Category Archives: Reflections

Birthdays, Big Brother, and a Blast from the Past

Carol A. Hand

Do you notice the images when you sign onto Google? I often do, but I don’t often click on them. When I first signed on this morning to check the weather and the news, I really didn’t pay attention. But when I signed on again later, I was intrigued by the birthday cake and cupcakes. “Hmm,” I thought. “I wonder – What famous person was born on the same day as me?” When I ran my curser over the image, a message appeared “Happy Birthday Carol!” When I clicked on the image it took me to a page with information about me, including the two videos I posted on Youtube a while ago.

birthday12-thp

Photo Credit: Google Image – February 20, 2015

On one level, I’m amused. My granddaughter, Ava, and I laughed about the messages and watched one of the videos – a “blast from the past.” But on another level, I find it creepy that the date of my birth that wasn’t shared with Facebook triggered a personal message on Google. It’s the principle, really. I don’t feel a need to be invisible or hide what I think or what I’ve done in my life.

Here’s a link to the video in case you’re curious.

I do wonder how many others have received a birthday greeting from Google…

Kindness Matters

Carol A. Hand

“Honour the Aged; in honouring them you honour life and wisdom” (Basil Johnston, 1976, p. 93)

I remember Clara. I was just a young teenager when we first met. At the time, I lived with my family on the upper floor of a three-story brick building, once a fancy upscale home in a small county seat in northwestern Pennsylvania. By the time my family moved there, it had been turned into a nursing home with 20 elders who needed varying degrees of 24 hour care. My mother purchased the business and assumed the role of administrator. (Thanks to the generosity of a wealthy resort owner on the Ojibwe reservation where my mother was born and raised, my mother was able to attend Loyola University and received her degree as a registered nurse.) I was twelve when we moved and not happy about leaving all of my friends in a more cosmopolitan setting with a far better educational system.

Spending time with elders was far more enjoyable than handing out with my new peers, so my mother gave me a “volunteer” job as a nurses’ aide. Clara arrived a short time later. She was a tall, thin, lovely woman with wavy silver hair. I can still remember her sitting in the rocking chair in the corner room that she shared with two other elders on the second floor, right below our upstairs apartment. Neither of her roommates was mobile or able to speak. Clara could speak, but she seemed to prefer to scream instead, nonstop, unless someone with a calming presence was with her. She taught me how to be that presence, how to use body language, facial expressions, and my voice to help her feel more at peace.

I don’t know much about her life before she moved to the nursing home. I was told that she had once been a gifted and beloved teacher. One winter day, she slipped on an icy sidewalk and the head injury she sustained left her as she was when we met, unable to care for herself or communicate with others. Although she couldn’t pay the full cost of her care, and Medicaid and Medicare didn’t yet exist, my mother agreed to give her a room at whatever price she could afford. There were no other humane options for someone with her level of needs.

antique rocking chair

Photo Credit: Antique Rocking Chair

As two outcasts, we found a sense of peace and belonging in each other’s company. The first thing I did when I got home from school many days was to stop by to visit Clara. When I appeared in her doorway, she would often be seated in her rocker, screaming. She would stop screaming as I said hello. Then she would smile and reach out her arms to welcome me. The worries and insults of my day would vanish as we sat together and I told her stories in my gentle lilting musical voice. She helped me discover that voice, that compassion, and that depth. It was her kind and accepting presence that helped me survive tumultuous teenage years. My grandmother’s often repeated messages that I was ugly, my father’s escalating physical and emotional abuse, my homogenous peers with whom I had little in common added to the angst of transformative years.

Spending time with Clara became my sanctuary. I was powerless to prevent her worsening physical health, and finally, my mother was forced to send her to a facility that could provide the level of care Clara needed. I realize now that don’t know how she fared in her new home, or if she lived long after her move. I do know her absence left me adrift for a while.

I hope she was treated with kindness and respect in her last moments. Yet, I have witnessed too many institutions where people have not been treated with kindness. It’s odd to realize how powerful the underlying belief has continued to be in the dominant Euro-American culture that people are only worthy of respect if they contribute something that is viewed as worthwhile from a narrow economic perspective. Self-reliance and the Protestant work ethic…

Many years after my peaceful days with Clara, I returned to the university to finish a social work degree that I hoped would enable me to develop state policies in partnership with elders – policies that were founded on the recognition of their dignity. Of course I encountered faculty examples of what I didn’t want to become when I grew up. “Older people are like children,” said one faculty member interrupting my class presentation. “I don’t know why you want to study elder abuse policy in this class. Older people are so useless and troublesome to deal with. Their abuse is understandable,” said another, interrupting yet another presentation. But I was fortunate to have other faculty who taught me important lessons about the plasticity of brain development and adaption, the wisdom factor, and ecosystems theory. I learned that we’re never too old to keep learning and contributing. And the challenges that make living independently difficult come largely from our socially constructed environment and institutions. When an elder who has lived in a two-story house for decades develops arthritis in her knees and can no longer climb stairs, her ability to live independently is threatened because of how we build houses, cabinets, and bathrooms. It’s because of where we locate stores and service agencies, how we provide (or fail to provide) affordable transportation, the proximity to family and informal support, and the income people have once they retire.

tools of the trade caren caraway

Photo Credit: Tools of the Trade (by Artist Caren Caraway)

