Thanksgiving Reflections – 2020

Earlier this week, I was reminded of the reality of these times. It’s so easy to forget how many people are suffering. I wonder how many of my students need to stand in food distribution lines. It’s not something they mention though many have lost their jobs. I’m doing my best to support them in other ways to help them make it through the semester, but there are no guarantees my efforts will be successful for all of them.

Waiting in line for food distribution before Thanksgiving – November 23, 2020

This morning, though, my thoughts transported me to other days more than 50 years ago when I set off to find my true home and soul. Homeless and wandering the streets in Hollywood, California, I ended up among strangers who provided a temporary safe haven. I described how I ended up there in one of my earliest posts.

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A River Tooth – for Richard

This morning I was forced to rely on CDs to entertain my parakeets, Bud and Queenie. It was one of those days when the weather affected radio reception for the classical station that plays the music that helps them feel safe and encourages them to sing. The first CD I chose was by John Denver, and suddenly, I found myself thinking of Richard, a friend from decades ago. Richard was a shy, gentle man who seemed out of place in a house shared by ebullient, self-assured, and opinionated students, some who loved to party. He was from a privileged family, the well-behaved son of professors. I was the only housemate who took the time to get to know him.

It’s funny to realize that I always remember him whenever I hear John Denver sing Rocky Mountain High. I think of our adventures traveling through the Rockies in his ever-untrustworthy Fiat in 1968. The memories make me smile, but also carry a sense of sadness.

Photo of Grand Lake, Colorado by Charles Yates – uploaded with creator’s permission. Source: CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=814879

I was a poor, struggling college student when Richard and I were housemates. He had already graduated and was working as a photographer for a local newspaper. I had just finished my worst semester ever. I passed advanced French literature with a final exam written in French that I couldn’t translate when I awoke from the long sleep that followed two days and nights of cramming. Although I wrote what was, I think, a brilliant final paper for Peoples and Cultures of Africa, I just never got around to handing it in, so why would I pass? And the history of Buddhism – I really should have dropped it when I could. The arrogance of the professor who needed to remind us at least 100 times each class that he was the world’s most renowned scholar was so at odds with the subject. The only thing I remember from the class is one word – jnana – the Sanskrit word that means wisdom-knowledge, intelligence guided by compassion. The word was so antithetical to the example the professor modeled to the class through his words and behaviors.

And then there was my job, a nurse’s aide for the graveyard shift at the university hospital. I alternated between the gynecology floor and the maternity ward. By that point, I had witnessed nurses make mistakes that caused permanent damage to newborns with no professional consequences and morning staffings that were nothing more than gossip sessions about patients who were dying painfully from the last stages of metastasized cancer.

I was so ready for a change. When Richard asked if I would be willing to go on a summer adventure to see the western United States, I told him I would on two conditions — we would share expenses equally and would remain friends without any emotional entanglements. He readily agreed, so I dropped out of school, quit my job, and we took off on an adventure in his little maroon-colored Fiat. This particular model of Fiat was tiny, with the engine in the rear and the storage compartment in the front. We packed some of our camping gear in the front “trunk.”

And then we hit the road. First we traveled southwest, through the prairies and cornfields. We finally made it to the Texas panhandle, and as we drove on flat highways with no speed limits, the little Fiat valiantly fought to hold the road, buffeted by powerful crosswinds as trucks flew by. One strong blast of wind blew the hood of the trunk open, and another ripped it from its hinges into the middle of the highway. Although we stopped and ran to retrieve it, we were a little too late. We watched helplessly as a large truck drove over the hood, permanently bending it. We collected the dented hood, found some rope to tie it on, and headed to the nearest town to find some way to repair it. The best solution we could find was more rope and duct tape, not the most convenient solution when we needed to open the trunk every night to get our camping gear.

