Late June Reflections – 2022

June 22, 2022

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

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

skunk sanctuary june 22 2022

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

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

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

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

lilac late june 2022

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

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

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

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

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In Search of Community

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

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

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

carnival swing miss dash thrifty dot co dot uk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

hub management

Photo Credit: Hub-Management Powerpoint slide

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

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

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

***

french lilac june 21 2022

Postscript:

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

The Art of Letting Go

May 7, 2022

Up before dawn to get ready for class. I planned on reading the final two student papers before class after I took a shower. But I knew that what I had prepared for the two classes today wouldn’t do. This has been an extraordinarily difficult semester for students. Yet the students kept trying to do their best. I wondered how I could honor their hard work and as I showered, words flowed through me – “the art of letting go.”

Even though we are scheduled to see each other again in the fall, one never knows what surprises life may bring. Each moment together could be our last.

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May 2 2022

A Courageous Red Poll – May 2, 2022

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May 2 2022 2

A Curious Squirrel – May 2, 2022

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The Art of Letting Go

We spend a lifetime learning the art of letting go

when we begin there’s so much we don’t know

about the highs and lows, the good times and bad

perhaps in the end grateful for all the chances we’ve had

to know both joy and sorrow, failure and success

to love and lose, to laugh and cry, to blame and bless

finally learning we have only this moment today

to create memories that will help us keep finding our way

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I know that words cannot express the gifts that come from students. Even though I have read the articles I’ve assigned many times, the papers students wrote during the past semester pointed out things I had never noticed or considered. Each point of view was unique, each focused on different issues, and each was written in a different voice. The lesson of research, really – to explore and consider as many vantage points as possible when trying to understand an issue.

the art of letting go

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But the most profound gift was their inspiration. No matter how overburdened their lives were, they showed up and tried – tenacious, resilient, and willing to consider uncomfortable truths. They wanted to learn all they could because they believe it’s possible to help make the world a healthier, kinder, more peaceful place for all. It’s not just wars that have been an enduring presence throughout history, though. There have also been never-ending acts of creativity, kindness, and heroism, many of which are not mentioned in history books, or these days, by mainstream media. We cover that in classes, too.

Each group of students inspires me to keep learning and trying new things. Who could ask for a better job even though it also means learning the art of letting go?

Going in Circles…

The night after participating in a virtual political convention to choose candidates to endorse for state races, I awoke from a dream. The details remain a bit foggy, but I remember being in a car that I couldn’t steer. It was racing in never-ending circles, seemingly controlled by remote external forces. There was no clear purpose or destination in sight. Just unending circular movement in a dark, barren, asphalt-covered landscape.

It reminded me of the convention and my recent, though distant, involvement in the political process. The convention itself felt unwelcoming, focused on rules and the need to appear inclusive by making meaningful dialogue impossible. In fairness, though, I doubt there’s a way to effectively hold a Zoom meeting with 300-plus people, some of whom were seasoned political operatives with clear agendas, and many of whom were strangers and newcomers. All had different perspectives without any opportunities to connect. We were all just tiny faces and names on a screen. Those who jumped through the hoops to speak rarely seemed to care about focusing on things that would matter to the group or the state overall.

I couldn’t stay until the end, but there was one hopeful candidate with clear visions about what needed to be done – protecting clean water, building jobs through sustainable alternative energy initiatives, and supporting workers’ rights. She spoke with passion about hopeful possibilities and highlighted a successful track record for building necessary relationships to overcome political divides. Fortunately, two-thirds of the conference delegates voted to endorse her as the party candidate for state senate, the necessary threshold for approval of her candidacy.

I understand why many people are unhappy with politics and politicians. Why shouldn’t they be? I just wish more people knew at least a little more about US and global history before voting! And a little bit more about the dire situations the world is facing on every level right now from sources other than mainstream or social media. Maybe then people would be able to stand with others who stand for something positive, hopeful, and worthwhile. Until then, I fear we’ll continue going in circles as the world falls apart around us, unable to collectively act on issues that will affect generations yet to come.

