So much has changed since I began this blog in February of 2014. It’s fascinating to look back on the past year, 2017, to discover the most visited posts. Most were originally posted during 2017, a year when the majority of the work I shared was poetry. The four most frequently viewed posts, though, were published earlier in my blogging adventure.
…. As I work on editing the book manuscript I wrote about my research [on Ojibwe child welfare], I can’t help reflecting on our inability as a nation to learn from history….
A few days ago, the U.S bombed Afghanistan again with “the mother of all bombs.” Operation Enduring Freedom? Other choices are possible and far more likely to be successful if that really is the goal of U.S. international actions….
…. Over the years, I have learned to view so many of you as beloved friends. I look forward to your posts and your kindness. I don’t know how many of you know that I always try to reciprocate. I try to return every visit to my blog with a like, and sometimes when I can find the words, a comment. I do take the time to read what you write before doing so….
…. Final Thoughts. Critical self-awareness is an essential foundation for effective social justice work practice. Before one can “shift center” as Andersen and Collins (2004) recommend, one must be aware of one’s center. Yet critical self-awareness is but one of many steps in the complex, life-long process of understanding and embracing diversity. Relating to diversity is a multi-dimensional endeavor that involves seeing not only one’s position at present, but also reflecting on one’s experiences within the contexts of personal and world history, power differentials, and socially-constructed meanings of difference. It requires understanding one’s privileges and oppression. And it requires the courage to make mistakes and to look foolish, the grace to face conflict, and the desire to find common ground based on honoring the richness of others’ experiences and perspectives.
…. I have tried to use Facebook periodically as a medium to heighten awareness about Native American issues, but invariably the superficiality of exchanges has convinced me that it’s a waste of my time. Yet there are occasions when I cannot refrain from commenting on blatant and dangerous information. The result, of course, is predictable. The wagons circle to protect the comforting illusions that expressing white guilt and denying any complicity for past atrocities is enough. The ultimate show stopper is to call the one Native voice “racist.” ….
…. Presentation day was one of nervous anticipation for me. I was excited to share what I thought was an important message with my classmates. But my anxiety grew as I sat through the recitation of nursery rhymes and “Twinkle-twinkle little star.”
“Oops,” I thought, “Maybe I made a mistake, but it’s too late now.” ….
…. One of the participants prophetically predicted the outcome of this hopeful project.
“Power sources are experts at turning us against each other, then they walk right over us. We are all like a circle, the non-profits working for Indian people. I try to tell people that the money-people toss a dollar bill in the middle and we all scramble for it. And I tell people we cannot do that anymore. When the money-people throw the dollar bill into the center of the circle we have to say “NO.” We must lock arms in the circle and ask for something more. We need to improve all of our lives, not just a handful of our lives. If we could just all get on the same page. It’s not about who is in charge – we are equals. But the power sources would prefer to have us at each other’s throats.”
Sadly, those in power at the county and federal levels were able to divide the community….
I am deeply grateful to all of my virtual friends who have been with me throughout the years, and appreciative for newer friends and followers. You have all enriched my life. I am excited to see what the coming year will bring. I send my blessings and wish to say chi miigwetch to all (Ojibwe “Thank you very much”).
It’s hard to believe almost three years have gone by since I posted my reflections about past north-country winters. I still have my Sorel boots after 27 years (pictured below), although they are now beyond repair. The rubber is cracked and not even gator tape will stick to keep out melting snow. The smooth-worn soles are covered by yak trax, metal springs threaded over elastic bands that keep the boots from slipping on ice. Perhaps this will be their final winter.
New Year’s Day, 2015. I know there’s much work ahead of me as I embark on the serious business of finishing books I began last year. But today, I remembered past winters while I took time to refurbish my old Sorel boots with oil and new liners for yet another winter. My boots date back to 1990, the first winter I spent in the northwoods of Wisconsin. I had accepted a position as deputy director of health and human services for an inter-tribal agency, but the clothes I brought with me were meant for a different climate. I needed more practical, warmer, clothes.
