There was really nothing remarkable about her appearance small and thin – if truth be told, a bit ordinary and mousey perhaps a blessing in disguise – it made her invisible Her voice was soft and melodic – with a hypnotic quality that created space where those who were too loud, quieted, and leaned forward to listen intently when she spoke She didn’t think this had anything to do with her in particular
Her laughter, though infrequent, created sparkling crystal light thawing and healing wounded hearts or invoking fear among those who were filled with darkness Her gaze was focused and intense – a reader of souls People who were relegated to marginal status were often drawn to her light like moths to a flame sensing a compassionate presence others could not see
She sometimes felt the power within and hid from it knowing that power brought overwhelming temptations aware that an ill-spoken word hurled with anger or rage could leave legacies of lasting harm and would certainly cut her most deeply
Life taught her to hone her voice, gaze, and presence though she somehow intrinsically knew only to use them responsibly on behalf of others in times of great need or danger and spirits watched over her helping her learn to only use her gifts in ways that would not draw attention from the watchers who wanted to stifle compassion, wisdom, joy and the loving spirit of ordinary people in order to keep them afraid, confused, angry, and divided and unable to express the transformative beauty they carried within
Imagine life in COVID for such a one with months spent largely in isolation unable to use abilities that were gifts intended to help others on the margins to be seen and heard, to have their voices matter in decisions that affect their lives and all our relations The regenerating effects of energy shared between humans through the magic of presence, smiles, and touch now taboo forcing reliance on distancing technologies and online platforms as the primary means for communicating through virtual words
Yet nature provides a way for her to stay connected to the world with the gentle winter kisses of snowflakes – each unique and each a miracle of seemingly impossible beauty reminding her to be grateful because she can still share from her heart even with distancing technologies even in the midst of suffering, loss, and darkness
She hears a message for herself and feels compelled to pass it on to others
“Be kind and gentle with yourself and others each unique and each a miracle of seemingly impossible beauty rekindle the light within and envision the best you can imagine for the new year just beginning – let it be a time of healing and a time of freedom from bondage to fear, suffering, and separation”
Earlier this week, I was reminded of the reality of these times. It’s so easy to forget how many people are suffering. I wonder how many of my students need to stand in food distribution lines. It’s not something they mention though many have lost their jobs. I’m doing my best to support them in other ways to help them make it through the semester, but there are no guarantees my efforts will be successful for all of them.
This morning, though, my thoughts transported me to other days more than 50 years ago when I set off to find my true home and soul. Homeless and wandering the streets in Hollywood, California, I ended up among strangers who provided a temporary safe haven. I described how I ended up there in one of my earliest posts.
This morning I was forced to rely on CDs to entertain my parakeets, Bud and Queenie. It was one of those days when the weather affected radio reception for the classical station that plays the music that helps them feel safe and encourages them to sing. The first CD I chose was by John Denver, and suddenly, I found myself thinking of Richard, a friend from decades ago. Richard was a shy, gentle man who seemed out of place in a house shared by ebullient, self-assured, and opinionated students, some who loved to party. He was from a privileged family, the well-behaved son of professors. I was the only housemate who took the time to get to know him.
It’s funny to realize that I always remember him whenever I hear John Denver sing Rocky Mountain High. I think of our adventures traveling through the Rockies in his ever-untrustworthy Fiat in 1968. The memories make me smile, but also carry a sense of sadness.
I was a poor, struggling college student when Richard and I were housemates. He had already graduated and was working as a photographer for a local newspaper. I had just finished my worst semester ever. I passed advanced French literature with a final exam written in French that I couldn’t translate when I awoke from the long sleep that followed two days and nights of cramming. Although I wrote what was, I think, a brilliant final paper for Peoples and Cultures of Africa, I just never got around to handing it in, so why would I pass? And the history of Buddhism – I really should have dropped it when I could. The arrogance of the professor who needed to remind us at least 100 times each class that he was the world’s most renowned scholar was so at odds with the subject. The only thing I remember from the class is one word – jnana – the Sanskrit word that means wisdom-knowledge, intelligence guided by compassion. The word was so antithetical to the example the professor modeled to the class through his words and behaviors.
