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

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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.

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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.

Truth in Advertising

Carol A. Hand

Normally, I avoid looking at advertisements when I visit corporate news sites, but one caught my eye on Huffington Post last night. I just had to take a screen shot.

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Huffington Post – October 2, 2018

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This is not the best of photos but the message about a corporate agenda for a dystopian consumer future is so alarmingly transparent.

The message reminds me why I still teach. It’s well worth the effort to face the challenges of creating opportunities for students to learn by paying attention to what surrounds them, to “see the wonder of life in a blade of grass,” and think critically about the world.

Speaking of teaching, I may be slow visiting blogs or responding to comments because I have many papers to grade at the moment.

P.S.

I would have postponed posting this before the coordinating warnings that just came from the National Emergency Warning System. The loudspeakers and sirens in my neighborhood trumpeted the message, my cell phone screeched next, followed rapidly by a message on the classical public radio station I listen to each day. I’m just curious to know how many others have heard the warnings and if anyone has an inkling about what’s going on.

Reflections about Divisive Nationalism

Carol A. Hand

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

***

“Earth Day” Flag by John McConnell, Wikipedia

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Reflections about Following the Leader

Carol A. Hand

After reading a couple of chapters in Howard Zinn’s (1997) book, A People’s History of the United States, one of my students last semester asked a crucial question.

What does Mr. Trump mean when he says ‘Make America great again?’ When was it ever great?

Her questions led to a fascinating class dialogue.

Although it’s tempting for me to say that it was great here before Europeans arrived, I really can’t. Surviving the past long, cold winter made me realize how foolish and untrue it would be for me to say something so simplistic and disrespectful. Yes, much was lost for Indigenous people, but there have been benefits as well. For example, I can’t imagine the challenge of living in the north country without indoor plumbing and heat during a winter like the last. I am not sure how my ancestors survived by hunting and by gathering ever more distant fire wood outside to heat themselves, cook, and unfreeze water. Even when I lived off the power grid, I still had a well for indoor plumbing, a generator to run the electric water pump, and a backup propane heater in addition to a wood stove.

Despite my students’ critical view, the phrase “Make America great again” seems to be a powerful rallying cry for many people in the U.S. these days. I suspect it’s most powerful for those who have been programmed by schools that assiduously avoid resources that expose students to critical thinkers like Zinn. Those on the poorly-educated margins have been waiting a long time for America to be great for them as they struggled to make it as farmers, miners, or people trying to find jobs that made them feel that they were contributing something worthwhile to others and earning a decent wage in exchange.

Feeling forgotten or like a failure makes it far more difficult to resist the illusion that one can gain a little more power by putting others down. Many people are willing to follow a leader who sanctions divisiveness, who makes them feel special, and who helps them set aside any misgivings about morality. After all, someone in a position of authority tells them it’s a patriotic duty and demonstrates that it’s appropriate and legal to demean, scapegoat, and brutalize others whose differences set them apart somehow.

As I think about the class I’ll be teaching in the fall, research, I realize that Mr. Trump’s America reminds me of the Stanford prison experiment on steroids.

Give people a title and a little power and some will do anything to keep it. Or, as Stanley Milgrim’s experiments show, many people put aside their own common sense and empathy if a person in authority tells them what they’re doing is right even if it means inflicting harm on others. I have seen those dynamics in my work throughout my career in all types of organizations and communities. We’re witnessing what seems like escalating, outrageous, brutality on a national and global level.

The most crucial question to ask is, of course, what can be done to stop the egregious harm that is being done by people in power who seemingly have no hearts. I believe each of us who is aware must resist in our own way. For me at the moment that means stepping outside the protective comfort zone I created to heal from the battle scars of past encounters with the status quo. The specifics of what that will mean are still a work in progress. But so far this year, it’s meant planting the flower boxes I left empty last year as a gift of life and beauty to those who walk down the alley behind my house and happen to notice. It’s a small gesture, yet each life-loving thought and action may matter in ways we will never know.

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June 25, 2018

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Work Cited:

Howard Zinn (1997). A People’s History of the United States (Abridged Teaching Edition). New York, NY: The New Press.

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Some Days I Wonder …

Carol A. Hand

Raised Fist Image by Keith Tyler, Courtesy of Wikipedia. (Details below.)

