Today I arose early, 5 o’clock in the morning, to work on my presentation for class today. Because we always begin class by sharing something we noticed in the morning, I decided to peer out the upstairs window just in case I saw something interesting. I did. The earth was shrouded in silence and mystery, enveloped in thick fog. Of course, I didn’t have my camera, and I had no intentions of writing anything. Yet as I greeted the morning from my side porch after making a cup of coffee, the words that flowed through me demanded to be written before I could focus on finishing my Power Point about research methodologies.
Gazing out my window this morning at the world surrounding my house enshrouded in stillness and fog before anyone else has awakened I sense the divide between heart and mind dissolving and blurring as well
Fog – it feels like a metaphor for these times when it’s hard to see anything clearly beyond this one place on the earth and beyond this moment only
The blessed silence – a welcomed respite from the daily news of tragic loss, suffering, and cruelty that encircle the globe
Yet, there are also inspiring examples of courage and everyday kindnesses that touch my heart ever deeper
I wish to begin with the humorous side of life in these times…
I spent much of yesterday harvesting, and this morning, after beginning to draft this reflection, I put some of my little tomatoes on a cookie sheet in the freezer. Then, I went out to water the little arbor vitae in my backyard, planning to water the gardens in my front yard next. (We’ve had very little rain here this year, making watering an essential part of gardening.) Instead, I decided to squirt my 14-year-old car in the back driveway while the hose was on to see if some of the dirt would come off. It’s been covered by nine-years of burning embers and soot from my neighbor’s bonfires.
Despite trying to scrub the dirt off by hand-washing my car every year in the past, the soot and burn scars remained. I finally gave up earlier this year and just started taking my car to an automated car wash. The process never really cleaned the car, but at least it was coated with multiple layers of a protective wax cover. Today, though, I decided to test out whether some of the soot would come off if I just rubbed it with a paper towel when it was wet. Lo and behold, much of it came off. It took me several hours to finish. Then, it was time to walk Pinto.
Where does the time go? Soon it will be Pinto’s supper time (my little papillon-chihuahua dog) which requires my presence in order for him to eat, and lately, to be prepared to hand-feed him if necessary. Then, it’s Queenie’s movie time (my parakeet), a computer-based endeavor. While Queenie’s busy, I will have time to wash the chard I harvested yesterday. I think I’ve figured out a way to do it safely.
When I looked at the afternoon sun in the sky today, here in northeast Minnesota more than a thousand miles from Oregon, California, and Washington state, it was clear how connected we all are despite geological distances.
September 20, 2020
The courses I’m teaching this semester began on Saturday, September 12 – research and community practice. Preparing has meant significant adjustments to respond to a world that has changed drastically since the cohort of students began their studies several years ago. Many are the first generation in their families to attend college. Yet most were able to successfully shift to completely online classes mid-semester in the spring. This year, the courses for our hybrid satellite program are all online. Our bi-weekly classes that were once face-to-face will meet via Zoom.
This semester, I’m also co-teaching community practice with a dear friend and colleague. My colleague and I decided to focus on one issue – the connection between access to safe water and community health, the focus of my research class as well.
The community where we live is located on the southwest shore of Lake Superior, one the five interconnected freshwater Great Lakes of North America that comprise part of the border between the United States and Canada.
“The Great Lakes—Michigan, Superior, Huron, Erie, and Ontario—form the largest-surface freshwater system in the world, together holding nearly one-fifth of the Earth’s surface freshwater” (The National Wildlife Foundation).
My colleague and I met during the summer to discuss how and what to teach students so they will be able to work with communities in a future world we can’t even imagine. What will they need to know to weather the challenges they will face? What knowledge and tools will provide a foundation for them so they can help their families and communities come together to adjust to ever changing difficulties and possibilities?
During these days of “social distancing,” it is becoming ever more obvious that many people are no longer willing to reach out to bridge differences with others. Polarities divide us in these times. Yet addressing the serious issues we are facing now will require all of us to understand and respect others despite differences, to care enough about the future of our world to be able to put differences aside so we can work together. Those who engage in community practice need the skills to bring people together for productive dialogue to explore possibilities for finding common ground.