And then there was my job, a nurse’s aide for the graveyard shift at the university hospital. I alternated between the gynecology floor and the maternity ward. By that point, I had witnessed nurses make mistakes that caused permanent damage to newborns with no professional consequences and morning staffings that were nothing more than gossip sessions about patients who were dying painfully from the last stages of metastasized cancer.
I was so ready for a change. When Richard asked if I would be willing to go on a summer adventure to see the western United States, I told him I would on two conditions — we would share expenses equally and would remain friends without any emotional entanglements. He readily agreed, so I dropped out of school, quit my job, and we took off on an adventure in his little maroon-colored Fiat. This particular model of Fiat was tiny, with the engine in the rear and the storage compartment in the front. We packed some of our camping gear in the front “trunk.”
And then we hit the road. First we traveled southwest, through the prairies and cornfields. We finally made it to the Texas panhandle, and as we drove on flat highways with no speed limits, the little Fiat valiantly fought to hold the road, buffeted by powerful crosswinds as trucks flew by. One strong blast of wind blew the hood of the trunk open, and another ripped it from its hinges into the middle of the highway. Although we stopped and ran to retrieve it, we were a little too late. We watched helplessly as a large truck drove over the hood, permanently bending it. We collected the dented hood, found some rope to tie it on, and headed to the nearest town to find some way to repair it. The best solution we could find was more rope and duct tape, not the most convenient solution when we needed to open the trunk every night to get our camping gear.
We decided to travel north through New Mexico. Getting to the camping gear was a daily ordeal of untying crisscrossed ropes and ripping off duct tape and then replacing everything in the morning. After taping and re-taping the trunk for a few days, Richard decided to buy a small, light trailer to haul our camping gear. The Fiat was able to pull the trailer, at least on mostly flat terrain and gently rising foothills. But just as we reached Denver, the engine gave out. We had to stay in Denver a few extra days while we waited until the only mechanics trained to work on Fiats had time to fit us in. With the new engine, we headed deeper into the mountains and camped in breathtakingly beautiful places. I remember Grand Lake, nestled in the forests of high mountains. We froze at night in our sleeping bags. I would awake long before dawn and walk to the lake with my sleeping bag wrapped around my shoulders. I sat on the shore waiting for sunrise. As the sun rose and warmed the cold mountain lake, spirals of mist appeared and danced on its surface. Legends say the spirals of mist are the spirits of the Ute women, children and elders who died when their rafts capsized during a storm.
We traveled on to ghost towns that had once been busy silver mines, turned by then into seldom-visited tourist attractions. When we stopped in small towns to buy supplies, or on rare occasions to eat something other than campfire-cooked meals, we became a main attraction. People would line up at the windows of shops to watch us as we walked by. Richard was starting to grow his hair longer, a change from the clean-cut persona he projected when he worked for a newspaper, and a beard was beginning to show. My hair, then almost black, was long and unbound, blowing in the mountain breezes. Dressed in my sandals, bell-bottomed jeans and huge workshirt that looked more like a dress, I guess we appeared strange. Perhaps it was the first time townspeople had an opportunity to see “hippies” up close.
As we headed on our way to Wyoming, the little trailer didn’t quite hold the road as we wound around hairpin mountain turns without guard rails and finally went off the side of the mountain. Fortunately, we didn’t go with it. We stopped and got out just in time to see the trailer give up its tenuous hold on the trailer hitch and tumble the long way down to the bottom. Although shaken by our narrow escape, we nonetheless continued our travels and replaced some of the camping gear we lost.
Our travels led us to Seattle and down the Pacific coast to Los Angeles. This is where I decided to stay, with a newly found friend who lived in Hollywood. I know Richard was deeply hurt by my decision. Despite our agreement to avoid romantic entanglements, I knew that he thought he loved me, and I knew he wanted to protect me from harm. But I also realized that I needed to find out who I was by learning to stand on my own in the world. Hollywood seemed as good a place to learn as anywhere I had been before. It was far more diverse and exciting. Richard left alone to return to his Midwest home with tears in his eyes.