Instead of building housing and communities that support aging in place, we force people to move to “handicapped accessible buildings,” often huge institutional looking structures. In smaller communities, homes like the one I spent my teenage years in are retrofitted as housing for older people. When I worked as the state aging network supervisor, one of the areas I focused on was housing. I took the time to travel the state with the state staff who licensed facilities that received state funding – “the good, the bad, and the ugly,” as the inspectors dubbed the wide variety of facilities we visited. I also had the opportunity to be part of a team of ten state professionals in a week-long program that applied a 50-category assessment tool to evaluate the degree to which social service agencies, like residential facilities for elders, were founded on the recognition of dignity. Imagine your first impression when the administrator of the participating facility greeted the team with the following introduction. “Let’s meet in the dining room for our orientation.” We all followed her lead. “The table is round, you see. Old people like to sit in circles. You know, the people here are all waiting to die. We do our best to keep them comfortable in the meantime.” Sometimes, I have the wisdom to be patient. I merely listened and observed. I knew there would be time to meet with the elders who lived there later, and time to talk privately with the rest of the team.

The experience turned out to be valuable, but heartbreaking. Elders from 60 to 95 were categorized as “waiting to die” – waiting with untreated injuries, hearing loss, and serious depression, sitting alone in their rooms. They clutched at my hands begging me to stay after we spoke, even though the rest of the team was waiting somewhat impatiently. The experience actually taught me about the many ways we fail to acknowledge dignity. I remember the many facilities I visited with names like “Shady Acres,” the long drive to the outskirts of town with a road sign signaling what we would find, DEAD END. As we entered facilities, we sometimes found elders who appeared to be overly medicated parked on couches and wheelchairs facing the blaring TV. neighborhood apartment bldg

Photo Credit: Elder’s Building – Spring 2012

How I wish I could say that things have improved over the years since those days. I’m sad to say they have not. In my visits to friends in the apartment complex across the street, I am reminded of the many ways elders may be safely housed without being accorded respect or opportunities to share their wisdom of develop new skills. I voiced some of my observations in recent comments to an earlier post.

To Rowena at Beyond the Flow, I replied – Recently, I have been observing the many ways in which everyday actions that are based on lack of compassion affect people’s lives. Actions that may appear insignificant on the surface have profound consequences for the quality of life of many people through ripple effects. The elders’ apartment complex across the street is an example. Elders who love to garden are denied access to garden plots because those in charge of maintenance prefer easy-to-mow lawns. Denying this simple request has profound consequences on the health and well-being of residents on many levels. Many residents have accepted this limitation after voicing their desires repeatedly and simply adjusted their lives to give up something they love, something that feeds their spirits and brings beauty into the world. They could join together and become “guerilla gardeners.” I would welcome the chance to help them dig up the lawn at night and help them build gardens that are high enough to accommodate varying degrees of limited mobility. But that is their decision…

To Debra at My Land Restoration Project, my reply was – It’s so easy to cultivate fear and shame, to destroy confidence and hope, and so challenging to rekindle a sense of real possibilities. In fact, it’s how I met my neighbors across the street. When I moved to this neighborhood a little over three years ago, the yard was filled with piles of tree limbs and brush. I began the long process of bringing in soil and compost, and building gardens. It was difficult manual labor and I wondered if it made any difference at all to anyone else. Then, this past year, two of the women who live in the elder’s high rise stopped to talk when I was working in the front yard. Now we meet for monthly tea and share stories. Neither one is able to have one of the coveted garden plots in the small space allotted for residents, so they come and sit with me sometimes when I’m working, sharing stories about the gardens they’ve had and advising me on what to plant. One is eagerly waiting for the tulips and daffodils I planted this fall as she watched. (The garden is too low for someone who needs a cane to walk because of knee problems.) It’s a small thing, but it gives me hope and allows my neighbors to spend time in a place they see as a sanctuary. But ever a rebel who automatically wants to challenge oppression, I hope they choose to organize creative resistance and create a midnight garden by digging up the lawn. I can bring my shovel and do the heavy work to help…

My neighbors have raised children, survived abuse and many losses, and they’ve become adeptly ingenious at living on less than poverty incomes. I have learned so much from them and eagerly anticipate our monthly “Tea for Three” discussions. I wish more residents would join us, but my life is blessed by the presence of these two lovely women. I wish the administrators of the facility where they live would treat my friends and all of the residents with the respect they deserve – the “dignity of risk” and the “right to folly” – “respecting each individual’s autonomy and self-determination (or “dignity”) to make choices for himself or herself.” It was something my mother made possible for Clara as long as possible.

Chi miigwetch, dear Clara, for teaching me some of the most valuable lessons I learned in my life – the gifts of kindness and compassion. bird-feather-13486506267nW

Photo Credit: Public Domain Pictures

Work Cited: Basil Johnston (1976) Ojibway Heritage. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Miracles Won’t Happen If We’re Afraid to Take Risks

Carol A. Hand

When I wrote A Birthday Wish about my hopes for the future, I seriously questioned whether sending the list to my Congressional Representative would even matter. I hesitated to send it, and I questioned whether it was worth posting on my blog. The list I wrote was simple, hardly something that would ever be seen as a cogent political analysis, a meritorious literary contribution, or even a realistic possibility. I suspected I might even be easily dismissed as a “wingnut” or flakey romantic. Then, it occurred to me that people need to have the courage to share what’s in their hearts even if others judge them as ridiculous. I was motivated to write because of my concern for my grandchildren’s future. It was my grandson’s sixteenth birthday and I was inspired to reflect about the world I wish for him and all of the children of the future. But I remembered something Albert Einstein wrote and decided to send the email and post my reflection.