I shared an experience with my colleague that I had as a participant/observer of a polarized community exchange, described in an older post, “Alternative Futures – Who Chooses?. Six years ago, I attended a public hearing designed to give community members a chance to voice their views of a proposed expansion of the amount of tar sands oil that could be pumped in a pipeline along the southern shore of the Great Lakes. Looking at the issue from a purely logical perspective, it’s a very bad idea. Tar sands oil is laden with toxic chemicals and the corporation that owns the pipeline has a troubled safety record. The location already threatens the safety and quality of the Great Lakes.
“… important perspectives were voiced to support and oppose the proposal.
“I listened, observed, and took notes. Today, I am trying to sort out my overall insights. First, I need to reflect on the opening remarks of the administrative judge. He explained that the meeting room was set up with a table for speakers so everyone could speak to each other as neighbors and community members. I’m not sure that happened. Half of the audience would applaud after those in support of Enbridge spoke (the woman seated next to me was among them), and the other half would applaud for those who presented their opposition (I was among that half). Although many spoke with passion, their words did not touch my heart because I didn’t sense their hearts in their words. Perhaps it was fear of speaking in public, but even fear is ego-motivated. Only one woman had the presence of mind to stand and face the audience as she testified, with her back to those at the front tables. Her words came the closest to touching others who expressed differing views.
“As I reflect on the perspectives of those who spoke in support of expansion, I realize that no one offered viable alternatives to meet their legitimate economic concerns. They need Enbridge to support their families. Do we have viable alternative energy businesses to absorb businesses and workers reliant on old oil technologies? Do we have universities and technical colleges that can help them retool? Their support for the continuation and expansion of our reliance on old technology is understandable, but no one in the room who opposed expansion acknowledged this, so the room remained divided. It seemed as though the supporters of expansion were forced into a position of denying climate change to defend a perspective that was characterized as ignorant and self-interested. Opponents could leave and feel self-righteous and blame their failure to reach others’ hearts because the others were ignorant and self-interested, not really a part of our community…
“This is the challenge of being between cultures – the need to understand different perspectives from an empathetic middle. It doesn’t answer the larger questions of what I can do, but I can begin to explore ways to address legitimate concerns and bridge cultural divides.”
My colleague and I discussed how we might help students develop the skills they would need to create environments where community members could explore common ground around polarizing issues and developed the following assignment.
Given that we cannot meet in person to undertake the work that lies ahead, we are organizing three dialogue groups of students that will provide opportunities to learn and practice dialogue and group skills that are foundational to effective and respectful community practice.
Each of the three groups will focus on different community values and beliefs associated with water and healthy community that are present in Northern MN, and will embark on the community assessment process from that general lens. Each member will be asked to understand the mindset and values of those who fit into one of the following three perspectives:
i. Profit from the water or land adjoining waterways ii. People in tribal communities who depend on water iii. Preservation of the Natural Environment as a primary consideration
Groups will then use that lens to assess a specific community. We are hoping that the group assignments will be made by consensus in our next class meeting.
The expectations for each student are that best efforts are made to negotiate and dedicate time in the weeks ahead to connect and engage with the respective dialogue group in the community assessment process. As a group you will be given assignments and introduced to tools for planning and carrying out how each will gather and contribute information needed for the assessment. Together you will be sharing and analyzing the individual discoveries and reflecting on the implications for communities from the particular ideological vantage point of the group’s assigned perspective. The group dialogues and collaborative work should support the collective and individual learning and development, and contribute to information each person can draw from in the final Community Assessment Report.
The final challenge will be for each of the groups to present what they learned about a local water issue and themselves when they looked through the lens of “Profit, People, or Preservation.” Understanding how others see the world and why is essential for building inclusive communities. My colleague and I hope the discussion that results will reflect suggestions for how we can better bridge “cultures” in more effective, respectful ways to establish inclusive partnerships on firm common ground.
Water issues connect us all and are in the news almost every day – too much water due to hurricanes and deluges, too little resulting in catastrophic fires, and too unsafe to drink or swim in due to undeveloped or aging infrastructures and widespread pollution. Without water, all life as we know it will cease.