This morning when I remembered Richard and the adventures we shared, I googled his name on a whim. I found someone with the same name who is the age he would be now and whose photo looked like what I imagined he would look like decades later. I was relieved. I choose to believe that this is the Richard who once thought he loved me. And I choose to believe that our adventures inspired him to go on to become the famous creative quirky photographer described on the internet. Although we never met or spoke again, the memories of the friendship we shared remain in my heart and will probably continue to reawaken to the sound of Rocky Mountain High.
Some stories have happy endings without any regrets, even though touched by a hint of sadness.
“When you part from your friend, you grieve not; For that which you love most in him may be clearer in his absence, as the mountain to the climber is clearer from the plain. And let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit.” (Kahlil Gibran, 1923/2002, The Prophet, pp. 58-59)
This Thanksgiving morning, a few words from a song that one of my long-ago new Hollywood friends wrote and recorded came to mind.
What can you make
that nobody else can fake?
Try a gen-u-ine
You can make a smile
that is your very own.
You can make a smile
and you can make it known.
You can smile.
My travels have taken me many places since then. I lost touch with many of the friends I encountered along the way. Yet lessons they shared remain in my memories, leaving a legacy of resiliency and gratitude. I can smile. I can also send healing thoughts and bring soft hands and laughter into the lives of people I meet today.
Today, I am grateful for those gifts. Surviving hard times can bring unexpected life-long benefits. I hope that is true for those who are suffering today.
In another early post, I defined a term I learned from a former student, “River Teeth.”
Recently, I have been reflecting on what I would identify as the “river teeth” of my life thus far. River teeth, according to David James Duncan (2006), are the hard resinous knots that are all that remain after the softer wooden fibers of pine trees have been dissolved by the river waters into which they have fallen. Applied to life, they are the memories that remain decades later as transformative experiences and epiphanies.
The last four years have exposed with undeniable clarity how easy it is to exploit the fault lines and fissures in our communities to divide us by ancestry, class, age, gender, sexual orientation, abilities, and political ideologies. In the coming years, we will need to find common ground to survive. It will take all of us to face the threats that affect us – diseases including COVID, technological disasters, and climate change.
All I can do in these times is to try to help family, friends, and students keep hope alive.
November 7, 2020 – Class Day
What I noticed this morning –
Instead of looking out of my upstairs window at the gardens below and then greeting the morning on my side porch as I do almost every day, I ran downstairs to turn on my computer so I could check the news about the election.
The past week has been a rollercoaster ride between two contrasting choices – dread, despair, and disappointment or cautiously hopeful optimism. I didn’t find a resolution to a polarized nation on news sites. What I did find, though, was helpful advice from horoscopes for the two astrological signs associated with the time of my birth – Pisces, an emotional water sign symbolized by two fish swimming in opposite directions, and Aquarius, an analytical air sign represented by the water-bearer. The horoscopes both offered what seems to be sage advice for all of us during challenging times.
“Your ability to arm yourself with knowledge and a calm demeanor will help you to shut down any chaos or negativity.” (Aquarius horoscope, 11/7/2020, Huffington Post)
“Your presence of mind and patience will help you out tremendously today.” (Pisces horoscope, 11/7/2020, Huffington Post)
In class, I chose to follow that advice. Rather than drone on and on about the differences between qualitative and quantitative research methodologies, I asked my colleague to join me to check-in with students to give them a chance to talk about how they were doing and find out from their perspective what we could do to help them.
What have you noticed about yourself in the learning process this semester?
What have you noticed about our learning community cohort this semester?
What did you learn about your ancestors’ struggles last year that offers ideas about how to survive during difficult times?
What story will your grandchildren tell about the way you came through these challenging times?
One of the final questions we asked was
“Why are you here?”
We added an observation.