We decided to travel north through New Mexico. Getting to the camping gear was a daily ordeal of untying crisscrossed ropes and ripping off duct tape and then replacing everything in the morning. After taping and re-taping the trunk for a few days, Richard decided to buy a small, light trailer to haul our camping gear. The Fiat was able to pull the trailer, at least on mostly flat terrain and gently rising foothills. But just as we reached Denver, the engine gave out. We had to stay in Denver a few extra days while we waited until the only mechanics trained to work on Fiats had time to fit us in. With the new engine, we headed deeper into the mountains and camped in breathtakingly beautiful places. I remember Grand Lake, nestled in the forests of high mountains. We froze at night in our sleeping bags. I would awake long before dawn and walk to the lake with my sleeping bag wrapped around my shoulders. I sat on the shore waiting for sunrise. As the sun rose and warmed the cold mountain lake, spirals of mist appeared and danced on its surface. Legends say the spirals of mist are the spirits of the Ute women, children and elders who died when their rafts capsized during a storm.

We traveled on to ghost towns that had once been busy silver mines, turned by then into seldom-visited tourist attractions. When we stopped in small towns to buy supplies, or on rare occasions to eat something other than campfire-cooked meals, we became a main attraction. People would line up at the windows of shops to watch us as we walked by. Richard was starting to grow his hair longer, a change from the clean-cut persona he projected when he worked for a newspaper, and a beard was beginning to show. My hair, then almost black, was long and unbound, blowing in the mountain breezes. Dressed in my sandals, bell-bottomed jeans and huge workshirt that looked more like a dress, I guess we appeared strange. Perhaps it was the first time townspeople had an opportunity to see “hippies” up close.

As we headed on our way to Wyoming, the little trailer didn’t quite hold the road as we wound around hairpin mountain turns without guard rails and finally went off the side of the mountain. Fortunately, we didn’t go with it. We stopped and got out just in time to see the trailer give up its tenuous hold on the trailer hitch and tumble the long way down to the bottom. Although shaken by our narrow escape, we nonetheless continued our travels and replaced some of the camping gear we lost.

Our travels led us to Seattle and down the Pacific coast to Los Angeles. This is where I decided to stay, with a newly found friend who lived in Hollywood. I know Richard was deeply hurt by my decision. Despite our agreement to avoid romantic entanglements, I knew that he thought he loved me, and I knew he wanted to protect me from harm. But I also realized that I needed to find out who I was by learning to stand on my own in the world. Hollywood seemed as good a place to learn as anywhere I had been before. It was far more diverse and exciting. Richard left alone to return to his Midwest home with tears in his eyes.

This morning when I remembered Richard and the adventures we shared, I googled his name on a whim. I found someone with the same name who is the age he would be now and whose photo looked like what I imagined he would look like decades later. I was relieved. I choose to believe that this is the Richard who once thought he loved me. And I choose to believe that our adventures inspired him to go on to become the famous creative quirky photographer described on the internet. Although we never met or spoke again, the memories of the friendship we shared remain in my heart and will probably continue to reawaken to the sound of Rocky Mountain High.

Some stories have happy endings without any regrets, even though touched by a hint of sadness.

“When you part from your friend, you grieve not;
For that which you love most in him may be clearer in his absence, as the mountain to the climber is clearer from the plain.
And let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit.”
(Kahlil Gibran, 1923/2002, The Prophet, pp. 58-59)

***

This Thanksgiving morning, a few words from a song that one of my long-ago new Hollywood friends wrote and recorded came to mind.

What can you make

that nobody else can fake?

Try a gen-u-ine

one-of-a-kind

guaranteed original.

You can make a smile

that is your very own.

You can make a smile

and you can make it known.

You can smile.

My travels have taken me many places since then. I lost touch with many of the friends I encountered along the way. Yet lessons they shared remain in my memories, leaving a legacy of resiliency and gratitude. I can smile. I can also send healing thoughts and bring soft hands and laughter into the lives of people I meet today.

Today, I am grateful for those gifts. Surviving hard times can bring unexpected life-long benefits. I hope that is true for those who are suffering today.

Note:

In another early post, I defined a term I learned from a former student, “River Teeth.”

Recently, I have been reflecting on what I would identify as the “river teeth” of my life thus far. River teeth, according to David James Duncan (2006), are the hard resinous knots that are all that remain after the softer wooden fibers of pine trees have been dissolved by the river waters into which they have fallen. Applied to life, they are the memories that remain decades later as transformative experiences and epiphanies.

