My little dog lay in pain suffering slowing dying a victim of unintended incompetence and lack of compassion in a capitalistic culture I could only bear witness offering soft hands and soothing words without the skills and knowledge to heal him
I learned survival and healing are possible even in situations that sometimes appear hopeless if you are willing and able to pay enough for competence and caring
Nature doesn’t charge a fee for the beauty she shares for all to see She merely waits patiently for us to awaken to our responsibilities to care
This morning, I found myself wondering about the reflections I posted during mid-July in past years and decided to take a retrospective journey. For decades, July has been a time spent gardening. Watching the miracle of life unfurl from dry seeds never ceases to fill me with awe. Tending plants gives me a chance to focus on helping living creatures in practical, grounded, and perhaps, creative ways.
Gardening is like life in many ways. It’s not easy – or predictable either. Each of my past eight years gardening here has presented challenges to address – deer before the high fence went up, invasions by slugs during wet years, droughts in early spring and late summer, and deluges that wash away seeds that have just been planted or crush tender plants. This year is the year of the rabbits. The population of little bunnies that can get through fencing has exploded.
Still, I love the chance to work with gardens and attempt to solve perplexing issues. People are often more difficult for me to work with and I sometimes wonder why my path led me from a career in ecology to one in social work…
But back to my journey through past posts. I hope you will join me The posts reflect topics I often ponder when gardening when I have a chance to wander through time – how to find common ground in a divided world, how to be present in the moment, and the importance of relationships with others and the natural environment.
When I walked into the office of an inter-tribal agency on the first morning of my new job as deputy director of health and human services, it was clear how easy it was for people to be divided. Staff for the five programs at the time only felt ownership for their programs. They resented any expectations of collective responsibility for the welfare of the agency or tribes. They fought over which program paid for stationary and who could use the one computer. They didn’t question the appropriateness of imposing state and federal requirements on tribal communities. And in situations where staff struggled to meet program requirements, there was only censure and no help. The eleven-member Board of Directors comprised of the Chairpersons of member tribes was also easily divided, concerned only about meeting the interests of their respective tribal community. Why would it be otherwise if they expected to be reelected? There was little recognition of the needs of urban Native American populations in the state, and strong resistance to any cross-ethnic collaboration.
Looking back, I realize that at each step, I tried to find common ground among my department staff, my agency colleagues, other oppressed communities, and with funders and administrators as well. It is so easy for people who are oppressed to see others who are oppressed as the enemy. Who loses and who benefits from divisions among oppressed people? Clearly, those in power benefit from deflecting attention away from the role they play as our puppet masters. We keep each other oppressed and all too often, kill each other off while those in power profit financially and enjoy the illusion that they are smarter, more developed morally and culturally, and better fit to impose their hegemony.
Who benefits from the continuing conflict between Israel and Palestine? Only those who sell their souls and the hopes and dreams and lives of other people for the illusion of personal safety and status, those who wish to exploit oil and other resources with greater ease, and those who get rich by selling their weapons. Those who lose are ordinary people on both sides. Homes and lives are lost on both sides and children on both sides grow up in a war zone that teaches them to fear and hate their neighbors for generations yet to come. We all lose from a world at war, from a world where people are brutally murdered by governments for no other reason than securing the power and privilege of the ruling class. And we all lose when generations are denied the right to develop and contribute their gifts to the rest of the human community.
It was a July morning in 2011. An odd group of faculty, mostly from the English and art departments of a university, gathered for an in-service to learn how to use art as a vehicle for unlocking people’s stories. The instructor began.
“You have two minutes to draw the first thing that comes to mind for each of the words or phrases I mention. Don’t worry about technique. That will just interfere with your ability to tap what is most important to you.
“Draw the ‘safe place when you were a child.’ Draw ‘pressure – the pressure you feel from all of the demands that you deal with in your life.’ Now, draw a ‘monument.’”
For me, the images I drew that day were all linked to nature, to the natural world. That has always been my source of balance and solace in times of challenge and uncertainty. And now, as nature is threatened ever more by forces of exploitative disregard and destruction, it’s hard to hold on to a sense of hope and peace some days.