My first winter was spent in a tiny hotel room above a bar that often had live performers belting out off-tune country and western songs until the wee hours of the morning. I could walk the two blocks to my office in downtown Lac du Flambeau, but the days I had to drive were challenging. My old car, with 190,000 plus miles, didn’t like to start or keep moving in the winter cold when I first started out. The pack of stray dogs that called the downtown their home loved to chase cars, but they quickly learned that chasing me was not a contest worthy of their time and effort. As my car sputtered and bucked and stalled down the road, they grew bored. Eventually, they didn’t even look up when I chugged by. But that car, like my boots, lasted many more years. I was sad when I was finally forced to replace my car, but my boots lasted despite the many miles they’ve seen and the many places they’ve traveled.
But of all the places we’ve traveled together, these boots and I, there is one place that remains golden in my memories. It’s the cabin I moved to after that first winter above the bar. Before the winter even began, I knew that I couldn’t live there forever, so I decided to see if I could find somewhere to move that was affordable. You’d think that would be easy in the northwoods, but that’s not so. Long ago, it became a favorite spot for wealthy urbanites who were able to buy up the lakefront properties that were lost to the Ojibwe people despite a series of treaties that guaranteed tribal ownership of land within reservation boundaries in exchange for ceding the northern third of Wisconsin to the federal government.
I was fortunate to find a local realtor who knew how to find the best deals and we spent many fall days exploring such interesting fixer-uppers. We became friends. One day in mid-November, she called me at work and asked if I could take some time off in the afternoon to see another property. I said, “Sure.” (It was interesting to see so many houses in need of loving care.) She picked me up and we drove, first down the highway, then down a narrow winding country road through a national forest, and then on a dirt road. We turned about a mile later onto what I can only call a rough rutted path that could just accommodate a car, again, winding down a little hill and into a forest. When we emerged in a clearing, I saw the small brown cabin, but what caught my eye and made my heart sing was a vista of the lake and wetlands glowing in the afternoon sunlight. I knew I was home. I had no idea how I would be able to afford it, and I had no idea what it meant to live without electricity, or heat with wood. I had no idea how I would be able to get in and out during the winter, especially with my car, but I did have my boots (and later, snowshoes to attach to them.)
Living down a series of country roads, some of which were unpaved, presented both benefits and challenges. I had an opportunity to witness nature up close – the bear, deer, beaver, otters, rabbits and porcupine. I heard the powerful rhythmic pounding of eagles’ wings as they flew just over my head, the hauntingly lovely song of the loon echoing over still waters, and the howls of coyotes in the quiet winter night. Winter was my favorite time, even though it was often cold and snowy, and even though it meant a mile hike to my car when I had to make the trip to some distant city to go to work, attend class or travel for a speaking engagement or consulting job. The hike was easier in the winter. The path through the snow was easy to follow, even at night, and the mosquitoes, sand flies, deer flies, horse flies and ticks were nowhere to be seen as they bided their time for the spring thaw. Spring – mud season – also meant hiking. But I was younger then and used to the grueling physical labor living in the woods required.
Of course, living in the woods meant warm clothing in the winter, and a bug suit during most other seasons if you wanted to do serious work outdoors. I don’t have a picture of the bug suit my daughter gave me as a gift, although given the ubiquitous northwoods’ mosquitoes and sand files, I often wish I still had it. I still have the coat in the picture below. It’s the only thing I ever purchased from Victoria’s Secrets – it was incredibly cheap in their annual clearance sale. (I don’t think it’s any mystery why it hadn’t sold for full price.) The coat is a few year’s newer than my boots, but it got me through the polar vortex last year and with new loops for the buttons in lieu of the zipper that finally gave out, it will continue for many winters more.
As I unclutter, some things will remain because they are still useful. Who needs the latest fashions when old things were built to last and carry such rich memories? These old clothes remind me of quiet, starry winter nights, of the sanctuary where my grandson spent many of his childhood days.