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car

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I have noticed that community meetings are not really designed as listening sessions or opportunities to create a collective sense of dignity and belonging. Yet the choices are clear. One is the world we have now, where people are programmed to continue in a perpetual winner-take-all tug-of-war to impose their ideologies on others in two party systems that pit the 99 percent against each other for petty reasons. The other is one where the 99 percent work together to build a world where life, love, and laughter matter more than power, money, and things. Maybe then we could finally set a course forward toward a kinder, more peaceful world and steer our collective journey in the same direction…

Reflections about Writing and Teaching – April 12, 2022

Recently, it’s been difficult for me to post what I write or visit others’ blogs. And I’ve been reflecting about why that might be. I remember how I answered the question “Why do I write?” in a free course I took on WordPress years ago, Blogging 101. “I write because Mickey can’t.

Mickey was confined to a life in a nursing home. A work accident had left him paralyzed and struggling to frame his thoughts in words. One had to slow down and listen carefully to make sense of his new, unfamiliar language. Too few nursing home staff had the time, interest, and/or skill to do so. As a mother with a young daughter to care for, I worked the “graveyard shift.” I had time to learn Mickey’s language and decipher what he needed. Respect. Soft hands. Kindness. Presence. And laughter.

I still write because Mickey can’t. But now I realize I write and teach for the sake of others who can’t speak, either. The earth, the trees, the lakes, and the rivers who give us life but are not honored for doing so. The plants and animals that feed us. The birds, butterflies and bees that give us beauty. What I write is shared for free with anyone who happens to read or listen.

The small salary I make when teaching comes from students who often assume debts they may have to carry for decades, so I try to make what I share worth the cost. With the trend of declining enrollments, it’s uncertain if this signals the end of my teaching career. But writing and teaching have never been about money, power, or fame. Sharing is just celebrating life.

April 12 2022 reflections 1

Building and planting new gardens – June 24, 2013

These days, words and teaching are not enough for me. The things that I feel are important to say may be lost in a cacophony of voices competing for attention. I care about the world my daughter, grandchildren, students, and the generations yet to come will inherit. I find myself on steep learning curves to explore more direct ways to share. I’ve agreed to serve as a delegate for the political party that I find to be less toxic to select a candidate the party should support for the state senate. As a community and state, we’re facing uphill battles on environmental and social justice issues that need to be championed by the most capable, tenacious, ethical servants of the people.

There are no guarantees of success for those who are willing to courageously propose alternatives that reverse the corporate exploitation of people and the environment, but it’s crucial that those who want to wield power, or those who are forced to by default, honestly represent the best interests of people and the environment who are not able to speak for themselves. But politics are always a gamble. There’s no way to predict how people will react to wielding power or how effective they will be when dealing with others who have conflicting views.

That means the state of the world is also up to each of us, too. I believe we have responsibility to do what we can to learn and act in ethical, well-informed ways. That belief inspired me to volunteer for several community-based initiatives to help explore what’s happening from many different vantage points. I’ll explain these initiatives in a moment because others might find these various opportunities intriguing as well.

April 12 2022 reflections 2

Changing landscape after the willow was damaged in a winter storm – June 4, 2018

First, though, I feel it’s important to mention that I have been fascinated by the “natural” environment all of my life. As a little girl, I preferred the woods, stream, and pond near my house more than the company of children my own age. It was a place of wonder to explore and a sanctuary away from the noise and busyness of my home and neighborhood. As a teen, I preferred the company of elders and spending time on the Allegheny River that flowed in front of my family’s musty summer cottage. When I attended college, my goal was to study ecology, a subject that wasn’t offered yet. Instead, my world was expanded through the discovery of other cultures and literature I had not read before. Ultimately, I ended up working in jobs that applied ecological frameworks to human society and institutions.

Yet, I just passed the age marker that signals the importance of doing what I love the most while I still can – learning new things about the wonders of life and sharing them with anyone who will listen. When my mother was this age, 75, she was mid-stage in the painstakingly gradual loss of choices due to Alzheimer’s disease. As her legal guardian for fourteen years, I witnessed her heartrending transition from a gifted nurse to someone who could no longer speak a clear sentence, moving her from her lakefront home to congregate elder housing and then to round-the-clock assisted care.

So I decided to do something I love. Keep learning. There are so many things I don’t know. Recent patterns of drought and deluge have compacted the soil in my yard. I tested some soil last year because the blueberry bushes were struggling, and I found that the soil was extremely alkaline despite the surrounding pine trees. Last year’s extended drought meant frequent watering, so I’ll need to test the tap water, too, to see if the ph-balance of the water affected the reading. I plan to continue exploring how to achieve a healthy acid/alkaline balance and improve the overall health of the soil using natural, doable, affordable methods.

