Late June Reflections – 2022

June 22, 2022

One can’t predict air quality on the southwest side of the city where I live. It depends on the time of day, which way the wind blows, and whether residents decide to build bonfires that smolder during times of thermal inversion when the smoke and smell will continue to linger in stagnant air. Obviously, that creates challenges for those of us who rely on open windows and fans in the summer rather than on air conditioners. But last night after a couple uncharacteristically hot days, the air was clear and sweet. The intake/exhaust window fan worked. But it needs to be removed in the morning before the heat of the day arrives.

This morning, the process of removing the fan provided a vantage point to witness a wee drama unfolding. The raucous calls of crows filled the air. Three crows came into view and landed on the power lines, crying out excitedly as if in warning just as a rather large skunk came waddling across my neighbor’s backyard. The crows seemed to be chasing and terrorizing the skunk, usually a nocturnal animal, perhaps a mother trying to find food for a hungry brood. She briefly disappeared amid the tall weeds behind a shed, and emerged by the left back corner and began digging furiously. She was able to find momentary safety and the crows took flight and quickly disappeared.

skunk sanctuary june 22 2022

The shed sanctuary has been home to skunks and rabbits in past years so I’ve learned to be attentive when venturing out at night, especially when my little dog, Pinto, was with me. His brief encounter with a baby skunk during his first spring here taught me how important that was. Fortunately, the baby skunk hadn’t yet learned how to aim his/her spray but it was still a very stinky adventure.

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This may be the last post on my blog for a while. These days, it’s hard to find time to blog, as the following post I began a few days ago explains. Today, I decided to share these brief reflections along with a post from eight years ago. Although most of the links no longer work, the old post still seems relevant now. I truly wish things had changed for the better since then. We haven’t made much progress coming together as communities to work collectively as an inclusive team on the crucial issues we all face. I’m not sure what to do to help that happen.

June 16, 2022: Rainy Day Respite – Revisiting the Past

Mid-June, and the garden plants are still struggling to emerge. May was cold and rainy, and early June was dry. I had to replant bean and cucumber seeds, and I may have to do the same for chard. The weeds have been hardy and prolific, though, covering every inch of soil. But still, I am grateful for the gift of a piece of land once peopled by my Anishinaabe ancestors, and before them, the Dakota. I’m grateful for the chance to try to try to revitalize the soil and provide a safe haven for my plant and animal relations. It’s not an easy undertaking these days when too few seem to understand the responsibility we all carry to be wise stewards for the sake of future generations.

lilac late june 2022

But today, it’s too wet to garden or mow an overgrown lawn.

I need to transition cultures anyway to work on a manuscript I began in 2015 that’s still waiting to be edited from beginning to end. I’ve edited the beginning chapters at least 30 times but I want to revisit the beginning again. I’m not the same person featured in the most recent draft of the introduction. And authentic ethnographic work needs to include an honest accounting of who the author is in order to help readers discern the trustworthiness of what is being presented as “truth,” at least as seen through the author’s lenses.

A few days ago as I was beginning my transition, I noticed something that symbolized differences in cultures. Two plants still constrained in planters that are slowly dying. It hurts me whenever I notice living beings struggling – earth, lakes and rivers, flora, fauna, and humans.

The effects of being unaware of other beings and the metaphor of constrained roots inspired me to venture into my file cabinets to find a paper I wrote years ago. It was about my commune experiences for a course I was taking on organizational theory. I briefly contemplated sharing the paper. It describes how changing positions within an organization, the commune, affected what I saw and understood about being true to one’s roots. It was a descriptive assessment of the impact of power and positionality on peoples’ ability to view “reality” and their consequent responsibility to be aware of how their behavioral choices affect others’ wellbeing.

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In Search of Community

“Is it not right, then, that education should help you, as you grow up, to perceive the importance of bringing about a world in which there is no conflict either within or without, a world in which you are not in conflict with your neighbor or with a group of people because the drive of ambition, which is the desire for position and power, has utterly ceased? And is it possible to create a society in which there will be no inward or outward conflict?”
(Krishnamurti, 1964, Think on these things, p. 52)

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Living through the polar vortex forced me to question the wisdom of continuing to try to survive on my own. Of course, I am not totally alone. I have supportive friends and family, but this past winter they all had their own challenges to attend to, their own leaking roofs and freezing pipes, icy roads to travel to get places not served by public transportation, and never-ending snow to shovel despite artic temperatures. It has led me to the realization that living the way we do in this neighborhood isn’t wise or sustainable. Each family has its own separate dwelling, heating system, and needs to attend to all of the chores associated with survival on their own.

