to weather the winds that led to the passing of the two old willows
that once embraced her and nurtured her through her tender years
Still, they anchor her firmly and deeply between their stumps and roots feeding the abundance of berries that hang from her delicate branches as sustenance for her winged and four-legged relations when the deep snows fall and the cold winter winds blow strong
Although I have so little time to write and blog these days, stories and poems sometimes flow through me any way. They are meant to be shared with others because they are connected to others who inspire them. I am sharing this with gratitude to my colleague who insisted we use trees as a metaphor for the class we are teaching about community practice. Initially, I thought she was a little bit crazy. But the course has continued to inspire students year after year. I am also sharing it with gratitude to a dear blogging friend, Robyn, a gifted writer and poet who has inspired me to look ever more deeply at my connections to the land where I stand. And of course, last but not least, this post was inspired by the mountain ash tree bearing her gifts for all who come into her presence.
I am always willing to be the one to take responsibility for making sure we are properly physically-distanced from anyone else we encounter on our travels. I truly hope we will not need to do so in the near future.
Teaching online takes so much more time than it does in person. I have to rely on words alone to explain complex concepts and details rather than help students develop their ideas face-to-face through dialogic exchanges, marker in hand to draw diagrams on the white board to illustrate how things fit together.
It leaves me little time to write anything other than comments on papers, emails, and class presentations. When I do post something on my blog, I try valiantly to respond to comments and visits in the few moments I have but inevitably I fall behind and feel guilty. So, I don’t post often, and rarely write except on the mornings before our bi-weekly Zoom classes. I guess I should just call my bi-weekly posts – Class Day Reflections.
Class Day – October 24, 2020
“If the rivers and lakes could speak, or more aptly, if one took the time to listen and understand them, what would they say about the way humans have been treating them?” *
This is the question my colleague asked at the end of our classes today when we were consulting with the one student who remained after classes ended, eagerly asking advice on the best ways to approach a community project exploring water issues that excited her.
I believe they would tell us humans all need to do better. Humans need to pay attention to the danger signs all around them and learn how to listen.
Not surprisingly, it was so tempting to stay wrapped in the piles of cozy blankets rather than venture out into the drafty cold of another frigid early morning. Yet my waking moment musings impelled me to run downstairs to my computer to type “what I noticed.”
What I noticed this morning
In a hypnagogic haze, halfway between asleep and awake, I heard the sound of a train, echoing from the ridge to the west. It reminded me of an environmental disaster that occurred before I moved to Duluth – the train that derailed in 1992.
• “Superior [Wisconsin] is not a stranger to industrial accidents prompting mass evacuations. In 1992, a train containing benzene gas derailed just south of the city, covering the region in a bluish, toxic haze. The event, which has come to be known as “Toxic Tuesday” among many locals, forced the evacuation of nearly 30,000 people from the city.” (CBS News, 2018)
• I also remembered the Huske Refinery Fire that I did witness as I walked my dog on April 26, 2018. I saw the huge black toxic cloud filling the sky just across the St. Louis Bay to the east, carried south by strong winds.
• Two years later, the danger the plant still poses, along with dangers of the Enbridge tar-sands pipeline, rarely make the news. We take our access to safe water for granted and fail to be part of the efforts to prevent further threats for future generations.
I guess it’s not surprising that someone born on the cusp of Pisces (the sign of two fish swimming in opposite directions) and Aquarius (the sign of the water-bearer) would have an affinity for water. It is a gift to have a chance to find others who care about the rivers and lakes as well. I am deeply grateful for colleagues and students who are learning, as am I, to listen to the messages of the rivers and lakes in our beautiful homes in the USA and Canada.
I hope more of us can learn to listen and care before it’s too late…
What did you notice today that inspired you to feel gratitude?
What did you notice today that inspired your curiosity and sense of wonder?
My granddaughter and daughter inspired my answer for today.