***

Mr. Trump is coming to town today
“power to the people”
Long lines of supporters wait to hear him
“power to the people”
Lined up for blocks above streets
in dark sweltering skywalks
no power to the people
As they wait for electricity to be restored
on this quiet lovely sunny day
in the part of the city where Mr. Trump will soon appear
*
How fervently I wish real heart and intellectual power
would be restored to the people
as children are once again
being torn from the arms of loving families

***

A Pleasant Quiet Sunny Day – June 20, 2018

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Note:

The “Raised Fist Image” by Keith Tyler, Courtesy of Wikipedia, “… is a variant of the clenched fist motif which has been widely used by leftist, workers, and liberationist groups since the nineteenth century. The motif itself is not under copyright.”

Keith Tyler’s image was released into the public domain by its creator February 2007. “The wider motif itself is not protected by copyright.”

Garbage

Carol A. Hand

A few days ago, I checked the news on Huffington Post and read a story about garbage, something I have been thinking about lately. On Mondays and Tuesdays, overflowing garbage containers line the alley behind my house. I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t know where it goes.

Zero Waste – Four Hills Landfill, Nashua New Hampshire -(Wikipedia)

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I still haven’t made it a priority to investigate exactly how the city where I now live handles trash, but I do remember “garbage mountain” in the last city where I lived. The mountain rose high above the flat landscape, placed close to the state prison. I often wondered how the prisoners were able to breathe because I could smell the heavy stench miles away.

The Huffington Post article I read was disturbing on a number of levels. Here’s a brief excerpt:

China No Longer Wants Your Trash. Here’s Why That’s Potentially Disastrous.
The country has been the “world’s wastebasket” for decades. But starting Jan. 1, China has said “no more.” (by Dominique Mosbergen)

On Jan. 1, China made good on its promise to close its borders to several types of imported waste. By the next day, panic had already taken hold in countries across Europe and North America as trash began piling up by the ton, with no one having a clue where to now dispose of it all.

For more than 20 years, China has been the world’s recycling bin, accepting an enormous quantity of recyclable waste from nations worldwide. In 2016, China processed at least half of the world’s exports of waste plastic, paper and metals — some 7.3 million tons of trash in all. The U.S. exported 16 million tons of waste to China that year, worth about $5.2 billion. Britain sent China enough garbage to fill up 10,000 Olympic-size swimming pools.

….

The ramifications of China’s recent ban has been described with language suggestive of a natural disaster. It has sent “shockwaves” worldwide, said Greenpeace East Asia plastics campaigner Liu Hua. Arnaud Brunet, head of the Bureau of International Recycling, compared the ban to an “earthquake.”

….

As recyclers and governments now rush to figure out what to do with their mounting garbage, environmental activists warn that the initial effects of China’s ban could prove detrimental to the environment and human health.

China’s decision seems reasonable to me. It’s not the job of Chinese citizens to continue to be buried in the world’s toxic garbage. I also wondered why the author of the article failed to use this as a golden opportunity to mention inventions that could potentially address a crucial part of the issue, plastic. I remembered reading about a Japanese inventor who had developed a process for converting plastic back into oil and did a quick internet search.

The inventor was Akinori Ito. He “created a household appliance which converts plastic bags into fuel. The fuel can be used for various applications such as the generation of heat” (interestingengineering.com).

I also found a fascinating video that features Ito describing the motivation behind his invention and demonstrating how it works. (This Japanese Invention Can Recycle Plastic into Oil).

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My discoveries didn’t end with Ito. John Bordynuik describes his invention for converting plastic to highly refined oil on TEDxBuffalo.

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In doing a little more research, I discovered that Borynuik was later found guilty of misrepresenting his company’s performance to stockholders. Initially, I decided not to post this piece and trashed my draft post. Yet I couldn’t stop thinking about this issue. After further reflection, the corporate agenda to discredit an innovator by any means made me seriously question why any one has to make money on a process that helps us resolve a pressing human and environmental issue. Isn’t it enough of a benefit to deal with mountains and oceans of plastic pollution in more responsible ways?

It’s true. I was looking for an easy way out. I wanted someone else to rescue me from the responsibility of doing more myself to reduce what I contribute to the problem. It is also true that I believe science can help provide answers, although more than five decades have passed since my early college days when I was majoring in biology and chemistry. Setting our scientists to work on solutions to pollution would be a far wiser investment than building yet more bombers, nuclear weapons, and continuing our unsustainable environmental exploitation.