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” (Albert Einstein)

 

dandelion

Photo Credit: Dandelion Resilience

This morning I found myself wondering what would happen if every one of us sent a letter or email to our congressman or senators listing our hopes for the future. What if we sent one every week? After all, my email account is bombarded daily by scores of fear-based messages listing all of the threats we face – threats to animals, the environment, and people. I care about all of these issues, but they’re all connected. Sometimes I sign the petitions (although I can’t afford to make the requested donations), but I doubt that petitions will have much impact. None of the petitions really address root causes, and all are focused narrowly on addressing a part of one issue for one species or group. And all are really focused on problems, with quick-fix solutions that are firmly nested within prevailing solutions’ paradigms. Why not turn it around and connect the dots – identify the underlying causes and address those as a set of positive goals that describe the best we can imagine?

What is the best I can imagine? It’s a question I learned to ask in the first job I had after I finished my master’s degree. As Aging Network Supervisor for the Bureau on Aging, Wisconsin Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS)*, my job, with assistance from the five professionals I “supervised,” included developing the details of state policies for aging programs delivered by an array of regional, county and tribal agencies. (Really, any influence I had over what Network staff did was hard won by earning their respect, but that’s another story.)

The first six months of my job mostly consisted of responding to mischief fomented by the directors of the two most conservative regions farthest away from the State Capitol where I worked. Ed and Jerry (not their real names) sent an unceasing number of letters to the Secretary of DHSS and the Governor alleging that the Bureau on Aging had violated fiscal and administrative policies. Although I no longer remember the details of their allegations, I do remember that I spent at least 75 percent of my time scouring legislation and administrative codes to write responses to their charges. I vowed to myself that I would find a way to shift the focus so they would be responding to positive initiatives that the Bureau initiated. It took six months to begin turning the tide. I travelled to both regions with Bureau staff and got to know the agency staff, advisory council members and boards of directors, and I listened to the concerns of the older citizens in the region. I also observed the way the two directors omitted key facts and misrepresented the information they shared when they met with the elders on the councils and boards.

Information is power. People are easily manipulated if they don’t have all of the facts. I began to ponder a number of possible strategies. What would happen if state staff were a regular presence at all of their meetings, to listen and share accurate information? Would boards be able to make wiser decisions if they were better informed? And what if we took the time to actually consult with them on crucial decisions that affected the funds they administered and services they provided?

We decided to explore whether increased state staff presence would make a difference. It was certainly easier than continuing to deal with the never-ending irritation of responding to negative non-issues. Staff, including the Bureau Director, became a permanent feature at board meetings for all regions. Relationships and communication improved, as did the quality of policy decisions. The elders on the boards felt their views were important and their thoughtful input helped inform policy decisions. Soon, Ed and Harry were kept busy responding to the agendas proposed by elders on their boards, and the allegations they leveled at “THE STATE” ceased.

The important point is that Ed and Harry did highlight a crucial issue – the Bureau was not doing its job well. We were not making the effort to involve rural elders in the decisions that affected their lives. The elders we ignored didn’t know that they should and could have a voice. The problems Ed and Jerry uncovered helped me identify what we needed to do to include elders who had been ignored. My job, after all, was to serve as an effective and visible advocate in partnership with elders, particularly those in greatest need.

When I was initially hired by DHSS, I commented to my faculty advisor at the time that I was afraid because I really didn’t know anything of value. How could I possibly develop policies and oversee a State network? His response, chuckling, “Don’t worry. You won’t have any power to do anything in a state bureaucracy. They never get anything done.” I was revisited by a similar thought after I wrote the letter to my Congressional Representative. Why bother? Who cares what I have to say? I’m no one special.” Then, I remembered my own experiences. When I worked for state government, it was my job to listen to the people who were directly affected by the policies I helped to develop and implement. It was not my job to serve the power interests of petty bureaucrats like Ed and Jerry who wanted to manipulate others for the own agendas. In essence, at least in theory, it’s much the same job as that of an elected official in a representative republic.

The challenge as I see it how is to let legislators know what constituents really need now and want to see in the future. Legislators don’t have time to understand many issues in depth or look for the root causes, so they rely on their staff, policy think tanks, lobbyists, and opinion polls like the one my representative sent me. They are not likely to read our blogs. But what if we each decided to send at least one letter or email a week that made it easier for legislators to access accurate information about their constituents’ needs and visions, along with thoughtful suggestions for addressing the root causes? Many of us have accepted the fact that those in power won’t listen to anything we have to say, like the elders in the state regions Ed and Jerry oversaw. But what do we lose if we try? If enough of us communicate with our legislators on an ongoing basis, things may begin to change in a positive direction. Who knows, some of our ideas may take root and blossom like seeds of dandelions that come to life in the cracks between slabs of concrete… Miracles may happen if we continue to share alternative views of what could be.

two views of power

Photo Credit: Two views of power (Bill Moyers (2001). Doing democracy: The MAP Model for organizing social movements. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Press.

