It’s not easy when others expect you to be a bodhisattva
or describe you as the smartest person in the room
You know it’s the kiss of death to friendships
Those who seek status and control will vengefully attack
Those you thought friends will opine “I’m not in your league”
and demand you assume responsibility, make decisions, and lead
How can others learn their own wisdom, strengths, or who they are
if they always expect others to know the answers and serve as the vanguard?
You know you’re not anyone’s guru –
you stumble and fall more times than most
After a while you retreat and grow silent
knowing others need to find their own truths
all you can do is to keep seeking and forging your own path
It’s a paradox, isn’t it
when the only way to lead is to simply live
without need of recognition or followers
in hopes that others will find the song in their own hearts
that’s been waiting patiently to be discovered all along
I wrote this poem when I was wondering if I would recover from a serious illness recently. Although I am recovering, there are no guarantees for the future. It’s only one moment at a time now, so I have to be ever mindful of how I spend those moments. I had no intentions of sharing this poem until today when I read the following passage from Gitanjali: Spiritual Poems of Rabindranath Tagore.
I THOUGHT that my voyage had come to its end at the last limit of my power, ⎯ that the
path before me was closed, that provisions were exhausted and the time come to take
shelter in a silent obscurity.
But I find that thy will knows no end in me. And when old words die out on the tongue,
new melodies break forth from the heart; and where the old tracks are lost, new country
is revealed with its wonders.
(from Gitanjali: Spiritual Poems of Rabindranath Tagore – An e-book presentation by The Spiritual Bee, pp. 31-32)
I wonder how many others have felt silenced by others’ expectations for them to be strong, smart, or a spiritual healer because of their Native American heritage. Reading Tagore is helping me focus on following what’s in my own heart. He’s a gifted thinker and poet.
If you want to read more of Tagore’s work, you can access a free copy from The Spiritual Bee. “This e-book is a reproduction of the original “Gitanjali – Song Offerings” by Rabindranath Tagore, first published in 1913. This book is now in the public domain in the United States and in India; because it’s original copyright owned by the Macmillan Company has expired.”
The Spiritual Bee also has a number of other copyright-expired books that can be downloaded for free.
As the date of the quintessential celebration of colonial oppression for Indigenous Peoples in the U.S. approaches, signaled by loud explosions in the night, an image from my childhood comes unbidden to mind – a child crouching, head bowed, eyes closed, hands tightly covering ears.
Photo Credit: Carol A. Hand
I remember how much I disliked attending these events with my family, surrounded by crowds of people cheering and oohing and aahing in the local park as the symbolic missiles of war blossom like booming “fiery flowers” in the darkened evening sky. I didn’t know the deeper symbolism then for Indigenous Peoples, but the mindless and frenzied fascination of the crowd frightened me. I realize it still does. It brings to mind a story I wrote about my experiences in Missoula, Montana, during the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
After reading a couple of chapters in Howard Zinn’s (1997) book, A People’s History of the United States, one of my students last semester asked a crucial question.
“What does Mr. Trump mean when he says ‘Make America great again?’ When was it ever great?”
Her questions led to a fascinating class dialogue.
Although it’s tempting for me to say that it was great here before Europeans arrived, I really can’t. Surviving the past long, cold winter made me realize how foolish and untrue it would be for me to say something so simplistic and disrespectful. Yes, much was lost for Indigenous people, but there have been benefits as well. For example, I can’t imagine the challenge of living in the north country without indoor plumbing and heat during a winter like the last. I am not sure how my ancestors survived by hunting and by gathering ever more distant fire wood outside to heat themselves, cook, and unfreeze water. Even when I lived off the power grid, I still had a well for indoor plumbing, a generator to run the electric water pump, and a backup propane heater in addition to a wood stove.
Despite my students’ critical view, the phrase “Make America great again” seems to be a powerful rallying cry for many people in the U.S. these days. I suspect it’s most powerful for those who have been programmed by schools that assiduously avoid resources that expose students to critical thinkers like Zinn. Those on the poorly-educated margins have been waiting a long time for America to be great for them as they struggled to make it as farmers, miners, or people trying to find jobs that made them feel that they were contributing something worthwhile to others and earning a decent wage in exchange.
Feeling forgotten or like a failure makes it far more difficult to resist the illusion that one can gain a little more power by putting others down. Many people are willing to follow a leader who sanctions divisiveness, who makes them feel special, and who helps them set aside any misgivings about morality. After all, someone in a position of authority tells them it’s a patriotic duty and demonstrates that it’s appropriate and legal to demean, scapegoat, and brutalize others whose differences set them apart somehow.
As I think about the class I’ll be teaching in the fall, research, I realize that Mr. Trump’s America reminds me of the Stanford prison experiment on steroids.
Give people a title and a little power and some will do anything to keep it. Or, as Stanley Milgrim’s experiments show, many people put aside their own common sense and empathy if a person in authority tells them what they’re doing is right even if it means inflicting harm on others. I have seen those dynamics in my work throughout my career in all types of organizations and communities. We’re witnessing what seems like escalating, outrageous, brutality on a national and global level.