As much as I would like to head off to an intentional community, I am skeptical. I already tried that, twice. I am still laughing about the second attempt. A group of successful, smart people coalesced to prepare for the end of the world in a small farming community in central Illinois. I wasn’t there because of the nonsense the charismatic leader espoused. I was there because it made sense to share the work of growing food, contributing one’s unique skills to a collective, and reducing one’s carbon footprint on the environment. But the need many people have to follow leaders has never ceased to baffle me. Taken to extremes it is hilariously ridiculous or frighteningly dangerous.

carnival swing miss dash thrifty dot co dot uk

Photo Credit: Carnival Swing – miss-thrifty.co.uk

When I think of collective living, I think of people in my second alternative community experience. The leader organized a community-wide event for members — a chance to raise their IQs, for a moderate-sized fee of course. One of the members offered his large home as the training venue, and many attended the evening event. Attendees were greeted at the door and were given small brown paper bags as they entered. At the appointed time, the lights were dimmed and attendees were told to strip down to their underwear and breathe in and out of the paper bag for 10 minutes. They were promised that this exercise would improve their IQs – it would make them smarter!

(Then, I didn’t have internet tools to research the scientific validity of these claims, but in writing this essay many years later, it seemed wise to give it a try. Breathing into a paper bag for 5 minutes does seem to be a credible treatment for anxiety-triggered panic attacks – it helps rebalance elevated oxygen levels from over-breathing during attacks by increasing CO2 levels in the blood stream. People often feel immediate relief. So in this ingenious money-maker, creating a stressor and then reducing its impact left people with the impression that they felt better and brighter as a result of the exercise! Yet I only discovered wily walnut’s claim that the “Brain Bubbles” created by blowing in and out of a paper bag is one of the techniques one can use to raise IQ.

My partner and I were invited, but we declined. I heard about the event later from a friend who did go and felt even less intelligent as a result. My partner and I decided to leave the periphery of the community soon after.

The reasons for leaving my first attempt at “community” were not as amusing. Like the second community, the first was organized around a charismatic leader. But the followers were much younger, as was I when I first arrived, a single mother with a one and a half year old daughter. We hitchhiked, my little one in her stroller packed with necessary supplies and $20 in my pocket, trusting the kindness of the universe to help us survive. We weren’t escaping abuse, merely a mind and spirit-numbing environment of never-ending criticism and cold indifference — a life lacking warmth and laughter and possibilities for something better than the pursuit of empty material comforts. In the next four and a half years, our lives were transformed.

By the time we arrived, the alternative community had been in existence for more than 3 years and had grown from less than 20 people sharing a treehouse to more than 200 people spread across four towns in northwestern Massachusetts. I willingly agreed to accept the principles espoused by the community, no drugs, alcohol, or promiscuity. Newer arrivals like my daughter and me were initially relegated to live with more than 100 members in a rural setting that included a large house and dormitory with a smaller two-story shed. Despite my battered self-esteem, I looked around the community and noticed more than 25 children under five roaming about who were without care or supervision. With two other mothers, I set out to create a daycare center. We were able to renovate the first floor of the two-story shed, adding a sink that I helped plumb, and a stove and refrigerator we were able to get for free. We scrubbed and painted, and found some furniture and made sure kids had meals and supervision.

During the first few months, there were a number of observations that raised my curiosity about cultural differences. I watched as people pushed each other out of the way so they could be the first on the bus to attend meetings organized by the community leader. They competed for the white sweaters that proved they were more spiritually evolved than others and bullied and demeaned those who were forced to wear brown sweaters showing their lack of spirituality. I pondered the disconnect between the spirituality they gave lip service to and their actions. I also pondered it as I witnessed how mothers who previously ignored their children suddenly were only concerned about their children, stashing private bags of food for their children in the daycare center refrigerator. Unlike other mothers, I felt the need to make sure all children had the best we could provide.

I was also aware of how disrespected and patronized I felt by those who were in the upper echelon within the rural setting hierarchy, explaining it away to myself as another indicator of my many deficiencies. Despite my lack of self-confidence, there was still a noticeable difference between me and most of the members I encountered. I still thought about each of my actions and made my own decisions. I was perplexed by my observations that otherwise smart caring people did whatever the leader told them to do without question, even if it contradicted their deeply held values. Almost everyone else did unkind, foolish or illegal things because the leader told them to do it. Yet I stayed because I genuinely cared about my new friends despite all of these differences.