What concerns me most about Huffington Post’s article is the fact that Ito’s video was posted in 2010, and Bordynuik’s was posted in 2011. The science is known and both Ito and Bordynuik have demonstrated that it works, albeit on a small scale that requires time and money to carry out at this point. Their work suggests, however, a wiser way to invest in the future without fracking and drilling new oil wells on the shores of Alaska and Florida.

Just think what we could do if we stopped manufacturing new reasons for international conflict and agreed to work together to solve this challenge in ways that make sense! Figuring out how to deal with our own garbage responsibly is a daunting enough challenge to keep us all busy for the foreseeable future.

 

Mountains of waste pile up on the garbage island of Thilafushi – April 2005 (Wikipedia)

I wish that Huffington Post had taken a little more time to do research and frame their story in a more constructive manner.  It makes me wonder whose interests are being served by presenting information in a tone that may well foment yet another excuse for international conflict. Our garbage.

Grading Papers

Carol A. Hand

Grading student papers is not an easy job. It’s the reason I haven’t been on WordPress often these past weeks.  Yet I have learned how important it is to grade mindfully, because the words we use can change lives – for better or worse.

I’m posting a poem my colleague shared with me tonight that speaks to this truth with power and eloquence.

My Name Is Not Those People, a poem by Julie K. Dinsmore, read Danny Grover on YouTube:

Mainstream Media Circus …

Carol A. Hand

Come one, come all!

Microsoft Word Clip Art

***

Step right up,
ladies and gentlemen
Welcome to the circus
Our main attraction
may appear to be
the orange clown
He will perform
astounding feats
of buffoonery

Microsoft WORD Clip Art

***

His act is intended
to distract your attention
Perhaps he will also be able
to divide you, the audience,
into illusory opponents
and maybe even provoke you
to fight with each other
But don’t be fooled

Microsoft WORD Clip Art

***
His main objective is
to keep you from noticing
the machinations of the puppeteers
who, behind the scenes,
are building structures that will
imprison you in joyless lives
of endless servitude to
feed their insatiable appetites
for yet more power.

***

Celebrating the Peace-Makers

Carol A. Hand

This morning I awoke early, feeling the urgency to finish writing something I began before going to sleep in the wee hours. It was a rambling incoherent reflection that explained my absence from WordPress this week.

There are days when “real world” responsibilities keep me away from blogging – preparing courses, working on a book manuscript, paying bills, chipping ice from my sidewalk and driveway, buying groceries, and weaving new social networks. Other times, I need to retreat and re-energize, taking time to balance and reflect. Especially now. The fear, anger, and divisiveness are palpable, even virulent at times. It’s a delicate balancing act to remain hopeful and objective in tumultuous times.

This evening when it was movie time for my parakeet, Queenie, I opted to explore dramas based on real life on Netflix. Queenie prefers movies with music. So the first choice, toward the end of a long list, was the movie “The Idol,” the story of Palestinian singer Muhammed Assaf. The second was among the recommended videos when our first movie ended, “East Jerusalem West Jerusalem.” The movie chronicles David Broza’s initiative to bring Israeli, Palestinian, and American musicians together to produce an album. Both were hopeful examples of artists using their gifts to spread a message of peace and human connections.

Today, while the USA erupts into divisiveness, it seems fitting to celebrate the artists and peacemakers among us who focus on reaching across borders to unite people in our shared humanity.

The Idol” by writer-director Hany Abu-Aassad tells the story of Muhammed Assaf whose talent as a gifted singer gained worldwide recognition despite the oppressive reality of life in Gaza that he was able to escape.  Through his art, Assaf raises awareness about oppression and possibilities.

Following is a video that highlights Assaf’s work.

East Jerusalem West Jerusalem,” directed by Henrique Cymerman and Erez Miller, follows David Broza’s work bringing artists together across cultural divides (Israeli, Palestinian, and American) to collaborate on an album in a recording studio in Arab (East) Jerusalem. “Over eight days, the artists build cultural bridges, finding common ground through their music and their commitment to peace.” (Skirball.org)

Following is a video of David Broza’s account of the process.

The video and lyrics from one of the songs on the album, Jerusalem by Steve Earle, underscore the contributing artists’ shared commitment to peace and unity.