Unlike my colleagues, I didn’t draw an edifice of marble or concrete, I drew a tree – a living monument of what helps us survive on this planet. If Jared Diamond’s (2005) thesis is accurate, could it be that one of the final death knells for societies is the destruction of the forests that blanket the earth and give us all oxygen to breathe?…
As I work at grueling physical labor,
I watch my thoughts and feelings,
I sweat and swear,
Laugh at myself and my struggles – and find peace,
Sometimes present and other times floating in memories of past times and places,
Talking to plants and earthworms,
To the robins that are watching
Eagerly waiting to explore the earth I’ve just uncovered
And swatting at mosquitoes (I’m sorry to say)
I arise the next morning knowing there are still new jobs to be done. There is no ego or allure of fame and fortune involved. I know what I am doing will not save us from the future, but it gives me comfort to know that around the globe, people are tending the earth with hard work and loving care. Living simply and breathing love into the work we do whatever it might be – it’s what we can do for ourselves and the future of our grandchildren and our world.
“Actually, while it won’t be easy to reduce our impact, it won’t be impossible either. Remember that impact is the product of two factors: population, multiplied times impact per person.” (Diamond, p. 524)
The trees and the gardens we tend and the love we breathe into the world around us are the most important monuments we can leave.
Sitting on my back step a few days ago
A musical voice drew my attention
“Oh you’re so beautiful, you make me so happy.”
I peeked through the fence and saw my neighbor,
turning away from the fence to walk home.
She talks to the flowers and plants in my gardens
and always touches my heart with her lovely spirit.
I ran out to invite her into the yard
She already knew about the geranium –
another neighbor rescued it from an early death
and left it as a gift early in the spring
What more could one ask of life than friends
who share the love of life and beauty?
When my daughter was born,
my view of the world forever changed.
Life was no longer something I peered at
from a safe distance
I felt it deeply – glowing in my heart
Powerful, shifting emotions
forced me to realize how precious
and precarious life can be
Holding each of my grandchildren for the first time
intensified my sensitivity and commitment
to do all in my power to be a loving presence
Watching them as they grow
amplifies both joy and pain
celebrating their accomplishments
suffering when they encounter challenges
Sometimes all I can do is
to simply try to be a loving presence
In times such as these it’s not easy
to believe the future holds bright possibilities
Let our hearts awaken and glow
with celebratory joy
after a stormy night’s
seemingly dreamless sleep
by the urgent sound of rain
pounding on windows and roof
accompanied by booming thunder
that shook the house
to its very foundations
yet resting unafraid
and rising gently
to greet the day
other awakenings grace my days
encountering random kindness
in unexpected places like the city bus
as a stately elder gentleman
reached across the divisiveness
so prevalent here today
to bring kindness and comfort
into the lives of others
and graciously dealt with
rejection from those
to fear difference and joy
I couldn’t leave the bus
without thanking him
in the only words
that came to me
“Sir, you are a blessing to others”
Greeting the cool sunny morning
listening to the joyous music of birdsong
deeply peaceful yet unable to drown out
the drumbeat of nationalism
that threatens to destroy us all
It’s our own consumption and complacency
clinging to old myths of benevolent exceptional empires
that keep us from seeing shared humanity
on an earth with no dividing lines
except for scars left by exploitation and war
It matters little which kleptocrats rule
when we choose to see others as an enemy
rather than to listen deeply to the heartbeats
of a planet we are entrusted to lovingly tend
Today, I will visit Pinto, my little dog, who’s in the hospital recovering from an operation.
Maybe I’ll have time to edit my manuscript and pull a few weeds, too, grateful for the gifts of beloved companions, a small relatively peaceful space on earth to tend, and the responsibilities to still care for others. I will continue to do what I can to build common ground in a divided world without compromising integrity, to be present in the moment despite the pain that sometimes brings, and to nurture healthy relationships with others and the natural environment by walking softly on the earth.
Greeting the morning earlier than usual
after awakening to the rumbling clouds
The alley behind my house is filled with “tooting” puddles
reminding me of my granddaughter’s laughter
Now, she might be too grown up
to notice puddles with delight
but perhaps she’s not yet too old to remember
I have lived through so many in my life
Changing people, places, jobs, responsibilities,
sometimes alone as I am now, and sometimes with partners
My changing house reminds me of a common thread
connecting this long, winding journey
No accomplishment, job, relationship, or living situation
is quite what we expected or hoped it would be
The one constant connecting them all is change
The ways we respond to “success,” loss, and disappointment
tell a story about who we really are
Each place I have travelled, I tried my best
to learn how to be present in the moment
breathing new possibilities into being
despite knowing that nothing is permanent
and, perhaps, the memories of what could be
Sometimes, unexpected gifts help us remember why we are here – now – in such chaotic, troubling times
“It is hard to say which one of the current egregious matters has rocked people’s worlds and beliefs more. Ours is a time of almost daily jaw-dropping astonishment and often righteous rage over the latest degradations of what matters most to civilized, visionary people.