April 12 2022 reflections 3

Gardens recovering after some rain – July 29, 2021

I also want to gain knowledge and skills that will help with significant climate transitions that will become more likely given ongoing environmental destruction, over-consumption by wealthier people and nations, and changing weather patterns. I’ve taken a few first steps.

I joined the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network, CoCoRaHS for short, and took the obligatory “skywarn” training from the National Weather Service. I have become a “trained weather spotter.” The required “WeatherYourWay” rain gauge for CoCoRaHS volunteers to use for measuring precipitation is finally out of its box, waiting to be set up. Perhaps my grandson can help me put in the recommended 4” X 4” post to mount it once the ground here thaws.

Here’s a little bit more about CoCoRaHS:

“… CoCoRaHS is a unique, non-profit, community-based network of volunteers of all ages and backgrounds working together to measure and map precipitation (rain, hail and snow).   By using low-cost measurement tools, stressing training and education, and utilizing an interactive Web-site, our aim is to provide the highest quality data for natural resource, education and research applications. We are now in all fifty states.”

I also joined “scistarter,” an organization for volunteers who want to learn more and participate in “citizen science.”  There are many intriguing topics to study. Here’s a link to explore possible projects: https://blog.scistarter.org/featured-projects/2022/03/five-spring-tacular-projects-to-get-you-outside-this-season/

The topic I chose to focus on as a beginning is “iseechange.org.” Following is the brief overview from the website:

GOAL                         Our climate is changing — so are we.

TASK                          Share your experiences and collect data to help our communities.

WHERE                      Global, anywhere on the planet.

DESCRIPTION

What you see in your backyard, neighborhood, and city is important to our understanding of how climate change and weather affect our communities. Your observations and block-by-block insights can help cities, engineers and local organizations advocate for and create solutions to climate challenges.

We welcome and host observations from people in 118 countries around the world and counting. We are also currently working with partners in select cities on specialized investigations.

If you or your community has a question or hypothesis about how climate is changing your area, you can also use your ISeeChange account to collect data and answer those questions.

The only thing certain about the future is that changes will continue. It seems to me that the only way to prepare for change is to learn what we can now and share what we learn with others. I am grateful for the chance to do so and for all I learn from you when I have time to visit your blogs. Sending my best wishes to all.

Note:

Here’s a list of the links embedded above in case you are interested in learning more:

https://www.cocorahs.org/

https://scistarter.org/

https://www.iseechange.org/about

Reflections – February 9, 2022

A lifetime lived in the liminal space

between those with petty power

and those whom they would oppress

perhaps without conscious awareness

parents

please believe me when I tell you

it’s not an easy place to be

sometimes a clown or trickster

other times deliberately deferential

with a mousy well-tailored demeaner

soft-spoken and mild-mannered

and a focused observant presence

looking for any possibilities

for building common ground

yet unwilling to compromise integrity

even when it means disregarding

threats and demeaning disrespect

silently healing a bruised ego

because that’s not what is important

when others’ wellbeing is at stake

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recognizing that one has many choices –

deep sorrow, self-righteous anger,

or patience and compassion for all involved

over lost opportunities to come together

in the exploration of creative, liberating

possibilities based on reason and grace

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recent events served as a reminder

that my worldview and values

don’t fit well with those of colonial institutions

and those of the gatekeepers and overseers

posted as guards to enforce conformity

often unknowingly – reminding me once again

of the words of Michel Foucault (1979, p. 304).

“The judges of normality are present everywhere. We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the ‘social worker’-judge; it is on them that the universal reign of the normative is based; and each individual, wherever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his behavior, his aptitudes, his achievements. This carceral network, in its compact or disseminated forms, with its systems of insertion, distribution, surveillance, observations, has been the greatest support, in modern society, of normalizing power.”

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normalization 3

Drawing by Carol A. Hand (based on an adaptation of N. Andry (1749), Orthopaedrics or the art of preventing and correcting deformities of the body in children, cited in Foucault, 1979, inset # 10 between pp. 169-170).