Reflections about “The Great Hurt”

November 16, 2020

each alone yet with others on the stage
masked, dressed in black, seated
in a darkened auditorium
in appropriately physically distanced chairs
the present-day requirements for COVID-19

scripts in hand – readers of others’ stories –
ready to share the painful journey of our ancestors
through times of death and suffering
to help ourselves and others
better understand the forces that molded us
centuries before we were born

through the legacy of suffering passed on in our DNA,
the inferior social status, powerlessness, and social institutions
forced on our ancestors by newcomers
who saw us as savages and heathens
because they knew nothing about our ways

it’s a heavy burden we’ve carried for a lifetime
but we’re learning that our ancestors’ legacy
provides a road map of tenacious resiliency
that can help us face the sometimes overwhelming grief
over what was lost as we strengthen our connections
with each other and the earth to heal the past
and breathe life into new possibilities

I chose to be present to learn and share
despite the frailty of my aging frame
bones cold and aching in the chilly auditorium
stiffly walking to the podium with my heart glowing
resolved to share words of suffering and healing
from the depths of my spirit for the sake of all my relations
of the past, present and future…



Acknowledgements

On November 14, 2020, The College of St. Scholastica’s (CSS) Department of Social Work presented “The Great Hurt: A Readers Theatre” produced by renowned Ojibwe artist and historian Carl Gawboy. I was privileged to be among the nine readers who shared historical accounts of the American Indian boarding schools in the United States.

Although there were only three CSS personnel in the audience and a reduced cast of readers because of the accelerating spread of COVID in our state and county, the performance still had a profound effect on those who were present. This poem is my way of thanking Carl Gawboy and the two coordinators of the event, Michelle Robertson and Cynthia Donner (both Assistant Professors at CSS), for their continuing commitment to raise awareness about the legacy of historical trauma that has touched the lives of Indigenous survivors of genocidal policies for centuries in an effort to promote healing of the soul-deep wounds survivors still carry.

*

 

Early-November Musings 2020

 

November 2, 2020

Sunset – November 2, 2020

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November 6, 2020 – A Nation Divided

The last four years have exposed with undeniable clarity how easy it is to exploit the fault lines and fissures in our communities to divide us by ancestry, class, age, gender, sexual orientation, abilities, and political ideologies. In the coming years, we will need to find common ground to survive. It will take all of us to face the threats that affect us – diseases including COVID, technological disasters, and climate change.

All I can do in these times is to try to help family, friends, and students keep hope alive.

*

November 7, 2020 – Class Day

What I noticed this morning –

Instead of looking out of my upstairs window at the gardens below and then greeting the morning on my side porch as I do almost every day, I ran downstairs to turn on my computer so I could check the news about the election.

The past week has been a rollercoaster ride between two contrasting choices – dread, despair, and disappointment or cautiously hopeful optimism. I didn’t find a resolution to a polarized nation on news sites. What I did find, though, was helpful advice from horoscopes for the two astrological signs associated with the time of my birth – Pisces, an emotional water sign symbolized by two fish swimming in opposite directions, and Aquarius, an analytical air sign represented by the water-bearer. The horoscopes both offered what seems to be sage advice for all of us during challenging times.

“Your ability to arm yourself with knowledge and a calm demeanor will help you to shut down any chaos or negativity.” (Aquarius horoscope, 11/7/2020, Huffington Post)

“Your presence of mind and patience will help you out tremendously today.” (Pisces horoscope, 11/7/2020, Huffington Post) 

In class, I chose to follow that advice. Rather than drone on and on about the differences between qualitative and quantitative research methodologies, I asked my colleague to join me to check-in with students to give them a chance to talk about how they were doing and find out from their perspective what we could do to help them.

PowerPoint Slide – Class 9 – November 7, 2020
    • What have you noticed about yourself in the learning process this semester?
    • What have you noticed about our learning community cohort this semester?
    • What did you learn about your ancestors’ struggles last year that offers ideas about how to survive during difficult times?
    • What story will your grandchildren tell about the way you came through these challenging times?

One of the final questions we asked was

“Why are you here?”

We added an observation.

“Showing up for four or five hours of classes via Zoom on a Saturday, especially on one of the last warm, sunny days we are likely to see for many months, is noteworthy. We’re grateful that you are all here.”

Students told us “connections matter.” That’s what helps them survive during these times.

