Note: This semester, teaching has helped me realize something I learned from many past teachers in my life. The importance of mercy. In times when I was lost, they reached out to help me find my strengths and beauty. I have often automatically done likewise with colleagues, staff and students in my own career. Now it’s something I do deliberately because I feel it is even more important to be merciful in mean-spirited, oppressive times such as these.
(1) Annette S. Lee, William Wilson, Jeffrey Tibbetts, and Carl Gawboy (2014), Ojibwe Sky Star Map Constellation Guide: An Introduction to Ojibwe Star Knowledge. North Rocks, CA: Lightning Source: Ingram Spark.
(2) Basil Johnston (1990), Ojibway Heritage. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, p. 93.
A moment of contemplation
watching a lone seagull soar silently
wings shimmering in the morning sun
the call of a solitary song bird
barely audible as busy traffic whirs by
This morning, Ojibwe wisdom comes to mind
“Be moderate in all things –
“watch, listen and consider
“your deeds will be prudent”
act only when the time is right
After a long cold dark winter
the days are warm and sunny
calling me outside to prepare gardens
neglected last summer and fall
when the weight of the world was too heavy
Balancing action and contemplation
is an ever-challenging choice
when it’s so easy to lose oneself
with distractions to escape constant noise
or engage in purposeless busyness
If we’re lucky our lives will be blessed
by those whose sparkling sprits
light up the room when they enter
reminding us we’re all connected
indispensable parts of the tree of life
The Tree of Life, a treasured gift from a former student
This post was inspired by JC, one of the kindest people I have been honored to work with during my career. She is the most tenaciously committed person I have ever encountered when it comes to learning, discovering, and applying liberatory praxis principles (knowledge-guided action). This is my way of expressing my deep gratitude to her for her kindness and for sharing her compassion and light with all those whom she encounters.
The old nokomis eagerly anticipates spring
after another long bitterly cold winter
She plans to plant gardens again
even though harvesting is always uncertain
She will prepare the soil
and carefully plant each seed
despite hands, once supple,
now gnarled with age
rough and clumsy from so many years
of hard work, washing, and winter weather
She will wait for the new life
that springs from the soil miraculously
when she isn’t looking
and she will nurture the seedlings
through drought and deluge
until they mature and bear their fruit
As she reflects about gardens past,
she remembers the anxiety she always feels
from the plant beings at harvest
it’s as if she hears their cries in her heart
when she kneels on the earth before them
“Please be gentle with us, nokomis”
She will remember this year
when she touches their delicate leaves
as lovingly as clumsy hands will allow
giving thanks to them for their beauty
deeply aware that her survival
comes at the cost of other living beings
She knows someday she too
will once again be part of the earth
that feeds future generations
in this inextricably interconnected
ongoing cycle of universal life
Of course she knows
this may just be fanciful thinking
She doesn’t know where she was,
or even if she was,
before she arrived on earth
in a much smaller younger physical body
She doesn’t know where her spirit will go
when she is finally released
from a stiffening, sometimes painful
but still, it’s comforting to believe
something of her will remain
nourishing new life
and maybe even traveling
to distant constellations
carrying the essence of the plant relations
that fed her while she was here
This morning when I awoke I was reflecting on my lack of hope and passion these days. It feels as though everything I love, everything that brings me joy and peace and hope is at risk. When did my hope and passion disappear? Was it because of the institutions where I worked that publicly espoused social justice missions but contradicted those values through the actions of the majority? Was it because of the neighbors or ex-spouses who only appeared to be concerned with their own comfort and their own pursuit of happiness? Was it because of the zeitgeist of the times summarized by the observation of my newest neighbor when speaking of a child with serious mental health issues? “I’m in this alone.” This feeling of being alone, when internalized, is a destroyer of hope and collective action and it seems to be a major obstacle for joining together to address the serious threats of these times.
As I look back, I realize this feeling has been an undercurrent in the past. Every intervention I have worked on hit this stumbling block sooner or later despite my best efforts. Like my neighbor, ultimately I felt alone in my past efforts because I was never able to inspire or cultivate enough hope for a critical mass of others who were willing to put aside immediate personal comfort to carry the responsibility for working toward a greater good. It was not for lack of trying.
Yesterday, as I was contemplating clearing away some of the gifts, papers, and books I’ve accumulated over the years that fill files, shelves, walls and cupboards, I noticed the white candle that sits atop my most important bookshelf – the one that holds irreplaceable books I used to write my dissertation. Of course, like all my mementos, the candle has a story.