These may be questions you ask every day. From my experience, though, these are questions that are rarely if ever inspired by mainstream media. Instead, mainstream media focus on events that promote fear and anger. We are programmed to live in fear of a virus, economic insecurity, and each other. We’re constantly reminded of the egregious harm and suffering of our ancestors and encouraged to blame the descendants of peoples who are no longer living, perpetuating violent divisiveness.
Another question follows.
What if we focused on what is really important for our collective well-being and survival?
I remember the work of Louie Schwartzberg, “Nature’s Beauty Inspires Gratitude” (TEDxSMU, December 18, 2012).
A passage from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s (2013) book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge, and the teachings of plants, surfaces as I watch Schwartzberg’s film.
“Science can be a language of distance which reduces a being to its working parts; it is a language of objects. The language scientists speak, however precise, is based on a profound error in grammar, an omission, a grave loss in translation from the native languages of these shores.
“My first taste of the missing language was the word Puhpowee on my tongue. I stumbled upon it in a book by Anishinaabe ethnobiologist Keewaydinoquay, in a treatise on the traditional use of fungi by our people. Puhpowee, she explained, translates as ‘the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight.’ As a biologist, I was stunned that such a word existed…
“In the three syllables of this new word I could see an entire process of close observation in the damp morning woods, the formulation of a theory for which English has no equivalent. The makers of this word understood a world of being, full of unseen energies that animate everything.” (Kimmerer, 2013, p. 49)
Schwartzberg’s work clearly shows the magic of those unseen energies at play.
I sincerely hope you have a chance to notice something today that inspires gratitude and a sense of wonder.
Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013). Braiding sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge, and the teaching of plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions.
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.
I remember reading something in a blog recently that sparked reflections that went underground while I reviewed and graded a seemingly never-ending stream of student papers. Sadly, I can’t remember which blog inspired me now that I have a moment to think before the next stream of papers arrives.
The simple statement in the blog post, “the word ‘mother’ is a verb,” came to mind this morning. “Yes, I can relate to that,” I thought. Perhaps that is one of the crucial dimensions of what it means to be a mother, “to mother,” but I think there’s something more that goes beyond a simple state of giving birth to new life, a deeper sense of connectedness to the responsibility one feels for the well-being of others. Not only one’s own children. “To mother” may also lead to the realization that the well-being of one’s own children is inextricably connected to the well-being of all other children and to the well-being of the world as a whole.
Years ago, I saw a greeting card that crystalized what it felt like to me to be a mother, auntie, or grandmother.
For so many women, though, motherhood may not be a choice. It may also be an overwhelming responsibility for women without the support of others, perhaps especially so for those in cultures that are unable or unwilling to assure healthy environments for mothers and children – access to clean water, clean air to breathe, respectful treatment of women and children, safe and adequate shelter, good nutrition, help with child care, and education that supports the development of practical skills, compassion for others, creativity, and critical thinking.
My mother was faced with a most difficult choice. She had to decide whether to remain in an abusive relationship or give up the right to raise her two young children.
Following is the fifth part of the story of her life that describes her brief escape from abuse and the decision she felt forced to make because of circumstances beyond her control.
Norma Angeline Ackley Graveen Coombs
In Search of Safety
Norma’s early married years were very difficult. She was far from family and home. During her time in Chicago, she had the support and friendship of colleagues she met during nursing school, and help from her sister/cousin, Hazel, who lived in Chicago. Hazel had taken Norma in during part of Norma’s high school years. Relatives from her reservation and other community members often traveled there to visit her as well.
New Jersey was a different story on many levels. There were no relatives, few Ojibwe community members who visited, and no Native American connections. Norma was alone. Wes’ relatives were geographically close, but were culturally worlds apart from Norma’s Ojibwe family.
I never heard her speak of them, although I can remember my own childhood impressions. Wes’ family was of English descent, and his father and grandfather had in fact descended from their position in England. As Wes told the story, although I’m not sure it’s accurate, his grandfather was the youngest son of an aristocratic family who, under the tradition of primogeniture, needed to make his own way in the world without land or money from his family. He came to America, and his son, Westervelt Valentine Coombs, Sr., learned to be a master plumber. Wes was the second born in a family of nine children. His own mother died after the birth of her seventh child when he was still a little boy. His father remarried and had two more children. Wes often spoke about how his stepmother kept the food pantry locked, securing the key on her apron ties.