Slowly over the years, I gained skills and had experiences I doubt would ever have come my way in another setting. I worked outside jobs as a waitress, nurse’s aide, donut finisher, receptionist, and seamstress, and as an attendant for an institution for people with cognitive and developmental challenges. As my status in the community rose, I moved from setting to setting. I travelled to the south to promote the community radio show, served as the booking agent and lightshow operator for a mobile disco, and ended up as the general office manager for the community, a buffer between the leader and ruling elite and the 200 members of the community. As my status in the community shifted, so did my ability to see more of what was really occurring. At first, I had believed most people followed the publicly proclaimed principles. I even believed that when I was the office manager, collecting members’ weekly donations, allocating funds to members to cover their needs, purchasing household supplies and food for twelve different enclaves, and buffering members from the never-ending demands for more money by the elite.

Again I pondered cultural differences. There were members who worked multiple jobs to donate all they could for the well-being of the community as a whole. There were members who never donated anything, but who were exempt because the leader favored them. There were members who were so wounded by life that they were unable to contribute anything but still needed resources multiple times a day every day. My carefully calculated food purchases to make sure each person in each house could have two eggs a day on Saturday and Sunday were glibly blown away by members from privileged backgrounds who thanked me for buying the eggs, proclaiming “I had six eggs this morning and it was such a treat.” I wondered how many children would be denied protein as a result.

But these were minor annoyances. There were deeper secrets I finally discovered – the way people’s hard-earned dollars were used to subsidize the costs of the leader’s alcohol and cocaine addiction. I thought long and hard about whether to stay and try to help someone whom I thought at the time wanted to recover or leave for my daughter’s sake. I came up with an alternative that I felt was reasonable. My daughter’s father agreed to take care of her for the summer. I would stay for that time to see what I could do to help the community get back on track. Two days after my daughter left, the leader of the community accosted me, yelling. “What the FUCK did you DO! Sending your daughter away was SO FUCKED UP!” (Those of you who have read my previous blog posts probably can guess how I responded.) I looked him at him calmly and replied in a quiet voice, “If you want to understand why I act as I do, it would be better to ask me. I always consider important decisions very carefully knowing that it is my karma not someone else’s if I make mistakes. It is not your right to question or judge my decisions. And it’s certainly not your right to tell me what to do.” He turned red in the face and screamed “GET OUT! GET THE FUCK OUT NOW!!!!” This was the only command I obeyed, but based on my own decision that it was the wisest course of action. It was not until decades later that I learned about the sexual abuse women and children experienced at the hands of the leader and his closest cronies, something many former members still prefer to ignore as they continue to believe they are “more spiritually evolved.”

So as I ponder the wisdom of living in an intentional community, I remember these experiences and ask if it is possible to find people who can really build a community based on comradeship. Can people escape the need to follow a leader? The organizational structure that both communities and every organization I have worked for shared in common was based on hierarchical power distinctions. Those organizations that were the most dysfunctional took oppression a bit further, using the “hub” style of management. The person in charge developed personal connections with each member or employee separately and discouraged the development of inter-collegial relationships by pointing out the deficiencies of all the others, a divide and conquer tactic that isolated people from each other and made them easier to manipulate. A picture is worth a thousand words here.

hub management

Photo Credit: Hub-Management Powerpoint slide

The three-dimensional picture of the carnival swing (above) is a more effective illustration. Each person is isolated, reliant on a thin tether that connects them to the power source for their continued survival, a power structure they are incapable of penetrating because of its distance and protective isolation. Each worker or member is easily replaceable, a part of the ride. How can such a structure do anything other than encourage individualism and selfish preoccupation? Can intentional communities undo the unconscious programming of what “leadership” means to those socialized in the dominant culture?

Perhaps I am stuck in my romantic notions of “traditional” Ojibwe culture. In order to become an adult, each individual was encouraged to find his or her own gifts in order to more fully contribute from a grounded foundation to the well-being and survival of the community as a whole while protecting the environment for future generations. I wonder if this ideal is possible. I wonder if the moral of the Sufi story that John McKnight relates is true, “You will only learn what you already know.” Do we as a people already know that our survival really does depend on everyone else who shares the planet? Do we really already know what it takes to live with others in inclusive, respectful, constructive, peaceful ways?

For the sake of my grandchildren and generations to come, I hope we already do know or are still able to learn.

