June Reflections 2020

It has been impossible for me to keep up with blogging this month.

I have missed reading your posts and have been so belated with responses to comments. Occasionally I write, but I hesitate to post because I am so behind reciprocating visits and thanking people for sharing their thoughtful, lovely work and comments.

I began the spring with an ambitious plan to improve the quality of the soil and ordered a LARGE truckload of compost from a cattle farmer who raises his herd humanely without antibiotics, growth hormones, or chemical feed. Ten yards of compost, though, is a lot to move, shovel by shovel, wagonload by wagonload, from my backyard driveway down the winding, sloping path to the front yard.

But it’s good, honest work that helps me find moments of peace in these unsettling times. Gardening gives me a chance to reflect about life, traveling though time. Often, it helps me create something that I hope will lift others’ spirits, too.


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June 3, 2020


Unresolved Woundedness

ah, these trying times
forcing me to go ever deeper
to discover yet more
unresolved woundedness

violence, cruelty, duplicity
triggering old memories
of my socially awkward years
as a child, teen, college student

always curious about nature
and others from different cultures
preferring reading, discovery
and solving complex puzzles

and always uncomfortable
with superficial people
who competed, bullied,
and seemed so easily bored when alone

I honestly preferred being alone
it’s confusing for someone
who reads or feels others’ emotions
never knowing which are actually mine

we see the world through lenses
programmed by our past experiences
expectations and assumptions
influencing what we think we see
our behavior, expressions, posture
affecting how others respond
filtered through their unique lenses
we’re like marionettes pulled by invisible strings
in a reciprocal dance based on assumptions
unable to determine what is really “real”

 

Columbine blooming in an unlikely place

***

June 15, 2020

Mid-June Reflections 2020

August dry has come early
The earth baked and cracked
Close-mown lawns
brown and brittle
Day after day
dawns cold and windy
Trees and gardens struggling,
aching for life-giving rain

It seems a metaphor
for the world these days
of virus fears and
in-your-face denial
of state-sanctioned violence
revealing cultures
that clearly value
property and profit
more than people and
the global ecosphere

So many are struggling
to find reasons and ways
for simply staying alive
during this drought
of compassion and intelligence

***

June 23, 2020

June Reflections – 2020 Visions?

The wisdom of elders
seated on downtown benches
watching the traffic pass by
some measuring the souls
of preoccupied walkers
too busy to smile or say hello
or stop and listen
to what they’ve learned
from years of living life
invisible
on the margins

One of the few photos I have of my downtown neighborhood, taken January 1, 2016


My walks with my dog, Pinto, are often through unexplored territory. No two days are the same as he picks our path through the neighborhood for reasons I cannot discern. This morning, he took us deep into the business district of this part of town, making sure to sniff almost every lamp post and lift his leg to memorialize his passing.

As we neared the light at an intersection, I noticed the elder sitting on a bench smoking his cigarette. His presence brought insights and memories. These days I try to remember to be present and kind. It’s what I can do to counterbalance the alienating fear of others during the era of pandemic social distancing.

I reflect on the term “social distancing.” I remember reading a powerful insight shared by a dear blogging friend a while ago. She noted the difference between “physical distancing” required to slow the spread of COVID-19, and “social distancing.” Social distancing is a prominent characteristic I have often noticed in the U.S. Think about people’s behavior in elevators or on crowded city thoroughfares. People typically don’t make eye-contact or exchange greetings with strangers.

Yet it’s been my experience that elders on downtown benches often do notice others.

“Nice dog,” the elder we encountered said.

“Thank you,” I replied.

Does he bite?,” he asked.

Yes, he may bite,” I replied. “I adopted him seven years ago as a special-needs dog that was abused. He had to learn to defend himself. I used to have to handle him with leather gloves when I first got him. Now, he’s usually gentle with me or people he’s learned to trust.”

“I will never understand how people can abuse dogs.” The elder said. “People can be so cruel.”

“I agree. They can be,” I said. “It’s very sad and troubling.”

“It was good to speak with you. I hope you have a good day,” I said as Pinto and I continued on our way.

***

June 30, 2020

Gardening is one thing I can do during these crazy, isolating times. Neighbors and strangers stop by to visit when I’m working in the yard. They tell me the gardens make a difference to them and others they know. But it’s a lot of work!

Many trees, bushes, and gardens needed to be saved, repaired, or replaced because of damage from heavy winter snow, hungry rabbits, and the passage of time. Keeping plants alive has also been an increasing challenge during our two-month drought during May and June. Fortunately, we finally got rain for the last two evenings (0.19 of an inch of precipitation which brings our total for June to 0.66 of an inch, and 1.60 inches for May and June*).