“…You are right in your assessments. The lustre and hubris some have aspired to while endorsing acts so heinous against children, elders, everyday people, the poor, the unguarded, the helpless, is breathtaking.
“Yet … I urge you, ask you, gentle you, to please not spend your spirit dry by bewailing these difficult times. Especially do not lose hope. Most particularly because, the fact is – we were made for these times.
“Yes. For years, we have been learning, practicing, been in training for and just waiting to meet on this exact plain of engagement. I cannot tell you often enough that we are definitely the leaders we have been waiting for, and that we have been raised, since childhood, for this time precisely” (Clarissa Pinkola Estés)
Reading the mainstream news confirms Cohen’s message
“There is a crack, a crack in everything”
yet all I have to offer are imperfect ramblings
Perhaps that’s enough to let some light get in?
The research my students read this past semester continues to haunt me. They explored how unequal access to potable water disproportionately affects the health of groups that have been relegated to marginalized socio-economic status and forced to relocate to the least desirable lands. Most people believe that “developed” countries are not affected by the scarcity of safe water to drink. Some of the students this past semester were shocked when they discovered otherwise.
One student shared a quote from a study she reviewed, “… the value of water is [only] truly appreciated when one becomes thirsty” (Noga & Wolbring, 2013, p. 1872). I am reminded of the courage and commitment of the Standing Rock Water Protectors and the violent resistance they had to endure because too many people take clean water for granted until it’s too late.
Another student reviewed a study about a community in Texas that was profoundly affected by a disaster. Although the study took place almost a decade after the residents learned that their water had been contaminated with benzene, the community remained shattered as a result of a “technological disaster” caused by a nearby oil refinery owned by the Exxon Corporation (Couch & Mercuri, 2007, p. 118).
Although community members noticed problems with the smell, taste, and color of their water when they first moved into the newly developed subdivision in the 1980s, they were assured by the local municipal utility district that the water was safe. The district staff undoubtedly believed that to be true. Public water suppliers were not required to test for benzene, “a known human carcinogen,” until 1990 (Couch & Mercuri, 2007, p. 120). After benzene was included among the chemical contaminants public water suppliers had to measure, the test results for the community’s water supply were alarming – the amount of benzene was eleven times greater than what was deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Without informing residents, the district switched the community to a “safe” alternate water source after additional tests showed the same results for benzene. Community residents were not informed about the contamination or the switch until rumors and a local investigative reporter forced the issue. Residents were finally notified five months after the discovery and shift to a new water source. Couch and Mercury (2007, p. 117) describe the response. “In the words of one resident, the community reacted ‘like someone stepping on an anthill – everyone running in different directions.’”
Imagine what that does to the sense of trust community members have in their public service providers and government officials. It’s something residents in Love Canal, NY and Flint, MI experienced.
Residents in each of the communities affected by “technological disasters” had to undertake their own advocacy and identify researchers and lawyers who could help them prove their case. But ending at least part of the most obvious and egregious environmental injustices and winning court cases can’t heal the ongoing health damages, psychological trauma, or splintered community relationships that result.
This brief overview does not do justice to an important research study that details the complex intricacies of the multidimensional harm suffered by residents of this particular Texas community. Hopefully, though, it highlights a simple, compelling point. Vulnerability to the most destructive consequences of both technological and natural disasters is far greater for groups that have already been subjected to centuries of ongoing systematic and structural discrimination because of socio-economic status and ancestry. It is not something governments alone can address even if they are willing to do so. The causes are deeper and more complex.
There is a pattern we see repeating for each community that goes through the increasingly common natural and technological disasters. Community leaders declare their intention to rebuild and recover what was lost. Based on the experiences of communities that have survived repeated natural disasters, recovery has sometimes been possible. Couch and Mercuri (2007, p. 131) point out “that in areas prone to certain types of natural disasters, a disaster subculture develops which helps residents prepare for and respond to disasters. For example, in natural disasters, a therapeutic community often forms by which neighbor helps neighbor to respond to the catastrophe” (emphasis mine).
