Watching the courage of the House Managers of the impeachment trial for the former US president as they presented compelling evidence about evil actions, I realized something profound about myself. I know with absolute certainty that people are born in a state of original sanctity. I knew it even as an infant before my first birthday.
“What happens when good people are put into an evil place? Do they triumph or does the situation dominate their past history and morality?” (Philip Zimbardo)
At least for me, I know I had choices. And I didn’t always make the right one. I was not yet five years old when I stopped eating because life was too panful. At thirteen, I tried to end my life again, unable to find a way to reconcile the senseless violence all around me that was so at odds with what I knew to be true. The father who beat me and the mother who helplessly watched were not evil. They were in pain. Life had wounded them in ways that left them unable to do otherwise. It took my daughter’s birth to force me to finally decide to stay despite the pain of witnessing so many people who carry soul-deep wounds, myself included.
The responsibility of caring for a tiny infant in a crazy world felt so daunting. Ultimately, I realized that I couldn’t do it alone, so we set off on a journey. Though I didn’t consciously realize what I was seeking at the time, now, I know. The question that inspired me was different than the one Zimbardo asked. I wanted to know if good people could work together to create and sustain sacred places.
I searched in many places, among them communes and intentional communities, health service agencies, state governments, tribal communities, and educational settings. I discovered it is possible to create sacred spaces for brief moments of time with great effort, but they are so easy to destroy. In the past 50 years since my daughter was born, I have tried to create both real and metaphoric gardens wherever I worked to encourage plants and people to blossom.
Recently, though, I discovered something important and shared it in an email to a dear friend.
“I truly wish people didn’t feel the need to rely on leaders or ‘experts.’ I spent much of my career trying to help people learn to see their own beauty and find their own power within. Yet I often failed to see my own strengths and beauty. It’s taken me a lifetime to realize I am not responsible for others’ choices. I am only responsible for my own.”
I sincerely hope that the courage and dedication of the House Impeachment Managers will encourage US Senators to decide wisely. There is much that has always been imperfect about this colonial nation, but in its defense, it nonetheless has embodied the potential to inspire the best in people. We have all witnessed yet again how easy it is to incite people to behave in angry, violent, destructive ways. It need not be so.
Regardless of the Senate’s decision or the distorted beliefs and despotic behavior of a former president, his enablers, and his followers, I will do my best to continue planting gardens, both real and metaphorical, wherever I go. I have no power to change others, but I do carry a responsibility to breathe the essence of who I am into what I do. I also carry the responsibility to be grateful for all of the gifts and friends I have encountered in my journey, and all of the people who have continued to share their light because it’s the essence of who they are.
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.
Where does one begin to unpack the factors that contributed to yesterday’s attempted overthrow of the nation’s governing structure? What comes to mind is the profound effect the circumstances of our birth have on how we learn to see and understand the world. Our “positionality.” The time and place of birth matter greatly. Our status in the nations or societies or cultures which we inherit from our parents and ancestors affect the rest of our lives, often in ways we may never see or understand.
Sometimes, those of us born into the liminal space between differing ancestries and cultures learn at an early age how to see the world from differing vantage points. We directly witness the consequences that racism and classism had on our parents and grandparents. At an early age, we begin to question the values and governing structures created by a ruling class that not only allowed an attempted coup to materialize on January 6, 2021, but were also the actual architects that purposefully imposed oppressive structures and policies designed to preserve the power of the Anglo- and European-American capitalist elite.
It’s easy to assign blame for yesterday’s events on “thugs,” “neo-Nazis,” “White-nationalists,” or “domestic terrorists.” It’s easy to blame demented Donald Trump who, himself, is merely a product of a materially privileged, morally bereft, and emotionally abusive childhood. And it’s easy to blame the racism that runs rampant through the nation’s criminal (in)justice systems. Yet through the lenses of those on the margins, none of these simplistic explanations and reactions come anywhere close to explaining or addressing the root causes of yesterday’s events.