The most crucial question to ask is, of course, what can be done to stop the egregious harm that is being done by people in power who seemingly have no hearts. I believe each of us who is aware must resist in our own way. For me at the moment that means stepping outside the protective comfort zone I created to heal from the battle scars of past encounters with the status quo. The specifics of what that will mean are still a work in progress. But so far this year, it’s meant planting the flower boxes I left empty last year as a gift of life and beauty to those who walk down the alley behind my house and happen to notice. It’s a small gesture, yet each life-loving thought and action may matter in ways we will never know.
Howard Zinn (1997). A People’s History of the United States (Abridged Teaching Edition). New York, NY: The New Press.
in the part of the city where Mr. Trump will soon appear
How fervently I wish real heart and intellectual power
would be restored to the people
as children are once again
being torn from the arms of loving families
The “Raised Fist Image” by Keith Tyler, Courtesy of Wikipedia, “… is a variant of the clenched fist motif which has been widely used by leftist, workers, and liberationist groups since the nineteenth century. The motif itself is not under copyright.”
Keith Tyler’s image was released into the public domain by its creator February 2007. “The wider motif itself is not protected by copyright.”
My father was 76 when he died on April 26, 1994. He was surrounded by strangers on the psychiatric ward of a veterans’ hospital when he passed away. I have a haunting photo of him during his last days. (Even if I could find the photo that I’ve misplaced, it’s not how I would want my father to be remembered.)
I was the only one in my family who could have visited him at that point, but I didn’t feel it would be appropriate. As a responsible daughter who could see no other options, I was the one who had to initiate an involuntary placement in the hospital with an order of protection. He was threatening to kill my mother before he planned to commit suicide. He would hold a loaded gun and point it at her. My mother, in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, was terrified he would kill her. My younger brother was threatening to kill my father to protect her.
So the responsibility fell to me. Someone needed to intervene in a reasonable and compassionate way. My father’s threats needed to be taken seriously. I had survived his physical and emotional abuse during my childhood and witnessed his violent emotional instability and attempted suicide.
Paradoxically, though, I came to understand his emotional volatility. His bipolar disorder and the deep insecurities he carried given the traumas he experienced during his own childhood made his life so difficult.
His years as a Marine during the Korean Conflict added new dimensions to his trauma. I remember times when he cried but couldn’t give voice to the experiences that brought him so much pain.
I had forgiven him decades before I had to act to protect my family, perhaps because I had educational opportunities that he never had. Or perhaps it was due to the fact that I had embraced my mother’s Ojibwe culture as I eschewed the cold, dour nature of my father’s Anglo-American heritage. He could rarely bait me any more with racist, angry tirades. I had learned how to respond with gentle humor. “Well, Dad, this is an enlightening conversation,” I would say as I smiled. “I think I’ll go see how Mother is doing.”
As I think of him today, I am grateful for the many things I learned from him. Most importantly, I learned how to understand someone who was suffering with compassion and forgiveness. That’s what I remember on this father’s day, along with sadness for people whose suffering may not be healed during this lifetime. I hope his death brought him peace and I hope that wherever he may be he knows that I am grateful to him for doing the best he could with what he was given in life.
This is my final post for an indeterminate time. I wanted to let you know why I have been so slow responding to comments and remiss in visiting your blogs.
Rocking Away Pain (May 27, 2018)
Tears flowing silently
despite the growing pile of blankets
lovingly placed to warm me
by the daughter and granddaughter
now holding my hand
while I lie supine
in a hospital emergency room
These are not tears of fear or regret
They come from gratitude
and the deep knowing
that ultimately we all die
The time and manner of passing
are not really ours to determine
For my daughter’s sake
my choice at this moment
to face the uncertainty of fate
not knowing if the dye that will be injected
for diagnostic tests
will stop my heart
as it did to my mother’s
starving her brain of oxygen
the first step in her long journey
wandering through the unknown territory of dementia
With an explicit advanced directive
“Do Not Resuscitate”
for me the test might mean death
This time, instead
it meant painful survival
and days in my glider rocking chair
trying to rock away pain and discomfort
and choking down food despite nausea
Even now, though, I find joy and humor in life
Recovery Reflections (May 29, 2018)
There is a time to bring forth blossoms
and a time to release flower petals
to dance in the spring winds
and softly clothe the earth in beauty
followed by a time to focus on forming fruit
then giving it a chance to ripen
before the first frosts come
signaling the time for rest
and deep reflection
to gather strength
for next season’s
It’s the necessary cycle
to feed one’s spirit
This morning when I awakened, silent tears of gratitude fell as I thought about my life. I have been blessed with so many gifts. Even now, I have the privilege of tending lilacs I can share with others who can no longer do so. It’s the small things we do that bring beauty and kindness into the lives of others that matter, as many of you have done for me over the years. Thank you so very much.
Please note that I have attempted, perhaps unsuccessfully, to close comments for this post. I am not sure when I would be able to reply. Let me just send my deep gratitude and best wishes to all.
A welcoming space for resistance to the forces of oppression and hegemony.