But I can work with others to raise awareness by writing and teaching, not only about the issue, but also about the need to find ways to promote bridge-building among groups with strongly held values that get in the way of understanding and inclusive collaboration on solutions.
Ever sensitive to the metaphors nature provides, I was able to catch the wonder of an evening sunset.
September 22, 2020
The sun will rise again tomorrow, of this I’m sure. I’m also certain that the world it greets in the morning will have changed yet again in ways I could not have imagined when I witnessed this wonder. Hopefully the things I have learned will provide the foundation I will need to work in partnership with my family, colleagues, students, and friends to continue working toward a day when the sun will rise on a verdant, peaceful planet where all life is respected and nurtured for the irreplaceable and invaluable wonders all represent.
A comment from a dear friend, Migo, from Unnecessary News from Earth, inspired me to finish and share a post I have been working on in the few free moments I have had this month.
No words flow through me to ease a heavy heart or bring comfort or joy to others
I’ve absorbed a plethora of muddled thoughts and far too many powerful emotions not my own
I remember to breathe and muster discipline knowing integrity means fulfilling responsibilities one carries to ease the suffering of others in troubling times by being present, listening, and caring
Fleeting moments of wonder are a precious reminder why it matters to care
My little dog has been sick for the past week,
sometimes struggling to breathe or pee
Some days, he seems to be better, but others, not
We still take brisk walks at least twice daily
on residential streets that are relatively empty
This morning, there were only two people out –
one woman on the sidewalk in front of her house,
The other in her idling car with her window down.
Neither acknowledged our presence
as my dog and I walked by giving them wide berth
They merely kept talking, their conversation troubling
and impossible to ignore as they shouted to each other
across the requisite social distancing
“I don’t trust anyone now,” said the woman on the sidewalk.
“I don’t either,” was the reply.
At least they could give voice to their fear
and find a little comfort through an increasingly
rare sense of human and community connection.
Their fear encouraged me to finish a task I had begun
not out of fear to protect myself, but as a signal to others
that I care enough about keeping them safe
to be willing to look and feel ridiculous
Not the best of pictures… 🙄
A student showed me one of the face masks she was making for elders on her reservation during our video conference. She inspired me to pull out my sewing machine, find an online pattern, and make some, at least for myself, with long-neglected skills and clumsy hands. Fortunately, I had fabric thanks to another student from long ago who bought way too much material to make tobacco ties to thank participants in a research project we were working on together with a multidisciplinary team.
For information about the effectiveness of home-made cloth face masks, you can checkout this NPR link.
A few days ago, I wrote these words in the morning.
Please tell me that all of the craziness in the world has a purpose
– that clouded eyes will once again be able to see that the mad rush to own things comes at the cost of life’s wonders as piles of garbage and toxins fill the earth, waters, and skies
– that closed hearts will open with compassion for the suffering of others as children are ripped from loving families seeking refuge and put in cages while farmlands flood and forests burn and bombs destroy people’s homes
– that people really are learning something that will help them become wiser and more aware of both the beauty and ugliness of their immediate surroundings by gazing nonstop at facebook, twitter, google, youtube, and instagram
Please show me something meaningful I can do now to make a positive difference while I am here
When I came home after walking my little dog, an idea came to me. Why not share the play I wrote about Ojibwe child welfare a few years ago with the tribal college where I teach? Of course, my amateurish effort would need a lot of work, but it could make a difference. I called a friend to see what she thought of the idea and discovered the power of synchronicity. She had just met with a former student who wanted to use theater as a way to engage tribal youth. So I spent that day and the next editing and rewriting. The new draft still needed an ending when I had to put it aside for Thanksgiving.
