The curse of being born between cultures is to always enter each new setting to discover the enduring discomfort of being an outsider. Finally, I have learned to be grateful for the freedom that role confers, even though my spirit longs to connect with people as easily as it does with dragonflies, birds, trees, and bumblebees bending flowers as they feed.
I feel the imminent danger we all face, yet I remember a saying from Lao Tzu that seems to be true to me – “the way to do is to be.”
I have no answers for others, but decades ago I was blessed by the example of Sister Lorita, my college adviser and botany professor. She humbly endured being mocked by many of her privileged students. One day, she shared her secret with me.
“It doesn’t matter what people think of me if they learn to see the wonder of life in a blade of grass.”
Every morning and most evenings, I sit outside on my little porch looking toward the western sky. I observe and listen to the nature around me – both “natural” and human. Some of what I see and hear touches my heart with wonder, while other sights and sounds weigh heavy on my spirit. Both inspire me to honestly reflect on the things I do that add to the threats for all life. And I try to do better. But it’s hard to do it alone.
Still, I try to do better. I plant and tend gardens, spend time with my daughter and grandchildren when their busy schedules allow, and teach part time. I try to raise the awareness of my grandchildren and the students I work with in gentle ways, creating a space for them to learn to be present and inquisitive, to question what they have learned in the past, and to think critically about what they encounter in the present.
It’s impossible for me to know if anything I say or do will make a positive difference in their lives, but teaching by example has made a difference in mine. It’s helped me learn to live with fewer and fewer immutable answers and many more questions which I may never be able to answer with certainty.
Loving you means trusting life and letting you go onward
accepting the limitations of a frail aging frame with grace
watching you with love, compassion, joy, and heavy sadness
remembering conundral choices that I suspect hurt you
hoping one day you will understand that loving you deeply
gave me courage to face daunting challenges to keep you safe
Yesterday, March 5th, was my granddaughter’s twelfth birthday. We had a lovely family celebration. But it’s a date that always makes me feel both deeply grateful, and deeply guilty.
I was traveling when I learned that my daughter was in the hospital giving birth to her daughter prematurely. In the midst of a powerful late winter snowstorm, the airports were closed in both of the cities where my daughter and I were. Renting a car to drive hundreds of miles through the storm wasn’t an option. There was no way I could be there. I could only fly home to a distant state the next day while the storm continued to batter the city where my daughter was.
When the airport reopened on the third day, I was faced with a conundrum. I was carrying heavy responsibilities for gifted, at-risk graduate students in a university that was unsupportive of those who were different in some way. If I left again to be with my daughter, it was likely their graduation would, at best, be delayed. I decided to send my partner, my daughter’s stepfather for most of her life, to be there instead. It was several months before I held my granddaughter for the first time.
All of the students I was advising graduated, many passing their final requirements with distinction, and they went on to careers helping vulnerable people. Yet, I know my daughter was deeply hurt. I will always wonder if I made the “right” choice, just as I will always remember that her birth was the greatest gift in my life.
I remember other storms approaching – the wind silent but the air filled with the electricity of threat and possibility. I survived. But have I worn the grooves of hope and love deeply enough into my spirit to weather the storms that I know are coming? As I sat on my doorstep watching the first of the snowflakes begin to fall in the darkened landscape, I wondered what the winter of these times will bring. I can feel the beat of my heart quicken with a mixture of fear and exhilaration.
My thoughts are transported back to an earlier time, the first warning of storms to come. I was standing in the Connecticut cottage where I lived with my infant daughter looking out of the picture window toward the trees and down at the river that flowed past the front of the cabin. Then, as today, the air was filled with the electricity of an approaching storm. Yet in the past, I awoke from a dream remembering some of the images and insights of a guide who sometimes speaks to me through dreams. “A storm is coming,” the guide said.
“Times ahead will be hard. The earth has shifted on its axis and the polarities of the earth’s gravitational fields are changing. People will not know they are being affected by these shifts, but polarities will be amplified. Those on a path of light will glow brighter while those on a path of darkness will grow stronger in their quest for control and destruction. You have a choice. You may leave now. You don’t have to stay to face the storm.”
How could I leave an infant to face the coming storms without a mother who loved her? I certainly wasn’t a perfect mother, but I loved my daughter enough to choose to seek the light again and again. I would fail again and again, but decades later, I know I did the best I could. I’m not a perfect grandmother either, and I’m unsure what I can do to help my daughter and grandchildren prepare for the coming storms, but I trust that whatever comes, love for others and for this wondrous and beautiful world and universe are what will matter most in the years ahead.
Now, I feel compelled to face the reality that there are difficult times ahead. During the weeks it took me to reconfigure the research course I have been teaching from a one- semester course to a two-semester course, I remembered my mother’s example and the message in the dream I had when my daughter was a baby. I kept working despite deepening alarm about the state of the world.