*Note: The structure, names and functions of state agencies have changed many times since those years.

Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

What Is the Best You Can Imagine?

Carol A. Hand

I remember being challenged by a faculty member about one of the topics I wanted to study when I was attending a university. I didn’t sense any intentions on his part to discredit my proposal. Rather, I saw his question as a query designed to encourage critical thought. I wanted to know what Ojibwe community members would like to see their communities be in the future. “What is the best you can imagine for children, families, and the community as a whole in the future?” The question was intentionally vague in order to allow people to respond according to their own values and perspectives, rather than mine.

The faculty member’s challenge did make me stop and think about stories community members had already shared with me. It made me realize how important the very first interview of my study really was. An elder, Uncle Raymond (not his real name), shared a story of a somewhat romanticized account of his Ojibwe community in the past.

When I was a boy, there were only about twenty-eight families that lived in the village here. All of the families were poor, but we hunted and shared what we gathered. Deer were divided among all of the families, and my friend and I snared rabbits as young boys and would share what we caught with everyone. [Laughing] I remember one time when I was a young boy, it was winter time, and all of us were really cold: we didn’t have any fire wood. So I had gone off to find some wood, and there was little to be seen. It was cold, and it was getting dark when I came up to a white farmer’s fenced in land. I thought “those fence posts would burn nicely.” So, I cut them and brought them home. We had a fire that night. The farmer was really mad when he saw that his posts were gone and wanted to have the thief arrested. [Ogema ] found out about it and figured out who had taken the posts. He came to wake me up early the next morning, and he took me out to the woods to gather cedar trees and he taught me how to make posts. When we were finished, we brought the posts to the farmer and helped him repair the fence. I apologized for taking the posts. [Ogema] persuaded the farmer not to report me since I realized what I had done was wrong and worked hard to make up for my mistake. The farmer agreed. After that, [Ogema] knew families in the village were cold, so from then on he made sure that the community worked together so there was enough wood for everyone in the village (Uncle Raymond, August 28, 2001). 

Like Uncle Raymond, I find myself also romanticizing some of the past eras of my life. As I shared Uncle Raymond’s story with the faculty member who posed the question about future visions, I pointed out that romanticized versions of the past can tell us a lot about the future we would like to see. Thankfully, he agreed.

This morning, when I saw the sunshine for the first time in what seems like eternity, I remembered the importance of having a vision of the best we can imagine. And I thought of Richie Havens’ version of the Beatle’s song “Here Comes the Sunand Joni Michell’s song,Woodstock.”

sun and rosePhoto Credit: Microsoft Word Clip Art 

Woodstock (by Joni Mitchell)

I came upon a child of God
He was walking along the road
And I asked him, where are you going
And this he told me
I’m going on down to Yasgur’s farm
I’m going to join in a rock ‘n’ roll band
I’m going to camp out on the land
I’m going to try an’ get my soul free
We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

Then can I walk beside you
I have come here to lose the smog
And I feel to be a cog in something turning
Well maybe it is just the time of year
Or maybe it’s the time of man
I don’t know who l am
But you know life is for learning
We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

By the time we got to Woodstock
We were half a million strong
And everywhere there was song and celebration
And I dreamed I saw the bombers
Riding shotgun in the sky
And they were turning into butterflies
Above our nation
We are stardust
Billion year old carbon
We are golden
Caught in the devil’s bargain
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

(Lyrics submitted by mrrubery
“Woodstock” as written by Joni Mitchell
Lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Joni Mitchell/Crazy Crow Music/Siquomb Music
Lyrics powered by LyricFind)

I realize I’m both an Ojibwe romantic and an aging Hippie. Yet I believe that imagining a better future for all is healthy – a necessary foundation to continue the work ahead. I wish you all a new year of light that brings smiles to all the faces and helps us all remember that we are made of stardust, we’re golden, and we’re part of a wondrous, mysterious universe.

Note: Ogema is not the name of the person described in the account. Ogema, which means leader in the Ojibwe language, is used in place of a name to maintain the confidentiality of individuals and to mask the specific location of the community.

Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Unlocking Memories

Carol A. Hand

I loved to draw when I was a child, mostly because of what I learned using the technology of the time – television. Of course, we only had a black and white TV with a tiny-screen. But that was just fine for me. I remember there were only three shows I eagerly anticipated. One of those shows was called “Andy’s Gang.” My favorite character on the show was Froggy the GremlinFroggy would appear from a cloud of smoke on the top of a grandfather clock and proceed to trick arrogant experts into saying and doing foolish things, calling into question their competence and exposing their hubris. I didn’t realize what I found most intriguing about Froggy until I watched an old video clip just now. The humor was actually rather violent for my taste then and now, but the message was something that became a valuable foundation for my future education and work – question what authority figures say, especially those who seem to think they know all the answers.

froggy

Photo Credit: Froggy the Gremlin

Another eagerly-anticipated show was “Winky Dink.”  I was hooked. I sent away for the special kit, a piece of clear plastic that would stick to the TV screen, special markers that would write on plastic, and a cloth to clean the plastic periodically. Every week, part of the secret message would be shared – parts of letters that would only make sense if you copied all of the shapes on the plastic “just so” every week. I needed to be patient to uncover the mystery – a skill I have yet to master. Yet it’s probably why I am still fascinated by the challenge of solving puzzles and discovering underlying patterns.