Being there for family, students, colleagues, pets, and the gardens I planted takes almost all of my time and attention these days. Too soon, the snow will make that more challenging…

*

November 11, 2020

Sunrise – November 11, 2020


Still, I want to take this moment to say chi miigwetch (thank you) to all of the WordPress friends who have continued to bring so much beauty into my life.

The Watcher

Why today? As she noticed her self-talk once again referring to herself as “we,” she felt compelled to contemplate what that signified.

She realized it has always felt like there was an entity that was somehow outside of her physical body, outside of her emotions, that watched and judged everything she thought and said and did from an objective vantage point. She wondered.

When did the watcher first appear in my life?

Was it always here?

Did it develop as a survival mechanism to distance myself as a child from physical and emotional abuse?

She thought of her first childhood memory. It was already there. The watcher was outside her baby body, watching her try to force a body that could not yet speak in words to communicate what she saw so clearly in the world around her. Somehow, she knew with certainty that it was an incredibly important message to convey, but all she could do was cry. Her body was simply incapable of doing what she felt was necessary for it to do.

She realizes the watcher does help her in some ways. It helps her evaluate every thought and action through a critical lens. Yet it also stifles spontaneity by continually pointing out her many flaws, mistakes, and limitations.

The watcher is almost always there – EXCEPT when she focuses on solving puzzles, learning something new, or creating something in the real world that comes from a place that she cannot see or describe. Like the attempt of her baby-self to communicate a message that she knew was inspired by the need to offer comfort and enlightenment to people who were suffering because of their woundedness, self-doubt, and low self-esteem.

She eventually learned that the only way to appease the watcher and silence it for a while was to keep learning, attempting to create something positive in the real world, or solving puzzles. You know, though, each of these strategies can become an addiction and a source that provokes the watcher to be ever-more critical.

“You’ll never know enough. You’ve failed yet again. You’re wasting your time playing when you should be working.”

She’s decided to watch the watcher from this day forward, just to see what happens. Who knows what she will discover?



Late October Reflections – 2020

Teaching online takes so much more time than it does in person. I have to rely on words alone to explain complex concepts and details rather than help students develop their ideas face-to-face through dialogic exchanges, marker in hand to draw diagrams on the white board to illustrate how things fit together.

It leaves me little time to write anything other than comments on papers, emails, and class presentations. When I do post something on my blog, I try valiantly to respond to comments and visits in the few moments I have but inevitably I fall behind and feel guilty. So, I don’t post often, and rarely write except on the mornings before our bi-weekly Zoom classes. I guess I should just call my bi-weekly posts – Class Day Reflections.

Class Day – October 24, 2020

“If the rivers and lakes could speak, or more aptly, if one took the time to listen and understand them, what would they say about the way humans have been treating them?”
*

September 19, 2020 – View of the St. Louis Bay and Superior Bay from Enger Tower

*

This is the question my colleague asked at the end of our classes today when we were consulting with the one student who remained after classes ended, eagerly asking advice on the best ways to approach a community project exploring water issues that excited her.

I believe they would tell us humans all need to do better. Humans need to pay attention to the danger signs all around them and learn how to listen.

Not surprisingly, it was so tempting to stay wrapped in the piles of cozy blankets rather than venture out into the drafty cold of another frigid early morning. Yet my waking moment musings impelled me to run downstairs to my computer to type “what I noticed.”


*

Class 7 PowerPoint Slide – October 24, 2020

*

What I noticed this morning

In a hypnagogic haze, halfway between asleep and awake, I heard the sound of a train, echoing from the ridge to the west. It reminded me of an environmental disaster that occurred before I moved to Duluth – the train that derailed in 1992.

• “Superior [Wisconsin] is not a stranger to industrial accidents prompting mass evacuations. In 1992, a train containing benzene gas derailed just south of the city, covering the region in a bluish, toxic haze. The event, which has come to be known as “Toxic Tuesday” among many locals, forced the evacuation of nearly 30,000 people from the city.” (CBS News, 2018)

• I also remembered the Huske Refinery Fire that I did witness as I walked my dog on April 26, 2018. I saw the huge black toxic cloud filling the sky just across the St. Louis Bay to the east, carried south by strong winds.