As I reviewed videos to rebuild the online content for the 50/50 face-to-face and online hybrid course, I found myself wishing I could set off as I did decades ago to find a safe space for my family. To find a community of thoughtful people working together to build an inclusive community like the ones I romantically imagine my Ojibwe ancestors created.
Reviewing videos that I used to think of as anomalous examples of the cruelty some humans express, The Deadly Deception and The Stanford Prison Experiment, only brought to mind the brutality of our current treatment of migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers.
Several of the other videos I reviewed added to my realization that disregard for life has been and is still inextricably built into the predominant values and institutions in many nations. If you have the courage and stomach, here are links to a couple reminders that presage even harder times to come for people and the earth.
Cancer Alley, Louisiana – Victims of Environmental Racism:
But the cruelty and disregard for life are nothing new and they’re not confined to one nation, religion, or culture. Still, looking at the super moon a couple days ago helped me find the strength to continue this sometimes heavy and lonely journey.
In the Depths of Winter (January 21, 2019)
In the depths of winter on a cold dark night
the super blood wolf moon is a welcome sight
a reminder of blessings beneath her comforting light
She reflects the sun for all whether they see her or not
inspiring me to repeat a Reiki prayer
“Just for today –
“I will refrain from anger “I will not worry “I will be grateful “I will do my work diligently “I will be kind to myself and others”
realizing the best I can do is to try to be conscious
and disciplined enough to make these choices
moment to moment…
Speaking of choices, I do find reasons for lighthearted laughter as I join Richard Simmons and the Silver Foxes every day. I hope some of you will join me and remember to find reasons and time to laugh and to play even in the darkest of moments.
Exposing people in their 20s and 30s who have lived in rural communities most of their lives to the video is not always effective. It presents information that is new and not easily understood. Yet as future social workers, it is crucial for them to have some critical awareness of the larger social forces that affect them and the people they will serve in their careers.
Reading the notes the most recent class wrote confirmed the difficulty. So I took my own notes and included them in the Power Point for class discussion. Excerpts are below.
The Century of the Self – Part 1: “Happiness Machine”
This is “the story of the relationship between Sigmund Freud and his American nephew, Edward Bernays. Bernays invented the public relations profession in the 1920s and was the first person to take Freud’s ideas to manipulate the masses. He showed American corporations how they could make people want things they didn’t need by systematically linking mass-produced goods to their unconscious desires” (YouTube overview, emphasis added).
Consider the subtitle of this first part of the documentary, “Happiness Machine” How does this relate to the overall message of this video?
The preface to the video introduces Sigmund Freud’s theory about human nature. Simply stated, Freud theorized that all people carry primitive sexual and aggressive forces hidden deep inside. If these forces are not controlled, societies will be filled with chaos and destruction.
What are your thoughts about Freud’s perspective? Our guess is that it’s easy to conclude that the theory has merit if one views society today. Now consider the same question from the perspective of your ancestral roots. Do you think Freud’s theory explains your ancestors’ motivations and your own?
The preface of the video also explains that the purpose of this series was to raise awareness about the ways in which Freud’s ideas have been used by those in positions of power “to control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy.”
How does the timeframe of Bernays’ work fit with shifts in the focus of social work practice and social welfare policies? Can you see any links to your ancestors’ experiences during this historical era?
Part 1 describes the central role that Bernays played in popularizing and applying Freud’s theories to “manipulate the masses,” working both with politicians and corporations.
What are some of the ways Bernays employed theories to promote US entry into war, increase cigarette sales for tobacco corporations, or buffer corporations from overproduction when WWI ended?
Strategies for social control in times of peace followed, involving “the engineering of consent.” How was this done?
Stuart Ewen, historian and author, noted that the emergence of democracy had changed the relationship of power that governed the world. He described how Bernays’ strategies gave back power to the ruling elite by “giving people some kind of feel good medication that did not alter their objective circumstances … even if it meant stimulating the irrational self.”
The Great Depression ushered in by the 1929 stock market crash required a different approach to governing. Franklin D. Roosevelt believed people were rational and he wanted to know what they thought as he began to initiate a series of interventions to address massive social issues that affected them. He turned to George Gallup who had developed a way to poll peoples’ opinions scientifically without introducing emotional bias. It gave citizens a rational voice so they could take part in government.
With Bernays’ help, “big business” fought back with an ideological attack on the New Deal to regain power by creating emotional ties to corporations. The 1939 World Fair presented an opportunity to manipulate people to believe that democracy would not exist without capitalism and the goods it produces.
“Active citizenship” was replaced by “passive consumers.”
A day after I posted the notes, I found myself face-to-face with the consequences of consumerism. My granddaughter’s birthday was coming up. She has discovered therapeutic coloring books and loves the challenge of using her new pens to create intricate patterns of many colors. For her birthday, I offered to let her choose a new coloring book. She was excited. Off we went to a “big box” store to see what we could find.