But the show I loved most was Jon Gnagy’s “You Are an Artist.” Each week, Gnagy started with a blank canvas. Using only his charcoal, he demonstrated the steps to follow to draw so many different things – still-lifes, landscapes, animals, and people. The show actually inspired me to consider being an artist. Yet, I was never quite satisfied with what I drew – I didn’t feel as though the images I drew “came to life.” It was not really my special gift any more than singing, which I discovered at a much later age. So I set aside both art and music as ways to express my thoughts and feelings.

It wasn’t until I took a series of workshops with David Feinberg several years ago that I realized how important drawing is as a tool for unlocking buried memories and stories. As a serious “professional” like the ones Froggy taunted, I was reluctant to do anything that was not “polished” and “perfect.” In part, that’s an understandable protective characteristic for people who are already different. Yet I sometime wished I could act like Froggy – like the trickster. During oppressive meetings, I have often found myself wishing that I could put on my special glasses to emphasize that there are many ways of seeing things – or that humor helps us keep things in perspective.

DSC00626

Photo Credit: Another Perspective Trick Glasses – December 27, 2014

But it’s a risk that I’ve been unwilling to take many times in my career. Women and Native Americans are rarely seen as competent equals by people in positions of power (almost always white men). We’re often seen as affirmative action hires – puppets or clowns at best.

But now, thanks to David’s workshops, I can use drawing (and music) as tools to unlock stories and to play. Images, smells, sounds, and touch all help me remember important stories on deeper, more nuanced levels. And it really all started with some of the discoveries I made during the very first exercise of our very first workshop. David’s instructions were clear. “You have one minute to draw something in response to the words or phrases I will mention. Don’t think – draw the first thing that flashes through your mind. And don’t worry about drawing something to please other people’s perception of good art.”

There were twelve university faculty who participated in this first workshop, held on a lovely summer’s day when many of us were free from teaching. Most of us were part of the ethnically diverse multi-disciplinary Diversity Action Team, or A-Team as we referred to ourselves. We had all volunteered to serve on the university’s newly created Diversity Committee. After our first Diversity Committee meeting, we realized the need to develop creative ways to address discrimination. Students of color who were present at the meeting shared compelling, and in some cases outrageous stories about their experiences at the university. The faculty members on the committee quickly began discussing the need to reign-in “bad” teachers by bringing in experts to teach faculty how to teach to diversity. I was struck by how quickly we went to this authoritarian expedient approach for addressing discrimination and exclusion. I can’t think of anytime it’s ever been a successful way to change peoples’ attitudes and behaviors.

When I went home that evening, I wrote a one-page outline of a more inclusive approach. Basically, the idea was to gather stories from students of color and to share those campus-wide in a number of creative ways. The A-Team formed in response. We volunteered to work together to develop innovative ways to help improve education and educational outcomes for students from diverse backgrounds. We realized that the key to being an effective educator is learning who your students are. Stories are the key to understanding others, whether those stories are spoken, written, sung, drawn, or captured in photos or other art forms. How do we help people unlock stories? Many people, especially those who are seen as different and inferior, have good reasons for keeping their stories and vulnerability buried or hidden from sight. But how else can we touch peoples’ hearts to build empathy and understanding?

As participants in David’s workshop, we all decided to let down our guard and take risks to be less than perfect. David’s direction to workshop participants was, “Draw what comes to mind when you hear the word ‘monument.’” Many stone symbols and buildings flashed through my mind but the image I drew came from a deeper place – I drew a tree. Others drew the sculpted symbols and buildings. My response to the prompt to draw “a safe place you could go as a child” was a simple picture of me sitting alone, singing, beside a brook in the woods near my house. It’s where I went to escape the emotional turbulence and violence of my family. Others drew pictures of themselves in special hiding places in their yards, homes, or under their blankets. The point is that we all learned to use images to unlock and share our stories, getting to know ourselves and each other on deeper levels. We shared our pictures and the stories behind them. We shared our laughter and our pain. It helped us build a cohesive team so we could develop a series of initiatives to enable students to discover and share their stories with each other, with faculty, and with administrators.

After David’s workshops, we launched “Art Jam!” and “Dialogues in Diversity,” initiatives that largely focused on the experiences and stories of Black students because data suggested historically they were the least likely to graduate from our university. Our initiatives culminated in an awe-inspiring student performance of stories, poetry, dance, photography, and music. The plan for next semester was to repeat the project with Hmong students, another group that was also less likely to graduate. I know that these initiatives were transformative for many of the students and faculty who participated, although the rigid bureaucratic structure and banking-model teaching paradigms used by an oppressive institution showed little openness to new ideas.

Sometimes I miss those days, but thanks to David and my colleagues, the tools I learned to unlock stories have continued to be a useful gift. It’s one I can now share with my granddaughter, Ava. She spent the day after Christmas with me. (I’m the deadbeat grandmother who no longer buys presents.) In order to pry her away from playing games on her new (hand-me-down) laptop computer, a Christmas gift, I asked her to write a series of stories: “the three reasons why I love … my grandmother Martha (her father’s mother), my mother, and my brother.”