They were simpler days of hiking, hauling wood, and clearing the beaver-culled trees from the road. Living in an urban neighborhood now, watching the plumes of toxic exhaust from the factories that block the sunlight on the few winter days without clouds, I feel the loss of times past. Not just my past, but the past of my ancestors. Strange though it may sound, as deep as the grief of those lost times often is for me to face, it’s what motivates me to do what I can to touch people’s hearts for the sake of this wondrous earth and future generations. And now, my boots and I are ready for the challenges ahead.
Funny how attached I grow to tools that have served me well. Once upon a time, my boots were strapped to snow shoes as we walked through the winter woods where my ancestors lived for so many generations. Now they help give me traction on the icy sidewalks of my home in a little northern city.
I try to conserve useful resources like my boots for as long as possible. I shall miss these boots. They slip on easily and fit comfortably. Their replacements are stiff, like my aging body, and take more work to put on.
And speaking of work, I have still not finished editing and revising the manuscript I wrote about my experiences as a researcher studying Ojibwe child welfare. I have had to put it aside to teach college classes. Life has blessed me with teaching work to do, and given the austerity years ahead, I know I will need to keep working as long as I can.
Hopefully I will have time to return to my manuscript in the all too brief northern summers. In future winter weather, I will need to rely on my newer boots for my journeys.
She who is born to seek peace
will live through times of conflict
She who seeks light
will walk through dark nights of the spirit
She who seeks to live love and compassion
will sometimes be surrounded by
hatred and cruelty to test her earnestness
And she who seeks to live joy
will know the depth of aloneness and doubt
and the wrenching sorrow of witnessing suffering
she cannot heal
But one morning after 70 winters
she understands why it is so
as she gazes up at the morning sky
in mid-November before another winter
watching the last leaves fall
twirling, floating, and dancing
in the wind as they return to source
A little grey squirrel quietly joins her
and sits at her feet gazing up at her face
unafraid for the briefest of instants
Somehow the paradoxical journey
to this moment suddenly makes sense
But the moment passes
signaling the need to return
to a different paradoxical constructed reality
Do you ever have mornings when a question plays in your thoughts and you don’t know the answer? This morning, as I gazed at the trees on this first day of November, I wondered if they process carbon dioxide in the winter. The answers I found are fascinating. Maybe everyone else learned this and remembers. But just in case, I thought others might find the answers interesting, too.
The first question that came to mind – Do trees process carbon dioxide (CO2) in winter?
The answer –
“Most of the land mass of the earth is in the northern hemisphere, and most of the vegetation is Northern hemisphere. During autumn and winter, the leaves fall and exhale carbon dioxide (through decomposition). Throughout the spring and summer days, leaves grow and inhale carbon dioxide. So, when it’s winter in the northern hemisphere, global CO2 levels rise quite sharply and fall again during the warmer months.” (Michael Bloch, 2006, November 30. “Deciduous trees and carbon dioxide,” available at greenlivingtips.com).
Another site offered a more global, connected perspective.
“In general, it is inevitable (whether or not trees lose their leaves) that photosynthesis should reduce during the winter months, simply because there is less sunlight through the winter months. The question is as to where greater photosynthesis is happening, in the southern hemisphere (with large oceans, and more marine algae), or in the northern hemisphere (much great land masses), so which winter is the more significant (that of the north or that of the south)? Then you have the additional issue that as oceans get colder in winter, they will dissolve more CO2, and as they get warmer in the summer they will release some of this CO2 back into the atmosphere (this is also made more difficult to judge because of the complexities of the ocean currents).” (The Naked Scientists, 2007, July 10. “Carbon Dioxide in Winter,” available at thenakedscientists.com).
There is so much to learn about the complex interconnections on earth and how much we all depend on each and every being that shares the same tiny home. The most critical processes are often invisible. It makes me wonder about an educational system that fails in many cases to recognize our interdependence and responsibility for inclusive stewardship. In school, I learned how to dissect things, name all their parts with Latin words, and a little about how other living beings interact with their immediate environments. But we often don’t learn about the interconnections within a larger context, and the importance of helping to maintain the delicate balance necessary for all life to harmonize as each unique being performs its functions as part of a grand symphony throughout the millennia.
I’m grateful for the winter that brings rest for trees and the scent of new fallen snow, even if the air is laden with more CO2.
Reflections – November 6, 2017
The first Monday after artificial “time” seasonal adjustment
allows me to wake “early”
greeted by the morning sun
streaming through the window
illuminating things that carry memories
with light and a golden glow
I breathe in the light
so rare these days
highlighting poignant memories
of other times and places
The sewing table, now folded,
a legacy from my mother
like the skill I learned as a child
There was a time when I sewed often
with an old secondhand “portable” Necchi machine
if one can honestly call a 50 pound machine portable
but it traveled the country with me
from Los Angeles to Illinois,
to Massachusetts then Connecticut
to Wisconsin, Montana, and back
It’s how I clothed myself at times
and my daughter when she was a child
After decades, I had to retire the Necchi
when it could no longer be repaired
There are days when I can relate
to the feeling that one may no longer
be able to serve a useful purpose
The prayer flags hanging on the open door
symbolize family connections and repaired vision
but I honestly don’t know how
to repair a heart that keeps breaking
from senseless wars and destruction
or from cruelty and tragedy everyday
But today, I awoke to sunshine
with the awareness that I can still breathe
and do small things – trying to be mindful
and compassionate regardless of context
while I am here
Sometimes the simplest tasks
take me on a journey through time
glimpses of the past in simple things
threads of life that led me here
Witness to the wonders of nature
on a chilly quiet afternoon in fall
Fall is really here. It was time to take my little “White Pony” in for a check-up and oil-change today. Yes, my 11-year old car has a name thanks to my granddaughter and an Ojibwe friend I haven’t seen in years. Here’s an excerpt from a poem that describes my car’s naming ceremony.
“What can we do that’s fun in the rain?
Do you think we should wash the car?”
“Oh yes, oh yes!,” you said.
So I grabbed a bucket and two new sponges,
yours orange and mine purple.
“Does your car have a name?”
I thought quickly of one of your favorite toys – Pink Pony!
And I remembered an Ojibwe friend from long ago
who teased me about riding my White Pony
when I drove another white car
through the forests, past lakes and farmlands
to tribal communities and the State Capitol
in our work on tribal social justice issues.
So my car was given its predecessor’s name – White Pony.
But this White Pony mostly stays in the driveway now
even though it once climbed mountain passes
as it brought me, in a round-about way, to my new home.
I had time to read as I waited for my car to be serviced. The book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (Kimmerer, 2013), is one of the most beautiful ones I have ever read. Perhaps it’s because Kimmerer blends science, poetry, and spirit from an indigenous perspective.
“A people’s story moves along like a canoe caught in the current, being carried closer and closer to where we had begun. As I grew up, my family found again the tribal connections that had been frayed, but never broken, by history. We found the people who knew our true names.” (Kimmerer, p. 36).
Decades ago, when I first entered college, my major was a blend of chemistry and biology. Nature has always fascinated me. I wanted to learn more. I wanted to be an ecologist, but that was not a subject the college I attended offered or even recognized. Nonetheless, my advisor and botany professor, Sister Lorita, offered me much more even though I didn’t realize it at the time. I described her lesson in a previous post
Through example, she taught me what it means to teach. Students made fun of her because of her weight and because of her enthusiasm for her subject, a subject they found boring. One day when we were meeting, Sister Lorita looked at me and said, “I know students laugh at me, but I don’t care if people make fun of me. It’s worth it to me if they learn to see the wonder of life in a blade of grass.”
It would be many years before I would realize what a precious gift she gave me that day. Instead of becoming an ecologist or botanist who saw the wonder of life in plants, I ended up in social work, focusing on gerontology and organizational theory. I finally earned a Ph.D. in social welfare, although it took me an extra ten years. First, life led me “home” to my roots through a series of divergent events. It’s how my first white car ultimately got its name.
I was working as a teaching assistant and official note-taker for a diversity class at the university I attended. As I rushed up the hill to class one day in fall, I was contemplating a successful career in academia. I had just received notice that I was awarded a grant-funded position as a research assistant on a prestigious study. It was a fast track to likely success in the world of academia. Here’s an excerpt from an old post that describes the pivotal event.
As I crested the top of the hill, I neared the site of the last battle of the Black Hawk Wars. Just shy of the plaque commemorating the war, a tribal elder appeared dressed in an unlikely outfit – blue jeans and a plaid flannel shirt. He looked at me with severity and simply said, “You need to remember what is really important.” I didn’t have time to reflect on the message then, but in the decades since it is something I contemplate often, although this isn’t a story I share with others for obvious reasons. The challenge of walking in two worlds, one based on rationality and empirical evidence and the other based on a deeper spiritual awareness are not easily reconciled. It turns out that I didn’t finish my degree based on elder caregiver issues. It would take more than a decade and many experiences later to finally complete a study on Indian child welfare, but that’s another story.
Reading about Kimmerer’s experience with academia connected me with my own. I made a connection that I hadn’t even contemplated before. Perhaps I would have dismissed the elder’s appearance as too bizarre to consider. It would have been easier to simply ignore the message even though it made me feel a tinge of guilt.
In all likelihood, the study I would have been working on wouldn’t really have made a difference for people who were marginalized. It might, at best, have added to scientific knowledge about caregivers of adult children with mental retardation. But I doubt that I would have based a life-changing decision solely on a “vision” I couldn’t scientifically verify as “real.” At least at that point in my life. Fortunately, life had already set in motion a context that would lead me home in my yet-to-be named White Pony, both to seek refuge and to work on issues close to my heart. Tribal social justice issues. Following are excerpts from older posts that describe the context.
When my daughter was a senior in high school, she received a commendation notice from her French teacher. This was not the first or last, but it was the one I noticed on a different level. I remember “seeing red” when I noticed the logo on the top, yet I immediately reflected on the message – my daughter had demonstrated excellent work. So I complemented her. Then, I contacted the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (WDPI) to explore what protections they had in place to prevent racial stereotyping of indigenous peoples. The response from WDPI changed my life.
At the time, I was working on a federal grant to address elder abuse in eight pilot counties in Wisconsin. In an effort to promote awareness about the project, I met with a reporter from a local paper. In the process of talking about the project, “Tools of the Trade for Men Who Care,” the reporter and I became friends. We were both outsiders in the largely white, Christian community. She was Jewish, and I was Ojibwe. I mentioned the appalling name and logo used by the local high school, and mentioned that I had been advised by WDPI to wait until my daughter graduated to pursue any action. But, I was told, there was a state statute, the Pupil Nondiscrimination Act that I could use as the basis of a complaint. The WPDI staff added that although the statute had never been tested for its relevance to discriminatory logos and team names, filing a complaint under this statute could set an important precedent. My friend asked me to let her know if I ever decided to pursue the issue.
The months passed and my daughter graduated and went off to a university. I stayed in touch with my friend at the newspaper as the project I was working on gained momentum. Then, I added another job. I was completing my doctorate in social welfare at the time, and began as a teaching assistant in a sociology class on diversity and discrimination. As I faced the 465 students, I realized that ethically I needed to walk the talk and address the discriminatory use of logos by public schools in the state.
My education thus far had taught me two things that appeared relevant to this issue. First, when approaching community change, it is always best to start on the assumption that others may easily agree if approached from a position of collaboration. So I drafted a letter to the superintendent of schools in the district. I asked my diplomatic and thoughtful university advisor to review the letter, and when he commented that it was well-reasoned and balanced, I sent it off. I also sent a copy to my friend at the newspaper.
Second, I expected a thoughtful diplomatic response from the superintendent of schools. If one believes the physics theory that every action results in an equal and opposite reaction, a well-reasoned letter calling attention to unintentional discrimination toward Native Americans should result in the willingness to dialogue, right? That was not the case. The response of the superintendent was to send a copy of my letter to the weekly newspaper in the local community. My friend also broke the story in a larger newspaper on a slow news day. Within a week, I was the topic of hundreds of letters to the editor in local and state newspapers, and featured on the nightly TV news. The community reaction included nasty, degrading personal attacks and threats.”
