The curse of being born between cultures is to always enter each new setting to discover the enduring discomfort of being an outsider. Finally, I have learned to be grateful for the freedom that role confers, even though my spirit longs to connect with people as easily as it does with dragonflies, birds, trees, and bumblebees bending flowers as they feed.
I feel the imminent danger we all face, yet I remember a saying from Lao Tzu that seems to be true to me – “the way to do is to be.”
I have no answers for others, but decades ago I was blessed by the example of Sister Lorita, my college adviser and botany professor. She humbly endured being mocked by many of her privileged students. One day, she shared her secret with me.
“It doesn’t matter what people think of me if they learn to see the wonder of life in a blade of grass.”
Every morning and most evenings, I sit outside on my little porch looking toward the western sky. I observe and listen to the nature around me – both “natural” and human. Some of what I see and hear touches my heart with wonder, while other sights and sounds weigh heavy on my spirit. Both inspire me to honestly reflect on the things I do that add to the threats for all life. And I try to do better. But it’s hard to do it alone.
Still, I try to do better. I plant and tend gardens, spend time with my daughter and grandchildren when their busy schedules allow, and teach part time. I try to raise the awareness of my grandchildren and the students I work with in gentle ways, creating a space for them to learn to be present and inquisitive, to question what they have learned in the past, and to think critically about what they encounter in the present.
It’s impossible for me to know if anything I say or do will make a positive difference in their lives, but teaching by example has made a difference in mine. It’s helped me learn to live with fewer and fewer immutable answers and many more questions which I may never be able to answer with certainty.
There are so many things I would like to write about but the truth is, I don’t have time. I am too busy doing something I have always loved to do. Solving puzzles.
It’s a trait that helped me survive jobs in overly politicized competitive bureaucracies. When I worked for state government, it involved mediating conflict in creative, unexpected ways. Like designing a solution for an outdated funding formula for county programs that was overly dependent on ever-shifting demographic data. When working for an inter-tribal agency, it meant figuring out how to exert tribal sovereignty over exploitive university researchers or state administrators who used divide and conquer tactics to create competition among tribes in order to limit funding for necessary services. In academia, it meant learning how to teach the most unpopular courses in ways that engaged students and provided information that would be helpful in a future I might not see.
Figuring out how to keep experimenting with more effective ways to teach research this semester is keeping me busy. Some days, it takes a lot of discipline to sit at my computer all day and into wee morning hours redesigning assignments or grading student papers with comments intended to both encourage and educate.
Interestingly though, doing other types of puzzles helps me transition between different topics, research methodologies, and styles of communicating. I am grateful for free online card games, or the digital jigsaw puzzles I can create with my own photos. (I doubt that the one posted below would be interesting, though.)
Solving cryptograms before I fall asleep helps me let go of any other puzzles that might otherwise keep me awake.
There are puzzles I don’t like to solve, though, that have to do with technology. Sadly, I have to rely on technicians or time. This week, I was locked out of WordPress. Fortunately that challenge was addressed by someone last evening. I don’t need to know who or how or why. I am just grateful that others find it interesting to solve technological puzzles.
All of this is meant as an explanation for my very infrequent visits to blogs these days, including mine. I want to let you know that I value what you all share and will return again as soon as I can. In the meantime, I send my best wishes to all.
In case anyone is interested, I have typed the cryptogram quotes below:
“One must learn by doing the thing, for though you think you know it, you have no certainty until you try.” (Aristotle)
“The surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that it has never tried to contact us.” (Bill Paterson)
“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” (Albert Einstein)
“Love is a medicine for the sickness of the world; a prescription often given, rarely taken.” (Karl Menninger)
… I was working as the deputy director of health and human services for an inter-tribal agency. It was not an easy job for many reasons, primarily because of the enduring legacy of colonialism that continued to impose dominant cultural paradigms on tribal communities and use divide and conquer tactics to foment conflicts between “traditional” and “progressive” tribal factions. Resolving conflict was a central part of my job, and it often put me in the middle of powerful competing interests. At a particularly challenging time, I needed to travel with one of my staff to a conference on worldwide healing for Indigenous people held in Edmonton, Alberta. The conference helped me realize I was not alone. Rediscovering the candle on my bookcase reminded me of the conference’s closing ceremony.
