the mountain mists had lifted. Our horses were saddled and waiting. Mine, Ms. C, appeared to be dozing, eyes closed with her head resting peacefully on the split-rail fence. Our guide was of Portuguese ancestry. He told us a little bit about the history of ranching in Maui and the paniolo – the “ new breed of Hawaiian cowboy” that emerged on the ranches that dotted the slopes of Haleakalā.

horses 2

I must admit I was nervous as Ms. C walked the narrow rocky ridges, or even down gentle rocky slopes. But it was a lovely way to explore and learn about another land and other histories and cultures. I’m grateful my daughter and I shared this adventure, although I haven’t ridden a horse since that time. I doubt that I will again, even though Ms. C was gentle and sure-footed, a welcome change from Amos and Buster.

horses 4

horses 1

Photo Credits: Haleakalā, Maui – 1998

***

Voting Day Reflections -11/08/22

November 8, 2022 – voting day

for the most contentious race I’ve witnessed

My thoughts are with you, my grandchildren

*

Dear grandson, now the age I was

when your mother was born

you’ve survived the isolation of Covid lockdown,

the sorrow of losses – health, family, friends,

and the angst of peer pressure and teen hormones

*

Dear granddaughter, sweet Little Rose,

now taller than me and fearless as you learn how to drive

stoking my fears that you’ll drive like I once did –

something I’m unlikely to ever tell you

hoping you’ll make wiser and safer choices

*

The only armor I can offer you both

is a simple phrase – SENDING LOVE

dear grandson, dear granddaughter

I voted for candidates I sincerely hope

will prove to be courageous and trustworthy

when it comes to crafting a future world

where your mother and both of you

will find kindness, love, laughter,

and a sense of fulfillment

during long lives well-lived

*

*

Just Curious

What I learned from my research changed me

Everyone I met had a story to tell

but few if any had someone to listen

deeply, intently, without judging

to the fascinating kaleidoscope

of differing experiences and views

And it led me to wonder –

Would the world be different if more people learned to be listeners?

Just curious …

*

I realized, too, that a researcher’s role is to listen

but now, as a writer, I have many stories to share

including my own as a seeker, listener, and recorder –

a sacred re-search for a deeper understanding of our collective journey

and I’m just curious …

Who will listen to the stories – deeply, intently, without judging?

A humble weathered hollyhock – a captured moment in the life of a simply beautiful resilient living being

August Farewell 2022

It’s been almost two months since my last post, and perhaps this will be my last. It’s too soon to tell. I still have to finalize part one (11 chapters), with 3 more parts to follow (51 chapters in all). I feel a sense of urgency to finish. (I even had a dream about a future where a group of people were sitting around a campfire, their main source of light, reading a battered copy of my book. They were looking for ideas about how to rebuild a sense of community. Yeah, sure, I thought when I woke. It made me laugh…)

The world has changed in ways I could never have imagined in the eight and a half years I’ve been blogging. There are still moments of peace and beauty, kindness, and everyday acts of heroism but they’ve not been enough to stem the tide of cruelty, stupidity, and unreason that now dominate almost every social institution.

That’s why I have decided to finally retire from teaching. There’s no longer any wiggle room for me to challenge the oppressive status quo in dumbed-down standardized curricula. Academic institutions have increasingly become solely concerned with their survival, competing to maximize the number of students they can attract while cutting faculty and sacrificing the quality of the education they provide. It’s especially tragic when education fails to take a stand as libraries and school boards are under attack to make sure future generations have no opportunities to learn to think critically, feed their curiosity to learn more, or express their joy and wonder through creative arts.

Now, I prefer to garden,

A gift from squirrel gardeners

*

Potentilla, cone flowers (Echinacea), and nine bark in bloom

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Carrots, tomatoes, and chard nearing harvest

*

to spend time with family,

My Nephew and his twin sons (3 ½), my granddaughter, and daughter

at the Park Point Beach on Lake Superior

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Meeting my grandnephews for the first time as their dad introduces us.

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My nephew and his sons at lunch – Sam (blue shirt) and Ben (black shirt)

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A family gathering – my granddaughter, grandson, daughter, nephew, grandnephews, and me

*

to dog sit,

Sweet Cinnamon spent a few days with me while my daughter was traveling

*

and to work with two dear friends who are helping as readers for the book manuscript I’m editing, We Remember: Stories about Ojibwe Child Welfare. It’s based on a critical ethnographic study I conducted two decades ago. I had to put it aside many times for too many years in order to teach.