The good news is that half of the compost pile has been carefully placed. The bad news? It’s much warmer now. Shoveling and hauling compost is even more work than it was in May and early June.

Gardens may not touch others’ hearts, but they do help me remember what’s most important in my life. I’m deeply grateful to be blessed with a little piece of land and the ability to kneel and touch the earth – to plant food and flowers that will perhaps feed me, my family, and some of my neighbors in the long winter to come. Of course, birds and squirrels demand their share even though fences make it more difficult for rabbits to claim what remains.

The greatest gift of this time, though, has been the opportunity to think deeply, to see more clearly without the distraction of having to relate to others. I’ve had a chance to explore the powerful outrage I feel that has deepened and intensified over the years about the wetiko spirit of this country, the mindless need for ever more power and stuff that has continued to destroy lives and the earth across centuries.

Reflection has led me to the equally deep certainty that this world does not need more anger if we are ever to heal the hubris and ignorance that keeps us from living in peace with each other and in harmony with the earth. All I can do is work on my own thoughts, words, and actions to transmute the power of those raging emotions into compassion, patience, and integrity no matter what others do, moment to moment. To look deeply enough to find the strength to hold center.

Kneeling on the earth with my hands caressing the soil has helped me find and hold center during these trying times. Yes, it’s hard work. It’s a job that carries no guarantees of success or permanence. So many forces are outside of my control. But shovel by shovel, seed by seed, I am grateful for the chance to do something that helps create a healthier world in my little space. It’s the legacy I can leave for the generations to follow, and the gift I can offer to virtual friends I may never meet face-to-face.

* Notes

Information about precipitation came from Weather Underground

The article, “Seeing Wetiko: On capitalism, mind viruses, and antidotes for a world in transition” by Alnoor Ladha and Martin Kirk, was published in 2016 in the Spring/Summer issue of Kosmos.

July Afterthoughts (July 9, 2020)

a brief visit with my grandson, July 3, 2020

Still finding it difficult to abandon silence and solitude,

preferring the company of plants, birds, and dragonflies

that remind me what it means to simply be present

to hold center

with compassion, patience, and integrity

 

An Early June Morning Stroll – 2020

While walking my dog this morning
on this sunny warm day
“I came across a child of god”
He was helping his dad
build a tree house
“And this he told me”

 

‘I chose this tree
because it has flowers
and I thought people
might see how beautiful
this tree is.’
 
We chatted about his tree house
as he showed me
the special place he reserved for himself
although he reluctantly shared
the rest with his little sister
He called out as we left
‘Have a good day’
I replied, ‘You, too Sweetie.’

*


Note:

In the poem above, apostrophes ‘mark conversation.’ “Quotation marks” acknowledge words from a song that played through my thoughts as I began typing this story. The song is from Woodstock by Joni Mitchell.

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Reflection:

Life is so challenging these days. As I greeted the early morning with the sweet scent of lilac and bleeding heart blossoms in the air, a thought flowed through my mind. “I have been to the mountain top.”

A memory long buried surfaced. I doubt that the mountain top I was on was the same one that inspired Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his famous speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top.” Instead, it was a high hill in Gill, Massachusetts, near the Olde Stone Lodge where I was living at the time. A member of a struggling commune.

Breathing in the stillness, I was transported to another time and place, to a different mountain retreat. I was surrounded by wise, loving beings who showed me the power of the communion of spirits. “Times ahead will be challenging,” the wise beings said, “but you can come here whenever you choose.”

I haven’t been able to go back there, though, for a very long time. The reasons are too many to recount. This morning, I remembered the visit, though, before Pinto and I left for our walk.
Like the song, Woodstock, decades ago I set off as a young mother to “try and get my soul free.”

As I’ve mentioned before, I set off with my young daughter to live on a commune. It was the beginning of a long journey trying to find or create a loving community that finally led me to a simple life closer to my daughter and grandchildren.

This morning, I remembered the message, echoed in Mitchell’s song.

*

We are stardust. We are golden.
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.

