Who would believe that the mixed ancestry which made my life and that of my descendants so challenging is a phenomenal gift?
It represents an inheritance of courage from ancestors who challenged strongly held social conventions in acts of resistance and diplomacy to forge and cement peaceful alliances between cultures and nations in contested spaces during times of conflict and war.
This inheritance is not an easy one to carry. It conveys a sacred responsibility to walk the bridging, healing path of inclusion and peace in a world so easily divided by powerful fears of those who are different.
It means living in a world that reifies distinctions between cultures, nations, religions, and political views, to name but a few of the differences, often demonizing those who dare to challenge social conventions and the ruling elite.
Yet the legacy passed down from the builders of bridges created new possibilities for peaceful coexistence – hybrids, if you will, who carry the legacy of courage and a sense of responsibility for living in harmony with others and the earth within their blended DNA. *
Sharing with deep gratitude for the participants in yearning circle dreaming who inspired these reflections.
to weather the winds that led to the passing of the two old willows
that once embraced her and nurtured her through her tender years
Still, they anchor her firmly and deeply between their stumps and roots feeding the abundance of berries that hang from her delicate branches as sustenance for her winged and four-legged relations when the deep snows fall and the cold winter winds blow strong
Although I have so little time to write and blog these days, stories and poems sometimes flow through me any way. They are meant to be shared with others because they are connected to others who inspire them. I am sharing this with gratitude to my colleague who insisted we use trees as a metaphor for the class we are teaching about community practice. Initially, I thought she was a little bit crazy. But the course has continued to inspire students year after year. I am also sharing it with gratitude to a dear blogging friend, Robyn, a gifted writer and poet who has inspired me to look ever more deeply at my connections to the land where I stand. And of course, last but not least, this post was inspired by the mountain ash tree bearing her gifts for all who come into her presence.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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…
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.
I remember reading something in a blog recently that sparked reflections that went underground while I reviewed and graded a seemingly never-ending stream of student papers. Sadly, I can’t remember which blog inspired me now that I have a moment to think before the next stream of papers arrives.
The simple statement in the blog post, “the word ‘mother’ is a verb,” came to mind this morning. “Yes, I can relate to that,” I thought. Perhaps that is one of the crucial dimensions of what it means to be a mother, “to mother,” but I think there’s something more that goes beyond a simple state of giving birth to new life, a deeper sense of connectedness to the responsibility one feels for the well-being of others. Not only one’s own children. “To mother” may also lead to the realization that the well-being of one’s own children is inextricably connected to the well-being of all other children and to the well-being of the world as a whole.
Years ago, I saw a greeting card that crystalized what it felt like to me to be a mother, auntie, or grandmother.
For so many women, though, motherhood may not be a choice. It may also be an overwhelming responsibility for women without the support of others, perhaps especially so for those in cultures that are unable or unwilling to assure healthy environments for mothers and children – access to clean water, clean air to breathe, respectful treatment of women and children, safe and adequate shelter, good nutrition, help with child care, and education that supports the development of practical skills, compassion for others, creativity, and critical thinking.
My mother was faced with a most difficult choice. She had to decide whether to remain in an abusive relationship or give up the right to raise her two young children.
Following is the fifth part of the story of her life that describes her brief escape from abuse and the decision she felt forced to make because of circumstances beyond her control.
Norma Angeline Ackley Graveen Coombs
In Search of Safety
Norma’s early married years were very difficult. She was far from family and home. During her time in Chicago, she had the support and friendship of colleagues she met during nursing school, and help from her sister/cousin, Hazel, who lived in Chicago. Hazel had taken Norma in during part of Norma’s high school years. Relatives from her reservation and other community members often traveled there to visit her as well.
New Jersey was a different story on many levels. There were no relatives, few Ojibwe community members who visited, and no Native American connections. Norma was alone. Wes’ relatives were geographically close, but were culturally worlds apart from Norma’s Ojibwe family.
I never heard her speak of them, although I can remember my own childhood impressions. Wes’ family was of English descent, and his father and grandfather had in fact descended from their position in England. As Wes told the story, although I’m not sure it’s accurate, his grandfather was the youngest son of an aristocratic family who, under the tradition of primogeniture, needed to make his own way in the world without land or money from his family. He came to America, and his son, Westervelt Valentine Coombs, Sr., learned to be a master plumber. Wes was the second born in a family of nine children. His own mother died after the birth of her seventh child when he was still a little boy. His father remarried and had two more children. Wes often spoke about how his stepmother kept the food pantry locked, securing the key on her apron ties.