• Two years later, the danger the plant still poses, along with dangers of the Enbridge tar-sands pipeline, rarely make the news. We take our access to safe water for granted and fail to be part of the efforts to prevent further threats for future generations.

• For more information:

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/wisconsin-refinery-explosion-evacuations-today-2018-04-2 6/ 

https://medium.com/duluth-now/the-oil-refinery-fire-in-superior-is-just-another-in-a-long-string-of-incidents-by-husky-energy-fdf51a688b36

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I guess it’s not surprising that someone born on the cusp of Pisces (the sign of two fish swimming in opposite directions) and Aquarius (the sign of the water-bearer) would have an affinity for water. It is a gift to have a chance to find others who care about the rivers and lakes as well. I am deeply grateful for colleagues and students who are learning, as am I, to listen to the messages of the rivers and lakes in our beautiful homes in the USA and Canada.

*

View of Superior Bay from Enger Tower, September 19, 2020

*

I hope more of us can learn to listen and care before it’s too late…

 

October Reflections – 2020

October 3 – An afternoon adventure well worth several days of COVID self-quarantine

My daughter and granddaughter enjoying a moment of peaceful beauty at Pattison State Park
Pattison State Park, Superior, Wisconsin
Black River

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Big Manitou Falls
Milkweed

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interfalls Lake

***

Saturday – October 10, 2020

Gradually, I am learning to be grateful for the chance to experience the many thoughts, sensations, and circumstances that present themselves at any given moment. I have the opportunity to choose which ones capture my full attention. This morning, instead of descending into sadness over losses of the past (my mother died on this day ten years ago), mourning over fragile fleeting life and beauty, or obsessing over forces and behaviors I dislike but cannot change, I chose to focus on the task at hand. Preparing for online classes that only happen on alternate Saturdays. Today was one of them.

On class days, I need to take time to answer the question I ask students at the beginning of our online meeting about research.

“What did you notice today?”

Often, as I greet the morning on class days, the universe offers me something that may be of help to my students in these challenging times, while also teaching them something about research.


Greeting the morning I noticed sensations competing for attention –

The melodious songs of birds and the loud revving engine of a motorcycle,
The cool air touching my cheeks that made me want to take a deep breath, instantly stifled by the whiff of heavy toxic pollution in the air from factories that are no-longer idled as CODID restrictions have eased

I was reminded of Parker Palmer’s insight about the challenges of “standing in the tragic gap”

“By the tragic gap I mean the gap between the hard realities around us and what we know is possible — not because we wish it were so, but because we’ve seen it with our own eyes.” (Parker J. Palmer, August 21, 2013, Courage & Renewal). 

Curious, open-minded folks with common sense observe both the pleasant and unpleasant, accepting both as reality and honestly recording what they see. The added dimension for social work faculty, practitioners, and students, though, is the responsibility they carry for assessing how vulnerable populations are affected and figuring out ways to use research, knowledge, and skills to inform interventions that ameliorate harm and serve to enhance or create preventive and protective supports.

It’s not easy for me to figure out how to teach effectively using only distance technology. It’s not easy for students, either. Yet they show up on time and participate anyway, often sharing important insights and resources.

They will need a lot of creativity, skill, and tenacity to figure out how to weave meaningful local community connections in neighborhoods like the one I live in at present. Each family seems to be solidly ensconced in their own culture, house, and yard, and all seem to be increasingly avoidant of any exchanges with the those outside their fences.

Fortunately, I have family, friends, and colleagues who live relatively close, some of whom I can still sometimes hug. I have to admit, though, that I sometimes miss the old days when things seemed different, friendlier, kinder. I wonder now if old times really were kinder or whether I was simply less observant…

***

Mid-October – October 13, 2020

Weeks pass so quickly
with too few moments to wonder
or wander in flights of fancy
beyond the borders of constraints
created by responsibilities to others
Still on this brisk, windy sunny mid-morning
I am transported on my neighborhood walk
by the striking contrasts of color and light
accentuating sharp boundaries
between sun and shadow
trees glowing in their glorious multi-hued garb
with a few dark skeletal branches revealed
against the cerulean cloud-studded sky
There’s no time or space for photos
I merely serve as the responsible leash-holder
for my little dog as he trots merrily along
enjoying a pleasant fall day

Wishing you all a pleasant day, too!