Reflections about Healing Divisions

Authentic leadership

and privileged positionality

convey a sacred responsibility

to show compassion in times of conflict

by one’s willingness to listen on bended knee

The surest path to reciprocal healing

only comes with genuine humility

recognizing the deepest truth

our shared humanity

*

Source: Clipart Panda


Note:
Inspired by the wise youth and police officers in El Paso, Texas, who had the courage to kneel together. Here’s a short video clip Bob Moore posted on Twitter:

Overcoming Adversity – Part One

Carol A. Hand

Memories of my mother fill my heart this morning
with a confusing cacophony of feelings –
gratitude for the time I had to be with her,
sorrow for the loss, both hers and mine,
and hope that she finally found peace

The day of her birth is rapidly approaching
On March 1, she would have celebrated her 99th birthday
but she was 89 when she died in the early morning on 10/10/2010
a blessed release from a progressive debilitating illness –
Alzheimer’s

I was her legal guardian for the last 14 years of her life
and witnessed a number of things that will stay with me –
the need to protect her from the cruelty of Ojibwe people
who took advantage of her when she could no longer resist
despite the Midewiwin Code – honor elders, wisdom, and life
balanced by the kindness of others who cared for her
along with non-Native strangers who learned to love her

When she could no longer remember who she was,
I wrote down my memories as best I could
interspersed with photos I found in her belongings
to help her recall the old days and remember
how much light she brought into the lives of others

I decided to share the account I wrote about her life in 2006 on this blog now in short chapters

perhaps because the health center she helped create as a legacy
for the Ojibwe tribal community where she was born and raised
is being threatened for momentary financial and political gain
by those who know little of history and don’t seem to understand
the importance of protecting community health and tribal sovereignty for the sake of future generations

or perhaps I’m sharing it just because she has been in my heart
as I find myself missing the place I still think of as home these days
surrounded by old friends who know what historical trauma means
and still dedicate their work and lives
to helping others and speaking truth to power

…but probably it’s a bit of both

*

Note: The formatting of the original document has been lost in the process of converting it to post on WordPress, and old photos copied many times from various documents are somewhat blurry. Unfortunately, the originals were damaged in a flood years ago. If you click on the photos, though, they enlarge and are a little easier to see.

***

Norma Angeline Ackley Graveen Coombs

Born March 1, 1921

Written and Complied by

Carol A. Hand

November 2006

© 2006

Table of Contents

Preface – ii
Dedication Poem – iii
Norma’s Parents – 1
Norma as a Little Girl – 4
Public School Days – 10
Off to Nursing School and the “Big City” – 16
A New Life Far from Home – 21
A Growing Family – 24
In Search of Safety – 26
Family Reunited – 29
A New Career – Keystone Nursing Home – 33
Another Venture – Log Cabin Tavern – 41
Indian Health Service – Southwest Connections – 44
Life in “Chicken Scratch” – 48
Coming Home: Leadership, Retirement, and Loss – 49
Appendices

Preface

This compilation of photographs and stories has been scanned and assembled with love for my family. Included are photos found in albums, boxes, and donated by relatives, with commentary sometimes written on the backs of pictures. I know of no other way to pass on the stories I have heard about my mother. Unfortunately, the stories are sketchy and incomplete. As my mother enters the later stages of Alzheimer’s Disease, there is no way I can look to her to fill in the blanks, and many of the elders who could help have already passed on – not uncommon given the shorter life expectancy for Native Americans.

In many ways, my mother’s life has been unexceptional – she has not gained great fame. Yet, in other ways her journey and accomplishments have been extraordinary. There is a saying that applies, although I have long forgotten the source. “It is not what a person achieves that counts, but how far she has had to travel.”

I leave this partial account of my mother’s journey for those who have not heard the stories. May you know that there is hope in the most discouraging circumstances, nobility in the humblest among us, and the possibility to touch lives and leave lasting contributions that make the world a kinder place.

Dedication Poem

A SONG FOR MY PEOPLE*

whose eyes I wear in my soul
in joyous praise for gnarled hands
precious children      laughter in the soup of pain
Everyone of us beautifull

the strong, the fearful, the weary, the angry
the traditional, the assimilated, the ones on both sides
of the bloody borders
playing Bingo, dancing in Pow Wows

How beautifull we are      How complete
just as we are
Grief & confusion wail through our hills
Above it I sing a song for my people

How we are beautifull

*Chrystos (1991), Dream On

Part One

My mother’s life has been “a song for her people.” As a daughter and niece, as a wife and mother, a nurse and administrator she has walked in two worlds. She has balanced the messages that she was both exceptional and inferior because she was Ojibwe, in a very real sense placing her in the liminal space between cultures. Between worlds, her best friend was a dog, Suzie, whose death she grieved deeply. Dear mother, may you find love, true friendship, and community…

Norma’s Parents

Agnes Sero, Norma’s mother, and Agnes’ two sisters, Margaret and Sarah, spent at least part of their adolescence in a lumber camp where their father, Edward Sero, worked. Agnes’ mother was Angeline Shandreau. Sarah died at an early age. She was a special aunt to Norma, and in Norma’s eyes, she was the loveliest of the sisters. Norma told me many times that the sisters became prostitutes at an early age. Given where they were raised and how lovely they were, perhaps this is true, and if true, perhaps the only way they could exercise some control over their exploitation.