“Jerusalem”
By Steve Earle

I woke up this mornin’ and none of the news was good
And death machines were rumblin’ ‘cross the ground where Jesus stood
And the man on my TV told me that it had always been that way
And there was nothin’ anyone could do or say

And I almost listened to him
Yeah, I almost lost my mind
Then I regained my senses again
And looked into my heart to find

That I believe that one fine day all the children of Abraham
Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem

Well maybe I’m only dreamin’ and maybe I’m just a fool
But I don’t remember learnin’ how to hate in Sunday school
But somewhere along the way I strayed and I never looked back again
But I still find some comfort now and then

Then the storm comes rumblin’ in
And I can’t lay me down
And the drums are drummin’ again
And I can’t stand the sound

But I believe there’ll come a day when the lion and the lamb
Will lie down in peace together in Jerusalem

And there’ll be no barricades then
There’ll be no wire or walls
And we can wash all this blood from our hands
And all this hatred from our souls

And I believe that on that day all the children of Abraham
Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem

It’s easy to divide people. The divisiveness will continue to be trumpeted and fomented by mainstream and social media today and for months to come. However, I wish to celebrate another possibility today by honoring the peace-makers who grace the world. I realize there are many ways to deal with these times.

While some are celebrating the US presidential inauguration and others are protesting, I’ll be at home chipping the ice that still covers my sidewalk and driveway if weather permits and working on a PowerPoint for the first meeting of the social justice course I’m co-teaching tomorrow. I’m grateful to artists like Muhammed Assaf and David Broza who use their talents to promote peace and unity.

How can one remain uninspired by their examples? I do question if it’s possible for us to find common ground. For the sake of my grandchildren, I know I have to continue trying. And I know I’m not alone.

Imagine World Peace
Imagine World Peace

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Pondering Power and Possibilities

Carol A. Hand

Do you ever begin writing without a clear message or destination in mind? Yesterday and today are like that for me. I’m still surrounded by a sea of ice permanently bonded to sidewalks and earth, watching as snow falls to add another layer to the challenge of digging out. But I’m thankful for small blessings. Yesterday, I was able to clear the ice that had frozen my front door and front gate shut. Being locked-in by weather reminds me of the feeling of powerlessness that often sweeps over me these days.

December 2016
December 2016

These feel like truly bleak times. I’ll get back to that later, after I revisit memories. Maybe the process of remembering will help me find hopeful, realistic solutions. Developing a coherent course on social justice will only be possible then…

Had I remained in the New Jersey home of my childhood, I may have assimilated and accepted American values as my own. That didn’t happen, though. Instead I spent my twelfth summer on an Ojibwe reservation with my grandmother before moving to northwestern Pennsylvania, a dreary place from my perspective then and now. My only real friends were elders in the nursing home my mother bought and administered. Despite my father’s unemployment, erratic combative behavior and profligacy, we were catapulted from the working class into relative affluence. We had a summer cottage on the Allegheny River, a 40-acre farm on top of a mountain, and a third-floor apartment above the nursing home. My mother’s business made enough profit to send me off to a private Catholic women’s college in Chicago.

I could escape small town homogeneity, believing that I would find answers and skills that might help me make a difference. I sometimes still wonder what might have been if I had stayed focused on my original goal as a chemistry and biology major – to become an ecologist. I didn’t have enough self-confidence then to overcome all of the barriers I faced and a young woman. Or perhaps it felt too much like escape from the suffering I encountered in the communities I was exposed during those college years. I spent my vacations in the hills of Kentucky, or on the Menominee reservation in Wisconsin. My evenings and weekends were spent tutoring a lovely young black student in the inner city of Chicago or hanging out with Latino youth there.

Yes, I could lose myself for hours and days trying to decipher the chemical composition of compounds. It was exciting to answer my curiosity. But I wondered if anything had really improved in the world because of this discovery. Would this path ever lead to a reduction of the needless oppression and pain I had witnessed? I didn’t think so at the time, but still I sometimes wonder.

I wasn’t motivated by the same things as the other young women at the somewhat elite Catholic women’s college I attended. Lord knows I tried to understand their worldviews. A few of my classmates introduced me to books and music that unlocked new ideas and possibilities. But many appeared to only be concerned with superficial appearances that didn’t interest me. And quite frankly, some of the stories I heard about their cruelty toward their unpopular, “unattractive” roommates was a warning to remain on the margins out of their sight. Some of their victims barely survived. It’s the major reason why I developed a strong negative bias toward privilege that has only grown over the years.

