There are so many things I would like to write about but the truth is, I don’t have time. I am too busy doing something I have always loved to do. Solving puzzles.
It’s a trait that helped me survive jobs in overly politicized competitive bureaucracies. When I worked for state government, it involved mediating conflict in creative, unexpected ways. Like designing a solution for an outdated funding formula for county programs that was overly dependent on ever-shifting demographic data. When working for an inter-tribal agency, it meant figuring out how to exert tribal sovereignty over exploitive university researchers or state administrators who used divide and conquer tactics to create competition among tribes in order to limit funding for necessary services. In academia, it meant learning how to teach the most unpopular courses in ways that engaged students and provided information that would be helpful in a future I might not see.
Figuring out how to keep experimenting with more effective ways to teach research this semester is keeping me busy. Some days, it takes a lot of discipline to sit at my computer all day and into wee morning hours redesigning assignments or grading student papers with comments intended to both encourage and educate.
Interestingly though, doing other types of puzzles helps me transition between different topics, research methodologies, and styles of communicating. I am grateful for free online card games, or the digital jigsaw puzzles I can create with my own photos. (I doubt that the one posted below would be interesting, though.)
Solving cryptograms before I fall asleep helps me let go of any other puzzles that might otherwise keep me awake.
There are puzzles I don’t like to solve, though, that have to do with technology. Sadly, I have to rely on technicians or time. This week, I was locked out of WordPress. Fortunately that challenge was addressed by someone last evening. I don’t need to know who or how or why. I am just grateful that others find it interesting to solve technological puzzles.
All of this is meant as an explanation for my very infrequent visits to blogs these days, including mine. I want to let you know that I value what you all share and will return again as soon as I can. In the meantime, I send my best wishes to all.
In case anyone is interested, I have typed the cryptogram quotes below:
“One must learn by doing the thing, for though you think you know it, you have no certainty until you try.” (Aristotle)
“The surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that it has never tried to contact us.” (Bill Paterson)
“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” (Albert Einstein)
“Love is a medicine for the sickness of the world; a prescription often given, rarely taken.” (Karl Menninger)
… I was working as the deputy director of health and human services for an inter-tribal agency. It was not an easy job for many reasons, primarily because of the enduring legacy of colonialism that continued to impose dominant cultural paradigms on tribal communities and use divide and conquer tactics to foment conflicts between “traditional” and “progressive” tribal factions. Resolving conflict was a central part of my job, and it often put me in the middle of powerful competing interests. At a particularly challenging time, I needed to travel with one of my staff to a conference on worldwide healing for Indigenous people held in Edmonton, Alberta. The conference helped me realize I was not alone. Rediscovering the candle on my bookcase reminded me of the conference’s closing ceremony.
More than one thousand of us, representing many cultures and nations, stood in a circle within a large auditorium holding hands. Then, one elder walked to the center. She explained that the closing ceremony was intended to remind us that we were not alone. Because we were in a government building, we couldn’t use candles (fire ordinances prevented it), so flashlights would have to do. And then, the lights in the room went out as her flashlight went on in the center of the circle. She signaled to the four directions, highlighting one person from each of the four directions to walk to the center – first the east, then the south, the west, and the north. The representatives were all given a flashlight. As they touched their darkened lights to the elders “candle,” their flashlights were turned on. They were instructed to carry their light to the four directions and light other candles in their part of the circle. The elder explained that it would not be easy to keep the candle fires burning, but if the light went out, people could always return to the center to light them once again…
The rain I asked for hasn’t come yet but perhaps it will if I keep my focus on weaving life and light into the course despite the technological challenges I will most likely encounter …
One upon a time a family of dwarf pine trees were born They were watered and fed in a warm sheltered nursery Among them a brother and sister It took years for them to grow until they were finally tall enough to be clipped into fancy shapes that were not their nature They were sent to a store to be sold – but the summer went by while they waited and waited to find a home sadly, no one wanted them
At the end of the season, a bit stunted by the experience, they were finally put on sale – $14 for a living being I wonder if they wondered what their fate would be? As sometimes happens, they would not be far apart They went home with two neighbors but that is when their paths diverged
One went to a big home with a chemically-fed lawn to serve as a symbol of conspicuous material success He was placed in a fancy planter prominently displayed But when winter came, he was left outside without warmth or water When spring arrived, he was discarded with the used Christmas tree
The other little pine went to a modest cottage just next door to a yard overgrown with trees and flowers and gardens everywhere She was placed in a newly created garden where she could grow according to her own nature amid towering pines but the winters proved harsh – much colder than those of her past Each spring she struggled to bring forth life on damaged branches
Each summer, the man who bought her brother would flood her home Washing way the soil and protective mulch with a torrent of water from the birthday waterslide that was a new symbol of conspicuous superiority And each year, the woman who brought her to her new home would lovingly repair her soil and gently touch her branches uttering a silent prayer for the little pine tree’s health and survival
Ah, life. There are so many differing views about what is really important
This morning, I found myself wondering about the reflections I posted during mid-July in past years and decided to take a retrospective journey. For decades, July has been a time spent gardening. Watching the miracle of life unfurl from dry seeds never ceases to fill me with awe. Tending plants gives me a chance to focus on helping living creatures in practical, grounded, and perhaps, creative ways.