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french lilac june 21 2022

Postscript:

Allowing others in power to tell us to do things that we feel or know are harmful was all too common for commune members during my time there. It was something I had hoped to escape, but it seems to be a universal issue regardless of cultural or organizational context. I believe we are still responsible for the choices we make. Those in power are responsible for theirs only, not ours. Our best hope for a healthier future is directly connected to our willingness to make choices that nurture the health of the earth, each other, and all our relations.

Anniversary Reflections – February 12, 2022

Being on the margins brings many unique and unimagined opportunities. Blogging was one of them for me. I first began blogging as an experiment to support a friend from the commune where we had both lived decades before. We reconnected on Facebook during my brief time on that platform. She told me she was interested in sharing her writing on a blog, and I offered to partner with her although my years in academia led me to believe blogging was not a valuable source of information.

The experience soon dispelled those unfounded assumptions and opened up a whole new world of perspectives and virtual friendships. I had stockpiled many reflections written throughout the years but never published any. In part, I felt my reflections wouldn’t be useful or interesting to others, and in part because they didn’t really fit anywhere. They were either too academic, too critical, too fluffy, or not academic enough. That same challenge ultimately surfaced as a problem with my blogging partner. I wrote three drafts of a reflection I felt was important, but none of versions met with my partner’s approval.

A dear friend agreed to read the three versions and give me her honest feedback. “I love the second version,” she said. “I think you should publish it.” Using the skills I had learned about WordPress from my partner, I created a new blog with the name I still use, “Voices from the Margins.” I posted the disputed article shared below and let my partner know I was willing to continue sharing the blog with her, only positing things that met with her approval. She was understandably angry and told me to remove my other posts from her blog, so they’re also posted on this blog in chorological order from the first to the last before the original article posted here 8 years ago on February 12, 2014, In Honor of Caregivers.

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wp 8th anniversary

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In Honor of Caregivers

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?”

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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 …

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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

Photo Credit: Artwork by Caren Caraway for 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)

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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.

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On this 8th anniversary, I want to thank all of the friends I have met over the years. I have learned so much from you and remain deeply grateful for your presence in my life.

Revisiting Writing 101 – I Write Because?

For some reason, I remembered this old post during class yesterday. One of the courses I’m teaching this semester, social work practice with communities, I co-teach in partnership with a friend/colleague. Our students were discussing their “action plans” for raising community awareness about important issues that are invisible to many in the general public.

This semester, they focused on crucial and urgent concerns related to improving access to safe water for all members of the specific community they assessed. Each shared an action plan they developed. Topics varied depending on their interests – addressing industrial pollution, high lead levels among children in selected neighborhoods, the effects of road salt on sources of drinking water in northern climates, and maintaining homeostasis through adequate hydration. It’s important information. My colleague and I will be exploring new ways to share exemplary student work with a wider public audience.

Our students know statistics alone are not the most effective way to engage community action. Numbers don’t touch people’s hearts, but people’s stories might. And my colleague and I have many stories to share with students to illustrate the power of this approach.

Listening to the stories of people who were “on the margins” and “out-of-sight” motivated me to become an advocate. In order to do that more effectively, I began to write.  In 2015, I took a WordPress course to learn how to do a better job writing for different audiences. The following post was written in response to one of the WP “Writing 101” assignments.

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I write because?

Yesterday, before I read the prompt for today’s Writing 101 assignment, I addressed this question. I wanted to reflect before the class [I was teaching at the time] began.

“As I look at the larger patterns in my life, I realize that it’s important for me to share knowledge from the heart as well as from the intellect in words that are clear and simple. Lately, I’ve given some thought to the question “why do I write?” I write to share the simple things I’ve learned in hopes that it will help others. I follow my mother’s footsteps, not as a healer of bodies (I grow faint at the sight of blood), but as someone who sees the beauty in others even in times of adversity. I hope to be a mirror that reflects back the beauty I see in others so they can see it in themselves.”

As soon as I hit publish, I realized this was only part of the truth. What are the other reasons I write? When I asked myself that question this morning, an image and a memory of Mickey flashed through my thoughts. I was one of the strangers responsible for his care, a fifty year old man lying in a nursing home bed, forgotten, unable to care for himself, dependent on the kindness of strangers who weren’t always kind.