From left to right Sarah, Margaret, and Agnes

When Agnes gave birth to her first child, Norma, she was 17 years old. These photos suggest she was a playful young woman despite her childhood.

Norma’s father, Raymond Ackley, lived in the Sokaogon or Mole Lake Ojibwe community. He is a direct linear descendant of Chief Ki-chi-waw-be-sha-shi (Great Martin), Chief Mee-gee-see (Great Eagle), and William Ackley, one of the first white settlers in the area. William Ackley played an important role negotiating with the U.S. government on behalf of the Sokaogon Ojibwe community.

Norma as a little girl

Ray and Agnes did not stay together after Norma’s birth. At two weeks old, Norma was given to Agnes’ older sister, Anna Graveen, although Ray wanted to raise his young daughter. Anna kept Norma away from her father, creating a distance that would prevent the development of connections for future generations. There are no pictures of Anna in Norma’s papers, only letters that Anna wrote to Norma when Norma was attending nursing school in Chicago, but that is a later story.

For her first five years, Norma was raised by Anna while Anna held a seasonal job for a resort for wealthy tourists. Yet, as the commentaries on the backs of the photographs suggest, Agnes remained a part of her daughter’s life, protecting her daughter, or perhaps from Norma’s perspective, preventing her from being adopted out of her community and culture.

In the early 1900s, it was common practice for local tourist resorts to promote the novelty of Indians as a marketing strategy. Norma has saved two of the postcards from this era that show her as a little girl.

There are a few pictures of Norma as a little girl with friends and family.

 

There are two stories Norma shared about her early years. When she was very young, she was rounded up by BIA officials with “100 other children.” They were taken to the federal boarding school in Lac du Flambeau and housed in a large room and then, they all had their tonsils removed in an assembly-line procedure. Norma remembered becoming very ill after the operation: her throat was so sore and she was so sick that she knew she would die. One of her aunts (name unknown) came to visit her, saw how sick she was, and brought “Indian medicine” (alum) to heal her. As soon as Norma took the medicine, she got well.

When Norma was about seven or eight, Anna became very ill and Norma was scooped up by the BIA. Instead of sending her to the BIA boarding school in Lac du Flambeau, she was put on a train, alone, to travel to the Catholic Indian boarding school in Bayfield, Wisconsin. It was a frightening 100- plus-mile trip for a young child. She told me only two stories about that time. She was a good student and in the eyes of the nuns, “not like the other Indians.” And she remembered scrubbing the halls and stairs on her hands and knees with a toothbrush. Only once did I hear her comment that she did not forgive the Catholic church for how she was treated.

Perhaps this photo was taken before she left, or when she was on a vacation from school.

There are few other photos from Norma’s earliest years. These were taken when she was 9 and 10.

A result of Norma’s boarding school experience was her acceptance of the Catholic religion, an important foundation for her earlier years.

***

Work Cited:

Chrystos (1991). Dream on. Vancouver, BC, Canada:  Press Gang Publishers. p. 70.

Dealing with Change – Revisited

Carol A. Hand

Although classes officially began this past weekend, we had to cancel our first face-to-face meetings because of weather. Thursday, the day before my first class was scheduled to meet, dawned with a bright sun highlighting the deep piles of snow from the last storms, with nary a cloud in the sky. Weather radar showed the storms far to the south, giving us all false hope we would be spared from the two-day storm that was predicted. Friday morning radar showed the storm beginning its rapid approach. We decided to err on the side of safety for the sake of students and faculty who travel for classes, some from long distances.

The storm that was predicted came just as the first class, research, was scheduled to begin. By Saturday afternoon, it brought fierce winds and a foot of fast falling snow, sometimes creating whiteout conditions.  We were grateful we made the decision to cancel classes although it meant more work.  It’s already challenging to plan classes that cover so much information when we only meet eight times face-to-face every other week. Alternate weeks are online.

Although so many colleges and universities are pushing online courses, it has been our experience that just doesn’t work for some courses. Interaction and dialogical exchanges enable students to discuss differing views about complex issues in a safe and thoughtful manner. It’s a powerful way to expose students to differing possibilities. Although this approach has proven to be effective, WordPress spell checker doesn’t even recognize the word “dialogic” and few studies have been done to test its effectiveness.

