A Life Well Lived

My mother, Astrid Linnea Brown, seven years before her death at age 93.

 On October 1, 2020 our dear mother Astrid Linnea Brown passed away. She died of natural causes at the age of 93 years and eleven months. She lived through the last century and this one with an unflappable kindness that family and friends counted on. She spoke humbly and often did not realize how much wisdom was embedded in her comments on everyday life. I miss that voice and know I will begin to hear it rising from within myself.

On the morning  of her last day of life, Christina and I had a brief Zoom call with her. She remembered that Christina recently had cataract surgery and asked how she was doing. Even though she had entered hospice, we had no idea that she would shift from frailty to dying just a few hours later that afternoon. Thanks to technology, my sister, Kathy, who lives nearby, was able to alert and help gather all four of us daughters so we could be present to our mother’s last hour of life. While Kathy held her hand, we other daughters (in Washington, Arizona, and North Carolina) held vigil via Zoom. We shared scripture and music and the promise that we would take care of each other. We gave her permission to let go. As we played Dvorak’s Going Home from the New World Symphony, our mother, the organist, let go of this life and moved on to her next.

Mom’s casket. Three of us daughters, three grandchildren, and five great grandchildren attended a simple graveside service observing Covid protocols, acknowledging that we were each standing in for dozens of family members who could not travel because of the pandemic. Photo by granddaughter Kyle Anderson.

 

Since our father’s death seven years ago, after 65 years of marriage, Mom transferred out of the family home to an assisted living campus near Kathy. My sisters and I phoned her nearly every day for the last couple of years, being especially diligent as she shifted into nursing care and during this time of pandemic isolation. Many times she called us before we reached her. We were her lifeline as her capabilities diminished. It was an honor to have these conversations and shared insights into one another. Mom tackled her last phase of life with the same resilience and steadiness that led her through the birth and raising of four daughters, the arrival of thirteen grandchildren and then 28 great grandchildren.

Susie, Kathy, Mom, Ann, and Margaret on a 2018 trip up the North Shore of Lake Superior.Photo by waitress.

 

She was a classic woman of her generation—wife, mother, community member, and also a talented piano player and church organist. In many ways our mother was the epitome of the American Dream. Her parents both immigrated to this country as teenagers with their Swedish siblings. They were poor and hardworking. Mom lived through the Depression and never forgot the frugality and hard work of those years. She lived her whole life with the values of love, kindness,  and honesty. These are the values that endeared “Astie” to her many descendants. These are the values needed now more than ever in our country. Thank you, mom, for this powerful legacy. We will not forget.

There are so many stories to share when you live as long as our mother did, but the one I  choose to focus on here is how much I learned from her about writing. Her penmanship was impeccable. Her commitment to writing letters was multi-generational. And she always paid attention to the proper use of language!

My immigrant grandmother, Vendla, taught herself to read and write English. She never got back to Sweden to see her family, so she counted on letters as the link to that other life. Mom often spoke about watching her sit down at the dining room table, Swedish/English dictionary at her side, writing those letters.  The imprint was strong. Mom in turn always took time to write her four daughters as we moved far from home. Actually, our father also wrote us letters because his father had written letters to him during his service in the Pacific Theater in World War II. The importance of communicating via the written word remains with us and has been passed on to our children and grandchildren. (In the younger generation texting and email has, of course, often replaced actual letters but the IDEA of writing is deep in the extended Brown family.)

Mom’s writing went beyond letters. In the late 1990s she and her younger sister, Helen, took one of our PeerSpirit writing seminars. I was delighted by the writing  she shared in a group much younger than herself. She joined a writing group when she moved into her long-term care center after dad passed away.

Mom on one of our writing outings.

One of the things I cherished doing with mom when I visited in recent years was driving to a nearby park to be inspired by the beauty of nature. At first she could walk, then she used a walker, and still later I pushed her in a wheelchair. We would sit and look, sometimes read a Mary Oliver poem, and then take some time to write our reflections. It was a beautiful way to witness my quiet, introverted mother as she articulated some of her deeper thoughts.

A sample journal entry by mom

This snippet of her writing that I share here came from a shared moment with my sister, Margaret. After a fall,  mom had been moved from the assisted living wing into the nursing wing. Susie had come earlier to help our local sister, Kathy. Margaret and I arrived to help disassemble her assisted living apartment. Mom, Margaret, and I paused for an afternoon tea break and took a moment of quiet to reflect on the statement at the top of her page: Little things make a big difference.

You see here her beautiful penmanship even at age 92, her appreciation of our presence, and her getting used to the name of the new place that would be her home for the rest of her days. By having parents who lived for so many decades, I have gained a deeper understanding of what it means to live into old age. And I had a chance to internalize what an extraordinary role model my dear mother was for me. I walk now in her footsteps, in my own way, as best I can.

Graveside service bulletin. Photo by granddaughter Kyle Anderson.

The Fifth Grade American Songbook

It is 1956-57, and I am in fifth grade at Beacon Heights Elementary, a blond brick school building poised over highway 55 at the edge of Minneapolis, Minnesota. The playground runs alongside and out back. We have already learned that in case the Russians drop an atomic bomb we are not to look down this highway toward the Foshay Tower, which at 32 floors is the tallest building between Chicago and Seattle. We are so proud. Little kids, all of us a cohort born in the first year of the postwar baby boom. Little white kids, unconscious of our whiteness, our privilege, or of the embedded injustices of our country. We won the War. Everything is okay now. We are so proud.