It has become a family tradition to have Thanksgiving dinner at my house. I am the eldest member of my family now. There are so many reasons why I could be cynical about a fictive national holiday, but I really do count my blessings every day, and my family is at the top of the list. So I began the multi-day tasks of cleaning my house and cooking. This year, I decided to do something a bit different after dinner. Last year we all read parts of the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address. This year, I asked each family member to read something special I wrote in the past for each of them. My daughter read a poem I wrote for her daughter, my granddaughter, A Song for Little Rose. My granddaughter read a story I wrote for her brother, The ‘Tinky Bush Story. And my grandson read a story I wrote for my daughter, The Lesson of the Butterfly and the Message of the Wind. The little room was filled with light and love and laughter.
The reflections some of my students posted early are a blessing as well. They described important things they learned about themselves and their communities in the research course that will be meeting for the last time this coming weekend. They will all be graduating soon and hopefully will remember and use what they learned about the importance of observing life and thinking critically from a social justice perspective.
I am also deeply grateful to all of my friends in the blogging community. I have not been able to respond to comments or visit other blogs very often. My life has been an emotional rollercoaster ride during November. My way of coping is to stay busy trying to do what I can here and now to live according to the three principles I mentioned in a previous post – compassion, patience, and integrity. It is impossible for me to predict when I will have time to blog regularly again. I have new courses to prep during our brief semester break and a play to finish soon. Please know I send my best wishes to all of you.
Let me end with some photos of November’s lingering gift as I begin the slow heavy task of shoveling snow on this first morning of December.
Please know that I appreciate all of my virtual friends. I apologize for missing your recent blog posts and failing to reply to comments in a timely fashion. Despite rising early many days and going to bed in the wee morning hours, I am having a hard time finishing everything that needs to be done. I honestly can’t remember a busier time. The list of assignments that need to be graded keeps growing each day while gallons of carrots await processing in bags and containers that leave little space in my refrigerator even though I have given many away to neighbors and friends.
Maybe I’ll have some time to catch up between semesters… In the meantime, on this rainy, blustery day, I send my best wishes and hope you all experience golden moments, too.
The curse of being born between cultures is to always enter each new setting to discover the enduring discomfort of being an outsider. Finally, I have learned to be grateful for the freedom that role confers, even though my spirit longs to connect with people as easily as it does with dragonflies, birds, trees, and bumblebees bending flowers as they feed.
I feel the imminent danger we all face, yet I remember a saying from Lao Tzu that seems to be true to me – “the way to do is to be.”
I have no answers for others, but decades ago I was blessed by the example of Sister Lorita, my college adviser and botany professor. She humbly endured being mocked by many of her privileged students. One day, she shared her secret with me.
“It doesn’t matter what people think of me if they learn to see the wonder of life in a blade of grass.”
Every morning and most evenings, I sit outside on my little porch looking toward the western sky. I observe and listen to the nature around me – both “natural” and human. Some of what I see and hear touches my heart with wonder, while other sights and sounds weigh heavy on my spirit. Both inspire me to honestly reflect on the things I do that add to the threats for all life. And I try to do better. But it’s hard to do it alone.
Still, I try to do better. I plant and tend gardens, spend time with my daughter and grandchildren when their busy schedules allow, and teach part time. I try to raise the awareness of my grandchildren and the students I work with in gentle ways, creating a space for them to learn to be present and inquisitive, to question what they have learned in the past, and to think critically about what they encounter in the present.
It’s impossible for me to know if anything I say or do will make a positive difference in their lives, but teaching by example has made a difference in mine. It’s helped me learn to live with fewer and fewer immutable answers and many more questions which I may never be able to answer with certainty.
There are so many things I would like to write about but the truth is, I don’t have time. I am too busy doing something I have always loved to do. Solving puzzles.
It’s a trait that helped me survive jobs in overly politicized competitive bureaucracies. When I worked for state government, it involved mediating conflict in creative, unexpected ways. Like designing a solution for an outdated funding formula for county programs that was overly dependent on ever-shifting demographic data. When working for an inter-tribal agency, it meant figuring out how to exert tribal sovereignty over exploitive university researchers or state administrators who used divide and conquer tactics to create competition among tribes in order to limit funding for necessary services. In academia, it meant learning how to teach the most unpopular courses in ways that engaged students and provided information that would be helpful in a future I might not see.