I also always learn something new when I teach. The following poem and discussion was inspired by past students from diverse backgrounds who were enrolled in the Saturday class I co-teach with a friend. That first class in mezzo and macro social work practice was also cancelled.

An important foundation for everything I teach focuses on initial assignments designed to help students learn more about the world and themselves. They are asked to critically examine taken-for granted socialization and how it has influenced what they see and believe about the world.

As my last post makes clear, I have thought a great deal about the historical trauma Native American, First Nations, and Indigenous Peoples have experienced. Over the years, though, I have also learned something about the effects of displacement for those who have immigrated elsewhere for a variety of reasons. Many were forced to brave that momentous transformative prospect by larger social forces over which they had no control.

We use the metaphor of trees to help students explore roots, changing social and natural environmental factors throughout history, and possibilities to draw on roots and history for reweaving  community connections. (Links to old posts that describe aspects of the class are posted at the end for anyone who is interested in learning more.)

It has always been challenging to help students understand why knowing their roots is important when their ancestors may have come from so many different countries and cultures. A couple years ago, I remembered my fascination with the banyan trees I saw in Hawaii. They were not like anything I had ever seen before and they inspired me to think about immigration, adaptation, and assimilation in new ways.

*****

Dealing With Change

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Banyan Tree, Lahaina, Hawaii – Photo by Melikamp – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, 15 November 2009 (Wikipedia)

*

Greeting the morning contemplating Lahaina’s Banyan Tree
removed from its homeland, an involuntary out-of-place refugee
planted on an island far away commemorating colonial supremacy

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Banyan Tree Plaque, Lahaina, Hawaii – Photo by Nvvchar, 19 October 2014 (Wikipedia)

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Once I stood beneath its massive protective canopy
unaware of its suffering and symbolic history
grateful for its beauty and the cooling shade it accorded me

*

Banyan Tree – Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii – 1998

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Now I ponder colonial displacement from different frames
considering both the grievous irredeemable losses and potential gains

 

*

What does it mean to stand alone in a land that’s not one’s own?
removed from the environment one’s species has always called home?
unable to return to be among protective kindred, thus resigned?
to serve, without a choice, the frivolous hubris of mankind?

*

In changing times Lahaina’s Banyan Tree symbolizes resilience and adaptability
surviving storms and droughts in a foreign land for more than a century
touching hearts throughout the years, inspiring kindness and creativity
giving others who are also displaced a sense of home, community
beneath an ever-expanding crown of a now deep-rooted beloved tree

 

Note:

This poem was inspired by a class I am revising for the upcoming semester. I have been thinking about ecosystems, communities of living organisms nested within specific environments forming an interactive network with the elements (earth, air, and waters) available in their surroundings. The myriad of living interactive systems around the globe have had to adapt to ever-changing conditions throughout history. Some plant and animal species have become extinct in this ongoing process.

Often, these changes are viewed and portrayed primarily by what has been lost, perhaps forever. Much as I sometimes romantically imagine that we can return to earlier ways, I know we can’t go back. The world has changed. But there are things that we can learn from our ancestors and from the trees that help sustain the health of the world.

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Banyan Tree – Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii – 1998

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I remember the Banyan tree that so amazed me when I visited Maui and Oahu with my daughter in 1998. The plaque pictured above tells a little bit about the tree’s history and symbolism. It was planted in 1873 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first Protestant mission in Lahaina. What I found most heartening in the brief historical accounts I read is the growing awareness among people about the need to take better care of the Banyan.

Note the changes visible in the photos from 1998 and 2009. The tile pavers have been removed, allowing the earth to breathe, although more work may be needed to assure adequate moisture and nourishment.

”The tree has been subject to severe stress due to drought conditions, soil compaction from foot and vehicle traffic in the park, and also due to developmental activities in the vicinity. As a result, restrictions have been imposed … Its sustenance has been ensured by the Lahaina Restoration Foundation by installing an irrigation system in the park” (Wikipedia).

I don’t believe we can turn back time, but we can learn how to welcome and care for those who are displaced like the Banyan by forces outside of their control. This is one of the key lessons I hope to pass on to my students next semester.

*

Links to Older Posts that Describe Aspects of the Mezzo/Macro Practice Class:

“More or Better?” – Revised and Updated (January 15, 2017)
Exploring Our Roots (January 21, 2018)
Connections and Synchronicity? (March 7, 2018)

*****

This week, memories of the banyan trees and warm, sunny days in Hawaii were a welcome respite from the reality of mid-January in Minnesota, USA.