I remember my grandfather’s house. I found it amazing years later when I learned he was a plumber who worked in New York’s skyscrapers – there was a hand pump in the kitchen sink and the toilet would only flush by pouring in a bucket of water. Wes’ younger brother lived in the house, while Wes’ father lived on the second floor of a shed that we referred to as the “bird house.” Goats lived on the first floor, and hundreds of birds – finches, canaries, and parakeets, flew free in my grandfather’s living space. I can still remember the smell of the house and the shed! I can also remember the reserve and the dour demeanor of my father’s family, and the absence of laughter in their homes. I can only imagine how a young woman far from her home felt in their presence. I wonder how an Ojibwe woman who had been socialized to believe that white society was superior to her own made sense of the lifestyle and homes of Wes’ family – conditions that were similar to those of the Appalachian families I encountered in Kentucky (many named Coombs) decades later.
Wes suffered from serious depression and a quick, violent temper – in part from an abusive childhood compounded by untreated emotional trauma from his years in the marines and his war experiences in the South Pacific. In his pain and insecurity, he hurt the person he loved most with angry outbursts and degrading comments. Before they had children, Norma had her work as a nurse to give her life meaning and balance. This changed when her daughter and son were born. As a young mother who needed to work, she feared for her children’s well-being and grew weary of being degraded. She sought the advice of lawyers and priests, only to be told to be a good wife, to turn the other cheek. She stood the loneliness, fear, and abuse as long as she could.
Allendale House, 1949
I remember coming into the Allendale house one day as a very little child. My mother was at work and one of the neighbors must have been watching my brother, Bobby, and me. I decided to run home and discovered that the back door that led into the kitchen, the door that we always used, was locked. No one answered my knocking although I knew that my father was home. I decided to try the front door and it was unlocked. When I entered the house, I smelled something really odd. The door to the kitchen was locked from the inside, and a towel was rolled up to block the opening at the bottom. I was worried, although I do not remember what I did. I believe that I ran next door to ask my neighbors for help. I later learned that my father had turned on the gas in the oven after blowing out the pilot light in an attempt to commit suicide.
Perhaps this was the event that forced Norma to leave. After Bobby’s first birthday, she packed up one day while Wes was at work and boarded a train headed for the southwest with her two little children. I can remember the long train ride. It was a new, exciting experience. It seemed that we traveled for days, sleeping in our seats. Our first stop was somewhere in Texas. We lived on the first floor of a converted two-story house. Norma worked and tried to find child care.
Soon, we were traveling again. We lived in a trailer in a small town in New Mexico. Agnes came to help as a babysitter while Norma worked. I remember this as a very small town with a quiet, sand-covered road. The yard surrounding our trailer had a trellis with lovely morning glories. It was not long before we were on the move again, this time headed for Lac du Flambeau, Norma’s childhood home. As we traveled, I learned from my grandmother, Agnes, that Wes had tracked us down in Texas, and then in New Mexico. He tracked us down in Lac du Flambeau as well. By this time, at the age of 4 ½, I knew that my mother wanted to be free of fear and abuse. Wes threatened to take my brother and me if she did not return to New Jersey with him, and he promised to make sure that she never saw us again.
I remember the scene in the parking lot in front of my grandmother’s house and beauty shop. Wes’ cold anger and determination to have his own way. Norma’s tears and pleas as she tried to protect herself and her children. I wanted to save Norma from the hurt, and ran up to Wes and kicked him in the leg and told him how mean he was, how much I hated him for how he treated my mother. Who knows. Perhaps this small gesture helped provide some protection for Norma, some recognition for Wes that his behavior was unacceptable even in the eyes of a child, and the courage for Norma to sacrifice her own safety in order to watch over her son and daughter.
The trip back to Allendale is long forgotten for me. The depth of sadness I felt was more than I could bear, so I stopped eating. I became so weak that is was hard for me to walk. But for a kind neighbor who gave me a reason to live, I may well have died before the age of 5. I know Norma’s heart was heavy as she watched me fade away while she struggled with her own deep sadness.
Yet, we all survived. In time, we found a way to live in relative peace for awhile. Norma had her work as a nurse in a doctor’s office and then in a nursing home. Bobby and I had school and our friends. Wes had his job and family.