Figuring out how to keep experimenting with more effective ways to teach research this semester is keeping me busy. Some days, it takes a lot of discipline to sit at my computer all day and into wee morning hours redesigning assignments or grading student papers with comments intended to both encourage and educate.
Interestingly though, doing other types of puzzles helps me transition between different topics, research methodologies, and styles of communicating. I am grateful for free online card games, or the digital jigsaw puzzles I can create with my own photos. (I doubt that the one posted below would be interesting, though.)
Solving cryptograms before I fall asleep helps me let go of any other puzzles that might otherwise keep me awake.
There are puzzles I don’t like to solve, though, that have to do with technology. Sadly, I have to rely on technicians or time. This week, I was locked out of WordPress. Fortunately that challenge was addressed by someone last evening. I don’t need to know who or how or why. I am just grateful that others find it interesting to solve technological puzzles.
All of this is meant as an explanation for my very infrequent visits to blogs these days, including mine. I want to let you know that I value what you all share and will return again as soon as I can. In the meantime, I send my best wishes to all.
In case anyone is interested, I have typed the cryptogram quotes below:
“One must learn by doing the thing, for though you think you know it, you have no certainty until you try.” (Aristotle)
“The surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that it has never tried to contact us.” (Bill Paterson)
“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” (Albert Einstein)
“Love is a medicine for the sickness of the world; a prescription often given, rarely taken.” (Karl Menninger)
… I was working as the deputy director of health and human services for an inter-tribal agency. It was not an easy job for many reasons, primarily because of the enduring legacy of colonialism that continued to impose dominant cultural paradigms on tribal communities and use divide and conquer tactics to foment conflicts between “traditional” and “progressive” tribal factions. Resolving conflict was a central part of my job, and it often put me in the middle of powerful competing interests. At a particularly challenging time, I needed to travel with one of my staff to a conference on worldwide healing for Indigenous people held in Edmonton, Alberta. The conference helped me realize I was not alone. Rediscovering the candle on my bookcase reminded me of the conference’s closing ceremony.
More than one thousand of us, representing many cultures and nations, stood in a circle within a large auditorium holding hands. Then, one elder walked to the center. She explained that the closing ceremony was intended to remind us that we were not alone. Because we were in a government building, we couldn’t use candles (fire ordinances prevented it), so flashlights would have to do. And then, the lights in the room went out as her flashlight went on in the center of the circle. She signaled to the four directions, highlighting one person from each of the four directions to walk to the center – first the east, then the south, the west, and the north. The representatives were all given a flashlight. As they touched their darkened lights to the elders “candle,” their flashlights were turned on. They were instructed to carry their light to the four directions and light other candles in their part of the circle. The elder explained that it would not be easy to keep the candle fires burning, but if the light went out, people could always return to the center to light them once again…
The rain I asked for hasn’t come yet but perhaps it will if I keep my focus on weaving life and light into the course despite the technological challenges I will most likely encounter …
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
It has been weeks since I have had time to post and April has flown by. I have had brief respites to simply observe beauty.
I have also made it a priority to spend time with my daughter and grandchildren when possible.
Mostly, though, I have been working on the two classes I am teaching this semester.
Saturday, as I prepared for the macro practice class I co-teach with a colleague, I was lost in a stream of consciousness moment when one thought lead me down a path of memories that didn’t seem to have any logical connections other than my long life. As I put skin cream on my legs after my shower, I noticed my right knee once again. It’s still a bit puffy despite the decades that have passed since it was injured when I was taking care of Rita. Thinking of Rita always reminds me how precious and unpredictable life is.
Rita was a tiny woman when she contracted the brain cancer that was killing her slowly despite operations, radiation treatments, and medications. Medications caused her body to become bloated and stimulated her appetite. By the time I was hired as a home health aide to help care for her during the last year of her life, she had gained a lot of weight. She needed assistance with self-care and walking. She was often lost in another world of thoughts but she did love to eat. She would often joke about the meals I prepared. Cooking has never been something I liked doing, but I tried my best.