Thank you all for inspiring me to remember and share what flows through my thoughts and heart.

*

January 20, 2020

*

Sending gratitude and warm wishes to all from the cold and snowy northcountry.  💜

In Honor of Caregivers

Carol A. Hand

As many of you may guess, teaching often means I have much less time to spend on writing posts and visiting your lovely sites. I spent the past few days trying to catch up with visits and replies to comments. Now, I face the daunting task of updating syllabi and building the online components for two classes that begin in less than two weeks. In the interim, I have decided to share some older posts that few people have seen. I will do my best to visit and reply, but I can’t make any promises. I do want you all to know how much I value your work and your presence in my life.

Here is the first installment. It was the first post I wrote for this blog when it was created in February of 2014.

***

After my policy class this week, I decided to write about a project I coordinated many years ago to address elder abuse. After reading the first draft, I realized that it was missing important details about the challenges caregivers face. That meant I had to face my dreaded file cabinets!

As a child who loved not only to read, but re-read, it was sometimes excruciating to live in a house that had very few books. Although I discovered the public library, I never wanted to return the books I borrowed, resulting in overdue notices and fines that were so embarrassing. I learned to avoid the library if at all possible. As an adult, I started buying my own books, and as a student and professional, I collected copies of every article I read and every handout I gathered from workshops. The number of bookcases and file cabinets I needed grew each year. My file cabinets have taught me an important fact about myself. I am a piler, not a filer. On the days I am determined to organize papers, I come up with logical ways to sort and label. But when I am working on something and need just the right information, I am never able to remember the logic! If the articles are piled, I have little problem remembering which pile it might be in – because I have had to look through every pile hundreds of times to find things. But once they disappear into closed drawers in neatly labeled file folders, I become paralyzed with indecision. “How did I categorize this article in my all-too-fleeting moment of analytic clarity?”

DSC00301

Photo Credit: The messy process of looking for details

I have learned to avoid my file cabinets as assiduously as I avoid libraries. But I have kept stuffing new things in them – there are now 5 of them with extra file drawers in 2 desks. But I haven’t left them behind as I moved from state to state – I might desperately need something that is in them someday! I really did intend to clean them out before my last move, but I only had 3 weeks to get ready and sorting files was just not a priority.

Adding details meant I needed to face my file cabinets. The only way I could ethically describe details from a project so long ago would be to overcome the resistance I feel when I even walk into the room where they are arranged and overcome the dread of opening the drawers. But I did face the challenge and actually made an important discovery not only about the project details, but also about myself as a much younger program developer and person. Even then I really did “walk the talk” of community-driven program development and egalitarian partnerships. Now I think I can tell the “real” story …

***

Many years ago, I made the decision to leave a well-paying job as a planning and policy analyst for a state government to pursue advanced education and the opportunity to keep learning. In part, my decision was based on the outcome of a recent gubernatorial election. A job that had once made it possible to advocate for improvements for elder services shifted to constant surveillance of every conversation I had with constituents and written justification for every exchange with legislators who requested information. It also shifted from developing innovative new programs to defending programs that were important for elders’ survival and well-being. And in part, the decision was because bureaucracies are stifling places to work even in the best of times. The political appointees who set the agenda for executive branch activities rarely have the power to make many changes that actually improve peoples’ lives within or outside the organization. They can, however, easily make it worse.

To help pay my tuition, I decided to take on a part time job coordinating a federal research and training project to develop and test an intervention to address elder abuse, The Male Caregiver Training Project. The project, conceptualized by a professor and a graduate student, was intended to reduce elder abuse by targeting men who were providing care for older relatives – parents, wives, siblings, or other relations. Although men were less likely to be family caregivers (about 25% of family caregivers at the time), they were more likely to be reported as perpetrators of elder abuse (about 66% of reported perpetrators were men). The assumption of the grant writers was that men who were at risk of abusing elders would voluntarily agree to attend eight, two-hour “training” sessions that were based on behavior modification techniques. The “trainers” would be social work graduate students under the direction of the professor, and the results would be measured to determine the effectiveness using pretest and post-test self-reports. The student who was going to coordinate the project left just as the funding was awarded, so I was asked if I would be willing to coordinate the project.