DSC00625

Photo Credit: Ava at Ahma’s House – December 26, 2104

We used pictures and clip art to help her unlock her stories. And some of the pictures we found made us laugh. Maybe, some day in the future, Ava will remember this image. Maybe she will remember the warmth and laughter we shared on a day after Christmas in her past when she practiced being grateful for what really matters in life – the people you love. I know I will remember the gift of the special time we shared together.

Note: For information about David Feinberg and the Voice to Vision project, please check out the following link:
http://chgs.umn.edu/museum/exhibitions/voice/

***

“What Have You Accomplished in Your Life?”

Carol A. Hand

I was 28 when one of my commune colleagues asked me this question, forty years ago, and the only honest answer I could think of at the time was “Nothing.” The response felt true at the time, although in retrospect, I know I only thought about “accomplishment” on a superficial level as that which was seen as noteworthy from a socially constructed frame of reference. I had years of college education but no degrees because I kept switching focus – from chemistry and biology to literature and philosophy. I loved to learn so I took classes in many disciplines just because they sounded interesting. But I didn’t have a diploma, so where was the evidence I had accomplished something?

I had worked as a volunteer in Appalachia when I was 19 and learned to relate to the Kentuckians in the hills who referred to me as “teeny bopper.” I would have stayed but there was so much more I wanted to learn and experience. I volunteered as a tutor and mentor with Black and Latino youth in Chicago and on the Menominee reservation in Wisconsin and learned to care deeply about all of the youth I met. I was honored by their friendship and kindness, but there was still more to learn so I left the protective walls of the Catholic women’s college I attended and finally ended up in Madison, Wisconsin at the time of student protests. What evidence did I take with me that I had accomplished anything during my years of volunteering? During my time In Madison? Honestly, all I had accomplished was the birth of my daughter and the end of a brief relationship with her father. My daughter was eighteen months old when we left for the commune.

What had I accomplished in my time at the commune? I certainly had a lot of new experiences. I had worked as a donut finisher – a job that left my hands raw from the chemicals in glazes and fillings. I worked as a receptionist and nurse’s aide with elders, and in a horrific institution that housed (and abused) people with disabilities. I started the community daycare center with two other mothers for many young children at the community who previously roamed about with no consistent meals or care. I even learned how to do simple plumbing in the process of putting a sink into the old building we used for the daycare center. I traveled to the south to promote the commune radio show, served as the liaison between the 200 members of the commune and its leadership, and was the booking agent and lightshow designer for a mobile disco. But what evidence did I have to show that I had accomplished anything of value in a world that only valued status, titles and material success?

In retirement, I can look back and ask the same question. The degrees I finally completed and titles I have held aren’t evidence I accomplished anything of real and lasting value. As in the past, it was the people whose lives were intertwined with mine during the journey that I remember. I remember the love, work and laughter we shared, the innocence lost and the wisdom gained.

Recently I have been purging clutter. What do I do with the evidence that some things I did made a difference, at least momentarily, in the lives of students and community members? Do I need to hang on to old heart-felt thank you cards and gifts that take up space in files, cupboards, and shelves? The copies of papers, publications, awards, gifts, and thank you notes are merely things that are not alive. Even though each evokes memories of other times for me, I doubt that my daughter will appreciate all of the clutter as her primary inheritance.

Has anything I’ve taught, written, or helped create made people’s lives better? I hope so. Is it important to cling to tangible proof that a life that has been lived doing the best one could has made a difference to anyone else? As I ask this question, I realize I already know the answer. The answer can only come from within. We write because there is a story in our heart that needs to be shared. We live our art – whatever it is – because it is our sacred responsibility to breathe love into being. Life is about the journey, not collecting and hanging on to tangible evidence in order to prove our life was meaningful to anyone else. If asked this same question today, I would quote Emerson.

emerson quote

And after reflection, I don’t think this is an appropriate question to ask anyone else, although I must admit it’s tempting to ask legislators and the One Percent a slightly modified version – “What have you REALLY accomplished in your life that benefits others?” Still, there are far more meaningful questions to ask about those things over which I have some control. What do I no longer need or use that might be of use to others? What can I do today and in the time remaining to bring kindness, peace, honesty, beauty, and love into the lives of others?

As Kahlil Gibran (2002) observes:

All you have shall some day be given; Therefore give now, that the season of giving may be yours and not your inheritors….

See first that you yourself deserve to be a giver, and an instrument of giving. For in truth it is life that gives unto life – while you, who deem yourself a giver, are but a witness. (pp, 21-22).

Work Cited:

Kahlil Gibran (2002). The Prophet. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf Publisher.

Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Shifting Perspectives

Carol A. Hand

My view of the world sometimes shifts from moment to moment, or from day to day. And some days it’s hard to find the words to describe the meaning of these changing perspectives. One moment, I see the darkness of our times and the institutions that continue to provide a measure of comfort to some but also serve to oppress or threaten the health of others.

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Photo Credit: The View from My Window – November 11, 2014

With just a small shift, the threat and darkness are momentarily transformed by the sun breaking through the clouds.

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Photo Credit: The View from My Yard: September 8, 2014

And other times, if I change the focus of my gaze, I am reminded of the gifts and responsibilities that come from loving others.