“Showing up for four or five hours of classes via Zoom on a Saturday, especially on one of the last warm, sunny days we are likely to see for many months, is noteworthy. We’re grateful that you are all here.”
Students told us “connections matter.” That’s what helps them survive during these times.
Being there for family, students, colleagues, pets, and the gardens I planted takes almost all of my time and attention these days. Too soon, the snow will make that more challenging…
November 11, 2020
Still, I want to take this moment to say chi miigwetch (thank you) to all of the WordPress friends who have continued to bring so much beauty into my life.
October 3 – An afternoon adventure well worth several days of COVID self-quarantine
Saturday – October 10, 2020
Gradually, I am learning to be grateful for the chance to experience the many thoughts, sensations, and circumstances that present themselves at any given moment. I have the opportunity to choose which ones capture my full attention. This morning, instead of descending into sadness over losses of the past (my mother died on this day ten years ago), mourning over fragile fleeting life and beauty, or obsessing over forces and behaviors I dislike but cannot change, I chose to focus on the task at hand. Preparing for online classes that only happen on alternate Saturdays. Today was one of them.
On class days, I need to take time to answer the question I ask students at the beginning of our online meeting about research.
“What did you notice today?”
Often, as I greet the morning on class days, the universe offers me something that may be of help to my students in these challenging times, while also teaching them something about research.
Greeting the morning I noticed sensations competing for attention –
The melodious songs of birds and the loud revving engine of a motorcycle, The cool air touching my cheeks that made me want to take a deep breath, instantly stifled by the whiff of heavy toxic pollution in the air from factories that are no-longer idled as CODID restrictions have eased
I was reminded of Parker Palmer’s insight about the challenges of “standing in the tragic gap”
Curious, open-minded folks with common sense observe both the pleasant and unpleasant, accepting both as reality and honestly recording what they see. The added dimension for social work faculty, practitioners, and students, though, is the responsibility they carry for assessing how vulnerable populations are affected and figuring out ways to use research, knowledge, and skills to inform interventions that ameliorate harm and serve to enhance or create preventive and protective supports.
It’s not easy for me to figure out how to teach effectively using only distance technology. It’s not easy for students, either. Yet they show up on time and participate anyway, often sharing important insights and resources.
They will need a lot of creativity, skill, and tenacity to figure out how to weave meaningful local community connections in neighborhoods like the one I live in at present. Each family seems to be solidly ensconced in their own culture, house, and yard, and all seem to be increasingly avoidant of any exchanges with the those outside their fences.
Fortunately, I have family, friends, and colleagues who live relatively close, some of whom I can still sometimes hug. I have to admit, though, that I sometimes miss the old days when things seemed different, friendlier, kinder. I wonder now if old times really were kinder or whether I was simply less observant…
Mid-October – October 13, 2020
Weeks pass so quickly with too few moments to wonder or wander in flights of fancy beyond the borders of constraints created by responsibilities to others Still on this brisk, windy sunny mid-morning I am transported on my neighborhood walk by the striking contrasts of color and light accentuating sharp boundaries between sun and shadow trees glowing in their glorious multi-hued garb with a few dark skeletal branches revealed against the cerulean cloud-studded sky There’s no time or space for photos I merely serve as the responsible leash-holder for my little dog as he trots merrily along enjoying a pleasant fall day
I’m terrified by the possibility of having to rely on others
for kind, compassionate care if I am not able to take care of myself
My thoughts today reminded me of a song by Laura Nyro, “and when I die.”
I also remembered the things I witnessed when I worked as a nurses’ aide in nursing homes and a university hospital, as an attendant in the infirmary of a state school for people with mental retardation, and as a home health care aide for people who were recovering from major illnesses or dying. I have written about some of those experiences in previous posts (Mickey, Clara, Rita, and Donald), including the motivation they provided for me to complete degrees that would enable me to try to humanize long-term care systems at a policy level.
I learned enough to be able to try to create more humane care for my mother for the last 16 years of her life, although it required tenacity, vigilance, and creativity. I don’t know if she was aware of her losses or where she was because of Alzheimer’s Disease. It’s not something I wish for my daughter to shoulder.