I only know bits and pieces of Mickey’s story and the accident that brought him to the nursing home many years before I took this job. He broke his neck when he fell down the steps one night while he was doing his job as a janitor. The accident left him paralyzed, paraplegic, unable to do the simplest self-care tasks. He needed to rely on overworked, underpaid nurses and nurses’ aides to do everything for him. Many didn’t have the time, patience, or inclination to realize there was a sensitive, alert human being inside his motionless body.

I had the luxury of listening to him because I worked the graveyard shift. (A fitting title for the night shift in this facility, although it’s hardly respectful of the people whose care and safety depended on our presence and compassion.) It was difficult for Mickey to speak as he struggled to make his jaw and tongue move. His softly spoken words were almost impossible to decipher at first. It took me time to learn the meanings behind this new language. One memorable story often comes to mind. Mickey told me in his halting, painful-to-witness way, that the nurses’ aides seldom talked to him or asked him if he needed anything. There were a few who were kind and treated him like a human being. But one in particular, according to Mickey, was incredibly rude. When it was time to get residents ready for bed, she would come in with a washcloth and rub it over his face without removing his eyeglasses first. In fact, she just left his smeared eyeglasses on, shutting off the light as she left him alone in his the room for the night. He lay there unable to do anything about it until I arrived for my shift.

I write because people like Mickey can’t. Someone needs to write their stories. I write because women with small children and bills to pay have to work at low paying jobs at times of the day or night that allow them to attend to their children’s needs during waking hours. They didn’t and don’t have access to affordable, reliable, high quality daycare and may be locked into pink collar, low-wage jobs for many years. They need to work at whatever jobs they can find in a society that does little to ensure that families have adequate safety net benefits. The long-term care industry (or childcare industry) is staffed by a steady stream of low-income women – mothers with young children or elders who can’t afford to retire. It’s an industry that is built on the backs of poor women often with few other options. (I mean that quite literally – lifting people like Mickey is heavy, back-straining work.) Their stories need to be included in national conversations about the need to pay workers living wages.

AW nursing home

Photo by Carlo Esqueda: Nursing Home Resident – Aging Wisconsin (1988, p. 26, full citation listed below)

Warehousing those who need assistance in institutions like the one Mickey lived in, or worse, is what we’ve been conditioned to see as the best or only option for people who need 24-hour care and assistance. Yet studies show nursing homes are not always the best option. It’s important to realize that one accident could place any one of us in a situation like Mickey’s – or worse. Is that what we want for ourselves, our parents, our children?

I write because these are important issues to consider. The legislators and experts who decide what types of services to provide as a nation rarely if ever ask those who are most affected by their decisions what they (elders, parents, workers) need and prefer. These are the people on the margins, like me, who need to have a voice in designing a nation and a world that care more about people.

“The moral test of a government is how it treats those who are at the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those who are in the shadow of life, the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.” (Hubert H. Humphrey, 1976)

While I doubt that my modest stories will have much of an impact, it’s what I can do today to try. It’s what I can do to honor Mickey’s memory and the many women (and men) who help people in the situations Humphrey describes with such poetic eloquence. Words can bring hope and healing to a troubled world. Writing with this purpose in mind is something I love to do. Ultimately, it’s why I write.

Work Cited:

Carlo Esqueda (1988). Selected photographs. In C. Hand (1988, Ed.), Aging Wisconsin: The past three years – 1984-1986 progress report on the Wisconsin State Plan on Aging (pp. 26, 31). Madison, WI: Bureau on Aging, Department of Health and Social Services.

Contextual Note:

This essay was inspired by the new course I began today, Writing 101. My intention for taking the course is described below.

“I’m looking forward to meeting all of you and learning more about your blogs. I’m also looking forward to the discipline and challenge of writing every day. It’s my hope to use this class to help me work on a new approach for a book that I originally thought would be non-fiction based on a research study I did a number of years ago. Instead, after experiencing the freedom of writing a play that required creativity and freed me from the constraints of objective reporting, I decided to explore fiction as an option. Fictionalized accounts would also be a better way to protect individual and place identities. So, I see this course as a challenging and exciting opportunity to experiment with new ways of writing.
I send my best wishes to all!”

Despite my desire to learn to write fiction, the prompt for today inspired a different direction. But then, it’s Labor Day. And unbidden and unplanned, the memory that came to mind allowed me to honor the many women I’ve worked with who do the heavy-lifting in the profitable long-term care industry, although they see little of the industry’s financial rewards.