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Photo Credit: Pinto Sitting in a Favorite Place – November 11, 2014

“All change is a miracle to contemplate; but it is a miracle which is taking place every second.” (Henry David Thoreau)

Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Memories and Deciphering Symbols

Carol A. Hand

I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet, strange, I am ungrateful to those teachers. (Kahlil Gibran)

Yesterday’s Reiki session was intriguing. The Reiki Master told me she sometimes sees images, but yesterday she saw more than usual during our session, while I remembered two teachers from my past – the kind Gibran refers to. One I have mentioned in a previous post – The Clicker, and another who inspired my research on Indian child welfare. The second teacher I shall refer to as Makwa – the bear. Perhaps these two came to mind because I have begun working on rereading and editing the preface and first two chapters of a book on Indian child welfare I began last winter. Or perhaps the memory of the lessons is important as I face the challenge of sharing the stories entrusted to me by those who hoped that their accounts of suffering and resilience would help others.

Although these two teachers never met, the lesson they taught was the same – why it is essential to be kind and why it is not only compassionate and ethical, but also effective, to look for the strengths and gifts of individuals and communities rather than focus on their deficiencies. Both insisted that others accept and adopt their worldview and the only “right way” (theirs) to deal with clients (the Clicker) or communities (Makwa). Both occupied positions of power and used it skillfully to vanquish any questions or threats to their positions or points of view. The Clicker was a skilled public speaker and used his gift to publicly ridicule others and undermine the confidence and credibility of anyone who disagreed with him. Makwa was a large, forceful woman whose presence and volume easily dwarfed and drowned out any critics. As I look back on these encounters now, I can’t help feeling they were preordained. Neither knew how to deal with the small, introverted, but tenacious woman who stood in their way.

Makwa recruited me aggressively to work with tribes on child welfare. Initially I resisted because I had never worked in child welfare – I was educated as a gerontologist and had primarily worked in policy development and administration, but I finally agreed knowing I faced a steep learning curve. The task involved designing a curriculum for tribal child welfare workers, but first, tribes had to agree to partner with a university on the project. My first task was to build those partnerships. I decided to visit the child welfare staff for all of the tribes in the state to get a better idea about the issues they faced and the types of skills and information they felt would be helpful. After each visit, I would feel an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. “Training” for tribal staff would do nothing to address the challenges they faced in a state and federal child welfare system that gave them little power or funding to address serious multidimensional issues.

When I shared these observations with Makwa, I was told two things. First, the project really wasn’t designed to work with all of the tribes in the state, but only those in a particular region. My response was honest. I didn’t appreciate not being told this at the beginning. I told her that I would never have agreed to be part of a university’s attempt to divide and conquer. She relented and promised to make sure this change was approved by state and federal funders. And she did follow through. The second concern about developing a relevant curriculum for tribal workers would come a year later, after I had an opportunity to learn more about the child welfare system imposed on tribes. Although tribes in the U.S. and Canada had developed innovative culturally appropriate alternatives to help families heal rather than merely remove children, I was told that the trainings would focus on teaching about child welfare legislation and professional (Euro-American) evidence-based skills. We could make a few minor changes for tribes – put a few “eagle feathers” on the county curriculum – and call it done.

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Photo Credit: Public Domain Pictures

I couldn’t agree with this, of course. From my perspective, the project offered an invaluable opportunity to bring tribal staff together to dialogue about the systems they would like to see in place for their respective (sovereign) communities. Workshops could then be built around helping staff gain the skills that they would need to create these systems. Makwa and I parted ways on this disagreement, but I wrote a lengthy letter to tribal staff outlining the issues they had mentioned during our time together, listing the strengths and innovations they shared, and ending with suggestions of things they might want to hold the state and university accountable for in the future of the project.

I don’t mean to imply at all that it was easy to stand my ground before a forceful, intimidating, and politically powerful adversary. It made me physically ill. I questioned whether my observations, conclusions, and actions were appropriate. But I felt I had an obligation to represent the voices of people who trusted me with their stories, their challenges, and their dreams for a better future – an obligation to speak the truth from my perspective. The opportunity did exist to begin to correct a brutally repressive history and integrity demanded that I present that perspective as forcefully as I could.

I didn’t encounter the Clicker until many years later to again learn the lesson of respecting the strengths and dignity of people without power. During those intervening years, I had developed more nuanced skills as an advocate. A good thing, because the Clicker had more sophisticated skills than Makwa to discredit anyone who threated his privilege. He was skilled as a behind-the-scenes puppet master. At first, he presented himself as my mentor, letting me know he watched me in my interactions with others on campus and talked to my students in private to check on my ability to teach. It seemed creepy to me, so I began avoiding him and just tried to do my job. Then, he orchestrated an opportunity for me to co-teach his organization and management class. The texts and assignments were his choice, and poorly conceptualized from my perspective, but I kept those views to myself and merely added what I was asked to contribute. After one lecture (“History, Hierarchy and Hegemony”) and one facilitated discussion that excited students, I was told there was no need for me to show up for class again.