Gardening is like life in many ways. It’s not easy – or predictable either. Each of my past eight years gardening here has presented challenges to address – deer before the high fence went up, invasions by slugs during wet years, droughts in early spring and late summer, and deluges that wash away seeds that have just been planted or crush tender plants. This year is the year of the rabbits. The population of little bunnies that can get through fencing has exploded.
Still, I love the chance to work with gardens and attempt to solve perplexing issues. People are often more difficult for me to work with and I sometimes wonder why my path led me from a career in ecology to one in social work…
But back to my journey through past posts. I hope you will join me The posts reflect topics I often ponder when gardening when I have a chance to wander through time – how to find common ground in a divided world, how to be present in the moment, and the importance of relationships with others and the natural environment.
When I walked into the office of an inter-tribal agency on the first morning of my new job as deputy director of health and human services, it was clear how easy it was for people to be divided. Staff for the five programs at the time only felt ownership for their programs. They resented any expectations of collective responsibility for the welfare of the agency or tribes. They fought over which program paid for stationary and who could use the one computer. They didn’t question the appropriateness of imposing state and federal requirements on tribal communities. And in situations where staff struggled to meet program requirements, there was only censure and no help. The eleven-member Board of Directors comprised of the Chairpersons of member tribes was also easily divided, concerned only about meeting the interests of their respective tribal community. Why would it be otherwise if they expected to be reelected? There was little recognition of the needs of urban Native American populations in the state, and strong resistance to any cross-ethnic collaboration.
Looking back, I realize that at each step, I tried to find common ground among my department staff, my agency colleagues, other oppressed communities, and with funders and administrators as well. It is so easy for people who are oppressed to see others who are oppressed as the enemy. Who loses and who benefits from divisions among oppressed people? Clearly, those in power benefit from deflecting attention away from the role they play as our puppet masters. We keep each other oppressed and all too often, kill each other off while those in power profit financially and enjoy the illusion that they are smarter, more developed morally and culturally, and better fit to impose their hegemony.
Who benefits from the continuing conflict between Israel and Palestine? Only those who sell their souls and the hopes and dreams and lives of other people for the illusion of personal safety and status, those who wish to exploit oil and other resources with greater ease, and those who get rich by selling their weapons. Those who lose are ordinary people on both sides. Homes and lives are lost on both sides and children on both sides grow up in a war zone that teaches them to fear and hate their neighbors for generations yet to come. We all lose from a world at war, from a world where people are brutally murdered by governments for no other reason than securing the power and privilege of the ruling class. And we all lose when generations are denied the right to develop and contribute their gifts to the rest of the human community.
It was a July morning in 2011. An odd group of faculty, mostly from the English and art departments of a university, gathered for an in-service to learn how to use art as a vehicle for unlocking people’s stories. The instructor began.
“You have two minutes to draw the first thing that comes to mind for each of the words or phrases I mention. Don’t worry about technique. That will just interfere with your ability to tap what is most important to you.
“Draw the ‘safe place when you were a child.’ Draw ‘pressure – the pressure you feel from all of the demands that you deal with in your life.’ Now, draw a ‘monument.’”