***

AW caregivers

Photo by Carlo Esqueda: Mother and Daughter – Aging Wisconsin (1988, p. 31, full citation listed above)

Reflections – January 29, 2021

Who would believe
that the mixed ancestry
which made my life
and that of my descendants
so challenging
is a phenomenal gift?

It represents an inheritance
of courage from ancestors
who challenged strongly held social conventions
in acts of resistance and diplomacy
to forge and cement peaceful alliances
between cultures and nations
in contested spaces
during times of conflict and war.

This inheritance is not an easy one to carry.
It conveys a sacred responsibility
to walk the bridging, healing path
of inclusion and peace
in a world so easily divided
by powerful fears
of those who are different.

It means living in a world
that reifies distinctions
between cultures,
nations,
religions,
and political views,
to name but a few of the differences,
often demonizing those who dare
to challenge social conventions
and the ruling elite.

Yet the legacy passed down
from the builders of bridges
created new possibilities
for peaceful coexistence –
hybrids, if you will,
who carry the legacy
of courage
and a sense of responsibility
for living in harmony
with others and the earth
within their blended DNA.
*

*

Acknowledgments:

Sharing with deep gratitude for the participants in yearning circle dreaming who inspired these reflections.

Unexpected Musings

What trees can teach us

(Connections to the place where we are standing)

 

*

The solitary mountain ash now stands alone

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

*

Acknowledgements

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.






Lighting a Candle for the Four Directions

January 21, 2021. The blustery, gusty winds that were twisting and rattling the bare branches of trees this morning mirrored the volatility I sense in the world at the moment. It was hard for me to center on hope and possibility. And then I remembered gifts from other times. It felt important to share one of them this morning even though I will not have time to reciprocate visits or reply to comments for a while. The classes I will be teaching begin tomorrow and I still have a lot of work to do developing and uploading content online.

***

December 13, 2014. This morning when I awoke I was reflecting on my lack of hope and passion these days. It feels as though everything I love, everything that brings me joy and peace and hope is at risk. When did my hope and passion disappear? Was it because of the institutions where I worked that publicly espoused social justice missions but contradicted those values through the actions of the majority? Was it because of the neighbors or ex-spouses who only appeared to be concerned with their own comfort and their own pursuit of happiness? Was it because of the zeitgeist of the times summarized by the observation of my newest neighbor when speaking of a child with serious mental health issues, “I’m in this alone”? This feeling of being alone, when internalized, is a destroyer of hope and collective action and it seems to be a major obstacle for joining together to address the serious threats of these times.

As I look back, I realize this feeling has been an undercurrent in the past. Every intervention I have worked on hit this stumbling block sooner or later despite my best efforts. Like my neighbor, ultimately I felt alone in my past efforts because I was never able to inspire or cultivate enough hope for a critical mass of others who were willing to put aside immediate personal comfort to carry the responsibility for working toward a greater good. It was not for lack of trying. Yesterday, as I was contemplating clearing away some of the gifts, papers, and books I’ve accumulated over the years that fill files, shelves, walls and cupboards, I noticed the white candle that sits atop my most important bookshelf – the one that holds irreplaceable books I used to write my dissertation. Of course, like all my mementos, the candle has a story.

DSC00539

Photo Credit: Duluth December 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 elder’s “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.

This morning, I realize I need to take the time to finally light the candle on my book case. It’s not the same white candle I used for a similar ceremony years later for the 40 staff who worked for the Honoring Our Children Project that included nine tribal communities. Building and maintaining multicultural, interdisciplinary teams within and across different tribal cultures was not an easy task. Providing a center they could return to in challenging times was important. But it is the same candle I used in a farewell ceremony with the graduate students I mentored during our final class together. They would all be graduating and scattering to the four directions.

candle

Photo Credit: Sending Light to the Four Directions from Duluth, MN – December 13, 2014

As I lit the candle this morning, I thought of the inter-tribal staff who did astounding work, and the creative and inquisitive students I worked with over the years. I thought about my blogging friends around the world who help me realize that each of is sharing our light. And I thought about the many other people who carry light yet feel alone. May we learn to share our light and stand together for the sake of all we love.

***

Reflections about “The Great Hurt”

November 16, 2020

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…



Acknowledgements

On November 14, 2020, The College of St. Scholastica’s (CSS) Department of Social Work presented “The Great Hurt: A Readers Theatre” produced by renowned Ojibwe artist and historian Carl Gawboy. I was privileged to be among the nine readers who shared historical accounts of the American Indian boarding schools in the United States.

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.