I remember my grandfather’s house. I found it amazing years later when I learned he was a plumber who worked in New York’s skyscrapers – there was a hand pump in the kitchen sink and the toilet would only flush by pouring in a bucket of water. Wes’ younger brother lived in the house, while Wes’ father lived on the second floor of a shed that we referred to as the “bird house.” Goats lived on the first floor, and hundreds of birds – finches, canaries, and parakeets, flew free in my grandfather’s living space. I can still remember the smell of the house and the shed! I can also remember the reserve and the dour demeanor of my father’s family, and the absence of laughter in their homes. I can only imagine how a young woman far from her home felt in their presence. I wonder how an Ojibwe woman who had been socialized to believe that white society was superior to her own made sense of the lifestyle and homes of Wes’ family – conditions that were similar to those of the Appalachian families I encountered in Kentucky (many named Coombs) decades later.
Wes suffered from serious depression and a quick, violent temper – in part from an abusive childhood compounded by untreated emotional trauma from his years in the marines and his war experiences in the South Pacific. In his pain and insecurity, he hurt the person he loved most with angry outbursts and degrading comments. Before they had children, Norma had her work as a nurse to give her life meaning and balance. This changed when her daughter and son were born. As a young mother who needed to work, she feared for her children’s well-being and grew weary of being degraded. She sought the advice of lawyers and priests, only to be told to be a good wife, to turn the other cheek. She stood the loneliness, fear, and abuse as long as she could.
Allendale House, 1949
I remember coming into the Allendale house one day as a very little child. My mother was at work and one of the neighbors must have been watching my brother, Bobby, and me. I decided to run home and discovered that the back door that led into the kitchen, the door that we always used, was locked. No one answered my knocking although I knew that my father was home. I decided to try the front door and it was unlocked. When I entered the house, I smelled something really odd. The door to the kitchen was locked from the inside, and a towel was rolled up to block the opening at the bottom. I was worried, although I do not remember what I did. I believe that I ran next door to ask my neighbors for help. I later learned that my father had turned on the gas in the oven after blowing out the pilot light in an attempt to commit suicide.
Perhaps this was the event that forced Norma to leave. After Bobby’s first birthday, she packed up one day while Wes was at work and boarded a train headed for the southwest with her two little children. I can remember the long train ride. It was a new, exciting experience. It seemed that we traveled for days, sleeping in our seats. Our first stop was somewhere in Texas. We lived on the first floor of a converted two-story house. Norma worked and tried to find child care.
Soon, we were traveling again. We lived in a trailer in a small town in New Mexico. Agnes came to help as a babysitter while Norma worked. I remember this as a very small town with a quiet, sand-covered road. The yard surrounding our trailer had a trellis with lovely morning glories. It was not long before we were on the move again, this time headed for Lac du Flambeau, Norma’s childhood home. As we traveled, I learned from my grandmother, Agnes, that Wes had tracked us down in Texas, and then in New Mexico. He tracked us down in Lac du Flambeau as well. By this time, at the age of 4 ½, I knew that my mother wanted to be free of fear and abuse. Wes threatened to take my brother and me if she did not return to New Jersey with him, and he promised to make sure that she never saw us again.
I remember the scene in the parking lot in front of my grandmother’s house and beauty shop. Wes’ cold anger and determination to have his own way. Norma’s tears and pleas as she tried to protect herself and her children. I wanted to save Norma from the hurt, and ran up to Wes and kicked him in the leg and told him how mean he was, how much I hated him for how he treated my mother. Who knows. Perhaps this small gesture helped provide some protection for Norma, some recognition for Wes that his behavior was unacceptable even in the eyes of a child, and the courage for Norma to sacrifice her own safety in order to watch over her son and daughter.