In the process of answering my readers’ questions about things I assumed everyone knows, I find myself having to explore issues more deeply and completely so I can explain them with greater clarity. The process has brought us closer, even though one friend lives in Oregon and the other in Alabama. They both feel the manuscript is compelling and still relevant today, a fact I find depressing. Yet that makes it all the more important for me to finish and share it while I can.

In the process of preparing the manuscript for possible publication, I realized that some of my older blog posts need to be kept private. They’re posts about the study findings. Few people have viewed those posts in recent years anyway. It will take some tedious time to change them from public to private, though. There are at least 30 of them!

I am deeply grateful for the blogging friends I had when the essays were posted. They provided incredibly helpful and supportive feedback, much like my manuscript readers now.

I am also grateful for the newer blogging friends who continue to share inspiration, knowledge, beauty, and kindness. I will try to keep up with your blogs even though I doubt I will post much in the future.

An aside, I’ve had to block comments on all posts older than 45 days because of a barrage of spammers this year – more than 100 a day on some days. The only open space left for comments on my blog will be this post for a short while and on the contact page. Some days, only one spammer finds it…

I can’t make any promises about my ability to respond to comments in a timely fashion, though. I need to stay in my own culture and “language” to be able to keep editing.

Sending my gratitude and best wishes to all. 💜

Reflections on the Last Day of June 2022

This morning I open my heart to gratitude

and find I’m not disappointed

June 30 2022 2

June 30 2022 1

witnessing impossibly tiny late bloomers

June 30 2022 3

and those still valiantly emerging

despite too many obstacles to name

June 30 2022

https://youtube.com/shorts/ABW4dAqXRkc?

life in living color

June 30 2022 4a

despite the illusion of meaningful connections

and forces of darkness

that threaten all of us these days

helping me remember the gifts

that come from being present

June 30 2022 5

Acknowledgement:

Inspired by morning observations and Maria Popova’s depth and eloquence:

“Lives interweave with other lives, and out of the tapestry arise hints at answers to questions that raze to the bone of life: What are the building blocks of character, of contentment, of lasting achievement? How does a person come into self-possession and sovereignty of mind against the tide of convention and unreasoning collectivism? …” The Marginalian

Late June Reflections – 2022

June 22, 2022

One can’t predict air quality on the southwest side of the city where I live. It depends on the time of day, which way the wind blows, and whether residents decide to build bonfires that smolder during times of thermal inversion when the smoke and smell will continue to linger in stagnant air. Obviously, that creates challenges for those of us who rely on open windows and fans in the summer rather than on air conditioners. But last night after a couple uncharacteristically hot days, the air was clear and sweet. The intake/exhaust window fan worked. But it needs to be removed in the morning before the heat of the day arrives.

This morning, the process of removing the fan provided a vantage point to witness a wee drama unfolding. The raucous calls of crows filled the air. Three crows came into view and landed on the power lines, crying out excitedly as if in warning just as a rather large skunk came waddling across my neighbor’s backyard. The crows seemed to be chasing and terrorizing the skunk, usually a nocturnal animal, perhaps a mother trying to find food for a hungry brood. She briefly disappeared amid the tall weeds behind a shed, and emerged by the left back corner and began digging furiously. She was able to find momentary safety and the crows took flight and quickly disappeared.

skunk sanctuary june 22 2022

The shed sanctuary has been home to skunks and rabbits in past years so I’ve learned to be attentive when venturing out at night, especially when my little dog, Pinto, was with me. His brief encounter with a baby skunk during his first spring here taught me how important that was. Fortunately, the baby skunk hadn’t yet learned how to aim his/her spray but it was still a very stinky adventure.

***

This may be the last post on my blog for a while. These days, it’s hard to find time to blog, as the following post I began a few days ago explains. Today, I decided to share these brief reflections along with a post from eight years ago. Although most of the links no longer work, the old post still seems relevant now. I truly wish things had changed for the better since then. We haven’t made much progress coming together as communities to work collectively as an inclusive team on the crucial issues we all face. I’m not sure what to do to help that happen.