For me, the images I drew that day were all linked to nature, to the natural world. That has always been my source of balance and solace in times of challenge and uncertainty. And now, as nature is threatened ever more by forces of exploitative disregard and destruction, it’s hard to hold on to a sense of hope and peace some days.
Unlike my colleagues, I didn’t draw an edifice of marble or concrete, I drew a tree – a living monument of what helps us survive on this planet. If Jared Diamond’s (2005) thesis is accurate, could it be that one of the final death knells for societies is the destruction of the forests that blanket the earth and give us all oxygen to breathe?…
As I work at grueling physical labor,
I watch my thoughts and feelings,
I sweat and swear,
Laugh at myself and my struggles – and find peace,
Sometimes present and other times floating in memories of past times and places,
Talking to plants and earthworms,
To the robins that are watching
Eagerly waiting to explore the earth I’ve just uncovered
And swatting at mosquitoes (I’m sorry to say)
I arise the next morning knowing there are still new jobs to be done. There is no ego or allure of fame and fortune involved. I know what I am doing will not save us from the future, but it gives me comfort to know that around the globe, people are tending the earth with hard work and loving care. Living simply and breathing love into the work we do whatever it might be – it’s what we can do for ourselves and the future of our grandchildren and our world.
“Actually, while it won’t be easy to reduce our impact, it won’t be impossible either. Remember that impact is the product of two factors: population, multiplied times impact per person.” (Diamond, p. 524)
The trees and the gardens we tend and the love we breathe into the world around us are the most important monuments we can leave.
Sitting on my back step a few days ago
A musical voice drew my attention
“Oh you’re so beautiful, you make me so happy.”
I peeked through the fence and saw my neighbor,
turning away from the fence to walk home.
She talks to the flowers and plants in my gardens
and always touches my heart with her lovely spirit.
I ran out to invite her into the yard
She already knew about the geranium –
another neighbor rescued it from an early death
and left it as a gift early in the spring
What more could one ask of life than friends
who share the love of life and beauty?
When my daughter was born,
my view of the world forever changed.
Life was no longer something I peered at
from a safe distance
I felt it deeply – glowing in my heart
Powerful, shifting emotions
forced me to realize how precious
and precarious life can be
Holding each of my grandchildren for the first time
intensified my sensitivity and commitment
to do all in my power to be a loving presence
Watching them as they grow
amplifies both joy and pain
celebrating their accomplishments
suffering when they encounter challenges
Sometimes all I can do is
to simply try to be a loving presence
In times such as these it’s not easy
to believe the future holds bright possibilities
Let our hearts awaken and glow
with celebratory joy
after a stormy night’s
seemingly dreamless sleep
by the urgent sound of rain
pounding on windows and roof
accompanied by booming thunder
that shook the house
to its very foundations
yet resting unafraid
and rising gently
to greet the day
other awakenings grace my days
encountering random kindness
in unexpected places like the city bus
as a stately elder gentleman
reached across the divisiveness
so prevalent here today
to bring kindness and comfort
into the lives of others
and graciously dealt with
rejection from those
to fear difference and joy
I couldn’t leave the bus
without thanking him
in the only words
that came to me
“Sir, you are a blessing to others”
Greeting the cool sunny morning
listening to the joyous music of birdsong
deeply peaceful yet unable to drown out
the drumbeat of nationalism
that threatens to destroy us all
It’s our own consumption and complacency
clinging to old myths of benevolent exceptional empires
that keep us from seeing shared humanity
on an earth with no dividing lines
except for scars left by exploitation and war
It matters little which kleptocrats rule
when we choose to see others as an enemy
rather than to listen deeply to the heartbeats
of a planet we are entrusted to lovingly tend
Today, I will visit Pinto, my little dog, who’s in the hospital recovering from an operation.
Maybe I’ll have time to edit my manuscript and pull a few weeds, too, grateful for the gifts of beloved companions, a small relatively peaceful space on earth to tend, and the responsibilities to still care for others. I will continue to do what I can to build common ground in a divided world without compromising integrity, to be present in the moment despite the pain that sometimes brings, and to nurture healthy relationships with others and the natural environment by walking softly on the earth.