Mrs. Thompson’s 5th grade class. I can still name most of these children. I was engaged at the time to both the Elliot twins.

The bell rings, we stand by our desks. “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

At age ten, I do not know how demanding these words actually are, or what a commitment they need to require of me my whole life. I am still learning.

Fifth grade is the year I learned to sing. The district hired a music teacher and as soon as Miss Purdy arrived at our door we put aside other work and whipped out our song books. When I Google this to jog my memory, there it is: The American Singer, a hard-cover red book compiled in 1944. I can feel the heft of it in my now aged hands. Songs to stir hearts and minds of little children, songs that roam my mind still today: an entire repertoire of folksy. innocuous, patriotic, supremacist, Judeo-Christian tunes, designed to create a country of white children who share common harmonies.

Illustration inside the front flap.

This presumption was everywhere around me and I want to examine its influence–then and now. I have ordered a copy so that beyond the few pages I could capture with screenshots, I can explore what was planted into my mind about whiteness, American-ness, and the races and ethnicities that created “one nation, under God, indivisible” so that I can continue to work toward “liberty and justice for all.”

Page introducing Indian songs. Underlined words were on the spelling test.

I believe this is a journey of un-enculturation that white Americans need to undertake. It is shocking, in terms of today’s sensitivity to diversity and inclusion, to see the happy illustrations of all white children. Everyone looks like “me” and the portrayal of “them” is distant and faraway. (Indians, for example, are spoken of in the past tense and Mrs. Thompson never informs us we live on traditional Ojibwe territory, or that there are 11 tribal nations in the state.)

Democracy is a process of continual updating. When this country was founded, it appropriated democratic ideas from the Iroquois Nation, held slave-holding signers to the Declaration of Independence and early Presidents in high regard, forbid women and minorities from voting. We have been updating our understanding of America from 1776 to now—and we need to continue. Updating democracy is necessary to civility and civilization. We cannot réestablish outmoded models of whiteness and should not try to preserve supremacist privilege, but find the courage to open our hearts to the transformation that is now upon us and take up this essential task of revisioning America.

Kate Smith and movie orchestra

Beyoncé and friends and estimated 1.2 million citizens, the largest public event ever held in DC.

I offer renditions of two of our most revered ballads. The first is Kate Smith in 1943 singing the new song “God Bless America,” written and released in World War II, and the second is Beyoncé singing “America the Beautiful” at President Obama’s inauguration in January 2009. One represents America then, and the other America now. Kate Smith’s America wasn’t horrible, it was just totally white. Not everyone was white then: and certainly not now. I pray we can claim the beauty of who we are as a nation of myriad people.

We are all choosing right now: choose carefully. Democracy is trying to update itself. There is fear and backlash, as there has always been. Our essential task is to go forward anyway until we discover an inclusive harmony that makes America beautiful for everyone.

Let’s lift every voice and sing! VOTE!

Staycation

This is the summer of our staycation. With the coronavirus still on the rise across the United States, we decided it was not wise to travel. It has been a difficult decision—letting go of our annual Granny Camp with the grandchildren and visiting my mother and a long-planned dream to visit family in Alaska and kayak Prince William Sound.

We know plenty of people who have decided to travel. This is not a commentary on whether this is right or wrong or a debate about flying vs. driving vs. camping. These are times of calculated risks for all of us and to the best of our abilities we weigh the risks vs. the rewards and act accordingly.

This is a blog about some wonderful, unexpected joys of remaining home this summer.

There has been a different pace to life. We don’t “bop” to the store to pick something up. We wait until we have quite a list, because it is a big deal to mask up and then bring everything home and sanitize it. We often travel via bike to do our errands like checking the post office box, because we have more time.

People have had time to create beautiful artwork on our beaches.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is very exciting to have someone come over to visit because we have to plan ahead for a nice day so we can be out on the patio and remain socially distant. No one has actually come inside our house since the first lock down here in early March. As dog walkers in our neighborhoods, we take the time to stand socially distant and visit with someone who is weeding or just porch sitting. We have gotten to know several neighbors on the adjacent street that we did not know before. Speed and efficiency are definitely not very important this summer.

The garden is a special source of joy this year. I don’t think we have necessarily raised more beans or squash or blueberries or garlic, but I have experienced greater joy in the act of tending. For sure the carrot seedlings in the garden and the tomatoes on the porch are getting more regularly watered.

I had an especially good garlic harvest this year.

Snap peas, beans, and squash from our July garden

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was part of our Audubon pigeon guillemot study. These are wonderful, orange-footed seabirds that nest on the cliffs below our home. Once a week during nesting season I have gotten up  at 6 a.m. and sat below the cliff nests on our beach and carefully counted how many fish deliveries/hour the adults make. There are dozens of Whidbey Island Audubon members doing this below bluffs all over the island. The organization has been doing this for 10 years and thanks to their scientific diligence, several other Audubon chapters in the region have begun their own studies. This has given scientists some important, previously unavailable data about these birds.

Pigeon guillemots are little black and white seabirds with preposterous orange feet.

Remarkably, pigeon guillemots nest in holes high on the cliff. When the young are ready to leave, they jump out of the hole, bounce on the ground and walk into the sea.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It has been a good summer to be a salmon fisherwoman. Well, the silvers(Coho salmon) are not exactly running yet but being a shore caster early in the morning has its own special joys like baby seals coming out of the water and taking a nap ten feet from my feet or watching the red, orange sunrises on the mountains of the Olympic peninsula. Actually, I have already caught one Coho. My father, the fisherman, trained me well. He would be proud.