I just couldn’t resist sharing a bit of humor in the face of the present tragic times. Normally, I abhor ad hominem attacks. Sometimes, though, there doesn’t seem to be any other way to confront overwhelming destructive power…
“The Liar Tweets Tonight” by Roy Zimmerman and the ReZisters
Greeting the morning Gazing at the falling snow as it thickens the blanket of white already covering the earth The only sounds a whisper of distant traffic the shrill cries of returning seagulls and the sharp yelps of a little dog out for a morning trot pulling its owner along Grateful for the chance to witness fleeting moments of ordinary life and beauty
The past week has been a rollercoaster ride. But today, I can breathe deeply. Perhaps what ails me these days has simply been asthma triggered by allergies to toxic air and an extraordinary amount of snow mold exposed by unseasonably warmer weather, and my raking, for the past month.
The toxic exhaust from the factories to the east has ceased for a time. Maybe it’s because the wind isn’t blowing from the east at the moment. Maybe it’s because it’s Sunday. Or maybe it’s because the factories are temporarily shuttered. The downside of factory closures, though, is the fact that cleaner air comes with a cost in a country that imposes increasingly fewer environmental and health safeguards on industries. Many people have suddenly lost jobs they need to support families, and the supply of stuff we take for granted, like toilet paper, is interrupted. The present context does offer us a powerful opportunity to figure out how to adjust what we produce and how we produce it, mindful of the effects on health and the environment.
There are other outcomes to the changes we’ve been facing that can have positive outcomes as well. Technology, with the help of a colleague, enabled me to meet with my class. We didn’t all have to drive separately to a central meeting site. We were able to connect from our homes in a meaningful way and still have a very productive dialogue despite our collective inability to use technology well yet.
My goals for the class were simple. I began as we usually begin class, although this time it was via zoom.
“What did you notice today?”
I wanted to provide a safe space for them to talk about how their lives and ability to complete their studies have been affected by COVID – 19. I also wanted to provide an opportunity for them to help me adjust the course workload and assignments so they could realistically learn what they need to know despite the new challenges they are facing – fear, uncertainty, isolation, grief, lost jobs, new responsibilities at work to cover for other staff who were laid off, arranging childcare for children who were no longer in school, etc. Despite tears in the eyes of many, we had thoughtful, productive discussions. Class ended by the students suggesting that they connect online to help each other, not only with classes, but also with other things as well.
“One of the most important steps you can take to help calm the storm is to not allow yourself to be taken in a flurry of overwrought emotion or despair – thereby accidentally contributing to the swale and the swirl. Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.
“Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely.
“…One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul… Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.”
This week, I also noticed other hopeful signs. I have always believed that education should be accessible to all. I just learned about two new resources:
1. Open Access to all C-SPAN Classroom Resources “With many classes moving to online formats, we have removed the log-in and password requirements for all of our lesson plans and bell ringers on the C-SPAN Classroom website. You and your students are now able to access any resource on the site, including those that were previously behind the login wall. With this new option, you can share direct links to those resources via email, social media or within your content management systems.” Link: https://www.c-span.org/classroom/
2. “Revisioning Our World: Seeing What Works, Broadening Our View, Seeking Innovative Alternatives” is now free “ Given the current state of affairs related to COVID-19, to ensure the safety of all, we have decided to change the modality of delivery of our annual conference. We are fortunate that our Keynote and Plenary speakers as well as many of our session presenters have agreed to record their presentations and make them public. “Rates for the conference have changed and the only fee will be for those who want CEUs, which will cost $50. You can register through link listed under our Registration tab.” Link: https://blogs.millersville.edu/learninginstitute/
Sending my best wishes to all…
Clarissa Pinkola Estés (2001, 2016). Do Not Lose Heart, We Were Made for These Times. Available from depth psychology.net
This morning, I commented on a blogging friend’s post. It seemed important to share an edited version of what I wrote on my own blog. I have come down with something that feels like a cold or the flu, so I am staying home although I walk my dog periodically in my mostly deserted neighborhood.
I have no idea when or where I caught this illness. Fortunately, my symptoms are mild at the moment and I have the luxury of a part-time job teaching college students that is now completely online.
Each morning I awake grateful that I can still breathe deeply and do what I can remotely to reach out to others with kindness. My heart is heavy, though, for all of my students and for others who have lost homes, jobs and are seriously ill. I worry about my daughter, the last person I was with this weekend, and about my grandchildren.
I will do all I can to keep from spreading whatever illness I have to others.
Please don’t worry if you don’t hear from me right away. I have student papers to grade and online content to prepare.
I hope you are all well and as safe as one can be in these times.