Greeting the morning earlier than usual
after awakening to the rumbling clouds
The alley behind my house is filled with “tooting” puddles
reminding me of my granddaughter’s laughter
Now, she might be too grown up
to notice puddles with delight
but perhaps she’s not yet too old to remember
I have lived through so many in my life
Changing people, places, jobs, responsibilities,
sometimes alone as I am now, and sometimes with partners
My changing house reminds me of a common thread
connecting this long, winding journey
No accomplishment, job, relationship, or living situation
is quite what we expected or hoped it would be
The one constant connecting them all is change
The ways we respond to “success,” loss, and disappointment
tell a story about who we really are
Each place I have travelled, I tried my best
to learn how to be present in the moment
breathing new possibilities into being
despite knowing that nothing is permanent
and, perhaps, the memories of what could be
Sometimes, unexpected gifts help us remember why we are here – now – in such chaotic, troubling times
“It is hard to say which one of the current egregious matters has rocked people’s worlds and beliefs more. Ours is a time of almost daily jaw-dropping astonishment and often righteous rage over the latest degradations of what matters most to civilized, visionary people.
“…You are right in your assessments. The lustre and hubris some have aspired to while endorsing acts so heinous against children, elders, everyday people, the poor, the unguarded, the helpless, is breathtaking.
“Yet … I urge you, ask you, gentle you, to please not spend your spirit dry by bewailing these difficult times. Especially do not lose hope. Most particularly because, the fact is – we were made for these times.
“Yes. For years, we have been learning, practicing, been in training for and just waiting to meet on this exact plain of engagement. I cannot tell you often enough that we are definitely the leaders we have been waiting for, and that we have been raised, since childhood, for this time precisely” (Clarissa Pinkola Estés)
“Awesome! Ava and I will pick you up in about an hour.”
The annual sale is an event we have often attended, even when I lived far from Duluth. I remember trips with my grandson years before my granddaughter was born twelve years ago. Some years, the weather has meant a sweltering thirsty journey in mid-June as we walked along miles of the narrow roadway crowded with parked cars and new arrivals looking for empty spaces.
This year’s trip was a different story. It was cold in the morning when we arrived. Strong blustery east winds were whipping up waves along the Lake Superior shoreline, making the mid-50 F degree temperature feel more like winter. Warnings were posted, advising visitors to stay out of the water due to the danger of rip currents.
The Park Point neighborhood has a fascinating history. It is located on what was once a narrow seven-mile sandy peninsula that extended into the lake from the southwestern shore of Lake Superior. The Anishinaabe (also known as the Ojibwe, Ojibway, or Chippewa) had established a community, Onigamiinsing – the “little portage.” The first recorded European visitor arrived in Onigamiinsing in 1679, Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut, a French soldier and explorer (Wikipedia; Klefstad, 2012).
“By 1852, the first non-Indian resident, George Stuntz, had established three buildings for a trading post and living space” (Klefstad, 2012, para. 4).
Land for the new city was ceded by the Ojibwe to the United States in the 1854 Treaty of La Pointe. (More information about the treaty can be found at the following links: Wikipedia and MNopedia.) According to a report based on the U.S. Census, American Indians comprised 2.4% of Duluth’s population by the year 2000 (Gilly, Gangl, & Skoog, n.d.). The authors of the county report suggest that American Indians, like the majority of other people of color, were concentrated in Duluth’s poorest neighborhoods and less likely to live in neighborhoods like Park Point.
The settlers who arrived in the 1800s named their new home “Duluth” in honor of the first European visitor and began transforming the environment.
“By 1871, the long peninsula became an island when Duluth dug out the ship canal that separates the Point from Canal Park, the other part of Minnesota Point. After nearly 20 years, Park Point reunited with the mainland with the 1905 opening of Duluth’s signature structure, the Aerial Bridge, first as a suspended ferry, later as a lift-span roadway” (Klefstad, 2012. para. 7).
I did capture a couple shots of the bridge as we left Park Point on the only road that connects it now to the mainland.
We walked at least a mile or two down one side of the street and back on the other side. We passed the wetlands preserve on the bayside of the island/peninsula.
And we stopped to visit most of the yards and garages where a wide assortment of items were on display – clothing, dishes, art work, photography, toys, etc. I didn’t intend to buy anything but couldn’t resist the wool winter hat hand-crafted for Alaskan winters. I needed it yesterday morning in the cold wind!