Fog – September 26, 2020

Today I arose early, 5 o’clock in the morning, to work on my presentation for class today. Because we always begin class by sharing something we noticed in the morning, I decided to peer out the upstairs window just in case I saw something interesting. I did. The earth was shrouded in silence and mystery, enveloped in thick fog. Of course, I didn’t have my camera, and I had no intentions of writing anything. Yet as I greeted the morning from my side porch after making a cup of coffee, the words that flowed through me demanded to be written before I could focus on finishing my Power Point about research methodologies.

 

Fog

Gazing out my window this morning
at the world surrounding my house
enshrouded in stillness and fog
before anyone else has awakened
I sense the divide between heart and mind
dissolving and blurring as well

*
*

Fog – it feels like a metaphor
for these times when it’s hard to see
anything clearly beyond
this one place on the earth
and beyond this moment only

The blessed silence – a welcomed respite
from the daily news of tragic loss,
suffering, and cruelty
that encircle the globe

Yet, there are also inspiring examples
of courage and everyday kindnesses
that touch my heart ever deeper

Reflections about Connections – September 2020

September 17, 2020

I wish to begin with the humorous side of life in these times…

I spent much of yesterday harvesting, and this morning, after beginning to draft this reflection, I put some of my little tomatoes on a cookie sheet in the freezer. Then, I went out to water the little arbor vitae in my backyard, planning to water the gardens in my front yard next. (We’ve had very little rain here this year, making watering an essential part of gardening.) Instead, I decided to squirt my 14-year-old car in the back driveway while the hose was on to see if some of the dirt would come off. It’s been covered by nine-years of burning embers and soot from my neighbor’s bonfires.

Despite trying to scrub the dirt off by hand-washing my car every year in the past, the soot and burn scars remained. I finally gave up earlier this year and just started taking my car to an automated car wash. The process never really cleaned the car, but at least it was coated with multiple layers of a protective wax cover. Today, though, I decided to test out whether some of the soot would come off if I just rubbed it with a paper towel when it was wet. Lo and behold, much of it came off. It took me several hours to finish. Then, it was time to walk Pinto.

Where does the time go? Soon it will be Pinto’s supper time (my little papillon-chihuahua dog) which requires my presence in order for him to eat, and lately, to be prepared to hand-feed him if necessary. Then, it’s Queenie’s movie time (my parakeet), a computer-based endeavor. While Queenie’s busy, I will have time to wash the chard I harvested yesterday. I think I’ve figured out a way to do it safely.

A boring tale of ordinary reality! The things we do to eat and live. But I did take time to read something quite funny: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/sep/17/frozen-poo-and-narcissists-eyebrows-studies-win-ig-nobel-prizes. In my defense, though, it does deal with research! And I’ve also been busy working on my courses, which brings me to the title for this post – connections.

When I looked at the afternoon sun in the sky today, here in northeast Minnesota more than a thousand miles from Oregon, California, and Washington state, it was clear how connected we all are despite geological distances.

5:42 P.M., September 15, 2020

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September 20, 2020

The courses I’m teaching this semester began on Saturday, September 12 – research and community practice. Preparing has meant significant adjustments to respond to a world that has changed drastically since the cohort of students began their studies several years ago. Many are the first generation in their families to attend college. Yet most were able to successfully shift to completely online classes mid-semester in the spring. This year, the courses for our hybrid satellite program are all online. Our bi-weekly classes that were once face-to-face will meet via Zoom.

This semester, I’m also co-teaching community practice with a dear friend and colleague. My colleague and I decided to focus on one issue – the connection between access to safe water and community health, the focus of my research class as well.

Why focus on our work on water? Why not?

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe” (John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra , 1911, page 110). 

The community where we live is located on the southwest shore of Lake Superior, one the five interconnected freshwater Great Lakes of North America that comprise part of the border between the United States and Canada.

“The Great Lakes—Michigan, Superior, Huron, Erie, and Ontario—form the largest-surface freshwater system in the world, together holding nearly one-fifth of the Earth’s surface freshwater” (The National Wildlife Foundation).