June 16, 2022: Rainy Day Respite – Revisiting the Past

Mid-June, and the garden plants are still struggling to emerge. May was cold and rainy, and early June was dry. I had to replant bean and cucumber seeds, and I may have to do the same for chard. The weeds have been hardy and prolific, though, covering every inch of soil. But still, I am grateful for the gift of a piece of land once peopled by my Anishinaabe ancestors, and before them, the Dakota. I’m grateful for the chance to try to try to revitalize the soil and provide a safe haven for my plant and animal relations. It’s not an easy undertaking these days when too few seem to understand the responsibility we all carry to be wise stewards for the sake of future generations.

lilac late june 2022

But today, it’s too wet to garden or mow an overgrown lawn.

I need to transition cultures anyway to work on a manuscript I began in 2015 that’s still waiting to be edited from beginning to end. I’ve edited the beginning chapters at least 30 times but I want to revisit the beginning again. I’m not the same person featured in the most recent draft of the introduction. And authentic ethnographic work needs to include an honest accounting of who the author is in order to help readers discern the trustworthiness of what is being presented as “truth,” at least as seen through the author’s lenses.

A few days ago as I was beginning my transition, I noticed something that symbolized differences in cultures. Two plants still constrained in planters that are slowly dying. It hurts me whenever I notice living beings struggling – earth, lakes and rivers, flora, fauna, and humans.

The effects of being unaware of other beings and the metaphor of constrained roots inspired me to venture into my file cabinets to find a paper I wrote years ago. It was about my commune experiences for a course I was taking on organizational theory. I briefly contemplated sharing the paper. It describes how changing positions within an organization, the commune, affected what I saw and understood about being true to one’s roots. It was a descriptive assessment of the impact of power and positionality on peoples’ ability to view “reality” and their consequent responsibility to be aware of how their behavioral choices affect others’ wellbeing.

***

In Search of Community

“Is it not right, then, that education should help you, as you grow up, to perceive the importance of bringing about a world in which there is no conflict either within or without, a world in which you are not in conflict with your neighbor or with a group of people because the drive of ambition, which is the desire for position and power, has utterly ceased? And is it possible to create a society in which there will be no inward or outward conflict?”
(Krishnamurti, 1964, Think on these things, p. 52)

*

Living through the polar vortex forced me to question the wisdom of continuing to try to survive on my own. Of course, I am not totally alone. I have supportive friends and family, but this past winter they all had their own challenges to attend to, their own leaking roofs and freezing pipes, icy roads to travel to get places not served by public transportation, and never-ending snow to shovel despite artic temperatures. It has led me to the realization that living the way we do in this neighborhood isn’t wise or sustainable. Each family has its own separate dwelling, heating system, and needs to attend to all of the chores associated with survival on their own.

As much as I would like to head off to an intentional community, I am skeptical. I already tried that, twice. I am still laughing about the second attempt. A group of successful, smart people coalesced to prepare for the end of the world in a small farming community in central Illinois. I wasn’t there because of the nonsense the charismatic leader espoused. I was there because it made sense to share the work of growing food, contributing one’s unique skills to a collective, and reducing one’s carbon footprint on the environment. But the need many people have to follow leaders has never ceased to baffle me. Taken to extremes it is hilariously ridiculous or frighteningly dangerous.

carnival swing miss dash thrifty dot co dot uk

Photo Credit: Carnival Swing – miss-thrifty.co.uk

When I think of collective living, I think of people in my second alternative community experience. The leader organized a community-wide event for members — a chance to raise their IQs, for a moderate-sized fee of course. One of the members offered his large home as the training venue, and many attended the evening event. Attendees were greeted at the door and were given small brown paper bags as they entered. At the appointed time, the lights were dimmed and attendees were told to strip down to their underwear and breathe in and out of the paper bag for 10 minutes. They were promised that this exercise would improve their IQs – it would make them smarter!

(Then, I didn’t have internet tools to research the scientific validity of these claims, but in writing this essay many years later, it seemed wise to give it a try. Breathing into a paper bag for 5 minutes does seem to be a credible treatment for anxiety-triggered panic attacks – it helps rebalance elevated oxygen levels from over-breathing during attacks by increasing CO2 levels in the blood stream. People often feel immediate relief. So in this ingenious money-maker, creating a stressor and then reducing its impact left people with the impression that they felt better and brighter as a result of the exercise! Yet I only discovered wily walnut’s claim that the “Brain Bubbles” created by blowing in and out of a paper bag is one of the techniques one can use to raise IQ.