I was warned to remain emotionally distant by my employer. “She’s going to die no matter what you do, so don’t get attached.” Despite the warning, I discovered something that has stayed with me when I teach. I learned to care about her deeply and let her know I cared in many ways even though I knew our time together was limited. I knew I couldn’t do anything to cure her disease, but I could bring “soft hands and laughter” into her life no matter how long or short it was meant to be. I would sit and listen to her talk, cook things she liked, and take her on excursions when she expressed a desire to get out of the house even for a moment.
Gradually, Rita lost her ability to walk and spent much of her time in bed. Toward the end of her life, when I was helping her move from her bed to the wheelchair she had to use at that point, she had a seizure. It was heavy lifting for me at the best of times. I weighed at least 30 pounds less than Rita. As I was lifting her that day, her body went rigid as she shook with powerful spasms. It wasn’t possible for me to lift her back on the bed or help her flex into a sitting position. With my arms wrapped around her body, all I could do was lower her gently to the floor, injuring my knee in the process. With gentle hands and a calming voice, I helped Rita relax and was finally able to get her to help me lift her into the wheelchair.
She lived far longer than predicted. I wasn’t sure that I would be able to be with her until the end because I planned to move soon to another state. When I let my employer know I would be moving a month in advance, they fired me immediately and brought in another aide. The family was angry and asked me to stay and hired me themselves to fill in the hours when the agency aide was not with Rita. I agreed to help as long as I could.
When I arrived for my first shift, I heard the new aide yelling. I peeked into Rita’s bedroom and saw the aide roughly slapping a washcloth over Rita’s face. At that point, Rita was in the final stages of her disease. She required total care and was unable to speak. I walked in to help the aide and let the family know what I witnessed. Within a week, Rita was gone.
Although I grieved her death, I knew that I had done the best I could to make her last year as kind and comfortable as possible. I realized that spending time with Rita was a gift. Being present in the moment and caring about others are especially important in times of transition. It lessened my sadness about loss.
My knee remained painful but surviving childhood abuse taught me how to function despite physical pain. Later, I learned that the injury resulted in “knee effusion, or water on the knee.” Although it was bruised, swollen, and stiff, I was still able to walk. A supportive, flexible knee bandage helped reduce the pain although it took more than a year to fully heal. Decades later, it’s still a little puffy but usually works just fine.
Perhaps my Saturday morning reminiscence about Rita was triggered by a frightening experience on Friday evening. I fell asleep curled up in my rocking chair, exhausted, after teaching the second to the last research class before the end of the semester. I awoke with painful cramps in my legs and was initially unable to walk. It was a frightening reminder of how unpredictable life can be. Thankfully the pain subsided quickly. (Next time I’ll take naps elsewhere!)
Reviewing student papers has meant hours of sitting in an uncomfortable chair, first reading original sources to make sense of student papers, and then, hours on the computer grading and commenting to help students learn how to read carefully and write clearly.
Like my experience with Rita, grading has been a mixed blessing. In the process, I learned a lot about access to safe, drinkable water around the globe. Someday, I hope I have time to synthesize what I learned from the kaleidoscopic assortment of research studies my students explored. The process of reviewing many different vantage points about the crises we are facing, however, reminded me to keep things in perspective.
One third of the world’s population is without access to potable water or sanitation at the household level (Cumming, Elliott, Overbo, & Bartram, 2014). One third! And we continue fracking, spewing out plastic garbage, pouring more toxic chemicals on farmlands, and building yet more weapons. I am so grateful for the opportunity to play a role in raising student awareness about these issues. Grading has also left little time for me to write or visit blogs. That is unlikely to change in the next few weeks before the semester ends.
Next semester I will have the privilege of working with the same group of students. Throughout my years of teaching, I have remembered to be mindful of the lessons Rita taught me.
Be present in the moment and care about each student.
I only have a short time to spend with each cohort of students before they move on with their lives. All I can do is my best and hope they will learn what they need to know while we are together so they are prepared to face a challenging and uncertain future with the ability to think critically and respond with caring creativity.
Oliver Cumming, Mark Elliott, Alicia Overbo, & Jamie Bartram (2014). Does global progress on sanitation really lag behind water? An analysis of global progress on community- and household-level access to safe water and sanitation. Plos One.