My colleague and I met during the summer to discuss how and what to teach students so they will be able to work with communities in a future world we can’t even imagine. What will they need to know to weather the challenges they will face? What knowledge and tools will provide a foundation for them so they can help their families and communities come together to adjust to ever changing difficulties and possibilities?

During these days of “social distancing,” it is becoming ever more obvious that many people are no longer willing to reach out to bridge differences with others. Polarities divide us in these times. Yet addressing the serious issues we are facing now will require all of us to understand and respect others despite differences, to care enough about the future of our world to be able to put differences aside so we can work together. Those who engage in community practice need the skills to bring people together for productive dialogue to explore possibilities for finding common ground.

I shared an experience with my colleague that I had as a participant/observer of a polarized community exchange, described in an older post, “Alternative Futures – Who Chooses?.  Six years ago, I attended a public hearing designed to give community members a chance to voice their views of a proposed expansion of the amount of tar sands oil that could be pumped in a pipeline along the southern shore of the Great Lakes. Looking at the issue from a purely logical perspective, it’s a very bad idea. Tar sands oil is laden with toxic chemicals and the corporation that owns the pipeline has a troubled safety record. The location already threatens the safety and quality of the Great Lakes.

***

“… important perspectives were voiced to support and oppose the proposal.

“I listened, observed, and took notes. Today, I am trying to sort out my overall insights. First, I need to reflect on the opening remarks of the administrative judge. He explained that the meeting room was set up with a table for speakers so everyone could speak to each other as neighbors and community members. I’m not sure that happened. Half of the audience would applaud after those in support of Enbridge spoke (the woman seated next to me was among them), and the other half would applaud for those who presented their opposition (I was among that half). Although many spoke with passion, their words did not touch my heart because I didn’t sense their hearts in their words. Perhaps it was fear of speaking in public, but even fear is ego-motivated. Only one woman had the presence of mind to stand and face the audience as she testified, with her back to those at the front tables. Her words came the closest to touching others who expressed differing views.

“As I reflect on the perspectives of those who spoke in support of expansion, I realize that no one offered viable alternatives to meet their legitimate economic concerns. They need Enbridge to support their families. Do we have viable alternative energy businesses to absorb businesses and workers reliant on old oil technologies? Do we have universities and technical colleges that can help them retool? Their support for the continuation and expansion of our reliance on old technology is understandable, but no one in the room who opposed expansion acknowledged this, so the room remained divided. It seemed as though the supporters of expansion were forced into a position of denying climate change to defend a perspective that was characterized as ignorant and self-interested. Opponents could leave and feel self-righteous and blame their failure to reach others’ hearts because the others were ignorant and self-interested, not really a part of our community…

“This is the challenge of being between cultures – the need to understand different perspectives from an empathetic middle. It doesn’t answer the larger questions of what I can do, but I can begin to explore ways to address legitimate concerns and bridge cultural divides.”

***

My colleague and I discussed how we might help students develop the skills they would need to create environments where community members could explore common ground around polarizing issues and developed the following assignment.

***

Perspectives Assignment

Given that we cannot meet in person to undertake the work that lies ahead, we are organizing three dialogue groups of students that will provide opportunities to learn and practice dialogue and group skills that are foundational to effective and respectful community practice.

Each of the three groups will focus on different community values and beliefs associated with water and healthy community that are present in Northern MN, and will embark on the community assessment process from that general lens. Each member will be asked to understand the mindset and values of those who fit into one of the following three perspectives:

i. Profit from the water or land adjoining waterways
ii. People in tribal communities who depend on water
iii. Preservation of the Natural Environment as a primary consideration

Groups will then use that lens to assess a specific community. We are hoping that the group assignments will be made by consensus in our next class meeting.

The expectations for each student are that best efforts are made to negotiate and dedicate time in the weeks ahead to connect and engage with the respective dialogue group in the community assessment process. As a group you will be given assignments and introduced to tools for planning and carrying out how each will gather and contribute information needed for the assessment. Together you will be sharing and analyzing the individual discoveries and reflecting on the implications for communities from the particular ideological vantage point of the group’s assigned perspective. The group dialogues and collaborative work should support the collective and individual learning and development, and contribute to information each person can draw from in the final Community Assessment Report.

