Celebrations!

This June I turned 70. It was a momentous turning of the calendar for me and I approached it with a lot of intentionality.

First, I took some solo time in nature to get clear.My longtime friend and co-guide Anne Stine and I attended the Wilderness Guides Council gathering on Salt Spring Island, BC in May. Anne and I stayed afterwards for our own solo time. In my solo time I followed the traditional model of our wilderness quest work: 3 days and nights of solo camping and fasting. Anne welcomed me back with food and story witnessing. My first day of solo was about gratitude, my second day focused on deep internal work, and my final day focused on purpose.

Ann’s solo quest camp

 

The solo time provided a clarifying “house cleaning” for me. I made commitments to: step forth with gratitude and joy; to keep tracking those sneaky shadow pieces; to stay on the trail of loving the earth and focusing on youth and environmentalism.

Next part of my month-long celebration was the privilege of co-guiding our annual Cascadia Quest in eastern Washington. Questers came from Australia, Canada, Germany and the U.S. The age range was 26-75. Each individual’s journey was unique, courageous, and inspirational. Personally, it was an affirmation of the earlier “purpose” day on my own solo time. For most of my adult life I have been a wilderness guide leading adults and youth into nature. Health willing, I hope to continue it for years to come.

Wind flags in the valley of our quest. photo by Holger Scholz

Ann and Christina with longtime friend and quester, Galen Treuer. Photo by Deborah Greene-Jacobi

 

 In January I had sent out an invitation to friends and family to join us for 2 nights and 3 days of camping at a state park on Whidbey Island in mid-June. When the final sorting of schedules and priorities happened there were 11 hearty campers and another half dozen local friends alternating in and out each day. It was my idea of a perfect celebration—living outdoors, good friends, great food (potluck style), hiking, campfire, singing, and storytelling. The flow of days was easy, the weather mostly sunny and not too cold, and the stories fun and poignant. I asked for presence, not presents, and I believe we all walked away uplifted.

Earth flag signaling our campsite at the state park.

Breakfast at the birthday campout

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Warming up for the evening campfire singing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The finale of my birthday month was the arrival of my three sisters from North Carolina, Minnesota, and Arizona. Their schedules didn’t coordinate with the birthday campout so they created their own celebration. We four had never gathered without spouses (Christina was made an honorary sister) or children or parents before. And we had a marvelous time—lots of laughter, good food, hiking, and some deep diving conversations around the ongoing care of our dear mother and our commitment to one another. 

Ann and her sisters. left to right, Kathy, Susie, Ann and Margaret. Photo by Christina Baldwin

One evening we hurried to the beach to capture this site. Photo by Margaret Brown

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marionberry pie, our grandmother’s teacups, handmade Slovenian lace from friends Marjeta and Natalija. Photo by Christina

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I feel fully seventy now. Grateful beyond words for health, love, and purpose. Profound gratitude to each person near and far whose words or presence helped propel me into the next decade. The common threads of each of my “celebrations” are the companionship of community, the inspiration of nature, and the willingness to have honest conversations. These are the threads (see William Stafford’s poem below) that have guided my entire life and will stead me well in the years of service ahead.

Ann and Gracie amidst blooming Linnea flowers. Photo by Susie Lynch

 The Way It Is

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among

things that change. But it doesn’t change.

People wonder about what you are pursuing.

You have to explain about the thread.

But it is hard for others to see.

While you hold it you can’t get lost.

Tragedies happen; people get hurt

or die; and you suffer and get old.

Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.

You don’t ever let go of the thread.

By William Stafford, from The Way It Is, 1998

 

 

Goodbye to an Old Friend

 

I am smiling in this photo, an automatic response when facing a camera, but I’m actually  sad.

Out the door on an April morning.

In my arms I am holding several volumes of the 15th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, leather bound, gold trim, embossed spine. I bought this set in 1980, using royalty money from the publication of my first book, as proof to myself that I was a real writer who would need this fines set of reference books to support my career.

 

 

My then partner and I had recently remodeled the attic in our two-story home, insulating and opening up space for me to have a truly elegant writing studio. It was large enough to do yoga or dance, had a desk positioned to face a window with a view of trees, and shelves for books, journals, and this gorgeous row of Encyclopedia. When sitting at my desk writing and in need of a reference, I would twirl around in my antique leather and oak desk chair and reach for whatever volume contained the answer to my quest and question.

The pages were thin, strong, felt good in my hands, and the first time a volume was opened, there was the smell of the leather releasing and the gold-leaf made a sound I can still hear in the inner chambers of my ears, though I can’t begin to put it into words: gold separating into thinner strands. I licked my finger tip, and partially dried it on the side of my thumb— a practiced hint of moisture to turn the pages searching for the reference in mind.

Sometimes my finger stopped or my gaze rested on interesting bits of information, biographies of the long dead, extraneous tidbits of knowledge that amused my attention. But eventually I found what I was looking for, took notes with a fountain pen on a paper tablet, and with a sigh of satisfaction turned back to my desk, to whatever evolution of computer sat humming there awaiting the next paragraph.

This is how “looking something up” worked before Internet, before Google, before the world changed with the unrelenting rapidity of endless and instant gratification of curiosity currently swirling around us.

Weighing over 40 pounds, I carted the 30 volumes (plus annual appendices) in boxes through six moves. In each new apartment or house, I set them out again—still a writer. Twenty years later, ensconced on Whidbey, with five books under my belt (yes, I know that’s a cliché) and even though the Internet was starting to take over the world, I loved my ritual of twirl, reach, thumb through, find, wander a bit in the vicinity of my destination, and return the book to the shelf and myself to my desktop word processor.