My partner and I were invited, but we declined. I heard about the event later from a friend who did go and felt even less intelligent as a result. My partner and I decided to leave the periphery of the community soon after.

The reasons for leaving my first attempt at “community” were not as amusing. Like the second community, the first was organized around a charismatic leader. But the followers were much younger, as was I when I first arrived, a single mother with a one and a half year old daughter. We hitchhiked, my little one in her stroller packed with necessary supplies and $20 in my pocket, trusting the kindness of the universe to help us survive. We weren’t escaping abuse, merely a mind and spirit-numbing environment of never-ending criticism and cold indifference — a life lacking warmth and laughter and possibilities for something better than the pursuit of empty material comforts. In the next four and a half years, our lives were transformed.

By the time we arrived, the alternative community had been in existence for more than 3 years and had grown from less than 20 people sharing a treehouse to more than 200 people spread across four towns in northwestern Massachusetts. I willingly agreed to accept the principles espoused by the community, no drugs, alcohol, or promiscuity. Newer arrivals like my daughter and me were initially relegated to live with more than 100 members in a rural setting that included a large house and dormitory with a smaller two-story shed. Despite my battered self-esteem, I looked around the community and noticed more than 25 children under five roaming about who were without care or supervision. With two other mothers, I set out to create a daycare center. We were able to renovate the first floor of the two-story shed, adding a sink that I helped plumb, and a stove and refrigerator we were able to get for free. We scrubbed and painted, and found some furniture and made sure kids had meals and supervision.

During the first few months, there were a number of observations that raised my curiosity about cultural differences. I watched as people pushed each other out of the way so they could be the first on the bus to attend meetings organized by the community leader. They competed for the white sweaters that proved they were more spiritually evolved than others and bullied and demeaned those who were forced to wear brown sweaters showing their lack of spirituality. I pondered the disconnect between the spirituality they gave lip service to and their actions. I also pondered it as I witnessed how mothers who previously ignored their children suddenly were only concerned about their children, stashing private bags of food for their children in the daycare center refrigerator. Unlike other mothers, I felt the need to make sure all children had the best we could provide.

I was also aware of how disrespected and patronized I felt by those who were in the upper echelon within the rural setting hierarchy, explaining it away to myself as another indicator of my many deficiencies. Despite my lack of self-confidence, there was still a noticeable difference between me and most of the members I encountered. I still thought about each of my actions and made my own decisions. I was perplexed by my observations that otherwise smart caring people did whatever the leader told them to do without question, even if it contradicted their deeply held values. Almost everyone else did unkind, foolish or illegal things because the leader told them to do it. Yet I stayed because I genuinely cared about my new friends despite all of these differences.

Slowly over the years, I gained skills and had experiences I doubt would ever have come my way in another setting. I worked outside jobs as a waitress, nurse’s aide, donut finisher, receptionist, and seamstress, and as an attendant for an institution for people with cognitive and developmental challenges. As my status in the community rose, I moved from setting to setting. I travelled to the south to promote the community radio show, served as the booking agent and lightshow operator for a mobile disco, and ended up as the general office manager for the community, a buffer between the leader and ruling elite and the 200 members of the community. As my status in the community shifted, so did my ability to see more of what was really occurring. At first, I had believed most people followed the publicly proclaimed principles. I even believed that when I was the office manager, collecting members’ weekly donations, allocating funds to members to cover their needs, purchasing household supplies and food for twelve different enclaves, and buffering members from the never-ending demands for more money by the elite.

Again I pondered cultural differences. There were members who worked multiple jobs to donate all they could for the well-being of the community as a whole. There were members who never donated anything, but who were exempt because the leader favored them. There were members who were so wounded by life that they were unable to contribute anything but still needed resources multiple times a day every day. My carefully calculated food purchases to make sure each person in each house could have two eggs a day on Saturday and Sunday were glibly blown away by members from privileged backgrounds who thanked me for buying the eggs, proclaiming “I had six eggs this morning and it was such a treat.” I wondered how many children would be denied protein as a result.