Yak-Trax in the snow - December 2016
Yak-Trax in the snow –
December 2016

Let me fast forward to the age of 24. I had dropped out of college when my daughter was born. When she was one and a half, I decided to see if it was possible for us to live a simpler communal life. With nothing but a vision, twenty dollars in my pocket and hope for what was possible, we set off not knowing what we would find. Not surprising in retrospect, I found that one cannot easily escape from the problems in the world I was trying to avoid. It’s how I became fascinated by the concept of power and it inspired me to learn about hegemony.

Because I grew up with an abusive and emotionally volatile father, I had learned to always question authority. Threats and punishment could not force me compromise what I thought was right. Witnessing the willingness of others to follow the often whimsical and foolish orders of “the leader” of the commune initially amused me. Yet I still held out hope because of the good-hearted people who held a clear vision of what we could create together by growing our own food and living simply. Despite my earlier experiences, I still saw the world from the vantage point of honest innocence and good-will, incapable of imagining that anyone would willingly harm others.

That view changed over time as I gradually rose from the outer fringes of the commune hierarchy to the buffer position between the 200 community members and the inner leadership circle. My job was to collect weekly donations from all members and purchase supplies for all of the geographically dispersed “houses.” The leadership wanted to extract every penny it could from the members.

Some members worked extra jobs and donated all they earned without taking care of their own needs. Others contributed little and made sure they got more than they gave. There were also wounded souls who might not survive under other conditions. The leadership only cared about money, not the well-being of individual commune members. Sadly, most members cared more about being accepted by the leader than about living according to their own values.

It took time for me to understand that the funds were used to support an extravagant lifestyle for a few. That’s when I left the position and returned to the periphery to see if it was still possible to build a sense of community vision. A confrontation with the leader made it clear that changing “his” community was not a viable option. So my daughter and I left. This time we had a few friends, a place to stay if we made it across the country, and $150.

We started over and I didn’t look back. I wouldn’t learn how bad the oppression really was for others until I reconnected with some of the commune members 40 years later and heard their stories about the leader’s cocaine and other drug addictions and the children and women who were repeatedly raped by the leader and his inner circle. Clearly they violated the community’s alleged guiding principles that were imposed on members – “no drugs or promiscuity.”

Five years after I left the community, I re-entered school and began another journey from the outer to inner circles of hierarchies. I even learned my own lessons about the allure and dangers of having a little power. This is where these reflections led me today.

The privileged elite in any system need buffers to protect them from “the masses.” The most gifted buffers are those who only see the good in others. But even they will ultimately realize their trust and hope is misplaced. Then, like me, they face a decision point. Either they leave or they consciously decide to compromise their own values because it’s more comfortable to settle for a small piece of the pie than it is to risk the uncertainty of starting over with nothing.

Nothing, that is, but self-respect and the knowledge that they have started over many times before. Solutions come in their own time if one is patient, resourceful, and grateful for the many gifts and memories that remain.

Eventually, spring will come. Of this I am certain, although I have no idea what it will bring. Hopefully, though, it will be warm enough to melt the ice that still remains despite continuing efforts to do what I can to remove it without harming others, the environment, or myself in the process…

A final thought occurred as I was chipping ice, much to the dismay of my forlorn little helper.

Pinto waiting patiently - December 2016
Pinto waiting patiently –
December 2016

Buffers beware. As you salivate over the possibility of eliminating yet more of the meager safety net – access to public education, health care, housing and social security, remember that you too are expendable. You may someday all too soon find yourself among us, the masses. At least those of us who don’t die off first from never-ending global wars, austerity, starvation and disease. We’re just in the way you know. We consume resources that the elite want for themselves to feed their insatiable need for power and amusing diversions to keep them from looking at empty, meaningless lives spent in gated communities. After all, they will still have a hefty prison slave population to serve their needs when we’re all gone.

…Unless we wake up, that is, and begin to work together to envision and build other alternatives in our ordinary everyday lives. Despite these dark thoughts during an icy winter stretch, I still believe there are enough goodhearted people to make that a real possibility…

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