*

 

Reflections about Connections – September 2020

September 17, 2020

I wish to begin with the humorous side of life in these times…

I spent much of yesterday harvesting, and this morning, after beginning to draft this reflection, I put some of my little tomatoes on a cookie sheet in the freezer. Then, I went out to water the little arbor vitae in my backyard, planning to water the gardens in my front yard next. (We’ve had very little rain here this year, making watering an essential part of gardening.) Instead, I decided to squirt my 14-year-old car in the back driveway while the hose was on to see if some of the dirt would come off. It’s been covered by nine-years of burning embers and soot from my neighbor’s bonfires.

Despite trying to scrub the dirt off by hand-washing my car every year in the past, the soot and burn scars remained. I finally gave up earlier this year and just started taking my car to an automated car wash. The process never really cleaned the car, but at least it was coated with multiple layers of a protective wax cover. Today, though, I decided to test out whether some of the soot would come off if I just rubbed it with a paper towel when it was wet. Lo and behold, much of it came off. It took me several hours to finish. Then, it was time to walk Pinto.

Where does the time go? Soon it will be Pinto’s supper time (my little papillon-chihuahua dog) which requires my presence in order for him to eat, and lately, to be prepared to hand-feed him if necessary. Then, it’s Queenie’s movie time (my parakeet), a computer-based endeavor. While Queenie’s busy, I will have time to wash the chard I harvested yesterday. I think I’ve figured out a way to do it safely.

A boring tale of ordinary reality! The things we do to eat and live. But I did take time to read something quite funny: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/sep/17/frozen-poo-and-narcissists-eyebrows-studies-win-ig-nobel-prizes. In my defense, though, it does deal with research! And I’ve also been busy working on my courses, which brings me to the title for this post – connections.

When I looked at the afternoon sun in the sky today, here in northeast Minnesota more than a thousand miles from Oregon, California, and Washington state, it was clear how connected we all are despite geological distances.

5:42 P.M., September 15, 2020

***


September 20, 2020

The courses I’m teaching this semester began on Saturday, September 12 – research and community practice. Preparing has meant significant adjustments to respond to a world that has changed drastically since the cohort of students began their studies several years ago. Many are the first generation in their families to attend college. Yet most were able to successfully shift to completely online classes mid-semester in the spring. This year, the courses for our hybrid satellite program are all online. Our bi-weekly classes that were once face-to-face will meet via Zoom.

This semester, I’m also co-teaching community practice with a dear friend and colleague. My colleague and I decided to focus on one issue – the connection between access to safe water and community health, the focus of my research class as well.

Why focus on our work on water? Why not?

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe” (John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra , 1911, page 110). 

The community where we live is located on the southwest shore of Lake Superior, one the five interconnected freshwater Great Lakes of North America that comprise part of the border between the United States and Canada.

“The Great Lakes—Michigan, Superior, Huron, Erie, and Ontario—form the largest-surface freshwater system in the world, together holding nearly one-fifth of the Earth’s surface freshwater” (The National Wildlife Foundation).

My colleague and I met during the summer to discuss how and what to teach students so they will be able to work with communities in a future world we can’t even imagine. What will they need to know to weather the challenges they will face? What knowledge and tools will provide a foundation for them so they can help their families and communities come together to adjust to ever changing difficulties and possibilities?

During these days of “social distancing,” it is becoming ever more obvious that many people are no longer willing to reach out to bridge differences with others. Polarities divide us in these times. Yet addressing the serious issues we are facing now will require all of us to understand and respect others despite differences, to care enough about the future of our world to be able to put differences aside so we can work together. Those who engage in community practice need the skills to bring people together for productive dialogue to explore possibilities for finding common ground.

I shared an experience with my colleague that I had as a participant/observer of a polarized community exchange, described in an older post, “Alternative Futures – Who Chooses?.  Six years ago, I attended a public hearing designed to give community members a chance to voice their views of a proposed expansion of the amount of tar sands oil that could be pumped in a pipeline along the southern shore of the Great Lakes. Looking at the issue from a purely logical perspective, it’s a very bad idea. Tar sands oil is laden with toxic chemicals and the corporation that owns the pipeline has a troubled safety record. The location already threatens the safety and quality of the Great Lakes.

***

“… important perspectives were voiced to support and oppose the proposal.