But these were minor annoyances. There were deeper secrets I finally discovered – the way people’s hard-earned dollars were used to subsidize the costs of the leader’s alcohol and cocaine addiction. I thought long and hard about whether to stay and try to help someone whom I thought at the time wanted to recover or leave for my daughter’s sake. I came up with an alternative that I felt was reasonable. My daughter’s father agreed to take care of her for the summer. I would stay for that time to see what I could do to help the community get back on track. Two days after my daughter left, the leader of the community accosted me, yelling. “What the FUCK did you DO! Sending your daughter away was SO FUCKED UP!” (Those of you who have read my previous blog posts probably can guess how I responded.) I looked him at him calmly and replied in a quiet voice, “If you want to understand why I act as I do, it would be better to ask me. I always consider important decisions very carefully knowing that it is my karma not someone else’s if I make mistakes. It is not your right to question or judge my decisions. And it’s certainly not your right to tell me what to do.” He turned red in the face and screamed “GET OUT! GET THE FUCK OUT NOW!!!!” This was the only command I obeyed, but based on my own decision that it was the wisest course of action. It was not until decades later that I learned about the sexual abuse women and children experienced at the hands of the leader and his closest cronies, something many former members still prefer to ignore as they continue to believe they are “more spiritually evolved.”

So as I ponder the wisdom of living in an intentional community, I remember these experiences and ask if it is possible to find people who can really build a community based on comradeship. Can people escape the need to follow a leader? The organizational structure that both communities and every organization I have worked for shared in common was based on hierarchical power distinctions. Those organizations that were the most dysfunctional took oppression a bit further, using the “hub” style of management. The person in charge developed personal connections with each member or employee separately and discouraged the development of inter-collegial relationships by pointing out the deficiencies of all the others, a divide and conquer tactic that isolated people from each other and made them easier to manipulate. A picture is worth a thousand words here.

hub management

Photo Credit: Hub-Management Powerpoint slide

The three-dimensional picture of the carnival swing (above) is a more effective illustration. Each person is isolated, reliant on a thin tether that connects them to the power source for their continued survival, a power structure they are incapable of penetrating because of its distance and protective isolation. Each worker or member is easily replaceable, a part of the ride. How can such a structure do anything other than encourage individualism and selfish preoccupation? Can intentional communities undo the unconscious programming of what “leadership” means to those socialized in the dominant culture?

Perhaps I am stuck in my romantic notions of “traditional” Ojibwe culture. In order to become an adult, each individual was encouraged to find his or her own gifts in order to more fully contribute from a grounded foundation to the well-being and survival of the community as a whole while protecting the environment for future generations. I wonder if this ideal is possible. I wonder if the moral of the Sufi story that John McKnight relates is true, “You will only learn what you already know.” Do we as a people already know that our survival really does depend on everyone else who shares the planet? Do we really already know what it takes to live with others in inclusive, respectful, constructive, peaceful ways?

For the sake of my grandchildren and generations to come, I hope we already do know or are still able to learn.

***

french lilac june 21 2022

Postscript:

Allowing others in power to tell us to do things that we feel or know are harmful was all too common for commune members during my time there. It was something I had hoped to escape, but it seems to be a universal issue regardless of cultural or organizational context. I believe we are still responsible for the choices we make. Those in power are responsible for theirs only, not ours. Our best hope for a healthier future is directly connected to our willingness to make choices that nurture the health of the earth, each other, and all our relations.

Memories of Another June

Reflections (Literally) – Tuesday, June 28, 2016

I should be editing today, but I promised my granddaughter I would share this story. We didn’t have a chance to work on it together so I’m writing it for her.

More fierce storms rolled through on Saturday evening when my granddaughter was spending the night. She grew frightened as the sky darkened and warnings about severe storms headed our way sounded on the radio.

She was on the verge of tears. “Ahma, where can we hide?

I have another idea, Sweetie,” I replied. “Let’s go outside and offer tobacco with a prayer. I’ll teach you how. The lightening and rain haven’t come yet so there’s still time.”

I showed her the garden I had chosen, but she found her own special garden by the ninebark bush. When she finished, she smiled and we went inside and read a story.