Of course, I didn’t know all of these details until after I accepted the position and read the grant. As soon as I did, I was amazed that such a proposal had been funded and set out to conceptualize something that might make a difference in the real world. What did I know about being a male caregiver? Really, not much. The only way to learn more was to talk to men who were caring for relatives. I also needed to meet with key staff in the two pilot counties to build trust and partnerships. And the best way to build authentic partnerships was to change who led the sessions. What would university students know about the communities and resources for caregivers? Community staff already had contacts, credibility, and knowledge. Why not involve them not only as leaders of sessions, but also as partners in designing what the intervention would actually involve? And if the intervention was successful, wouldn’t it make more sense for community staff to have a vested interest in seeing the sessions continue after federal grant dollars ended? I called the federal project manager to present my suggestions, and he became excited by the possibilities.

tools of the trade caren caraway

Artwork by Caren Caraway for Workshop Series: tools of the trade for men who care

I met with the directors of human services in both counties and found a key staff person in each who agreed to work with me. They helped me find men who were willing to talk with me about their experiences. The men I met with all had so much to teach others about tenacity and compassion. They also had a great deal to teach me about the types of support that would make their lives as caregivers easier.

The stories I heard were a testament to the best people can be. Six of the seven men who agreed to meet with me were, or had been, caregivers for their wives and were themselves in their 70s or 80s. One was a primary caregiver for his father in his 80s who was experiencing mobility and self-care challenges. A few were understandably guarded in their comments, while others saw the interview as an opportunity to share challenges, sorrow, and struggles with anyone who was willing to listen and care. Alzheimer’s and dementia were the reasons men were caring for their wives. They spoke, often tearfully, about the loss not only of someone they loved to a disease that erased memories and made them strangers, but also about the loss of their closest friend and confidant. They saw it as their responsibility to provide care, often at great personal cost as they dealt with their own physical limitations and financial challenges. Most importantly, they all felt alone. There was no one to talk to about the conflicting emotions they faced. There was no one who could share the physical burden of doing all the cooking, cleaning, shopping, and being on call 24 hours a day. They did the best they could as caregivers because they cared, and they did it alone because they didn’t know anyone they could ask for help or information.

So I summarized the findings, and with the help of my partners in each county, held a general planning meeting in each county that involved all of the key agency staff who dealt with elder issues and services. The purpose was to identify a team in each county that was willing to help develop and present the sessions. I spent a sleepless night before the first community meeting. Yes, I had these powerful interview summaries, and based on that, a suggested list of topics. But we couldn’t call this the Male Caregiver Training Project! Training is something that is done to horses, not that I recommend this approach for horses, but it certainly shouldn’t be how we work with people. As I was taking my morning shower before the meeting, I had an epiphany – we should call the sessions Tools of the Trade for Men Who Care. It highlighted the fundamental strength of the men who shared their stories, and reflected the suggestions they had for ways to help.

Staff in both counties identified resources that could serve as tools and resources to help caregivers. We all learned a great deal from the first workshop session in each county. We thought it would be difficult for men to share emotions, so we began with more informational topics. Yet during the first session in the first county, the men who participated shocked us with their willingness to share the depth of their distress – some spoke of contemplating suicide and murder – so we added crises counselors to the workshop teams. After testing and revising the intervention, six more counties tested the approach. More than 60 men participated in all during the project. Ten years after the grant ended, most of the counties were still conducting sessions, not only for men who were caring for relatives, but also for women. It spread to other counties and other states and eventually was nominated for a national award.

What made the experience rewarding for me was not public recognition. It was the opportunity to meet people, caregivers and staff who cared deeply enough about others to make so many personal sacrifices, and the honor of hearing their stories and working side-by-side to create an intervention that succeeded in improving some peoples’ lives. Among those I met was a reporter for a local paper who captured the essence of the challenges of caregivers and the importance of providing resources and opportunities for sharing.

…For better, for worse. For richer, for poorer. In sickness and in health. To love and to cherish, till death us do part.

When Jacob and Martha exchanged wedding vows 45 years ago, he was an Army private and she was a schoolteacher. “She was a lovely little gal,” he said as he pulled out a black and white photograph – now yellowed from age—of their wedding day from a manila envelope. “Wasn’t she something?” he asked, speaking more to himself than to a recent visitor….

Like many couples, Jacob and Martha, not their real names, worked for the day they could retire and spend their days growing old together. Today, they are in their 80s, but their dream of carefree retirement is tarnished. Martha has Alzheimer’s disease…. She is easily confused and requires 24-hour-a-day care. Jacob provided that care. Despite his own failing health, he dresses, bathes and feeds his wife. He cooks, cleans the house, does the laundry and orders groceries to be delivered. He is with his wife all the time, declining offers of respite care because, he says, “it upsets her,” when he is gone. Her illness dominates his life….