I was able to retreat and just do my own teaching and research until I was asked to serve as an advocate by a Native American student who was being discriminated against by the Clicker. It was a legitimate and serious claim that impugned not only the student’s academic ability but also his character. It was then that I discovered the intractability of anti-Native prejudice among my tenured colleagues. They closed ranks despite my best efforts. I was willing to take the issues outside the department, but the student chose to withdraw – a tragic loss of a young man who had overcome many challenges in his life in order to be able to help youth on his reservation. Still, I was able to successfully buffer other students who were targeted because of their differences. The price for my success would mean the loss of my job, and like the students I advocated for, I had to deal with assaults on my competence and character. Yet I learned to neither fight nor flee. Through agonizing self-reflection, I learned how to speak my truth with clarity and kindness, standing my ground and refuting each untruth with empirical evidence. The Clicker and those he influenced could only have power over me if I wanted what they controlled – a tenured position in an institution that was demeaning and oppressive to those with the least power. It was an easy choice for me, although a painful time to live through. During my Reiki session yesterday, I saw these two teachers so clearly, and I saw how these experiences and the choices I made played out in both positive and negative ways during the years that followed.

I wonder what the symbols my Reiki Master might add to my understanding of these past lessons. Below is my rendition based on the sketches she drew.

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Photo Credit: What might these symbols mean?

The only sense I can make of the lower symbol is that I’m the dot, protected on three sides from Makwa’s forcefulness without being totally closed off from the world. I wasn’t able to find anything like it when I googled hieroglyphics. The upper symbol does include the two wavy lines that stand for water in Egyptian hieroglyphics and the astrological sign for Aquarius, but I have no idea what the curved addition above the line might mean. I do remember often contemplating the Tao verse about water to help me deal with the Clicker and his colleagues.

“The best people are like water.
They benefit all things,
And do not compete with them.
They settle in low places,
One with nature, one with Tao.”

(as cited in Dreher, 1991, p. 139)

The passage did help me stay focused. But what about the image of the “bearded man in the rainbow colored hat” my Reiki Master saw? The first thing that came to mind when she mentioned the image was the trickster (or Wavy Gravy). Perhaps the trickster protected me although I was unaware of it at the time, granting me the fluidity, humor, quickness of wit, and tenacity to deal with adversity.

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Photo Credit: The Man in the Rainbow Colored Hat – the Trickster?

I may never know what these symbols and image mean. And truly, I welcome your ideas on their meaning.

Regardless of the meaning of the symbols though, the Reiki session helped my back continue healing and gave me an opportunity to remember and be grateful for past lessons. Although I can honestly say that I wish my teachers well, I would have preferred learning from a teacher like the one I became as a result of the lessons they taught me. It’s possible, though, that I needed to suffer to learn. I can only hope that the others who suffered from their actions can look back and be grateful as well. And maybe – just maybe – I was able to teach Makwa and the Clicker something as well…

Work Cited:

Diane Dreher (1991). The Tao of inner peace. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.

Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

I Remember …

Carol A. Hand

I remember other storms approaching – the wind silent but the air filled with the electricity of threat and possibility. I survived. But have I worn the grooves of hope and love deeply enough into my spirit to weather the storms that I know are coming? As I sat on my doorstep this morning watching the first of the snowflakes begin to fall in the darkened landscape, I wondered what the winter of these times will bring. I can feel the beat of my heart quicken with a mixture of fear and exhilaration.

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Photo Credit: Duluth – Morning – November 10, 2014

My thoughts are transported back to an earlier time, the first warning of storms to come. I was standing in the Connecticut cottage where I lived with my infant daughter looking out of the picture window toward the trees and down at the river that flowed past the front of the cabin. Then, as today, the air was filled with the electricity of an approaching storm. Yet in the past, I awoke from a dream remembering some of the images and insights of a guide that sometimes speaks to me through dreams. “A storm is coming,” the guide said.

“Times ahead will be hard. The earth has shifted on its axis and the polarities of the earth’s gravitational fields are changing. People will not know they are being affected by these shifts, but polarities will be amplified. Those on a path of light will glow brighter while those on a path of darkness will grow stronger in their quest for control and destruction. You have a choice. You may leave now. You don’t have to stay to face the storm.”

How could I leave an infant to face the coming storms without a mother who loved her? I certainly wasn’t a perfect mother, but I loved my daughter enough to choose to seek the light again and again. I would fail again and again, but decades later, I know I did the best I could. I’m not a perfect grandmother either, and I’m unsure what I can do to help my daughter and grandchildren prepare for the coming storms, but I trust that whatever comes, love for others and for this wondrous and beautiful world and universe are what will matter most in the years ahead.

Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

What Does the Future Hold?

I’m reposting the story I wrote for my beloved dog Cookie on the first anniversary of her death. Even though I adopted a new delightful companion, Pinto, soon after her death, I know I will always remember the last walk we took together and the aching grief I felt as I held her in my arms as she quietly stopped breathing, an end to her debilitating pain.

Voices from the Margins

Carol A. Hand

In April, 2013, I wrote a story about an encounter that featured my beloved dog, Cookie. I ended with the question, “Who knows what next spring will bring?”

front yard april 21 2013

It was the end of the longest, snowiest winter I can remember during her life – it kept snowing until May. I suspected as I wrote the question that it would be Cookie’s last spring. I had seen her gradually age during our 11 years together. I have lost loved ones before, yet losing Cookie is somehow much more painful. I have lost a beloved friend and teacher. She taught me about becoming ever more loving, peaceful, and gentle. And on our final walk together, she showed me how to savor each moment of life, to stop frequently and take in the beauty that surrounds us with each new step.

I am so grateful for her friendship during those…

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