The store was filled with people browsing art supplies, plastic flowers, craft kits, and aisles of yarn. We perused all of the merchandise several times unsuccessfully. The only three staff in sight were womanning the cash registers, nonstop. There were no roaming staff to ask for help, so I asked a young girl if she had seen any coloring books.
“She’s my daughter,” boomed a woman’s voice behind me. “She doesn’t work here.”
I turned and smiled. “I didn’t think she worked here. But I thought maybe she had seen coloring books. My granddaughter and I are trying to find them and we haven’t been able to find any staff people to help.”
The woman came up to us and asked her daughter to help us look, so they both joined the search. Even with more people looking, we still had no luck.
“I know how to get their attention,” the woman finally said. She walked over to the rows of yarn and grabbed two huge balls of yarn and stood below the surveillance camera posted high on the wall. She shoved the balls into the top of her shirt and held up her arms and waved them at the camera. “This should get someone’s attention!”
She was right. A humorless dour-faced man walked through a hidden side door. “Where are the coloring books,” she shouted.
“By the cash registers,” he replied before he turned without further comment and disappeared again.
Tears from laughter were clouding my vision as we headed to see if we could find coloring books. No luck. My granddaughter was undaunted. Despite the long lines at the registers, she asked one cashier to help us. The books we found were for little children and not at all what she wanted, so we ended up buying a gift card for a bookstore instead.
The connections between the legacy of Bernays’ machinations and big box stores are quite obvious, although that’s not a lesson that seemed timely for a little girl turning 11 who loves the challenge of coloring and creating something beautiful.
Hopefully, there will be times in the future when we can laughingly recall our adventure and discuss the deeper implications. For the time being, she can enjoy an activity that doesn’t involve dangerous and addicting technology.
Ah how I wish I were as courageous as the woman who helped us. I can only imagine what her daughter thought, though. And I am left wondering what Bernays would think of the man hidden away to merely watch customers and do little to help them consume…
On this grey morning thoughts of the Standing Rock Water Protectors again touch my heart with deep sorrow. It’s far more than the legacy of historical trauma that brings tears to my eyes. It’s the continuing structural oppression that I have witnessed for so many First Nations reservations, Appalachian hill communities, urban neighborhoods or rural farming communities. It’s the overwhelming sense of threat and loss in the ongoing clash of worldviews that makes everything I have done and am doing and wish I could do feel so pitifully ineffective.
My granddaughter will turn 11 tomorrow. My grandson turned 19 last month. There are so many reasons to be concerned about the future they face.
As I feel the physical limitations and pain of my aging body, the scars of so many past efforts to build healthier more inclusive communities weigh on my heart. I wish I could be hopeful but I can no longer believe that change is possible unless a critical mass of people awaken. It feels as though all of my efforts to help that process along during my career have been so insignificant.
Perhaps the tears that are flowing will clear my vision so I can see possibilities. But as I greet this morning, it’s all I can do as I type these simple words. All I hold dear is threatened by insane forces that wreak death and destruction.
Still, it’s time to dry my tears. Somehow, my ancestors found the strength to survive genocide, displacement and Indian boarding schools. I owe it to them, the Standing Rock Water Protectors, my daughter, my grandchildren, and all life to do what I can any way.
It’s hard to believe almost three years have gone by since I posted my reflections about past north-country winters. I still have my Sorel boots after 27 years (pictured below), although they are now beyond repair. The rubber is cracked and not even gator tape will stick to keep out melting snow. The smooth-worn soles are covered by yak trax, metal springs threaded over elastic bands that keep the boots from slipping on ice. Perhaps this will be their final winter.
New Year’s Day, 2015. I know there’s much work ahead of me as I embark on the serious business of finishing books I began last year. But today, I remembered past winters while I took time to refurbish my old Sorel boots with oil and new liners for yet another winter. My boots date back to 1990, the first winter I spent in the northwoods of Wisconsin. I had accepted a position as deputy director of health and human services for an inter-tribal agency, but the clothes I brought with me were meant for a different climate. I needed more practical, warmer, clothes.
My first winter was spent in a tiny hotel room above a bar that often had live performers belting out off-tune country and western songs until the wee hours of the morning. I could walk the two blocks to my office in downtown Lac du Flambeau, but the days I had to drive were challenging. My old car, with 190,000 plus miles, didn’t like to start or keep moving in the winter cold when I first started out. The pack of stray dogs that called the downtown their home loved to chase cars, but they quickly learned that chasing me was not a contest worthy of their time and effort. As my car sputtered and bucked and stalled down the road, they grew bored. Eventually, they didn’t even look up when I chugged by. But that car, like my boots, lasted many more years. I was sad when I was finally forced to replace my car, but my boots lasted despite the many miles they’ve seen and the many places they’ve traveled.