Jacob was one of the six men who attended the first [Tools of the Trade] workshop series offered last fall…. “It’s was kind of nice getting out,” Jacob said. “The workshop was a very good thing for me. It helped me realize that I’m not alone. I had a chance to talk with others who are in similar situations.”

(Carla McCann, The Janesville Gazette, Wednesday, April 11, 1990, p. 1C)

***

I didn’t realize until many years later that I would need to know what I learned from caregivers during this project. I remember when my mother first realized something was happening to her. I went to pick her up because she had driven to visit my bother and could not remember how to get home. On the ride home she said, “I don’t know what is happening to me. I can’t remember things. I am so humiliated. I don’t want people to see me this way.” It broke my heart to know that this gentle woman who outlived her husband and survived years of abuse always wishing for a chance to enjoy life would never have that opportunity. At least, I thought, the bad memories will disappear as well.

Dealing with file cabinets has led me down memory lane with memories that are both grateful and sad. I think I will quickly find a place to stuff the project folders back into drawers and wait for the next polar vortex before opening them again. Yet I am grateful that I remembered how many kind and loving people I have met in my travels. I am sharing these memories to say miigwetch (thank you in Ojibwe) to the caregivers of the world and to those who support them.

***

Work Cited:

Carol Hand (1991). Workshop Series: tools of the trade for men who care. Madison, WI: New Ventures of Wisconsin.

Carla McCann (1990, Wednesday, April 11). The Janesville Gazette.

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Post Script: I would like to thank Decker at Dispatches from the Asylum for another one of his powerful and lovely short stories. His work reminded me of this old post and inspired me to share it again.

Post-Post Script: I did finally clean up my files on rainy days this summer and managed to reduce the number of file cabinets, although it it still a work in progress…

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“Healing the Spirit …”

Carol A. Hand

As I took a moment to reflect
about the online course content
I need to develop and load today

(always difficult for someone
who’s technologically-challenged)

a thought flowed through my mind
as I looked at the cloudy sky
asking the clouds to release needed rain

Places of life and light need to survive
in times like these for the sake of all

A memory followed about the closing ceremony
for a conference I attended decades ago
“Healing the Spirit Worldwide”

***

from Lighting a Candle for the Four Directions (12/13/2014)

… 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 …

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March Reflections – 2019

Carol A. Hand

*

I woke up this morning. Late, of course, when defined by daylight savings time. Sunlight was streaming through the eastern window. But when I awoke, a gentle but stunning realization dawned as a simple question ran through my mind.

“What happens if you put good people in an evil place?”

It’s a paraphrase of the question Dr. Phillip Zimbardo said he wanted to explore in his famous experiment, The Stanford Prison Experiment.

Another thought quickly followed.

I have been in evil places. Many of them. And I survived despite a tender heart that was ripped open by intense suffering. Both my suffering and that of others who were vulnerable.”

A sense of gratitude followed from knowing that I did my best to hold true to integrity and protect myself and others from the most destructive harm anyway. I got up every morning and walked in to face the fire, knowing that it was an experiment to see if it was possible to transform evil systems.

Although I made many mistakes in my journey, strength came from the ancestors who sometimes appeared to me and the wise beings who visited me in dreams. They taught me that compassion comes from forgiving one’s self as a necessary foundation for forgoing the need to demonize others for the choices they make.

“Mistakes are, after all,
the foundations of truth,
and if a man does not know
what a thing is, it is at
least an increase in knowledge
if he knows what it is not.”
(Carl Jung)

Thanks to Eddie Two Hawks for sharing this quote in a recent post.

I look at the state of the world today and know that I am just one unimportant person among billions. There is little I can do to affect change in the systems that harm others. That’s a choice only each individual must make for themselves. It’s a choice that one makes each moment.

I am inspired by the choices Diane Lefer recently shared on her blog, Nobody Wakes Up Pretty, about those who are working to address the egregious harm being done along the border with Mexico in the name of “Making America Great Again.” Diane’s work reminds me of something written more than a century ago by Jane Addams when she and the women of Hull-House in Chicago lived among newly arrived immigrants in the poorest of city neighborhoods.

“. . . the good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain, is floating in mid-air, until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life” (Jane Addams, 1961, p. 76).

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May we all continue to make wise, compassionate choices to use whatever gifts we have to build a kinder world.

Work Cited:

Jane Addams (1961). Twenty Years at Hull-House. New York, NY: Signet Classics.

 

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