I don’t know what the future will bring, but I do know that I need to make major changes in where and how I live. Things that were easy for me to do, or at least manageable just a short while ago like landscaping and shoveling heavy snow, could mean serious injury and permanent disability the next time I don’t move just the right way.
That’s just how life is. Things change and old bodies wear out one way or another. So many others in the world right now are suffering far greater challenges and losses. I am grateful for the many blessings in my life and feel no need to mourn what was. I have courses to prepare for the fall semester that will be beginning in early September, a family to care for as long as I’m here, and dear blogging friends who hopefully know how much I care even though my presence on WordPress has been so infrequent this summer.
It has been impossible for me to keep up with blogging this month.
I have missed reading your posts and have been so belated with responses to comments. Occasionally I write, but I hesitate to post because I am so behind reciprocating visits and thanking people for sharing their thoughtful, lovely work and comments.
I began the spring with an ambitious plan to improve the quality of the soil and ordered a LARGE truckload of compost from a cattle farmer who raises his herd humanely without antibiotics, growth hormones, or chemical feed. Ten yards of compost, though, is a lot to move, shovel by shovel, wagonload by wagonload, from my backyard driveway down the winding, sloping path to the front yard.
But it’s good, honest work that helps me find moments of peace in these unsettling times. Gardening gives me a chance to reflect about life, traveling though time. Often, it helps me create something that I hope will lift others’ spirits, too.
June 3, 2020
ah, these trying times forcing me to go ever deeper to discover yet more unresolved woundedness
violence, cruelty, duplicity triggering old memories of my socially awkward years as a child, teen, college student
always curious about nature and others from different cultures preferring reading, discovery and solving complex puzzles
and always uncomfortable with superficial people who competed, bullied, and seemed so easily bored when alone
I honestly preferred being alone it’s confusing for someone who reads or feels others’ emotions never knowing which are actually mine
we see the world through lenses programmed by our past experiences expectations and assumptions influencing what we think we see our behavior, expressions, posture affecting how others respond filtered through their unique lenses we’re like marionettes pulled by invisible strings in a reciprocal dance based on assumptions unable to determine what is really “real”
June 15, 2020
Mid-June Reflections 2020
August dry has come early The earth baked and cracked Close-mown lawns brown and brittle Day after day dawns cold and windy Trees and gardens struggling, aching for life-giving rain
It seems a metaphor for the world these days of virus fears and in-your-face denial of state-sanctioned violence revealing cultures that clearly value property and profit more than people and the global ecosphere
So many are struggling to find reasons and ways for simply staying alive during this drought of compassion and intelligence
June 23, 2020
June Reflections – 2020 Visions?
The wisdom of elders seated on downtown benches watching the traffic pass by some measuring the souls of preoccupied walkers too busy to smile or say hello or stop and listen to what they’ve learned from years of living life invisible on the margins
My walks with my dog, Pinto, are often through unexplored territory. No two days are the same as he picks our path through the neighborhood for reasons I cannot discern. This morning, he took us deep into the business district of this part of town, making sure to sniff almost every lamp post and lift his leg to memorialize his passing.
As we neared the light at an intersection, I noticed the elder sitting on a bench smoking his cigarette. His presence brought insights and memories. These days I try to remember to be present and kind. It’s what I can do to counterbalance the alienating fear of others during the era of pandemic social distancing.
I reflect on the term “social distancing.” I remember reading a powerful insight shared by a dear blogging friend a while ago. She noted the difference between “physical distancing” required to slow the spread of COVID-19, and “social distancing.” Social distancing is a prominent characteristic I have often noticed in the U.S. Think about people’s behavior in elevators or on crowded city thoroughfares. People typically don’t make eye-contact or exchange greetings with strangers.
Yet it’s been my experience that elders on downtown benches often do notice others.
“Nice dog,” the elder we encountered said.
“Thank you,” I replied.
Does he bite?,” he asked.