Ann and her 3 pound coho. Photo by fishing buddy Pip Gordon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We camped at a state park on our island. This was our 9-month old puppy’s first camping trip and she came through with flying colors—did not bark at neighboring campers too much and slept through the night! Sleeping outdoors gives one a different perspective of home. One night I had a hard time going to sleep. I slipped quietly out of the tent to look at a star-filled sky through towering old growth Douglas fir trees. There was not one sound in the entire 55-unit campground. Everyone from the ten-year-old boys that were racing around on their bicycles to the older couples in their RVs to the teenagers celebrating a birthday two sites over was quiet. Asleep, sheltered by the trees, trusting in the absolute safety around them. It was a holy moment that I will treasure for a very long time in this chaotic and often not-so-kind world.

Christina, Ann, and Vivi on their state park camping trip—face masks close by for when they leave their own campsite. Photo by Sarah MacDougall

Vivi watching the sunset over Puget Sound.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Night lanterns for the 13-year-old birthday party two sites away.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even though we have lived here for 26 years, we made some unusual nature discoveries. One day on a low tide walk we discovered a moon snail carefully laying its eggs in its industrial looking sand collars. Another day we came upon a garter snake trying to eat a slug! Within minutes the young snake let go of its unusual prey, realizing the numbing effect of the slime. The snake rubbed its head back and forth through the dirt to rid itself of that horrible sensation. Probably will not try that again!

The underwater foot of the moon snail is pulling in sand, mixing it with special saliva and eggs to create the sand collar at the bottom.

A garter snake trying to eat a slug.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s been a cool, wet summer here. Our little puppy had another first—kayaking. Mostly she was patient for her hour-long ride, but then she hopped out into the water and was ready to run and play on her very own four legs. Enough lap sitting!

Vivi’s first kayaking adventure

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Home improvement projects are generally not thought of as part of vacation, but it brings us joy to tend this little corner of the planet. Having a whole summer home has enabled us to get totally up to date on all outside staining projects—which frees us up to feel more energy for riding bikes, camping, kayaking, and hiking!

Assorted paint brushes get the job done.

Our favorite stain

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conclusion—It is a very serious time on the planet. Many more people will die because of the pandemic. Economies are crashing. The racial and economic injustices in the world are made ever more visible during this time. This summer makes my white privilege ever more obvious to me. HOWEVER, ordinary people like myself are doing the best we can to find joy and bring kindness into the world. And, ultimately, this is the thread that holds everything together.

Sunset light on a gnarled, old growth Douglas fir tree hanging onto the west edge of our island—like all of us, a survivor.

 

 

 

 

Using our Superpowers

My grandchildren love to watch the current string of Marvel movies—there are 23 of them so far, and I have completely lost track of the characters and plots, despite several entertaining hours on a road trip last summer when the two kids tried to summarize the whole universe for me while cracking each other up, making mistakes, and confusing the movies and plots and universes. Both peals of laughter and serious debate were emanating from the backseat as we sped over the mountains heading west. How was I supposed to keep track?

Somewhere out west… July 2019

This led to a conversation about where superpowers come from, categorizing who has what power and whether they use it for good or evil. After a while this turned into the question: What superpower would you most like to have?; which turned into the question: What do you think your superpower already is?

This summer, no road trip. Instead I live alongside the uprising of Black Lives Matter and within the isolation of the pandemic observing all that has been unleashed in this country. And I have been thinking about power, super-power, power-over and power-with. We are in a cultural shift of huge proportions, in a battle between good and evil (defined differently by differing world views, of course), and navigating a time when the systems that have held us in domination and oppression of one another need to be torn asunder and reassembled. Our lives depend on our actions now: actions played out inside a society crumbling under the weight of its own injustices on a planet crumbling under the weight of us.

The “grandmother moment” in the car was the conversation about how we each have super powers we can use if we turn them up, turn them on, learn to live with the responsibility, and trust that what we do in our own lives contributes to the big causes of the world. Only for us ordinary marvels there are no special effects: we have to believe in our superpowers when we can’t see or hear the shazam or watch how the strength of our courage can knock over giants.

2nd Street: saying their names in Langley, WA

The “elder activist moment” is to believe what I told the kids and to expend all the shazam I’ve got left to influence what comes next. Personally, I’m committed to “liberty and justice for all…” I don’t have a cape and haven’t had a haircut since February. I’m committed  to love my neighbor and love the earth. I haven’t hugged anyone outside my bubble of 2 + dog since March, and I’ve eaten all the kale and peas. I’m committed to Black Lives Matter. I get it that white skin, wrinkled female that I am, is still the safety default and it should NOT be this way!

No special effects means I have to trust every emotion as sourcing empowerment, and every gesture as changing the world around me for the better—even when I can’t perceive the shazam.

  • So in the pandemic I am asking: how is isolation a superpower?
  • In the uprising for racial justice, how is anti-racism a superpower?
  • In  the economic instability, how is living simply a superpower?
  • In the climate crisis, how is lowering my carbon footprint a superpower?
  • In my citizenship, how is voting a superpower?
  • In my community, how is civility a superpower?
  • In my family and friends, how is love a superpower?
  • In my heart, how is trust a superpower?

July 4th, supporting local candidate–wearing the shirt.

So I went into the grocery store wearing a black tee-shirt that said: Listening. Learning. Let’s Talk. (on the front) and said BLM ALLY (on the back). At the entrance, a row of shopping carts was stuck together and an older man (meaning older than me!), sweet-faced (as much as we could see each other’s faces over the masks) asked, “Want to help me untangle these?” Of course I did; so for the next few minutes we pulled carts—him at one end, me at the other—handing them to folks coming in the store. We’d already established camaraderie when I noticed he was wearing a tee-shirt with a skull painted like the American flag, crossed with assault rifles and the slogan: One Nation Under God. No wonder people were looking at us quizzically as they hurried toward the hand sanitizer.

A hidden smile made my eyes twinkle at him. We were not afraid. Shazam!

I say: let’s all not be afraid to live this change. Day by day let’s find the moments when we can exercise our superpowers. And a great link to KarmaTube for a song about superheroes.

My super vision–to see the light in dark times

 

 

 

 

For Times Like These

During the first week of June, I embarked on a wilderness fast to hold sacred prayer space for the world in a pandemic. There was no public camping available anywhere in the state of Washington then, so friends offered their land for my fast.

However, as the date approached, the world’s challenges literally began to explode. The night before I was to leave was the 6th day of protesting and rioting after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a white policeman. I was in huge inner turmoil about whether or not to go through with my plans.

Do you leave the safety of home and family when the world is literally burning? I wavered and vacillated. My beautiful partner said, “The world needs your prayers. This is a tangible thing you can do.”

Her words were exactly what I needed to hear. For three nights and four days I camped, fasted, and prayed. The shelter of my little tent and the surrounding wild lands gave me a much-needed break from the news.

 When I arrived at the forested land that would be my home for four days, the first thing I did was set up camp. It is “in my bones” to know exactly where to pitch the tent for flatness of ground, how to string the tarp for maximum rain protection, and where to establish my various sit spots. These are practiced rituals of nearly a half century of experience. It made me so happy to be tucked into my woodland home!

Ann’s forest camp

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I began exploring my surroundings. Where do paths lead? What creatures are sharing this spot with me? Where are some good places to establish little natural altars? What plant friends are around and what stage of their life cycle are they in? In the late spring in this bioregion, I always look to see if my namesake plant, Linnea borealis, is nearby and blooming.

Linnea borealis, the twin flower, in bloom

 

Looking at this patch, I remember my Swedish grandmother Vendla. This was one of her favorite plants in the old country. I think about her as a 16-year-old coming with her sisters to America. Such a powerful rite of passage!

 

 

 

Any rite of passage is a private endeavor. There are conversations in the journal and ceremonies on the land that belong only to the seeker. Some of these are shared with those who send and receive the quester. Some remain within the heart of the quester—little pieces of kindling awaiting the right conditions. Recorded here are a few insights from this journey.

One insight was physical. I am used to an ongoing, ever changing search for the balance between sensibility and adventure as I age. One day of my quest I walked the state park adjacent to where I was camping. I was grateful and happy for the skill and stamina to be wandering up hills, over rocky beaches, carrying a 12-pound pack with all my Ten Essentials for the better part of a day. I was thinking, “I have been lucky to have such extensive travels and exploration. It is OK with me if my activities are now more moderate.”

Forest path in the state park

Literally at that exact moment, a large shadow passed overhead in the forest. I looked up in time to see a beautiful blue and white paraglider zipping along at treetop height. “Oh my gosh!” I exclaimed. Remembering that the park is a place where paragliders gather, I picked up my walking pace hoping to see the glider land.

Paraglider about to land on the bluff of Ft. Flagler State Park

 

To my great surprise there were five paragliders and their beautiful, multi-colored sails gathered on a green lawn atop a cliff. Blue sky, blue water, snow-capped mountains behind . . . and colored sails. It was spectacular. My brief conversation with one of the men was delightful. “You know, you could ride tandem with one of our club members some time to try it out,” he said. Surprise! I may not be done with exotic activities after all!

 

A few hours later, I was sitting on the beach near some blooming wild roses. I created a small altar on the sand.

Wild roses near a beach log

My little beach altar

Staring south I could see Mt. Rainier looming above the city of Seattle. I wondered about the status of protests in these days since I had been gone. I thought about my own white privilege—just being able to do this quest was the result of having enough resources and time. The focus of my life and work has always been nature, the environment, and youth. My work and interactions have largely been with white people. And yet, my own children and grandchildren are Korean and Hispanic/Korean.

What can I do to keep waking up my consciousness? What books can I read? What conversations do I need to have and with whom do I need to have them? What are genuine pieces of work I can engage in to make a difference? Our grandson thinks about these things, so does our daughter—what conversations can we have now?

Leaving the beach and hiking through the forest up to the bluff location of my camp, Mary Oliver’s tree poem fills my heart.

 When I am Among the Trees
by Mary Oliver

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks, and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.

I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”

The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,”
they say, “and you, too, have come
into the world to do this, to go easy,
to be filled with light, and to shine.”

It was the perfect benediction for my quest. Within 24 hours of returning home, Christina and I were participating in a rainy, peaceful protest in Oak Harbor, on the north end of Whidbey Island. There were several hundred people—a good percentage of them people of color and young—actually, we did not see any other gray-haired, white people. Most of us were wearing masks. Cars driving by were honking horns. It was hopeful. It was a good first step.

Black Lives Matter protest in the rain on Whidbey Island

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maintain the Web

Please look closely. This is a close-up shot of a spiderweb after rain. The photographer, Patrick Fair, a writing brother living in British Columbia, stands in the boggy woods, the sky is slowly turning blue. He leans in and his lens captures the true nature of the world: every droplet reflects the whole. You can see this reflection in the slightly larger spheres, and it is also true in the tiniest bead strung along these slender filaments. Somewhere, you and I are on this web.