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It may well be as Foucault suggests

that only some of us are fortunate enough

to know that we are not completely socialized

and carry the responsibility to teach

by thinking critically and “walking our talk”

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Work cited:

Foucault, M. (1979). Discipline & punish: The birth of the prison (A. Sheridan, Trans.). New York: Vintage Books. (Original work published 1975)

Reflections about the Art of Researching

Life is full of surprises. If we’re lucky, it takes us to places we never imagined. As a child, I was curious about the world around me, although I don’t ever remember hearing the word “research” until I was in college. When I did, it was often, but not always, in the context of incredibly boring classes that required me to memorize formulas, the assumptions of the Central Limit Theorem, and the differences among various types of variables that are subjected to research studies and analyses (independent, dependent, control, discrete, interval, nominal, ordinal, etc.).

I never saw myself as a teacher then, let alone as a teacher of research. Yet, I have been so at both the graduate and undergraduate levels in colleges and universities periodically for the past 20 years. I realized it could be exciting for me, and sometimes, for students. I think I have gotten better over the years at figuring how to make it both interesting and relevant.

During the past few years, I have had a chance to develop and continue refining a new experiential approach that focused on a crucial issue, the link between access to potable water and community health. The small, diverse cohorts of students I worked with each semester have done exciting work. The cohort last semester was especially notable. Their work has real-life implications for addressing health and crucial environmental issues on a local level.

I’ve tweaked the class a little for the semester that began last Saturday. The even smaller diverse cohort I met with seemed excited to learn, unlike the first cohorts at the beginning of past semesters. Access to potable water has gained increasing attention, highlighting its significance as an issue that is particularly relevant for all of us, and especially for vulnerable populations.

It’s likely, though, that this may be the last time the research course is delivered this way over two semesters. It may well fall victim to the quest for standardization and economic efficiency. Few people think of research as a core foundation for future work, and, from my perspective, for life in general. Like me, their prior experiences in courses on the topic may have been something they merely survived to earn a degree.

But research is important. The word “research,” both a noun and a verb, involves paying attention to the world around us, as well as exploring our own ways of perceiving and making sense of what we see.

research perspective crabtree and miller

“Doing research is, in many ways, like taking a descriptive and explanatory snapshot of empirical reality. For each particular photograph, the investigator must decide what kind of camera to use, what scene on which to focus, through which filter, and with what intent.” (Crabtree & Miller, 1999, p. 3)

My perspective of research and teaching has rarely fit within “mainstream” approaches. That’s not surprising to me. My parents were from very different cultures, although both came from economically disadvantaged roots. They taught me to see the world from two cultural perspectives – Ojibwe and working-class Anglo-American. It inspired me to continue to observe and critically reflect about those different ways of seeing throughout my educational journey and professional career.

What I discovered are profound differences on many levels which directly affect how one approaches education. I learned what feels most comfortable as both a learner and educator. The table below is a simplistic but heuristically helpful way to illustrate those differences.

NCLB Program Contrast to Native American Education

Source: Starnes, 2006, p. 389

These differences point out an indispensable first step when developing any course or curriculum. Ultimately, we first need to answer a central question. What is the purpose of education? Is to mold docile citizens who can memorize and regurgitate answers on fill-in-the-blank tests? Who can perform robot-like jobs without ever questioning authority? Or is education’s purpose encouraging observant presence, curiosity, and critical thinking skills? Providing an understanding of broad historical dynamics and tools that have proven effective for building inclusive, healthy communities? For equipping students with methods for thinking about and exploring creative ways for responding to an array of complex crises we face globally?

Six years ago, my colleagues and I answered that question with the second choice. We began discussing how to implement an alternative – an integrated model of teaching and learning. We created links in content across courses and experimented with collaborative course delivery. The research class was especially challenging.

Students in their junior year had variable levels of the foundational knowledge and skills needed to succeed within one semester. Many had never read a research article or learned how to find scholarly resources, and few had written academic papers. We experimented with a groups’ approach for assignments to reduce the workload. That proved unsuccessful for a number of reasons, so we decided to try a different approach.

We split the course in half and spread it over two semesters. The first semester allows students to learn basic knowledge and skills, and the second provides an opportunity for them to apply what they learned. The course still requires hard work, but it proved to be effective for the majority of students pre-Covid. The COVID transition year (2020) necessitated moving to a remote delivery model that was especially difficult for Native American students. The creation of a new assignment and small group approach that meet via Zoom helped build a supportive network that enabled those who participated to successfully complete the course. Because the new assignment proved so successful, it was integrated into courses for the following years.