But of all the places we’ve traveled together, these boots and I, there is one place that remains golden in my memories. It’s the cabin I moved to after that first winter above the bar. Before the winter even began, I knew that I couldn’t live there forever, so I decided to see if I could find somewhere to move that was affordable. You’d think that would be easy in the northwoods, but that’s not so. Long ago, it became a favorite spot for wealthy urbanites who were able to buy up the lakefront properties that were lost to the Ojibwe people despite a series of treaties that guaranteed tribal ownership of land within reservation boundaries in exchange for ceding the northern third of Wisconsin to the federal government.
I was fortunate to find a local realtor who knew how to find the best deals and we spent many fall days exploring such interesting fixer-uppers. We became friends. One day in mid-November, she called me at work and asked if I could take some time off in the afternoon to see another property. I said, “Sure.” (It was interesting to see so many houses in need of loving care.) She picked me up and we drove, first down the highway, then down a narrow winding country road through a national forest, and then on a dirt road. We turned about a mile later onto what I can only call a rough rutted path that could just accommodate a car, again, winding down a little hill and into a forest. When we emerged in a clearing, I saw the small brown cabin, but what caught my eye and made my heart sing was a vista of the lake and wetlands glowing in the afternoon sunlight. I knew I was home. I had no idea how I would be able to afford it, and I had no idea what it meant to live without electricity, or heat with wood. I had no idea how I would be able to get in and out during the winter, especially with my car, but I did have my boots (and later, snowshoes to attach to them.)
Living down a series of country roads, some of which were unpaved, presented both benefits and challenges. I had an opportunity to witness nature up close – the bear, deer, beaver, otters, rabbits and porcupine. I heard the powerful rhythmic pounding of eagles’ wings as they flew just over my head, the hauntingly lovely song of the loon echoing over still waters, and the howls of coyotes in the quiet winter night. Winter was my favorite time, even though it was often cold and snowy, and even though it meant a mile hike to my car when I had to make the trip to some distant city to go to work, attend class or travel for a speaking engagement or consulting job. The hike was easier in the winter. The path through the snow was easy to follow, even at night, and the mosquitoes, sand flies, deer flies, horse flies and ticks were nowhere to be seen as they bided their time for the spring thaw. Spring – mud season – also meant hiking. But I was younger then and used to the grueling physical labor living in the woods required.
Of course, living in the woods meant warm clothing in the winter, and a bug suit during most other seasons if you wanted to do serious work outdoors. I don’t have a picture of the bug suit my daughter gave me as a gift, although given the ubiquitous northwoods’ mosquitoes and sand files, I often wish I still had it. I still have the coat in the picture below. It’s the only thing I ever purchased from Victoria’s Secrets – it was incredibly cheap in their annual clearance sale. (I don’t think it’s any mystery why it hadn’t sold for full price.) The coat is a few year’s newer than my boots, but it got me through the polar vortex last year and with new loops for the buttons in lieu of the zipper that finally gave out, it will continue for many winters more.
As I unclutter, some things will remain because they are still useful. Who needs the latest fashions when old things were built to last and carry such rich memories? These old clothes remind me of quiet, starry winter nights, of the sanctuary where my grandson spent many of his childhood days.
They were simpler days of hiking, hauling wood, and clearing the beaver-culled trees from the road. Living in an urban neighborhood now, watching the plumes of toxic exhaust from the factories that block the sunlight on the few winter days without clouds, I feel the loss of times past. Not just my past, but the past of my ancestors. Strange though it may sound, as deep as the grief of those lost times often is for me to face, it’s what motivates me to do what I can to touch people’s hearts for the sake of this wondrous earth and future generations. And now, my boots and I are ready for the challenges ahead.
Funny how attached I grow to tools that have served me well. Once upon a time, my boots were strapped to snow shoes as we walked through the winter woods where my ancestors lived for so many generations. Now they help give me traction on the icy sidewalks of my home in a little northern city.
I try to conserve useful resources like my boots for as long as possible. I shall miss these boots. They slip on easily and fit comfortably. Their replacements are stiff, like my aging body, and take more work to put on.
And speaking of work, I have still not finished editing and revising the manuscript I wrote about my experiences as a researcher studying Ojibwe child welfare. I have had to put it aside to teach college classes. Life has blessed me with teaching work to do, and given the austerity years ahead, I know I will need to keep working as long as I can.
Hopefully I will have time to return to my manuscript in the all too brief northern summers. In future winter weather, I will need to rely on my newer boots for my journeys.
This poem was inspired by my granddaughter who is always eager to measure how much she has grown. But sometimes, she is actually shorter. That happens to me, too, so we came up with a logical explanation and tested it on Thanksgiving night. She grew this time and I shrunk, although there was no way we could confirm the cause…
For more information about “Little People ,” you might want to check out the following links: