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.
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.
Reflections during My Hiatus from Blogging – May 19, 2018
Unpredictable spring with two constants that keep me busy gardens and a manuscript in process
Landscaping gardens regardless of weather one day sweating, the next day shivering and yet on another, grateful for heavy workboots that keep me grounded despite fierce gusty winds hauling logs, branches, and new soil planting the first of the seeds, new bushes, and flowers watering in these days of drought
It’s hard physical work that gives me time to listen deeply for bird song and wind chimes to listen intently for deeper truths to revise the beginning of the story I began more than two years ago
I ponder how one can touch hearts and raise awareness about the need to consider the importance of what can be learned about human possibilities from different cultural perspectives that understand and honor our inextricable interdependence with nature and each other I wonder how one can inspire collective efforts to heal the legacy of a brutal homogenizing history of colonial oppression with written words alone
Listening deeply for inklings of answers kneeling on the earth hands in the soil thoughts and feelings not easily translated into words
I think about my grandmother imagining what it was like to grow up in an era when the last of the great pine forests fell victim to illusions of “progress” when her people were herded onto the least desirable land “reserved” just for them When Indigenous children were captured and lost to abusive institutions under the colonial guise of civilizing the children of savages
Reflections and My Grandmother Part I – May 11, 2018
When beginning the story of my research about Ojibwe child welfare, I made a decision to be as honest as possible about my experiences and findings. Yet, I changed the name of the researcher who is telling the story. Initially I thought it was purely to protect the identities of the people who shared their memories and lives with me. Choosing among all the possible fictive names for the researcher, though, felt at odds with the goal of presenting a truthful account that honored people’s authentic voices.
Ultimately, I chose to refer to the younger version of myself recorded in my fieldnotes by my maternal grandmother’s name, Agnes Sero. I didn’t realize then how much alike we were and how profoundly the differing circumstances of our births affected our lives.
When it came time to edit and revise the very long manuscript that resulted, though, I once again wondered about this choice. Why did I really give my grandmother’s name to the character of my younger self? For the most part, she was a stranger to me. My mother only shared parts of her mother’s story. Agnes was 17 years old when my mother was born, still a child herself. At two weeks old, Agnes gave her first child to her older sister, Anna, to raise.
Agnes’ life wasn’t easy. Her father worked as a lumber jack in the northwoods. Growing up in lumber camps would have been challenging for a beautiful young girl like Agnes, especially without the protection of a community and traditions to guide her path…
Reflections about my Grandmother Part II – May 18, 2018
There is a haunting out-of-focus photo of my grandmother as a teenager nestled in a birch tree. The tree stands alone amid a neighborhood of hard-packed scraggly grass-covered earth and newly constructed wooden frame houses. The tall pines that once provided a sheltering home for the Ojibwe people were, by then, only memories that would one day be passed down in stories through the generations.
I sometimes wonder what my grandmother’s childhood was like as a daughter of a lumberjack who was forced by economic and political circumstances to cut down the last of the great pine and hemlock forests in Ojibwe ceded territory. The timber my great grandfather harvested helped build cities to house the hundreds of thousands of new arrivals streaming from Europe every year.
My grandmother was harvested, too, by the settlers who now claimed the land as their own to spend some of her childhood years in a euphemistically named institution, an “Indian boarding school.” There, under the guise of civilizing the children of savages, she was stripped of the relationships, stories and language that gave meaning to life for Ojibwe people just as the earth was stripped of abundant forests that once provided their food, shelter, and a sense of kinship with nature.
To me, as a child, my grandmother’s life seemed as barren as the clear cut that was left behind. She was only 17 when my mother was born. My mother was given to my grandmother’s older sister to raise on the reservation pictured in the photo. By the time I spent my twelfth summer on the reservation with my grandmother, she was a lonely, angry, alcoholic.
I look back on her life with deep sadness and compassion. I am awed that she found the strength to survive despite so many difficulties and losses. And I am grateful to the child she gave away, my mother, for raising me to be proud of the Ojibwe heritage that brought both of them so much suffering and internalized shame. Once again, I vow to try my best to honor their legacy in my humble account of Ojibwe child welfare in hopes that future generations will not suffer the cruelty and discrimination that they both had to survive.
Approach the art of creating
as a sacred ceremony
emerging from spirit
as a path
for honoring and celebrating life
knowing deep in our hearts
Loving thoughts will vibrate
in whatever we create
long after we are gone
as the essence of light and new possibilities
like the scent of rain and roses
and the peace of sun-kissed pine
blessing all those who follow
Endings are never easy for me. They signal times of transition. Yet, as I walked to my car Saturday after my last class of the semester, I had a sudden realization. Regardless of my circumstances, I have always found ways to express creativity. The subjects and media changed based on what was close at hand. Sewing, singing, drawing, studying pond-life under my microscope, making pottery, hooking rugs, tying macramé art, knitting, gardening. Learning about life and crafting useful things that were colorful and well-made proved to be a form of peaceful meditation. I could daydream and reflect. My spirit needed to express creativity. It gave me a quiet space to think and time to breathe love into being.
Under different conditions, I worked with people, developing innovative programs and experimenting with different ways of supervising staff, evaluating programs, conducting research, and teaching.
Creating living art, if you will, is like building sand castles that dissolve in the waves of time. Gaining fame and fortune was never the goal. The only legacies my “art” left were the interventions and projects others believed they had created (and in reality, they were essential and made it possible) and the memories for me of what had been possible to create in the past.
During times of transition, I have learned to ask myself a crucial question. Why not create again, and again, in each new now with whatever opportunities and media are available? There are grandchildren to love, gardens to revitalize, and endless issues to ponder and thoughtfully address in creative ways.
The privilege to dream of possibilities is accompanied by the responsibility to work toward their realization. I don’t claim it’s an easy choice. I have no power to change others who don’t seem to be able to see and honor the wonder and beauty of life. Despite the deep sorrow that accompanies witnessing disrespect and destruction and the seeming futility of giving voice to the art of change, I still believe simple caring actions matter. I’m just not sure what form that will take for me in the coming days…
The long-awaited spring is finally here
Kneeling on earth, hands in the dirt
tending resting gardens with love
not knowing what has survived winter
or what will grow once planted
Blissfully unaware in the north wind
that disaster struck just across the river
I’ve grown accustomed to dark smokestack clouds
billowing toxic fumes from factories to the east
I’ve learned not to breathe deeply
when the wind blows from the east
Those to the south were not so lucky yesterday
Black toxic towers rose and blew south
when the oil refinery exploded and caught fire
Though the disaster was just a few miles away
no warning sirens sounded in my neighborhood
I guess the city saves those for periodic tests
People on this side of the river went on with their lives
not knowing the city of Superior shut down schools
or that a “shelter in place” order for my neighborhood
was issued for this morning when the wind
was due to shift and blow from the east
I think of people in Syria, Palestine, and Puerto Rico,
Houston, Florida, and San Bernadino
Lives lost and homes destroyed with little warning
yet we live unaware of disasters waiting to happen
hoping that we won’t be downwind when they do
Addressing the threat is not a simple undertaking
Assigning blame and expecting others to fix this
are not constructive responses to complex predicaments
Perhaps this is a topic for students and all of us to explore
How can we bring communities together to dialogue?
To listen respectfully to diverse perspectives,
negotiate a shared future vision, and find common ground
that inspires wise collective action?
Spring finally arrived on April 19, 2018
here in the northland of the United States
It was the first day since October 23, 2017
when mercury rose above 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 C)
warmly greeting awakening life
with sunshine and bird song
Elsewhere a world gone mad is focused on war First responders traveled to Mercury, Nevada
to learn how to deal with a nuclear attack
Odd that we don’t require leaders to know
how to negotiate conflict peacefully
for the sake of our shared world and all we hold dear
Given the sorry state of our ignorance about nature’s lessons
and the art of building inclusive peaceful communities
because our focus has been indoctrinating generations
to compete, even kill, based on belief in social Darwinism –
the mythic notion that only the best and most “fit” survive –
it’s doubtful many of us would be here
to greet the aftermath of a needless nuclear winter
I apologize for the rather bleak message. It’s what came though me today. The text I am rereading to prepare for my class tomorrow makes me feel compelled to share crucial information about reality. Geoffrey Bellman (2001) points out that in order to work together toward a better future, we need to have a common understanding of the reality where we’re starting.