What Couch and Mecuri (2007, p. 131) witnessed in the community they studied, however, “was just the opposite, with everybody looking out only for themselves. Instead of the community being solidified, it was ‘like someone stepping on an anthill.’” They argue that what developed was a subculture of distress among residents that reinforced “uncertainty, distrust, alienation, and conflicting individualized responses to the problems” (Couch & Mercuri, 2007, p. 132, emphasis mine).
Couch and Mercuri (2007, p. 134) argue that “With chronic technological disasters, recovery/transformation must often take place in the midst of ongoing danger, or at the very least, amidst the perception of it.” The trauma created by benzene contamination didn’t end when the problem was addressed by the municipal utility district. Residents had already ingested contaminated water and had been deceived by people and officials whom they had trusted.
They had to live with the fact that they were already ill or with constant fear that they might become seriously ill at some point in the future. They also learned that they couldn’t depend on government officials for help. They couldn’t recover the illusion that personal health and safety were guaranteed. The only option available to them was to transform themselves and their lives in response to changing circumstances.
As I thought about the difference between recovery and transformation for communities affected by disasters, I was reminded of the times we are all living in now. With each passing day, those in power around the world are creating ever more destruction and instability. Even if the destruction ends today, we will still need to contend with the destabilizing consequences for generations yet to come. The message I take away from this article is the need to learn how to create an adaptive community where people can learn how to work together rather than only look out for their own self interests.
Overcoming the programming that has affected too many of us in the world to hunger and thirst for things that destroy rather than sustain life is not an easy task. Perhaps as Cohen suggests, things need to break first so the light can get in. Perhaps the most that those who see the dangers ahead can accomplish is to transform themselves and what they think and say and do.
Leonard Cohen, “Anthem” from the 1992 album The Future.
Stephen R. Couch & Anne E. Mercuri (2007). Toxic water and the anthill effect: The development of a subculture of distress in a once contaminated community. Research in Social Problems and Public Policy, 14, 117-137.
Jacqueline Noga & Gregor Wolbring (2013). Perceptions of water ownership, water management, and the responsibility of providing clean water. Water, 5(4), 1865-1889.
Photos of a fascinating sunset this spring
made me wonder how many sunsets I’ve missed
during the 26,374 days I have lived
I don’t remember how many times
I failed to notice which direction was west
in the scores of places I’ve temporarily called home
The busyness of striving and surviving
as we travel down winding paths
sometimes keeps us too preoccupied to notice
Our vision clouded by so many things
that we believe are more important
than the ever-present beauty around us
Even ordinary scenes become extraordinary
when seen through the lenses of presence
surrounded by those whom we love
Perhaps noticing is especially important
when the clouds roll in promising another chilly rainy night
after the longest coldest winter I remember
At a time when the world already feels so dark
I am grateful for the chance to witness and remember
the beacon of momentary but ever-returning light
These are not the best of photos. They were taken in poor light with an iphone through dusty windows in a moving vehicle. 🙂 Nonetheless, I’m sharing them in hopes they will remind others to find moments to appreciate the beauty and wonder of seemingly ordinary places.
I don’t think I ever told you
how much your support and kindness
meant to me during my graduate studies
You taught me so much more than research
with your kindness and artful diplomacy
You showed me how to teach
and stayed the course as my advisor
through so many changing research topics
The one thing I regret is that
someone other than you
is handing me a symbolic diploma
in the photo of my final graduation ceremony
I would guess that your humility keeps you from knowing
that I only attended the ceremony to honor you
on behalf of all of the Native American students
you mentored who were not as fortunate as I
to survive the grueling process you mastered
walking between two different worlds
with a kind heart and joyful spirit intact
All I can say is chi miigwetch, dear friend
I will do my best to honor your gifts
by sharing what I learned from you
with others I encounter on this journey
and that of light-affirming others around the world
garnering strength to heal for the sake of all life
across uncountable generations to come
I do worry about the challenges that those who are awakening to the wonder of the world will face in the future. I wrote and titled this poem before reading an article by Tess Owen in Vice News. Owen describes a different kind of awakening among white nationalists from around the world who gathered in Finland this past weekend. They referred to their celebration as “Awakening II.” I sincerely hope they will awaken to wonder, too.