When the thunder and lightning ended, and the rain abated for a moment, we took our little dog out. I laughed when I saw the huge puddle in the alley behind the house. It was covered with little popping bubbles.

Ahma,” my granddaughter joyfully shouted when she saw the puddle. “The puddle is tooting! That’s what happens when people are swimming and toot (fart). It makes bubbles in the water.”

Just then, the rain began again, and bubbles appeared on all of the puddles the whole length of the alley. My granddaughter laughed and danced with delight despite the rain.

The next day, she sang a song about “The Tooting Puddle Bubbles.” (Try saying that fast!) We went outside the next morning to look for the bubbles, but they were gone. The biggest puddle was still there, though, and we took some pictures.

I’ve gone a little overboard posting them…

June 2016 tooting puddles 1

The illusion of bushes, buildings and fences growing out of the asphalt intrigues me.

June 2016 tooting puddles 2

June 2016 tooting puddles 3

June 2016 tooting puddles 4

May we all find simple moments for gratitude and laughter during and after storms along our path.

***

June 1, 2022

This weekend, I spent time with my daughter and granddaughter. We laughed about some of our memories. My granddaughter, now 15, said she would like to read stories from the “old days,” so I’m posting one of our simple, joyful adventures.

Six years have passed since this was posted. The storms have been arriving frequently this year but it hasn’t been warm enough most days for “tooting puddles.” Little Pinto is no longer with us, but we’re fortunate to have photos and memories of the love and good times we shared.

Late May Reflections – 2022

Sunday – May 22, 2022

on this Sunday morning in May

gray sky is visible through slots

of window blinds still closed

I take a moment to delight and reflect

in wonder at the words and wisdom

synthesized and shared by Maria Popova

traveling from dust motes to galaxies

helping me remember perspective matters

*

late may 2022 1

*

something this wee break revealed

while tackling deeper levels of decluttering

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late may 2022 2

*

and kneeling on earth cleaning and repairing gardens

*

late may 2022 3

*

taking time to listen with awe and gratitude

to the impossibly lovely serenade

of a tiny finch sitting in the honeysuckle

singing her song in good times and bad

touching those who listen awakening hope

***

Sunday – May 29, 2022

These days, we sometimes need to be reminded there’s more to life than most of us realize. Caught up in busyness that binds us to a life spent pursuing the elusive happiness of “stuff,” we miss the beauty that can be found anywhere if we simply stop for a moment and change focus. Look up, look down, gaze into the distance, focus up close, turn around and notice what encircles us. There are so many mysteries we can explore.

I remember the questions I asked as a child. What are clouds made of? What makes lightning bugs sparkle? How can bumble bees fly?

I was never curious about weapons. In fact, I hated cartoons because they were violent. How could hating and hurting others be seen as funny? I tried to avoid the bully boys on the block where I grew up, but my father forced me to fight my own battles. I had to use the only weapons I had – wit and words. And of course, there was always curiosity in things I found far more interesting, like water-striders, pollywogs, and microscopic organisms found in pond scum.

These days it feels as though I am surrounded by people who never learned to see the wonder of life in all of its fragility, resilience, and ultimately, its power to blow or burn or flood us out of existence without much warning. Guns will not save us, but they may just end the lives of people whose intelligence and skills might save our lives and the lives of many others.

“To be human is to live suspended between the scale of gluons and the scale of galaxies, yearning to fathom our place in the universe. That we exist at all — on this uncommon rocky world, just the right distance from its common star, adrift in a galaxy amid hundreds of billions of galaxies, each sparkling with hundreds of billions of stars, each orbited by numberless possible worlds — is already miracle enough. A bright gift of chance amid the cold dark sublime of pure spacetime. A triumphal something against the staggering cosmic odds of nothingness.

“Stationed here on this one and only home planet, we have opposed our thumbs to build microscopes and telescopes, pressing our curiosity against the eyepiece, bending our complex consciousness around what we see, longing to peer a little more deeply into the mystery of life with the mystery of us.” (Popova, 2022, para. 5-6)

Moments in time that I noticed today…

late may 2022 4a

An Indigo Bunting (eager to capture the moment through a window that needs cleaning 😊)

late may 2022 5a

A Goldfinch (through the same window at a slightly different angle)

late may 2022 6

Ferns and Tulips (and an unmanicured lawn)

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