I also apologize for being so slow visiting blogs and responding to comments. I am still staring at a tiny laptop screen and have been saving my eyes in order to read student assignments.
Geoffrey M. Bellman (2001). Getting things done when you are not in charge. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
The past week has been strange. My computer power pack fried on class-prep day, Thursday, leaving me without access to the internet. Thankfully, the colleague I co-teach with was able to shoulder the work of reading student assignments and preparing our class power point. Getting my little laptop functional presented too many challenges to address in a day – antivirus protection, internet connection, and too little space to even download Windows 10 updates. Amazingly, each challenge has been overcome with my sense of humor intact.
I must admit it was a relief to be free from the continuing bombardment of distressing news. Yet each time I entered the living room my eyes automatically focused on the computer screen. It was dark, making me realize how much time I spend online. Without my computer, I had time to think, read, and do tasks that I could never find time to do when I was dealing with my blog. I liked having all of that time to reflect.
Having so much extra time also meant I could sort through the piles of papers everywhere and get rid of unnecessary things. It was a healing time in some crucial ways, though. I realized how weary I have become. The state of the world weighs heavy on my heart.
Countering the hopelessness and sorrow that sometimes makes it hard for me to create takes a tremendous amount of energy. And it takes much more now than in years past. I don’t feel as physically resilient as I once believed myself to be. My 70th year felt like a turning point signaling inevitable decline. Illnesses, back injuries, and the uncertainty of recurring debilitating back pain were constant reminders of my limitations and growing frailty. The combination of hopelessness and feelings of increasing physical frailty made it very tempting to simply withdraw and live in a reclusive fantasy world.
Then, my computer power pack fried. Suddenly life quieted and simplified. I had a chance to reflect and fall in love with life again. I had a chance to remember what matters most in my life.
I realized that the one true love of my life has been my daughter through good times and bad. I certainly haven’t been a perfect mother but she has always remained the most significant love in my life, now joined by my two grandchildren. Partners and friends have come and gone, yet giving birth created a special connection. The words that come to mind when I think of her, “In my life – I love you more,” come from a song by the Beatles.
Time for family comes first. Just as I finished typing these words, I was called in to live them, putting all plans aside to help provide support in a challenging situation. Although unsure how to help, I was grateful for the chance to be present, standing on tiptoes to hug my beloved grandson.
I also had time to begin spring cleaning by purging file cabinets that I try to avoid opening with the excuse that I just don’t have time. Sifting through them this week helped me remember how many places I’ve lived. I had forgotten the courage it took for an introvert to begin such a wide variety of new jobs in new places. I realized, too, how much I have enjoyed working in partnership with elders, tribes, and communities to develop innovative programs that addressed their needs and visions.
Old files reminded me how much I have loved teaching. Reading through teaching evaluations made me realize that many of my students appreciated what and how I taught in return. I say that with deep humility and gratitude because it’s something I worked very hard to do in often repressive unsupportive institutions. Challenging the status quo through love-inspired creativity makes one a target, but for some of us, it’s just what we have to do to be true to who we are.
Revisiting the past made me realize how grateful I am for the opportunities I still have to teach and contribute what I can to help open up possibilities for others to awaken to their beauty and talents. It brings me joy to encourage others to care about the earth and people by example in the true spirit of liberatory praxis – action guided by knowledge and inclusive compassion. Making time for teaching keeps me engaged with life doing something I love to do.
The one ache that became clear, though, when I looked at the looming blank computer screen this past week, was my failure to make time to finish editing and revising my manuscript about Ojibwe child welfare. It’s not something I can do until my computer is repaired.
Thankfully, my computer can be fixed although it will take time. Until then, I will remain grateful for the ability to connect with the internet even though it means squinting to read tiny type on a tiny laptop. It’s hard on my eyes so I can’t spend much time reading or writing. If you don’t hear from me often these days, that’s why.
I am not sure when I will be able to post again or how often I will be able to visit your blogs and comment. That depends on forces outside of my control. But I can still send my best wishes to all and I do so now with gratitude.
A welcoming space for resistance to the forces of oppression and hegemony.