Serendipity also led us to a photographer we visited last year when my daughter and I both bought framed pictures from him. This year, we merely stopped to look and chat and met a delightful blogger, Allyson Engelstad, who shares her photos and reflections on her beautiful blog. I encourage anyone who loves to learn about nature to visit her lovely site, penncosect24.
I couldn’t resist the gliding rocking chair for sale at a price far, far less than the battered ones I have seen in thrift stores. (My granddaughter offered to lend me the money to buy it because I left my purse in the car.) It’s sturdy and comfortable. Maybe someday I will change the upholstery on the cushions. Or maybe not. I used to sew and made most of my daughter’s clothes when she was little, but the doll I began making for my granddaughter more than twelve years ago when she was a baby still needs to be finished. (You’ll have to use your imagination to figure out what the upholstery looks like. I don’t think it’s worth a photo…)
Before we left for home, we visited the windy beach on the lakeside of the island/peninsula.
As we headed home, I couldn’t resist taking pictures of some of the interesting sights in the city.
I enjoyed the break from working on cleaning up my yard and gardens. There is plenty of work still waiting and a manuscript to finish editing that is haunting me as well. I just wanted to share something along with my best wishes to all before I immerse myself in work again.
Reading the mainstream news confirms Cohen’s message
“There is a crack, a crack in everything”
yet all I have to offer are imperfect ramblings
Perhaps that’s enough to let some light get in?
The research my students read this past semester continues to haunt me. They explored how unequal access to potable water disproportionately affects the health of groups that have been relegated to marginalized socio-economic status and forced to relocate to the least desirable lands. Most people believe that “developed” countries are not affected by the scarcity of safe water to drink. Some of the students this past semester were shocked when they discovered otherwise.
One student shared a quote from a study she reviewed, “… the value of water is [only] truly appreciated when one becomes thirsty” (Noga & Wolbring, 2013, p. 1872). I am reminded of the courage and commitment of the Standing Rock Water Protectors and the violent resistance they had to endure because too many people take clean water for granted until it’s too late.
Another student reviewed a study about a community in Texas that was profoundly affected by a disaster. Although the study took place almost a decade after the residents learned that their water had been contaminated with benzene, the community remained shattered as a result of a “technological disaster” caused by a nearby oil refinery owned by the Exxon Corporation (Couch & Mercuri, 2007, p. 118).
Although community members noticed problems with the smell, taste, and color of their water when they first moved into the newly developed subdivision in the 1980s, they were assured by the local municipal utility district that the water was safe. The district staff undoubtedly believed that to be true. Public water suppliers were not required to test for benzene, “a known human carcinogen,” until 1990 (Couch & Mercuri, 2007, p. 120). After benzene was included among the chemical contaminants public water suppliers had to measure, the test results for the community’s water supply were alarming – the amount of benzene was eleven times greater than what was deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Without informing residents, the district switched the community to a “safe” alternate water source after additional tests showed the same results for benzene. Community residents were not informed about the contamination or the switch until rumors and a local investigative reporter forced the issue. Residents were finally notified five months after the discovery and shift to a new water source. Couch and Mercury (2007, p. 117) describe the response. “In the words of one resident, the community reacted ‘like someone stepping on an anthill – everyone running in different directions.’”
Imagine what that does to the sense of trust community members have in their public service providers and government officials. It’s something residents in Love Canal, NY and Flint, MI experienced.
Residents in each of the communities affected by “technological disasters” had to undertake their own advocacy and identify researchers and lawyers who could help them prove their case. But ending at least part of the most obvious and egregious environmental injustices and winning court cases can’t heal the ongoing health damages, psychological trauma, or splintered community relationships that result.
This brief overview does not do justice to an important research study that details the complex intricacies of the multidimensional harm suffered by residents of this particular Texas community. Hopefully, though, it highlights a simple, compelling point. Vulnerability to the most destructive consequences of both technological and natural disasters is far greater for groups that have already been subjected to centuries of ongoing systematic and structural discrimination because of socio-economic status and ancestry. It is not something governments alone can address even if they are willing to do so. The causes are deeper and more complex.