More than one thousand of us, representing many cultures and nations, stood in a circle within a large auditorium holding hands. Then, one elder walked to the center. She explained that the closing ceremony was intended to remind us that we were not alone. Because we were in a government building, we couldn’t use candles (fire ordinances prevented it), so flashlights would have to do. And then, the lights in the room went out as her flashlight went on in the center of the circle. She signaled to the four directions, highlighting one person from each of the four directions to walk to the center – first the east, then the south, the west, and the north. The representatives were all given a flashlight. As they touched their darkened lights to the elders “candle,” their flashlights were turned on. They were instructed to carry their light to the four directions and light other candles in their part of the circle. The elder explained that it would not be easy to keep the candle fires burning, but if the light went out, people could always return to the center to light them once again…
The rain I asked for hasn’t come yet but perhaps it will if I keep my focus on weaving life and light into the course despite the technological challenges I will most likely encounter …
Taking a moment to greet the morning
despite a never-ending list of tasks
Queenie awakened as always
to South Pacific songs
as the mini-blinds were opened
so he could view the sunny southeast vista
Pinto trotted around the block
in the cooler air seemingly unaware
of the flock of Canadian Geese
breakfasting in the park we passed
A moment more of reflection
watching the moon set
and geese flying overhead in flight formation
listening to the music of crickets chirping
sure signs of the coming fall
presaged by the rising Ricing Moon – Manoominike-giizis
earlier this week that gave me a chance
to compare my new camera
with the iphone I often use these days
mainly for convenience
The rising moon inspired me
to learn more about wildrice – Manoomin
and begin editing my book manuscript again
before I immerse myself in preparing
the course I will be teaching soon
trying perhaps unsuccessfully to balance
the ever-present tasks that need doing
before the first frosts come
One upon a time a family of dwarf pine trees were born They were watered and fed in a warm sheltered nursery Among them a brother and sister It took years for them to grow until they were finally tall enough to be clipped into fancy shapes that were not their nature They were sent to a store to be sold – but the summer went by while they waited and waited to find a home sadly, no one wanted them
At the end of the season, a bit stunted by the experience, they were finally put on sale – $14 for a living being I wonder if they wondered what their fate would be? As sometimes happens, they would not be far apart They went home with two neighbors but that is when their paths diverged
One went to a big home with a chemically-fed lawn to serve as a symbol of conspicuous material success He was placed in a fancy planter prominently displayed But when winter came, he was left outside without warmth or water When spring arrived, he was discarded with the used Christmas tree
The other little pine went to a modest cottage just next door to a yard overgrown with trees and flowers and gardens everywhere She was placed in a newly created garden where she could grow according to her own nature amid towering pines but the winters proved harsh – much colder than those of her past Each spring she struggled to bring forth life on damaged branches
Each summer, the man who bought her brother would flood her home Washing way the soil and protective mulch with a torrent of water from the birthday waterslide that was a new symbol of conspicuous superiority And each year, the woman who brought her to her new home would lovingly repair her soil and gently touch her branches uttering a silent prayer for the little pine tree’s health and survival
Ah, life. There are so many differing views about what is really important
My little dog lay in pain suffering slowing dying a victim of unintended incompetence and lack of compassion in a capitalistic culture I could only bear witness offering soft hands and soothing words without the skills and knowledge to heal him
I learned survival and healing are possible even in situations that sometimes appear hopeless if you are willing and able to pay enough for competence and caring
Nature doesn’t charge a fee for the beauty she shares for all to see She merely waits patiently for us to awaken to our responsibilities to care
This morning, I found myself wondering about the reflections I posted during mid-July in past years and decided to take a retrospective journey. For decades, July has been a time spent gardening. Watching the miracle of life unfurl from dry seeds never ceases to fill me with awe. Tending plants gives me a chance to focus on helping living creatures in practical, grounded, and perhaps, creative ways.
Gardening is like life in many ways. It’s not easy – or predictable either. Each of my past eight years gardening here has presented challenges to address – deer before the high fence went up, invasions by slugs during wet years, droughts in early spring and late summer, and deluges that wash away seeds that have just been planted or crush tender plants. This year is the year of the rabbits. The population of little bunnies that can get through fencing has exploded.
Still, I love the chance to work with gardens and attempt to solve perplexing issues. People are often more difficult for me to work with and I sometimes wonder why my path led me from a career in ecology to one in social work…
But back to my journey through past posts. I hope you will join me The posts reflect topics I often ponder when gardening when I have a chance to wander through time – how to find common ground in a divided world, how to be present in the moment, and the importance of relationships with others and the natural environment.
When I walked into the office of an inter-tribal agency on the first morning of my new job as deputy director of health and human services, it was clear how easy it was for people to be divided. Staff for the five programs at the time only felt ownership for their programs. They resented any expectations of collective responsibility for the welfare of the agency or tribes. They fought over which program paid for stationary and who could use the one computer. They didn’t question the appropriateness of imposing state and federal requirements on tribal communities. And in situations where staff struggled to meet program requirements, there was only censure and no help. The eleven-member Board of Directors comprised of the Chairpersons of member tribes was also easily divided, concerned only about meeting the interests of their respective tribal community. Why would it be otherwise if they expected to be reelected? There was little recognition of the needs of urban Native American populations in the state, and strong resistance to any cross-ethnic collaboration.
Looking back, I realize that at each step, I tried to find common ground among my department staff, my agency colleagues, other oppressed communities, and with funders and administrators as well. It is so easy for people who are oppressed to see others who are oppressed as the enemy. Who loses and who benefits from divisions among oppressed people? Clearly, those in power benefit from deflecting attention away from the role they play as our puppet masters. We keep each other oppressed and all too often, kill each other off while those in power profit financially and enjoy the illusion that they are smarter, more developed morally and culturally, and better fit to impose their hegemony.