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.
This morning, I realize I need to take the time to finally light the candle on my book case. It’s not the same white candle I used for a similar ceremony years later for the 40 staff who worked for the Honoring Our Children Project that included nine tribal communities. Building and maintaining multicultural, interdisciplinary teams within and across different tribal cultures was not an easy task. Providing a center they could return to in challenging times was important. But it is the same candle I used in a farewell ceremony with the graduate students I mentored during our final class together. They would all be graduating and scattering to the four directions.
As I lit the candle this morning, I thought of the inter-tribal staff who did astounding work, and the creative and inquisitive students I worked with over the years. I thought about my blogging friends around the world who help me realize that each of is sharing our light. And I thought about the many other people who carry light yet feel alone. May we learn to share our light and stand together for the sake of all we love.
During the past week, I have been reviewing some of my December posts from past years. Many carry important messages that I have decided to share again. Following is a reflection posted on December 12, 2013. Not much has changed for the better in my neighborhood or the world since then.
Sitting on my back doorstep as I greeted yet another snowy morning, I was reflecting on my most recent neighborhood. West Duluth, the working class part of town. The side of town where the industries – manufacturing and paper mills – send plumes of putrid exhaust into the air. Some days the winds blow it eastward toward the lake, away from the children in my neighborhood who are walking to school or out on the school playgrounds. On the days the winds blow westward, I know it’s unwise to take more than very shallow breaths. Mine is the side of town where only those with few resources are able to find housing, the side of town where parents without choices send their children to schools with fewer resources and amenities. Even if I had more financial resources, I suspect I would still choose to live here, even though people in my neighborhood are not especially sociable – they’re too busy just trying to survive.
Perhaps it’s foolish of me, but I prefer to live in an old house that needs lots of work, with an overgrown yard that needs tending, on the side of town with the most diversity. So many people in the world live with far less. And it is the things that need transformation that attract my attention and inspire my creativity. I suspect it’s because of a different cultural frame. I don’t feel a sense of allegiance to the symbols of “nationhood” – fictive notions of fraternity – of us against the world. Instead, I realized this morning that I feel a sense of responsibility to people and my environment, not just Ojibwe people, but all my relations.
I have had the privilege of working for a state developing policies and programs for elders, and then working at the community level implementing and evaluating programs and policies for families and children. What I observed was a fundamental disconnect between policies developed by experts from a dominant cultural paradigm, what I refer to as “collectivities of strangers” like the residents of Duluth, and communities that were based on the foundation of enduring relationships. Raising the awareness of policy developers and academics to the importance of this distinction is not an easy task. So I have shifted my efforts to try to raise the awareness of students who will hopefully become the policy and program developers of the future.
From an indigenous perspective, the centrality of relationships is apparent. Tribal communities are characterized by centuries of enduring close family and community relationships among members and their natural environment, and members anticipate the continuation of these bonds for generations yet to come. The legalistic, impersonal approach used by the dominant Euro-American social welfare and judicial systems can best be characterized as “a collectivity of strangers,” designed to keep strangers from killing each other. As Jared Diamond (1997, Guns, Germs, and Steel) argues,
… the organization of human government tends to change … in societies with more than a few hundred members … [as] the difficult issue of conflict resolution between strangers becomes increasingly acute in larger groups…. Those ties of relationship binding all tribal members make police, laws, and other conflict-resolving institutions of larger societies unnecessary, since any two villagers getting into an argument will share many kin, who will apply pressure on them to keep it from becoming violent. (p. 171)
What this means for the sense of responsibility members feel toward each other from these contrasting cultural paradigms can be simplistically illustrated.
Community of RelatednessCollectivity of Strangers
What these distinctions mean for children can be described simplistically as well.
As I contemplate these contrasts this morning, I need to ground the philosophical questions in my present lived experience. Fortunately for my neighborhood, the gentle wind is blowing in from the west this morning, leaving the air clean and sweet. It was safe to take deep breaths and contemplate the possibility of building a sense of community that recognizes the importance of protecting the health of all our relations. In doing so, however, I am mindful that my privilege of breathing clean air this morning doesn’t mean the world is fair. The factories that provide jobs for people in my neighborhood are still sending forth poison plumes. It is others who are downwind who must breathe shallowly today. They are both strangers to me in one sense, and relatives in another. The challenge I contemplate is how to reach out to them so we can begin to work collectively to create a community that is healthy every day for all of our relations.
A welcoming space for resistance to the forces of oppression and hegemony.