What do we expect from the soul of a nation built on genocide, enslavement, and unearned entitlement based on gender, the claim of property “ownership,” and ancestry? Why should it be surprising when the legitimacy of the governing structure of such a nation is challenged by those who inherited their positions on the margins and view themselves as victims of its unfair system?
In a very real sense, all of us have been socialized to accept and internalize our congenital place in a given society. Every aspect of the social values and institutions we encounter is affected by our positionality – our birth, where we live, how our parents parent us, the quality of nutrition, care, and education we receive. We are constantly reminded about our place in the social order. Myths of meritocracy encourage a largely unattainable false hope that we can achieve increased social status if we work hard enough. We are rarely, if ever, encouraged to question the legitimacy of the values or institutions that constrain our life possibilities, though.
The work and resources of people on the margins are essential for the continuing existence and comfort of the parasitic elite. The issue of how to control the vastly more sizeable percentage of the population that is marginalized has been accomplished through a capillary network of discriminatory practices in every aspect of people’s lives by their ability to pay. Education is a crucial dimension in the socialization process. Those who are lowest in the social structure are the least likely to receive an education that prepares them to think critically and aspire to professional careers (other than sports) or leadership positions.
When confronted by events like the one we all just witnessed, I am grateful for a framework that can be used to think critically about the differing ways cultures have conceptualized conflict and operationalized their values in the social structures and institutions that evolved over millennia. A simple question illustrates how profound differing views can be. Does a society seek to help heal individuals and damaged social relations or does it seek revenge by punishing individual offenders? Rupert Ross’s work offers a fascinating contrast to consider.
Contrast between Ojibway/Cree and Euro-Canadian Cultures
Adapted from the work of Rupert Ross (1992). Dancing with a ghost: Exploring Indian reality. Markham, Ontario, Canada: Octopus Publishing Group.
The most important of Ross’ (1992, pp. 165-184) observations from my perspective is that way he characterized cultural differences in fundamental beliefs about human beings. In his role as an Assistant Crown Attorney in Ontario, Canada, he had an opportunity to work with Ojibway and Cree tribal communities and described their belief that children were born in a state of “original sanctity.” In contrast, as a Euro-Canadian, he argues that the cultural view held by most non-Native Canadians is a belief that people are born “in a state of original sin.” He goes on to point out how these differing views resulted in distinctive ways of dealing with conflict that were linked to very specific goals. Simply stated, one culture focused on isolating and punishing deviant individuals and the other cultures were interested in healing individuals and their relationships with others.
The United States is once again at risk of repeating mistakes its made in terms of how the nation responds to conflict. The quick avenging call to action is being sounded to punish the “bad” people. I feel a sense of responsibility today to type these words even though they are unlikely to be read by the people who are in greatest need of wise counsel.
We CANNOT resolve conflict by assigning one-sided blame. How many of us have reached out to try to understand those who have differing values and political views? I am not suggesting it’s easy, believe me. I have participated in activities to find common ground on polarizing issues with people whose views were diametrically opposed to mine. Sometimes the best we could do was to civilly agree to disagree. The positive outcome, though was that no one was harmed and nothing was destroyed in the process.
I have no desire to assign blame to anyone. Perhaps it’s the researcher in me. I just want to understand what we need to do differently as a society to help all people feel they are valued members with a vested interest in our collective, peaceful survival on a world we all need to take care of. I want to do what I can now to help us make that transition.
May we take time to reflect and choose the wiser path to peace and healing.
There was really nothing remarkable about her appearance small and thin – if truth be told, a bit ordinary and mousey perhaps a blessing in disguise – it made her invisible Her voice was soft and melodic – with a hypnotic quality that created space where those who were too loud, quieted, and leaned forward to listen intently when she spoke She didn’t think this had anything to do with her in particular
Her laughter, though infrequent, created sparkling crystal light thawing and healing wounded hearts or invoking fear among those who were filled with darkness Her gaze was focused and intense – a reader of souls People who were relegated to marginal status were often drawn to her light like moths to a flame sensing a compassionate presence others could not see
She sometimes felt the power within and hid from it knowing that power brought overwhelming temptations aware that an ill-spoken word hurled with anger or rage could leave legacies of lasting harm and would certainly cut her most deeply
Life taught her to hone her voice, gaze, and presence though she somehow intrinsically knew only to use them responsibly on behalf of others in times of great need or danger and spirits watched over her helping her learn to only use her gifts in ways that would not draw attention from the watchers who wanted to stifle compassion, wisdom, joy and the loving spirit of ordinary people in order to keep them afraid, confused, angry, and divided and unable to express the transformative beauty they carried within
Imagine life in COVID for such a one with months spent largely in isolation unable to use abilities that were gifts intended to help others on the margins to be seen and heard, to have their voices matter in decisions that affect their lives and all our relations The regenerating effects of energy shared between humans through the magic of presence, smiles, and touch now taboo forcing reliance on distancing technologies and online platforms as the primary means for communicating through virtual words
Yet nature provides a way for her to stay connected to the world with the gentle winter kisses of snowflakes – each unique and each a miracle of seemingly impossible beauty reminding her to be grateful because she can still share from her heart even with distancing technologies even in the midst of suffering, loss, and darkness
She hears a message for herself and feels compelled to pass it on to others
“Be kind and gentle with yourself and others each unique and each a miracle of seemingly impossible beauty rekindle the light within and envision the best you can imagine for the new year just beginning – let it be a time of healing and a time of freedom from bondage to fear, suffering, and separation”
I am always willing to be the one to take responsibility for making sure we are properly physically-distanced from anyone else we encounter on our travels. I truly hope we will not need to do so in the near future.
I am sharing the poem that sang through my heart this morning before my last classes.
Choosing to focus on compassion brings gifts. This morning, I realized the gift of myopia (nearsightedness)…
As a child, I couldn’t see the sharp boundaries that separated one thing from another. I could only see the way things blended together at the margins of their physical beings. Now I realize the power of learning to see the world through that perspective. At 8, I got powerful lenses that helped me see that leaves on tress were distinct and separate not a massive cotton-ball sitting on top of their trunk.
Yet I can’t go back and unsee their connections –
to each other,
to the tree trunk,
to the earth that gives the tree footing and sustenance,
to the sky that is above and surrounds them,
to the winds that sometimes caress and whisper through them, and other times ravage the branches they cling to tenaciously,
to the birds and squirrels that seek connection and sanctuary amid a leafy home,
and to those who take time to observe them with wonder and gratitude.
Sometimes the things others call deficiencies turn out to be among our most precious gifts if we are fortunate enough to be able to overcome the limitation they may impose.
My childhood was not easy. It forced me to find inner strengths to survive…
I hope you are able to remember how you learned to see the world as a child.
I remember reading something years ago when I worked on elder issues, although I honestly no longer remember who wrote this:
“People really don’t change with age. They just become more of who they always were.”
Today, as I get ready for my last day of Saturday classes after an incredibly challenging semester, that statement seems to ring so true.
Following is the photo of the place where I’ve spent most of my time during the last month – sitting in front of my computer. Sometimes I was grading papers online in the “Review” mode of Microsoft WORD, and sometimes I was meeting on Zoom.
Learning how to teach on Zoom has been a difficult journey. It reminded me of the fist time I saw myself on video. The experience was truly memorable and continues to exert its influence each time I see myself on camera before I begin accepting students who are in the Zoom “waiting room.”
Here’s an excerpt from something I wrote a while ago that has helped me remember both the humor and humility needed to face this daunting but necessary challenge.