“I listened, observed, and took notes. Today, I am trying to sort out my overall insights. First, I need to reflect on the opening remarks of the administrative judge. He explained that the meeting room was set up with a table for speakers so everyone could speak to each other as neighbors and community members. I’m not sure that happened. Half of the audience would applaud after those in support of Enbridge spoke (the woman seated next to me was among them), and the other half would applaud for those who presented their opposition (I was among that half). Although many spoke with passion, their words did not touch my heart because I didn’t sense their hearts in their words. Perhaps it was fear of speaking in public, but even fear is ego-motivated. Only one woman had the presence of mind to stand and face the audience as she testified, with her back to those at the front tables. Her words came the closest to touching others who expressed differing views.

“As I reflect on the perspectives of those who spoke in support of expansion, I realize that no one offered viable alternatives to meet their legitimate economic concerns. They need Enbridge to support their families. Do we have viable alternative energy businesses to absorb businesses and workers reliant on old oil technologies? Do we have universities and technical colleges that can help them retool? Their support for the continuation and expansion of our reliance on old technology is understandable, but no one in the room who opposed expansion acknowledged this, so the room remained divided. It seemed as though the supporters of expansion were forced into a position of denying climate change to defend a perspective that was characterized as ignorant and self-interested. Opponents could leave and feel self-righteous and blame their failure to reach others’ hearts because the others were ignorant and self-interested, not really a part of our community…

“This is the challenge of being between cultures – the need to understand different perspectives from an empathetic middle. It doesn’t answer the larger questions of what I can do, but I can begin to explore ways to address legitimate concerns and bridge cultural divides.”

***

My colleague and I discussed how we might help students develop the skills they would need to create environments where community members could explore common ground around polarizing issues and developed the following assignment.

***

Perspectives Assignment

Given that we cannot meet in person to undertake the work that lies ahead, we are organizing three dialogue groups of students that will provide opportunities to learn and practice dialogue and group skills that are foundational to effective and respectful community practice.

Each of the three groups will focus on different community values and beliefs associated with water and healthy community that are present in Northern MN, and will embark on the community assessment process from that general lens. Each member will be asked to understand the mindset and values of those who fit into one of the following three perspectives:

i. Profit from the water or land adjoining waterways
ii. People in tribal communities who depend on water
iii. Preservation of the Natural Environment as a primary consideration

Groups will then use that lens to assess a specific community. We are hoping that the group assignments will be made by consensus in our next class meeting.

The expectations for each student are that best efforts are made to negotiate and dedicate time in the weeks ahead to connect and engage with the respective dialogue group in the community assessment process. As a group you will be given assignments and introduced to tools for planning and carrying out how each will gather and contribute information needed for the assessment. Together you will be sharing and analyzing the individual discoveries and reflecting on the implications for communities from the particular ideological vantage point of the group’s assigned perspective. The group dialogues and collaborative work should support the collective and individual learning and development, and contribute to information each person can draw from in the final Community Assessment Report.

The final challenge will be for each of the groups to present what they learned about a local water issue and themselves when they looked through the lens of “Profit, People, or Preservation.” Understanding how others see the world and why is essential for building inclusive communities. My colleague and I hope the discussion that results will reflect suggestions for how we can better bridge “cultures” in more effective, respectful ways to establish inclusive partnerships on firm common ground.

Water issues connect us all and are in the news almost every day – too much water due to hurricanes and deluges, too little resulting in catastrophic fires, and too unsafe to drink or swim in due to undeveloped or aging infrastructures and widespread pollution. Without water, all life as we know it will cease.

In an increasingly polarized world, it seems impossible to bring people together to figure out how we can work together to address the issues that affect us all. There’s nothing I can do alone to help put out the fires in the western states, or even stop a small city on the southern shore of the lake that provides drinking water for my community and thousands of others from dumping thousands of gallons of sewage in the lake every year

But I can work with others to raise awareness by writing and teaching, not only about the issue, but also about the need to find ways to promote bridge-building among groups with strongly held values that get in the way of understanding and inclusive collaboration on solutions.

Ever sensitive to the metaphors nature provides, I was able to catch the wonder of an evening sunset.

7:03 P.M., September 20, 2020

***

September 22, 2020

The sun will rise again tomorrow, of this I’m sure. I’m also certain that the world it greets in the morning will have changed yet again in ways I could not have imagined when I witnessed this wonder. Hopefully the things I have learned will provide the foundation I will need to work in partnership with my family, colleagues, students, and friends to continue working toward a day when the sun will rise on a verdant, peaceful planet where all life is respected and nurtured for the irreplaceable and invaluable wonders all represent.

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.


***

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.

*

*

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.

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