There is a pattern we see repeating for each community that goes through the increasingly common natural and technological disasters. Community leaders declare their intention to rebuild and recover what was lost. Based on the experiences of communities that have survived repeated natural disasters, recovery has sometimes been possible. Couch and Mercuri (2007, p. 131) point out “that in areas prone to certain types of natural disasters, a disaster subculture develops which helps residents prepare for and respond to disasters. For example, in natural disasters, a therapeutic community often forms by which neighbor helps neighbor to respond to the catastrophe” (emphasis mine).
What Couch and Mecuri (2007, p. 131) witnessed in the community they studied, however, “was just the opposite, with everybody looking out only for themselves. Instead of the community being solidified, it was ‘like someone stepping on an anthill.’” They argue that what developed was a subculture of distress among residents that reinforced “uncertainty, distrust, alienation, and conflicting individualized responses to the problems” (Couch & Mercuri, 2007, p. 132, emphasis mine).
Couch and Mercuri (2007, p. 134) argue that “With chronic technological disasters, recovery/transformation must often take place in the midst of ongoing danger, or at the very least, amidst the perception of it.” The trauma created by benzene contamination didn’t end when the problem was addressed by the municipal utility district. Residents had already ingested contaminated water and had been deceived by people and officials whom they had trusted.
They had to live with the fact that they were already ill or with constant fear that they might become seriously ill at some point in the future. They also learned that they couldn’t depend on government officials for help. They couldn’t recover the illusion that personal health and safety were guaranteed. The only option available to them was to transform themselves and their lives in response to changing circumstances.
As I thought about the difference between recovery and transformation for communities affected by disasters, I was reminded of the times we are all living in now. With each passing day, those in power around the world are creating ever more destruction and instability. Even if the destruction ends today, we will still need to contend with the destabilizing consequences for generations yet to come. The message I take away from this article is the need to learn how to create an adaptive community where people can learn how to work together rather than only look out for their own self interests.
Overcoming the programming that has affected too many of us in the world to hunger and thirst for things that destroy rather than sustain life is not an easy task. Perhaps as Cohen suggests, things need to break first so the light can get in. Perhaps the most that those who see the dangers ahead can accomplish is to transform themselves and what they think and say and do.
Leonard Cohen, “Anthem” from the 1992 album The Future.
Stephen R. Couch & Anne E. Mercuri (2007). Toxic water and the anthill effect: The development of a subculture of distress in a once contaminated community. Research in Social Problems and Public Policy, 14, 117-137.
Jacqueline Noga & Gregor Wolbring (2013). Perceptions of water ownership, water management, and the responsibility of providing clean water. Water, 5(4), 1865-1889.
It has been weeks since I have had time to post and April has flown by. I have had brief respites to simply observe beauty.
I have also made it a priority to spend time with my daughter and grandchildren when possible.
Mostly, though, I have been working on the two classes I am teaching this semester.
Saturday, as I prepared for the macro practice class I co-teach with a colleague, I was lost in a stream of consciousness moment when one thought lead me down a path of memories that didn’t seem to have any logical connections other than my long life. As I put skin cream on my legs after my shower, I noticed my right knee once again. It’s still a bit puffy despite the decades that have passed since it was injured when I was taking care of Rita. Thinking of Rita always reminds me how precious and unpredictable life is.
Rita was a tiny woman when she contracted the brain cancer that was killing her slowly despite operations, radiation treatments, and medications. Medications caused her body to become bloated and stimulated her appetite. By the time I was hired as a home health aide to help care for her during the last year of her life, she had gained a lot of weight. She needed assistance with self-care and walking. She was often lost in another world of thoughts but she did love to eat. She would often joke about the meals I prepared. Cooking has never been something I liked doing, but I tried my best.
I was warned to remain emotionally distant by my employer. “She’s going to die no matter what you do, so don’t get attached.” Despite the warning, I discovered something that has stayed with me when I teach. I learned to care about her deeply and let her know I cared in many ways even though I knew our time together was limited. I knew I couldn’t do anything to cure her disease, but I could bring “soft hands and laughter” into her life no matter how long or short it was meant to be. I would sit and listen to her talk, cook things she liked, and take her on excursions when she expressed a desire to get out of the house even for a moment.