The camera has caught reality: everything is connected. Everything is whole–the light and dark of life. Somewhere, you and I are on this web.When the web holds: everyone has a place to hang on. When the web breaks: all the droplets fall, no matter how big or small, no matter how rich or powerful, or self-important, or lowly and humbled, no matter how desperate for help or demanding that ‘normalcy’ return.

This is a spiderweb that has weathered storm: this is where we are now.

To safely navigate this time of pandemic we must comprehend that our every action in the every day reflects on the whole and is the whole. We can language this a thousand different ways, but societal survival depends on people practicing this understanding. Somewhere, you and I are on this web.

We have been forcibly slowed down and asked to examine this truth. We have been given the opportunity to reconsider everything about how we were living and how we want to live. We are seeing and experiencing what has been hidden, ignored, suppressed, or tolerated in order to preserve the old order of things. Somewhere, you and I are on this web.

The Coronavirus is also a web. The virus hides in droplets propelled by a cough or sneeze. The virus lives on our hands to be deposited on a doorknob, ingested off a fingertip, inhaled in a closed room. This could be a photograph of the invisible replication of viral particles stringing through our bodies. We are irrevocably connected. Somewhere, you and I are on this web.

We are now, or soon will be, asked to re-enter common spaces and trust each other to tend the web. Not everyone is capable of this attitude. Some people behave like angry spiders. They have been lied to and agitated. Empathy and common good has turned to venomous disregard. They are armed with a false sense of autonomy. So those of us who can maintain the web are now charged to do so with increased awareness, fierceness, and compassion.

As I step out I am preparing to take care of myself and those around me. I will wear a mask as a signal of collective concern. I will wash my hands and wear gloves to protect our common environment. And I will replace the ease of facial gestures with words of encouragement, gratitude, and when necessary, do what I can to calm the social field. It’s not okay to shout at store clerks, to invade people’s healthy spaces, to politicize and criticize acts of commonsense. It’s not okay to spit judgment into one another’s faces. I step into common space to be an ally, a guardian, and supporter of everyday kindness.

Making a new world together out of this time apart is going to be hard work, good work, and long work. We will all have full employment in this endeavor. We are weavers: there is weaving to be done. Constant repair is required to withstand the winds of change. More storms will shake us.

Somewhere, you and I are on this web.

We can’t see it: we can be it.

 

Grieving

Mostly I manage to be upbeat in this time of pandemic closures but cancelling our annual June Cascadia Quest took me to a surprising place of grief. What is my work in the world now if I can’t lead people into the wilderness? Questing offers such an important path for seekers, what if the time for remote retreats in nature with community cannot happen for a long time? And, oh how I treasure our annual pilgrimage to the stunning lands of Skalitude retreat center in the eastern foothills of the Cascade Mountains! When will I be able to return to those carefully held lands with my beloved Christina and our dear friend and co-guide, Deb?

Co-Guides of the Cascadia Quest: Christina Baldwin, Ann Linnea, and Deborah Greene-Jacobi

The pandemic is a time when all of us are grieving something—not seeing friends, changed work status, lost vacation plans, people we know who’ve been sick, maybe even died—the list is harder and longer for some than others. Grief kind of piles up. I’ve had to cancel a visit from our grandchildren and a visit to my mother. Those were “expectedly” sad decisions. But the decision to cancel the quest is what opened the door to my accumulated grief about so much of what is happening in the world today.

After weeks of decision making around the quest, I felt overwhelmed by my sadness and disappointment at not being able to host it this year—did not have my usual energy for doing things. Only going outside for walks with our new puppy or puttering in the garden brought joy back. My lethargy worried me until I recognized it as grief.

The 2020 questers were already deep in their preparations—declaring intentions, journal writing, taking Medicine Walks—when the COVID-19 virus began to systematically shut things down around the world. As co-guides, Christina Baldwin, Deborah Greene-Jacobi and I spoke with each of the questers, monitored news, and consulted with other members of the Wilderness Guides Council. Five participants were coming across the Canadian border, which is closed at least through May 20. Our Washington state governor, Jay Inslee, has barred all non-essential travel until after June 1. Our colleague guides who were offering wilderness retreats in May and early June have all cancelled their quests.

The valley of the Skalitude lands

Cancelling this year’s Cascadia quest was clearly necessary for everyone’s safety. That is the “professional” level of the decision. But the “heart” level of the decision raised a desire to help them from a distance to continue their inner journeys. In response, we have sent our participants three documents: Sit Spot, Medicine Walk, and Quest/ions writing exercise. Each describes an important spiritual life tool that we want to offer more widely during this time of worldwide retreat from ordinary life.

Medicine Walk 2020

The Sit Spot Practice

Quest:ions

A long history of wilderness questing

Designing nature rites of passage has always been important to me. Long before I trained in multi-cultural quest guiding, my “bones” knew that something important happens when a person spends extended time alone in nature while being held by community.

When I was 14, my family started renting a cabin at a remote ranch in Colorado. Each day I would disappear for many hours exploring the uncharted wilderness of the surrounding White River National Forest. These were my first Medicine walks. Adventures at the Ranch were both solo and communal. Some members of our Brown family spent 2 weeks every summer for 49 years there. Thank you, Mom and Dad, for giving four generations this extraordinary opportunity!

Astrid and Frank Brown, 2012, 49th year of taking their extended family to the Ranch

The guest ranch where 4 generations of the Brown family gathered for 49 summers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A third and fourth generation member of the Brown clan playing in the icy waters of Canyon Creek

When my son, Brian, turned twelve, I wanted to mark his shift into manhood. The culture around me did not seem to offer anything. So, a friend and I organized a day long hike for our two sons along the shore of Lake Superior followed by a big welcoming campfire. All eight of the boy’s grandparents came from out of town to participate in their grandsons’ growth. The boys hiked 12 miles alone that day. They got lost and wandered late  into the campground with their waiting dinner and ceremony and loving families. Both Brian and Ben referred to that day often as they grew into fine men.

12-year-old Brian by the shore of Lake Superior

When I turned 43, I personally felt called to mark midlife, to give gratitude, and to ask the big question, “How else might my life be of service at this time?” In Deep Water Passage—a Spiritual Journey at Midlife I detail the 1800-mile, 65-day kayaking trip around the shore of Lake Superior with my dear friend, Paul in 1992. That trip marked the earliest beginnings of PeerSpirit and launched me into serving as a wilderness guide able to lead rites of passage work for others.

Cover of Deep Water Passage—a Spiritual Journey at Midlife

It is an incredible privilege and responsibility to serve as a guide for people on a wilderness quest. For a number of years, I served in that role in other organizations. In 2009 PeerSpirit offered its first Cascadia Quest. Every year since then, until 2020, men and women have gathered with us on the beautiful lands of Skalitude. We have booked ten days for 2021 in hopes this work can continue.

Ann leading a group of Skalitude questers on their valley introduction hike

Holding hope for a return to traditional questing

I do not diminish what CAN happen online. I am participating in that venue. However, I am firmly holding the point on the wheel that many things really need to be done “face to face” with each other, and with nature. As many things move online, may our next steps out of quarantine lead us eventually safely back to one another and to Nature.

A Writing Life

When I was a young freelance writer in my late twenties, I read voraciously to find my place in the lineage of wordsmiths: books based on correspondence and journals, the complex relationships of the ex-pat writers of Paris1920-30s: Shakespeare and Company, Gertrude and Alice’s Friday afternoon salons; the Algonquin Round Table in New York city, the heady conversations of Oxford and London, and the socialist activists of Minneapolis and St. Paul. As I reached back to the earlier years of the 20th century, I found history and literature, poetry, liberated women, people breaking ground and taboos: biographies of writers, biographies of whole eras and places that held the seeds of the second half of the 20th century. I connected myself and my writing aspirations to a sense of belonging that has steadied me for fifty years.

When I began teaching journal writing, I dove deeper into this lineage of personal papers, both published diaries and trips into the Minnesota Historical Society to discover their treasure trove of the “not famous” early voices of the pioneer and Victorian era. I poured over files of spidery handwriting and vowed to keep records of my own correspondence. If these “ordinary people” were of value to the historical society, maybe the letters between my friends and I would be valued someday too.

International Women’s Writing Guild, keynote February 1977

When I wrote and published my first book at age thirty-one, my young agent and I twirled down the streets of New York, each of us intoxicated with our step into literary history. We did make history with that book: The Library of Congress had to designate a new category for it because the modern era of journal writing was so new.

“Someday, someone will want to know about this,” she said, “You are a pioneer, keep track of things.” So I did. For years I saved the first draft, the edited pages, the final draft of that book and the next several books assuming some future scholar would want to see how how a book grows from idea to finished product. I saved correspondence, made copies of my letters, filed things by relationship, by years, kept articles I wrote, and those written about my work, copies of speeches given, curricula developed: a body of work. A life in words.

The computer radically changed all this: drafts never really exist anymore the way they used to on a typewriter with scrawled notations in red ink. Correspondence too has changed into texts and emails. Something about that form changed how I write. Gone are the long, thoughtful and heartfelt missives I used to send and receive. Everything is jumbled into an inbox going back to May 2016—maybe when I got this current computer? I often find my email’s constant requests for response exhausting, though I work to bring heart to it, as though it was written by hand. I don’t print much of it, don’t actually have a real desk-drawer filing system for correspondence anymore. And who cares about emails (unless they are Hillary’s).

So in the midst of pandemic isolation I went into the storage room of our little backyard office and began clearing out boxes of files, making piles to be shredded. Correspondence from the era when I thought that mattered; records of the early years of my career—much of it I had forgotten, how hard I worked to hold that place of belonging to lineage that even by the 1980’s was historical.

I threw out the evidence.

I threw out the letters from my best friend in college.

I threw out the letters from a complex mid-twenties love affair.

I threw out the letters between myself and other struggling young writers wishing we had lives as glamorous as those we were copying from an earlier era.

I threw out correspondence organized by year, by book fans, by publishing companies.

I threw out copies of early freelance articles written for regional and national magazines.

And after a while the grief of what I was doing came and sat alongside me. Grief and I smiled sadly at each other—that young brunette who gave her first conference keynote, who sold book after book hoping to break through the mid-list. Grief that time moves only forward and that this kind of record keeping does not matter anymore. There’s not a place for this paper in the digital mania. We don’t live in that kind of world and I don’t foresee that kind of a future.

Oh there’s plenty of paper left from my life: I have been keeping a journal for sixty years and I have every volume of that rambling narrative, handwritten in way over a hundred notebooks tucked in boxes at the back of the closet and spilling out of the lower shelf of my bookcase. I have scrapbooks going back to high school, and my partner and I still spend hours every year in the week between Christmas and New Year’s compiling a record of the year past and our accumulating history of love and relationship. I have digital correspondence files in my computer going back to 2001, but they are nothing like the sheaves I set into the shredding boxes.

I am 74 years old. I have no children: I have no “daughter of the book,” who might be interested in my life/our life/this period of history, or what happened to writing and reading during this time. I am trying to make sorting simpler, for whoever survives me. I am not yet ready to throw out everything, even though I say to my students that the purpose of our private writing is for the clarity and healing it provides by doing it.

And it’s not about me, this companionable grief, it’s about what the world has become. In the world of now we drastically need now to face other issues so that some people can survive and source the phoenix world that will rise from the collapse of this one.

So I offer this paper trail to the shredder. I offer it to recycling. I offer it to re-emergence as new blank pages for unwritten stories, letters, journals, books that will become part of what we leave in the earth for the future to find.

 

Please Don’t Forget!

It is April 22, 1970. I am a junior at Iowa State University.  Spring has come to the small town of Ames, Iowa. The enormous old maples and oaks fringing central campus are leafing out. Tulips are blooming. The iconic lilac bushes are beginning to show promise of their white and purple fragrant blossoms. Students are sprawled on the grass sitting in small clusters on the immense lawnscape of central campus. Everyone is waiting for the daily 11:50 a.m. concert from the university carolinear who will play a 20-minute concert from the campanile tower with its 50 bells.

Iowa State University campanile, courtesy ISU website

However, it is more than an ordinary day for students with spring fever. It has nationally been designated Earth Day. Speeches will be given in many places on campus, including on the steps of Bessey Hall, the old botany building. There will be a rally at the football stadium with music and more speeches. Over 20 million Americans will participate in parades, dances, and speeches on this first ever Earth Day inspired by Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. I am already an idealistic young biologist. This event will secure my dedication to a lifetime of service to the earth.

Earth Flag, photo by Ann Linnea

What to do? As I always do, I pause and look to nature for guidance and teaching. Outside our homes and apartments in the northern hemisphere, fruit trees are sporting their glorious, sweet blossoms. Grass is greening again after the long winter. The southern hemisphere is moving into welcomed cooler temperatures and moisture—I think especially of our friends in Australia who are so grateful for the end of a brutal fire season. At a superficial view, nature seems to be thriving during this time of human slowdown.

A maple tree about to bloom, photo by Ann Linnea

Aren’t we grateful for the continuation of life on this precious planet? Don’t we feel that gratitude more deeply than ever this year? Isn’t that reason enough to celebrate? Of course! This year has been proclaimed the year that Earth Day goes digital. And, as I mention later in this essay, it is more important than ever to also go outdoors!

Online Earth Day celebrations

So, how can we celebrate and still honor social distancing mandates? There will be a lot happening online. One official site for Earth Day 2020 celebration is http://earthday.org/. Their website banner states, “We have two crises: one is the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. The other is a slowly building disaster for our climate. On April 22, Earth Day goes digital.”

Sierra Club devoted their March/April issue to celebrating the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. “On April 22, 1970 nearly one in 10 Americans flooded the streets and the woods and the seashores to call for an end to the merciless pollution of the country’s air, water, and landscapes.” They have many suggestions for Earth Day 2020 online: https://www.sierraclub.org/articles/2020/04/celebrating-earth-day?utm_source=insider&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter

The April issue of National Geographic is devoted to Earth Day 2020 and contains impressive background information and a look ahead 50 years—from both an optimistic and a pessimistic perspective.

And many local communities, including our own, previously had a month of celebrations planned—all of which have gone digital.

2020 Earth and Ocean Month logo for Whidbey Island, courtesy of their website

 

 

Actual outdoor observances

 Because of social distancing mandates, people have had to let go of traditional ideas for celebrating many spring festivals. Passover, Easter, and Ramadan, all occurring in April, usually celebrate by gathering family and community. They are mostly being celebrated online. Earth Day is no different, but If you can safely and legally get outside, do so. If you are inside,  tend plants in your house, handle vegetables with reverence, plant seeds, feed birds, listen to your pets with calmed attention.

So, what else can be done at this time of staying indoors and doing respectful social distancing? I think almost anyone can participate in a Sit Spot. A Sit Spot is a practice of outdoor meditation or noticing. No devices, just physical senses: you with Nature. I have a Sit Spot in our local state park that is waiting for me once the shelter in place restrictions are lifted and the parks open to the public again. My closest Sit Spot is on the front porch. You can sit on a balcony overlooking quieted streets, on a front porch, or the steps into your house. Find a place within a few minutes walk out your front door into your yard or garden. A senior in a wheelchair can participate.

Sit spot is both location and intention. Sit by yourself for ten minutes. Bring a notebook and a pen, maybe colored pencils. Be completely quiet and do not move except to write down anything you see, hear, smell or sense.

Ann on her front porch sit spot with notebook, photo by Christina Baldwin

My suggestion is to do this every day during Earth Week: April 20-24. It is best to go to the same spot every day so you can really practice your skills of observation and see what different things you notice each day—especially at different times of the day. At the end of your 10 minutes create something from your observations: a drawing, a short story, a collage, a poem. Then participate in the community aspect of this incredible celebration—send it off to children, grandchildren, friends, or even a local website.

Instead of participating in an outdoors youth celebration this Earth Week, as would be my custom, I am working with local elementary teachers to design some Earth Day celebration ideas for their online curriculum—which includes a Sit Spot exercise.