October 26, 2020 – Reflections about Zoom: Trying to maintain social connections in an era of physical distancing
I wonder how many people have seen themselves on video. I didn’t see myself on video until I was in my early 30s. It was a shock! All I could see were my imperfections. Mostly, the size of my nose! I remember the aftereffect vividly. As I climbed the stairs from the basement video lab in the social work building after watching my first taped interview, I wondered why my nose wasn’t bouncing off the walls three-feet away as I turned the corners of the winding stairway.
I laughed at the thought later, but it only made it harder for me to face another video-taped interview, or even worse, a public speaking event. And as luck would have it, I had to do a lot of public speaking in the first job I had after completing my master’s degree. Luckily, experiences before and after my first video taught me the power of humility and humor. They also taught me to face my fears head on.
Rather than continue suffering for days before each speech, unable to eat, I enrolled in a public speaking training course. Participants were required to present information on a variety of topics to other enrollees as the camera rolled. Then, we analyzed our own and other’s videos to identify both strengths and suggestions for improvement. I didn’t notice my nose. What I did notice were a few surprising strengths I had never noticed before.
No one would be able to tell that I was scared and nauseous. There were no “tell” signs of anxiety – no stuttering or deadly space fillers of ums or ahs, no red neck or flushed cheeks, and no hands uncontrollably shaking. My presentations were animated by movements, facial expressions, and hand movements, and my voice was pleasant to hear, modulating appropriately with changing topics.
The experience also taught me some techniques to deal with fear.
Research your topic well. Know who your audience is. And choose the best ways to present information.
Take time to breathe and center.
Remember the purpose of your presentation. This is not about you or your ego. It’s about communicating authentically and effectively in order to convey crucial information on some topic that is important to the audience.
Don’t sit or stand behind a podium. Move! Use the extra energy from fear and anxiety to create a sense of presence.
Make eye contact with everyone in the audience.
Don’t take yourself too seriously and be ready to adapt to unforeseen glitches and opportunities with spontaneity and grace.
Fast-forward to four decades later. It’s not the size of my nose that bothers me most these days when I see my image reflected back to me on the Zoom screen. But honestly, I try not to notice the way the camera highlights the two front teeth that were the victims of bad dentists, or how the headphones I need for audio make my scraggly, thinning, graying hair look even more disheveled. Let’s not mentioned the wrinkles or the lenses on my glasses that either reflect light from the window or computer screen or distort the size of my eyes. These are a small price to pay for a long life spent on gaining knowledge and compassion that I hope to pass on to others.
The most difficult part of Zoom, though, is not being able to sense or change the energy in a room. All I have are words that don’t flow as easily when I have to remain stationary and speak to small images of student faces, or blank screens with their names when students turn off their video cameras. I can’t even tell if the Zoom camera ever shows that I am looking at them directly when they’re speaking.
Yet I try to communicate as effectively as possible anyway, because in these times connections matter even more. Although human connections with students are over a distancing medium, it’s the best we can do right now. I try to focus on the things that matter despite the vulnerabilities that are exposed in the process. A sense of humor and humility help…
The most difficult challenge now, though, is the fact that I have so little time to write or keep up with the photos, poetry, stories, and reflections that you all post on lovely blogs. As I face the beginning of a new semester all too soon, I wonder when I will ever find time to blog again. I have a new online platform to learn and courses to significantly modify in order to incorporate what I have learned about online teaching through trial and error.
One of lessons from the past semester is the importance of closing each class with a meaningful message. The PowerPoint slide I often share at the end of my research classes is posted below. (The photo on the slide is the “Beaver Moon,” taken on November 28, 2020.)
Earlier this week, I was reminded of the reality of these times. It’s so easy to forget how many people are suffering. I wonder how many of my students need to stand in food distribution lines. It’s not something they mention though many have lost their jobs. I’m doing my best to support them in other ways to help them make it through the semester, but there are no guarantees my efforts will be successful for all of them.
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.