The trip back to Allendale is long forgotten for me. The depth of sadness I felt was more than I could bear, so I stopped eating. I became so weak that is was hard for me to walk. But for a kind neighbor who gave me a reason to live, I may well have died before the age of 5. I know Norma’s heart was heavy as she watched me fade away while she struggled with her own deep sadness.
Yet, we all survived. In time, we found a way to live in relative peace for awhile. Norma had her work as a nurse in a doctor’s office and then in a nursing home. Bobby and I had school and our friends. Wes had his job and family.
Greeting the morning Gazing at the falling snow as it thickens the blanket of white already covering the earth The only sounds a whisper of distant traffic the shrill cries of returning seagulls and the sharp yelps of a little dog out for a morning trot pulling its owner along Grateful for the chance to witness fleeting moments of ordinary life and beauty
The past week has been a rollercoaster ride. But today, I can breathe deeply. Perhaps what ails me these days has simply been asthma triggered by allergies to toxic air and an extraordinary amount of snow mold exposed by unseasonably warmer weather, and my raking, for the past month.
The toxic exhaust from the factories to the east has ceased for a time. Maybe it’s because the wind isn’t blowing from the east at the moment. Maybe it’s because it’s Sunday. Or maybe it’s because the factories are temporarily shuttered. The downside of factory closures, though, is the fact that cleaner air comes with a cost in a country that imposes increasingly fewer environmental and health safeguards on industries. Many people have suddenly lost jobs they need to support families, and the supply of stuff we take for granted, like toilet paper, is interrupted. The present context does offer us a powerful opportunity to figure out how to adjust what we produce and how we produce it, mindful of the effects on health and the environment.
There are other outcomes to the changes we’ve been facing that can have positive outcomes as well. Technology, with the help of a colleague, enabled me to meet with my class. We didn’t all have to drive separately to a central meeting site. We were able to connect from our homes in a meaningful way and still have a very productive dialogue despite our collective inability to use technology well yet.
My goals for the class were simple. I began as we usually begin class, although this time it was via zoom.
“What did you notice today?”
I wanted to provide a safe space for them to talk about how their lives and ability to complete their studies have been affected by COVID – 19. I also wanted to provide an opportunity for them to help me adjust the course workload and assignments so they could realistically learn what they need to know despite the new challenges they are facing – fear, uncertainty, isolation, grief, lost jobs, new responsibilities at work to cover for other staff who were laid off, arranging childcare for children who were no longer in school, etc. Despite tears in the eyes of many, we had thoughtful, productive discussions. Class ended by the students suggesting that they connect online to help each other, not only with classes, but also with other things as well.
“One of the most important steps you can take to help calm the storm is to not allow yourself to be taken in a flurry of overwrought emotion or despair – thereby accidentally contributing to the swale and the swirl. Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.
“Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely.
“…One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul… Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.”
This week, I also noticed other hopeful signs. I have always believed that education should be accessible to all. I just learned about two new resources:
1. Open Access to all C-SPAN Classroom Resources “With many classes moving to online formats, we have removed the log-in and password requirements for all of our lesson plans and bell ringers on the C-SPAN Classroom website. You and your students are now able to access any resource on the site, including those that were previously behind the login wall. With this new option, you can share direct links to those resources via email, social media or within your content management systems.” Link: https://www.c-span.org/classroom/
2. “Revisioning Our World: Seeing What Works, Broadening Our View, Seeking Innovative Alternatives” is now free “ Given the current state of affairs related to COVID-19, to ensure the safety of all, we have decided to change the modality of delivery of our annual conference. We are fortunate that our Keynote and Plenary speakers as well as many of our session presenters have agreed to record their presentations and make them public. “Rates for the conference have changed and the only fee will be for those who want CEUs, which will cost $50. You can register through link listed under our Registration tab.” Link: https://blogs.millersville.edu/learninginstitute/
Sending my best wishes to all…
Clarissa Pinkola Estés (2001, 2016). Do Not Lose Heart, We Were Made for These Times. Available from depth psychology.net