The final challenge will be for each of the groups to present what they learned about a local water issue and themselves when they looked through the lens of “Profit, People, or Preservation.” Understanding how others see the world and why is essential for building inclusive communities. My colleague and I hope the discussion that results will reflect suggestions for how we can better bridge “cultures” in more effective, respectful ways to establish inclusive partnerships on firm common ground.

Water issues connect us all and are in the news almost every day – too much water due to hurricanes and deluges, too little resulting in catastrophic fires, and too unsafe to drink or swim in due to undeveloped or aging infrastructures and widespread pollution. Without water, all life as we know it will cease.

In an increasingly polarized world, it seems impossible to bring people together to figure out how we can work together to address the issues that affect us all. There’s nothing I can do alone to help put out the fires in the western states, or even stop a small city on the southern shore of the lake that provides drinking water for my community and thousands of others from dumping thousands of gallons of sewage in the lake every year

But I can work with others to raise awareness by writing and teaching, not only about the issue, but also about the need to find ways to promote bridge-building among groups with strongly held values that get in the way of understanding and inclusive collaboration on solutions.

Ever sensitive to the metaphors nature provides, I was able to catch the wonder of an evening sunset.

7:03 P.M., September 20, 2020

***

September 22, 2020

The sun will rise again tomorrow, of this I’m sure. I’m also certain that the world it greets in the morning will have changed yet again in ways I could not have imagined when I witnessed this wonder. Hopefully the things I have learned will provide the foundation I will need to work in partnership with my family, colleagues, students, and friends to continue working toward a day when the sun will rise on a verdant, peaceful planet where all life is respected and nurtured for the irreplaceable and invaluable wonders all represent.

Late August Reflections 2020

Squirrel guarding his garden – August 28, 2020

These old bones of mine are carrying less weight

though my heart grows heavier each day

broken open by a world of suffering

from losses, confusion, and catastrophes

Yet there are moments of wonder

in the most unlikely of places

A doe munching sunflower seeds

from the perfectly positioned bird feeder

undisturbed by floodlights last night

as the motion detector on my porch triggers

when I emerge from my side door


She briefly acknowledges my presence with a gaze,

and rotates her amazing ears when I speak softly

to let her know she has nothing to fear

When she’s had her fill of seeds, she bends down

and selectively samples the offerings

from the neglected garden below

and quietly disappears behind old trucks

into the brush by a stream

that surfaces just here in this neighborhood

before it goes underground on its journey

to share its water with the superior lake in the east

 

Who would believe a tiny open field

in an urban neighborhood

could host a never-ending variety of visitors –

*

*

skunks, rabbits, pigeons, crows, squirrels, and songbirds

while the music of crickets fills the air

welcoming the imminent arrival of autumn
*

Squirrel savoring what the doe left behind

 

 

Memories from Academia

This morning, I realized how grateful I am to still be able to teach. This time, though, I work for a college that is far more supportive of diverse faculty and students than most of those I taught at in the past. One of the memories from my last experience in a university department of social work surfaced. I jotted down the symbolic, metaphoric memory that encapsulates much of my late-life career in academia.

Sitting around the large rectangular table
facing the video screen at the front of a cavernous room
at the beginning of a new semester for a midwestern university
while those in power in the department of social work
stand at the podium to show the new diversity requirements
they developed on their own without asking faculty or students
from diverse backgrounds for input

As they drone on, I whisper a question
to my friend and gay colleague beside me
“Does it bother you to be referred to as an “ism?”
“I find it offensive and demeaning,” she whispered back.
The presenters explained the “isms”
“You know – those who are older or differentially-abled
who experience agism or ableism,
or those targeted because of sexism, classism, racism, or homophobia”
Imagine – all of the “isms” conveniently lumped together
simply to meet the diversity requirements of the national accrediting body

Although I prefer to avoid conflict, I couldn’t let this pass
It was just the beginning of the battles I felt compelled to fight
during my short stay to protect students and colleagues
who were targeted by insecure faculty and administrators
because they were different by virtue of gender, age, class, culture,
native language, ancestral background, or sexual orientation
despite public claims by the department and university
that they welcomed diversity and strongly supported inclusion
of the “isms” like me

A columbine blooming in an unlikely place amid aggressive, invasive weeds

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