Gradually, Rita lost her ability to walk and spent much of her time in bed. Toward the end of her life, when I was helping her move from her bed to the wheelchair she had to use at that point, she had a seizure. It was heavy lifting for me at the best of times. I weighed at least 30 pounds less than Rita. As I was lifting her that day, her body went rigid as she shook with powerful spasms. It wasn’t possible for me to lift her back on the bed or help her flex into a sitting position. With my arms wrapped around her body, all I could do was lower her gently to the floor, injuring my knee in the process. With gentle hands and a calming voice, I helped Rita relax and was finally able to get her to help me lift her into the wheelchair.
She lived far longer than predicted. I wasn’t sure that I would be able to be with her until the end because I planned to move soon to another state. When I let my employer know I would be moving a month in advance, they fired me immediately and brought in another aide. The family was angry and asked me to stay and hired me themselves to fill in the hours when the agency aide was not with Rita. I agreed to help as long as I could.
When I arrived for my first shift, I heard the new aide yelling. I peeked into Rita’s bedroom and saw the aide roughly slapping a washcloth over Rita’s face. At that point, Rita was in the final stages of her disease. She required total care and was unable to speak. I walked in to help the aide and let the family know what I witnessed. Within a week, Rita was gone.
Although I grieved her death, I knew that I had done the best I could to make her last year as kind and comfortable as possible. I realized that spending time with Rita was a gift. Being present in the moment and caring about others are especially important in times of transition. It lessened my sadness about loss.
My knee remained painful but surviving childhood abuse taught me how to function despite physical pain. Later, I learned that the injury resulted in “knee effusion, or water on the knee.” Although it was bruised, swollen, and stiff, I was still able to walk. A supportive, flexible knee bandage helped reduce the pain although it took more than a year to fully heal. Decades later, it’s still a little puffy but usually works just fine.
Perhaps my Saturday morning reminiscence about Rita was triggered by a frightening experience on Friday evening. I fell asleep curled up in my rocking chair, exhausted, after teaching the second to the last research class before the end of the semester. I awoke with painful cramps in my legs and was initially unable to walk. It was a frightening reminder of how unpredictable life can be. Thankfully the pain subsided quickly. (Next time I’ll take naps elsewhere!)
Reviewing student papers has meant hours of sitting in an uncomfortable chair, first reading original sources to make sense of student papers, and then, hours on the computer grading and commenting to help students learn how to read carefully and write clearly.
Like my experience with Rita, grading has been a mixed blessing. In the process, I learned a lot about access to safe, drinkable water around the globe. Someday, I hope I have time to synthesize what I learned from the kaleidoscopic assortment of research studies my students explored. The process of reviewing many different vantage points about the crises we are facing, however, reminded me to keep things in perspective.
One third of the world’s population is without access to potable water or sanitation at the household level (Cumming, Elliott, Overbo, & Bartram, 2014). One third! And we continue fracking, spewing out plastic garbage, pouring more toxic chemicals on farmlands, and building yet more weapons. I am so grateful for the opportunity to play a role in raising student awareness about these issues. Grading has also left little time for me to write or visit blogs. That is unlikely to change in the next few weeks before the semester ends.
Next semester I will have the privilege of working with the same group of students. Throughout my years of teaching, I have remembered to be mindful of the lessons Rita taught me.
Be present in the moment and care about each student.
I only have a short time to spend with each cohort of students before they move on with their lives. All I can do is my best and hope they will learn what they need to know while we are together so they are prepared to face a challenging and uncertain future with the ability to think critically and respond with caring creativity.
Oliver Cumming, Mark Elliott, Alicia Overbo, & Jamie Bartram (2014). Does global progress on sanitation really lag behind water? An analysis of global progress on community- and household-level access to safe water and sanitation. Plos One.
and that of light-affirming others around the world
garnering strength to heal for the sake of all life
across uncountable generations to come
I do worry about the challenges that those who are awakening to the wonder of the world will face in the future. I wrote and titled this poem before reading an article by Tess Owen in Vice News. Owen describes a different kind of awakening among white nationalists from around the world who gathered in Finland this past weekend. They referred to their celebration as “Awakening II.” I sincerely hope they will awaken to wonder, too.