Yes, he may bite,” I replied. “I adopted him seven years ago as a special-needs dog that was abused. He had to learn to defend himself. I used to have to handle him with leather gloves when I first got him. Now, he’s usually gentle with me or people he’s learned to trust.”
“I will never understand how people can abuse dogs.” The elder said. “People can be so cruel.”
“I agree. They can be,” I said. “It’s very sad and troubling.”
“It was good to speak with you. I hope you have a good day,” I said as Pinto and I continued on our way.
June 30, 2020
Gardening is one thing I can do during these crazy, isolating times. Neighbors and strangers stop by to visit when I’m working in the yard. They tell me the gardens make a difference to them and others they know. But it’s a lot of work!
Many trees, bushes, and gardens needed to be saved, repaired, or replaced because of damage from heavy winter snow, hungry rabbits, and the passage of time. Keeping plants alive has also been an increasing challenge during our two-month drought during May and June. Fortunately, we finally got rain for the last two evenings (0.19 of an inch of precipitation which brings our total for June to 0.66 of an inch, and 1.60 inches for May and June*).
The good news is that half of the compost pile has been carefully placed. The bad news? It’s much warmer now. Shoveling and hauling compost is even more work than it was in May and early June.
Gardens may not touch others’ hearts, but they do help me remember what’s most important in my life. I’m deeply grateful to be blessed with a little piece of land and the ability to kneel and touch the earth – to plant food and flowers that will perhaps feed me, my family, and some of my neighbors in the long winter to come. Of course, birds and squirrels demand their share even though fences make it more difficult for rabbits to claim what remains.
The greatest gift of this time, though, has been the opportunity to think deeply, to see more clearly without the distraction of having to relate to others. I’ve had a chance to explore the powerful outrage I feel that has deepened and intensified over the years about the wetiko spirit of this country, the mindless need for ever more power and stuff that has continued to destroy lives and the earth across centuries.
Reflection has led me to the equally deep certainty that this world does not need more anger if we are ever to heal the hubris and ignorance that keeps us from living in peace with each other and in harmony with the earth. All I can do is work on my own thoughts, words, and actions to transmute the power of those raging emotions into compassion, patience, and integrity no matter what others do, moment to moment. To look deeply enough to find the strength to hold center.
Kneeling on the earth with my hands caressing the soil has helped me find and hold center during these trying times. Yes, it’s hard work. It’s a job that carries no guarantees of success or permanence. So many forces are outside of my control. But shovel by shovel, seed by seed, I am grateful for the chance to do something that helps create a healthier world in my little space. It’s the legacy I can leave for the generations to follow, and the gift I can offer to virtual friends I may never meet face-to-face.
In the poem above, apostrophes ‘mark conversation.’ “Quotation marks” acknowledge words from a song that played through my thoughts as I began typing this story. The song is from Woodstock by Joni Mitchell.
Life is so challenging these days. As I greeted the early morning with the sweet scent of lilac and bleeding heart blossoms in the air, a thought flowed through my mind. “I have been to the mountain top.”
A memory long buried surfaced. I doubt that the mountain top I was on was the same one that inspired Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his famous speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top.” Instead, it was a high hill in Gill, Massachusetts, near the Olde Stone Lodge where I was living at the time. A member of a struggling commune.
Breathing in the stillness, I was transported to another time and place, to a different mountain retreat. I was surrounded by wise, loving beings who showed me the power of the communion of spirits. “Times ahead will be challenging,” the wise beings said, “but you can come here whenever you choose.”
I haven’t been able to go back there, though, for a very long time. The reasons are too many to recount. This morning, I remembered the visit, though, before Pinto and I left for our walk. Like the song, Woodstock, decades ago I set off as a young mother to “try and get my soul free.”
As I’ve mentioned before, I set off with my young daughter to live on a commune. It was the beginning of a long journey trying to find or create a loving community that finally led me to a simple life closer to my daughter and grandchildren.
This morning, I remembered the message, echoed in Mitchell’s song.
We are stardust. We are golden.
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.