When my partner lost his job as an assistant manager of a lumber retail company, in all likelihood a response to my very public and unpopular advocacy, I was forced to withdraw from the university in the final stages of completing my doctorate in order to get a full-time job. I wanted to escape from the world of Euro-Americans for awhile and accepted a position as the deputy director of health and human services for an inter-tribal agency. I moved to the Ojibwe community where my mother was born and bought an off-the-grid cabin in the woods…
Life circumstances led me to a place where I felt at home. The animals, trees and earth sometimes spoke to me. Although my job was not an easy, I had a clear sense that what I was learning and doing mattered. Perhaps the elder who visited me by Blackhawk’s memorial marker would agree.
“There was a time when I teetered precariously with an awkward foot in each of two worlds – the scientific and the indigenous. But then I learned to fly. Or at least try. It was the bees that showed me how to move between different flowers – to drink nectar and gather pollen from both. It is this dance of cross-pollination that can produce a new species of knowledge, a new way of being in the world. After all, there aren’t two worlds, there is just this one good green earth.” (Kimmerer, 2013, p. 47)
My old White Pony drove so many miles she finally had to be replaced. These days, the White Pony I drive doesn’t travel far. I make sure she’s taken care of because I rely on her to get me to and from the tribal and community college where I teach research and co-teach social work macro practice. I often think of Sister Lorita’s example as I try to weave science and wonder together, encouraging students not only to count and measure, but also to see, feel, hear, and sense the wonder of life all around.
I am grateful to Sister Lorita and thankful for the memories sparked by Kimmerer’s eloquent book today. I appreciate the opportunity to continue learning from yet another generation and the chance to share some of what I have learned in exchange. Ah. But that reminds me of the papers I have to grade today…
Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions.
Seven years ago, my mother passed away in the early morning. She was 89. During the last 13 years of her life, she gradually lost her memories and her abilities to care for herself and communicate. I was thinking of her yesterday at sunset and decided to repost the poem I wrote for her two years ago.
Mother, I Remember
Dear Mother, I remember as a child
The trips to New York City and to the Jersey shore
Camping in Cape Cod, and the Adirondack Mountains
Trips on boats, splashing in the ocean
Picking berries in the woods and laughing
Only realizing later that we were spared by
the copperheads that called the woods home I remember the many times you cried
because you couldn’t bear the loneliness and pain
from an abusive husband who knew the way to hurt you most deeply
was to hurt the daughter you loved
But we were both survivors, you and I
I remember watching you when I was a teen as you cared for elders
and dealt with cranky staff with such kindness and diplomacy
A gifted healer and peacemaker despite the abuse you couldn’t stop I remember that I understood from a very early age
that you didn’t see your beauty or your worth
I didn’t know how to help you or myself for awhile
I remember there were many years when we didn’t meet often
You had your work to keep you busy and I had mine
Yet you always found time to send letters and cards
from Pennsylvania, Arizona, New Mexico, and Wisconsin
when you returned to the place where you were born
to use your skills to get federal funding for a health center
on the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation I remember how frightened you were to testify before Congress
How proud you were of this accomplishment
and how disappointed when the center was named after the tribal leader
whose bitterness almost sabotaged the project
I remember when I was a little older
Driving this road to your northwoods home
so many times, from so many directions
in too many different cars to recall
Only this time, the drive is different
I’m crying so hard it’s hard to see the road ahead
I’m not coming with my family to celebrate a holiday,
or taking time away from work to answer your plea for help
because you’ve grown fearful and weary of Father’s abuse
I’m not coming to help you move to the elder apartment complex
or the assisted care facility because you can no longer remember
how to care for yourself, or even who I am
This time I’m coming to bid you farewell one last time
I will always remember the love and the laughter,
the tears and the pain as I hold your hand and
gently caress your cheek and smooth your silvered hair
as you lay in your hospital bed, struggling to breathe, dying.
I kiss your cheek and whisper.
“I love you, Mother. I always have. I know I will miss you But it’s okay to let go now Mother and go home. You’ll finally be free from suffering.”
It’s been seven years since your death But I still remember…
A welcoming space for resistance to the forces of oppression and hegemony.