Who benefits from the continuing conflict between Israel and Palestine? Only those who sell their souls and the hopes and dreams and lives of other people for the illusion of personal safety and status, those who wish to exploit oil and other resources with greater ease, and those who get rich by selling their weapons. Those who lose are ordinary people on both sides. Homes and lives are lost on both sides and children on both sides grow up in a war zone that teaches them to fear and hate their neighbors for generations yet to come. We all lose from a world at war, from a world where people are brutally murdered by governments for no other reason than securing the power and privilege of the ruling class. And we all lose when generations are denied the right to develop and contribute their gifts to the rest of the human community.
It was a July morning in 2011. An odd group of faculty, mostly from the English and art departments of a university, gathered for an in-service to learn how to use art as a vehicle for unlocking people’s stories. The instructor began.
“You have two minutes to draw the first thing that comes to mind for each of the words or phrases I mention. Don’t worry about technique. That will just interfere with your ability to tap what is most important to you.
“Draw the ‘safe place when you were a child.’ Draw ‘pressure – the pressure you feel from all of the demands that you deal with in your life.’ Now, draw a ‘monument.’”
For me, the images I drew that day were all linked to nature, to the natural world. That has always been my source of balance and solace in times of challenge and uncertainty. And now, as nature is threatened ever more by forces of exploitative disregard and destruction, it’s hard to hold on to a sense of hope and peace some days.
Unlike my colleagues, I didn’t draw an edifice of marble or concrete, I drew a tree – a living monument of what helps us survive on this planet. If Jared Diamond’s (2005) thesis is accurate, could it be that one of the final death knells for societies is the destruction of the forests that blanket the earth and give us all oxygen to breathe?…
As I work at grueling physical labor,
I watch my thoughts and feelings,
I sweat and swear,
Laugh at myself and my struggles – and find peace,
Sometimes present and other times floating in memories of past times and places,
Talking to plants and earthworms,
To the robins that are watching
Eagerly waiting to explore the earth I’ve just uncovered
And swatting at mosquitoes (I’m sorry to say)
I arise the next morning knowing there are still new jobs to be done. There is no ego or allure of fame and fortune involved. I know what I am doing will not save us from the future, but it gives me comfort to know that around the globe, people are tending the earth with hard work and loving care. Living simply and breathing love into the work we do whatever it might be – it’s what we can do for ourselves and the future of our grandchildren and our world.
“Actually, while it won’t be easy to reduce our impact, it won’t be impossible either. Remember that impact is the product of two factors: population, multiplied times impact per person.” (Diamond, p. 524)
The trees and the gardens we tend and the love we breathe into the world around us are the most important monuments we can leave.
Sitting on my back step a few days ago
A musical voice drew my attention
“Oh you’re so beautiful, you make me so happy.”
I peeked through the fence and saw my neighbor,
turning away from the fence to walk home.
She talks to the flowers and plants in my gardens
and always touches my heart with her lovely spirit.
I ran out to invite her into the yard
She already knew about the geranium –
another neighbor rescued it from an early death
and left it as a gift early in the spring
What more could one ask of life than friends
who share the love of life and beauty?
When my daughter was born,
my view of the world forever changed.
Life was no longer something I peered at
from a safe distance
I felt it deeply – glowing in my heart
Powerful, shifting emotions
forced me to realize how precious
and precarious life can be
Holding each of my grandchildren for the first time
intensified my sensitivity and commitment
to do all in my power to be a loving presence
Watching them as they grow
amplifies both joy and pain
celebrating their accomplishments
suffering when they encounter challenges
Sometimes all I can do is
to simply try to be a loving presence
In times such as these it’s not easy
to believe the future holds bright possibilities
Let our hearts awaken and glow
with celebratory joy
after a stormy night’s
seemingly dreamless sleep
by the urgent sound of rain
pounding on windows and roof
accompanied by booming thunder
that shook the house
to its very foundations
yet resting unafraid
and rising gently
to greet the day
other awakenings grace my days
encountering random kindness
in unexpected places like the city bus
as a stately elder gentleman
reached across the divisiveness
so prevalent here today
to bring kindness and comfort
into the lives of others
and graciously dealt with
rejection from those
to fear difference and joy
I couldn’t leave the bus
without thanking him
in the only words
that came to me
“Sir, you are a blessing to others”
Greeting the cool sunny morning
listening to the joyous music of birdsong
deeply peaceful yet unable to drown out
the drumbeat of nationalism
that threatens to destroy us all
It’s our own consumption and complacency
clinging to old myths of benevolent exceptional empires
that keep us from seeing shared humanity
on an earth with no dividing lines
except for scars left by exploitation and war
It matters little which kleptocrats rule
when we choose to see others as an enemy
rather than to listen deeply to the heartbeats
of a planet we are entrusted to lovingly tend
Today, I will visit Pinto, my little dog, who’s in the hospital recovering from an operation.
Maybe I’ll have time to edit my manuscript and pull a few weeds, too, grateful for the gifts of beloved companions, a small relatively peaceful space on earth to tend, and the responsibilities to still care for others. I will continue to do what I can to build common ground in a divided world without compromising integrity, to be present in the moment despite the pain that sometimes brings, and to nurture healthy relationships with others and the natural environment by walking softly on the earth.
A welcoming space for resistance to the forces of oppression and hegemony.