It is rural here and our local Land Trust has allowed its trails to remain open. People are very good about stepping aside and letting one another pass. If you have access to parks or beaches, enjoy, respect social distancing, and treat your outing as a privilege. So many of your fellow planetary citizens to not have this opportunity right now. Gratitude is a very important part of an Earth Day celebration.

The planet is getting a rest right now from many of the activities of its 7.8 billion humans. Perhaps, this is the greatest Earth Day gift we can bestow.

Fifty years ago, on Earth Day when I was that junior at Iowa State University, the speeches, the parades, and rallies were the most inspirational thing I had ever experienced in my young life. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin called this celebration forward as a way to bring environmental issues to the forefront of political action. The results were astounding. In the 1970s the U.S. implemented major legislation such as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. The Environmental Protection Agency was founded.

Now more than ever earth wellness needs to come to the forefront of our thinking and action. My request for each of us in this time of pandemic is to remember and participate in the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22, 2020. And even more than that—may we support political action that enables us to have the optimistic view of 2070 portrayed in this month’s National Geographic magazine.

Cover of April 2020 National Geographic, photo by Ann Linnea

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Minister of Joy for Times Like These

These are serious, challenging times. We live near Seattle, one of the epicenters of COVID-19 lock down in the U.S. Even on our island we are watching church services, meetings, and performances cancelled. Every day the news sends a new level of concern. People are on edge, yet we all still need connection and laughter. We are discovering that our puppy, Vivi, is a little minister of joy.

Vivi the corgi puppy

The other day I walked into ACE Hardware to pick up a few things. We always stop to see our friend who works there. Vivi wiggled all over and licked her face when picked up. Our friend said into her headset to other ACE employees: “Serious cute puppy alert in the paint department. “

About a half dozen employees came over for their fill of licks and kisses. The whole scene took only a few minutes. When the employees had returned to their posts, a customer who had been watching said, “You have no idea how much I needed this.”

One of our jobs as the owners of this outgoing, four-month old corgi is to protect and replenish her extraordinary spirit. Spending time outdoors together works for all three of us.

Puppies and toddlers naturally love the earth. Well, yes and no. I remember the first time I took our newly arrived, 15-month-old adopted son, Brian, outdoors on grass. He was barefooted and did NOT like the prickly sensation of the grass on either his feet or his hands. Clearly, he had not spent time outdoors on the ground before. Fortunately, he very quickly discovered the freedom of a large yard and took off. It reminded me that it is a big world out there and having positive experiences requires care and skill building.

There have been a number of instances this last month that remind me how quickly fear can come in and change things when you are 13 pounds and 9 inches tall. My job at 120 pounds and 5 feet 7 inches tall is to help our puppy understand what to fear and what is just another new thing.

Lesson #1—Sometimes the woods seem big and scary. We have walked Vivi in our local state park with its paths through old growth trees since she was 10 weeks old. When we first went, she could not even pull herself up and over some of the big tree roots. She needed “butt assists”. Now, twice the size of that smaller puppy-self, she has no problem getting up or down, under, over, or through the natural hurdles on the forest path. She has been building skills and coordination through practice. She has gained increasing strength and confidence.

The woods are a big place for puppies and toddlers.

The other day, though, she had a moment of fear. We had stopped along the trail for a little snack break on our 3-mile walk. (She loves knowing that food is also a part of hiking.)

Snacks on hikes is a seriously good idea

 I was putting away our snacks. All of a sudden there was a strong blast of wind and a dark cloud covered the sun. She put her little paws on my leg and whined. She was fearful and needed to be carried a short distance. Sometimes when you get scared, you need reassurance that you will be taken care of.

I remember the first time we took our four-year-old, city dwelling grandson walking in the woods at night. He had a headlamp and as we entered the woods he directed his headlamp scan to the top of the trees. “Is there anything in here bigger than we are?” he asked.

We assured him that neither the trees, nor deer, nor wind in the branches high above would hurt us. But like Vivi needing the reassurance of a temporary lift, little Jaden needed the assurance of words from his grandmothers.

Lesson #2—Trust your owner/parent to know when another dog is safe. This is a big responsibility for any dog owner or parent of a young child.

Little Vivi just loves meeting people and dogs on the trail. When we meet people, I always ask, “Do you enjoy dogs?” If they shake their head “no”, I kneel down and hang onto her harness and let them pass. However, if they have a dog, I instantly pick up our little 13 pounder and ask, “Is your dog friendly with puppies?”

Vivi has never had a negative experience with another dog and I am determined to keep it that way. The other day hiking in the woods we met a man and a woman and a 3-year-old mutt three times Vivi’s size and off leash. I could hardly hang onto my squirmer so eager was she to meet this dog. I asked, “Is your dog friendly to other dogs?” The man replied, “Yes”.

I asked, “Should we let them meet?” The woman looked squarely at me and said, “I don’t think so.” I thanked her and they walked on. This is an ongoing challenge for owners of any dog, but most especially small dogs. When in doubt, don’t have them meet! And as a toddler parent, always pick them up when a dog approaches and work from there with careful dialogue.

 Lesson #3—A mile is a whole lot more than 5,280 feet and it is filled with the best possible replenishment for humans and dogs alike. In Teaching Kids to Love the Earth (1991, University of Minnesota Press) my three writer friends and I focused on helping parents realize how much can be seen, heard, felt, and discovered together with their children. For those of us with puppies and children, a good summary of that book would be—stop often and let them explore. Let them help us slowdown and rediscover all there is to experience in a mile of walking. And then all of us can re-enter the social fabric of life with new joy.

Peace is a quiet moment outside