CSS SWK 3385 a & b

We were able to fly beneath the radar for years because our site serves a unique population of students. But the current colonial corporate agenda is one of increasingly repressive measures in education (and governance). That agenda places our flexible, experiential approach in the limelight and threatens its survival. Our site, located within a tribal and community college, is not like the other campus satellite sites which serve different populations. There seems to be little acknowledgement or interest in considering the importance of culture and context in curriculum delivery, especially by national higher learning accrediting bodies and those who don’t have the will, skill, and/or courage to risk challenging them.

I honestly believe that each voice from the margins matters. This post is the beginning of the journey which may signal the end of my formal teaching career. It is my belief that children are born curious.

curiosity 1

My grandson at age 2

Some continue to hold on to a sense of wonder, curiosity, connection, and gratitude in their adolescence.

curiosity 2

My granddaughter at age 14

The approaches we use in education can help support those gifts or extinguish them. Even in college years, my experiences have shown me that the remnants of curiosity and wonder remain and can be rekindled. But it takes intention, patience, flexibility, and dedicated work to do so in ways that are interesting, relevant, liberatory, and effective.

I hope the decision the college makes regarding the future of education takes into consideration how important these gifts are for our collective survival and well-being on the “pale blue dot” planet we all share (Sagan, 1994/2014).

References:

Benjamin F. Crabtree and William L Miller (eds.). Doing Qualitative Research., (2nd ed.). Sage Publications, Inc., 1999.

Carl Sagan (1994/2014). Pale blue dot. Random House. /Carl Sagan’s pale blue dot OFFICIAL, aired on Cosmos: A Space Time Odyssey. Cosmos Studios, Inc.

Bobby Ann Starnes (2006). What we don’t know can hurt them: White teachers, Indian children. Phi Delta Kappan, 87 (5), 384-392.

Reflections – January 5, 2022

This morning I awoke remembering a dream I had many decades ago. To be honest, I don’t remember where I was living at the time, but for some reason, it feels as though it is associated with the years I spent living on a commune. That’s another story, part of which I shared almost eight years ago.

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Queenie January 2022 2

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My memories of the dream were probably triggered by a Netflix movie I selected for my parakeet, Queenie, last night. He sang and chittered merrily as we watched a children’s movie together, “The Guardians.” It’s not the story that resonated with me. It was silly. But the vibrant moving colors that transformed darkness and fear, creating the possibility for hope and joy, made me wonder again about the existence of forces beyond what we can easily measure objectively.

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Aurora_Borealis_and_Australis_Poster

By The original uploader was 14jbella at English Wikipedia. – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 1.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37486421

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In my old dream, I gazed up at a dark sky that was filled with moving, morphing shapes of vibrant colors, similar to the Aurora Borealis pictured above. The guide who has been present in my vivid dreams throughout the years told me, in thoughts more than words, that color and shapes have the ability to affect people’s emotions and energy in powerful ways, frequently outside of their conscious awareness.

As I write, I wonder if the dream came around the time when I was the “light show” coordinator for a mobile disco during my years on the commune. Or perhaps it was after I was served as an assistant for the commune video crew hired to record a Yes performance in Boston, Massachusetts. (But those are other stories, too, that I don’t believe I have written about.) I digress…

The movie and memories brought Edward Bernays to mind again, and the power of images to manipulate emotions to control “the masses.”

The Century of the Self – Part 1: “The Happiness Machine”

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Present day media provide many examples of the technique for fomenting divisiveness and fear. Yet I also think of the images Louie Schwartzberg shares that have the opposite effect.

Gratitude – “Happiness Revealed”

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As I prepare for another semester, I am contemplating once again how to weave these messages together to show the contrasts. Both realities coexist. It’s important to know both. How else would we realize that we all have a choice? We can decide to critically assess alternative perspectives and actions in challenging times like these and work toward inclusive, peaceful, consensual solutions. I hope I can encourage my students and others to consider how to model and share alternatives that help individuals and communities strengthen connections to each other and to the earth we all share.

Revisiting Writing 101 – I Write Because?

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

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

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

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

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I write because?

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

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

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

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

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

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

AW nursing home

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

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

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

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

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

Work Cited:

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

Contextual Note:

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

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

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

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AW caregivers

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

Reflections – January 29, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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