Then in 2007, working on Storycatcher, that ritual fell apart. I needed some information about Zimbabwe, and had to look up “Rhodesia, a colony of the British Empire.” I think this was the moment I tried Googling for the first time. Wow—who typed in all that information? How does it all get linked together? What’s an algorithm anyway.  (All things I’m still wondering.)

I looked sadly at my treasured Britannica. The volumes are beautiful and a huge amount of classical knowledge resides on the pages: certainly they deserved archiving.

In my first writer’s nook, I had made bookcases out of boards and cement blocks… why not make bookcases out of boards and encyclopedias? So, I bought several planks and stacked the books on their sides. Ahhh, preservation, respect, and practicality.

I wrote on, happily accompanied by the knowledge that knowledge was in the room with me as well as on-line. I missed the twirl of the chair, the reach and feel of paper and gold leaf, but at least I still had the Random House Dictionary of the English Language to comfort me in old routines.

Until last week.

We are in a season of simplifying. We’ve sent books to the library for resale, carted unused household items and clothes to the thrift store. We traded out furniture, welcoming a shipment from Ann’s mother’s apartment, selling and giving away what we had. And then we painted the room. The walls that had sheltered the bookshelves now looked so beautiful in their emptiness. What to do with a nearly 40-year old edition of encyclopedias?

I put an ad in the “for sale, wanted, and free” section of our local swap-list: Free to Good Home. A woman called immediately. She’s an upcycle artist, works in mixed media, would love the books. Two days later she came with banker’s boxes and a van. Her first comment was, “Oh my, these are beautiful… I’m a former librarian, I don’t know that I’ll be able to change them…” I watched her getting the feel of her new treasure, running her hands over the embossed leather, stroking the gold edging, fingering the delicate paper.

I smiled with an armload and she took my photo. They will be in good hands. And I will cozy up and write, held in the arms of my mother-in-law’s favorite chair, making new paragraphs in the place where the bookshelf was.

 

No Child Left Inside

It may be the era of cellphones, video games, and indoor activities, but youth have always thrived being outdoors actively engaged with one another in exploring nature and making up nature-based games of daring and imagination. This year, I am devoting a lot of my time, energy, and passion to supporting that truth.

At a most personal, joyful level we just finished a week of Granny Nature Camp with our two dear Los Angeles grandchildren. And at a larger community level I am one of the adult volunteers in our local middle school program, which received a No Child Left Inside grant from the Washington State Parks and Recreation department for the 2018-2019 school year.

Our grandchildren

What do we do in our Granny Nature Camp? Education. Fun. Adventure. Storytelling. Listening. Our first project this year was having our 8 and 14-year-old grandchildren plant pea, kale, and spinach seeds in the garden. Young people need to understand where their food comes from. The miracle of spring is that they put those seeds in the ground when they arrived and were able to see them coming up before they headed back home.

Ann, Sasha, and Jaden planting the garden, photo by Christina Baldwin

Sasha’s emerging peas after 8 days

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eight-year-old Sasha learned how to ride a bike during her visit with us last summer (when she was 7). She doesn’t get much of a chance to practice riding where she lives, so we rented bikes and watched her natural athletic abilities take over. Both kids love our little dog who, of course, needs walking outside every day.

Sally, Sasha, Ann, and Jaden at Spencer Spit State Park on Lopez Island, photo by Christina Baldwin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We have some spectacular scenery where we live—cliffs, mountains, the sea. My experience is that kids are not overly impressed with scenery, but they do love immersion in that scenery. Our kids are physical in their appreciation: the challenge of climbing on rocks, throwing rocks, watching animals, and learning about some of the plants their grannies know.

Jaden watching seals on an offshore rock

 

Sasha the rock climber

Sasha and Jaden, the rock sitters

Sasha selling skipping rocks for a hug

Our morning animal card drawing

We began each day by drawing animal cards and talking about our plans for the day. Talking and listening are important skills our dear grandchildren have. I will always treasure those spontaneous conversations that spring forth by being in the stimulation of a green growing world with them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Local Middle School grant

March 16thour Middle School hosted the “We the Ecosystem—Creating Community” workshop. Seattle’s Young Women Empowered (Y-WE) Nature Connections Program came to join us for a day of immersion in nature and community. The Y-WE program serves diverse young women aged 13-24.

Since we were gathering so close to the spring equinox, March 21, I designed some outdoor games to celebrate and honor the changing of seasons. In the northern hemisphere the spring equinox marks a point where night and day again come into balance—each 12 hours long. The switch from winter to spring, erratic as it often is, is a time worthy of huge celebration.

First the beautiful, multi-colored parachute and the earth ball called us into team work. After working together to flip the earth ball, we sat down on the parachute and used the earth ball as a talking piece. “What signs of spring do you see around you?” At first, not everyone had an observation, but the second time around everyone had a comment—ranging from our Whidbey Island 4Hers whose baby chicks have just hatched to one of the young city girls who noticed that warmer weather “encourages my people to go out on the porch and talk.”

 

Working with the parachute and earth ball as a celebration of the Spring Equinox

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In pausing to notice the signs of spring around us we created a little ceremony—a deliberate noticing, an awakening, something to align our energies with the season. Since several of the girls had spoken about chicken or duck eggs hatching, we transitioned to the next spring celebration: an egg toss. Big learning—eggs are remarkably resilient when they bounce on soft grass and it is not such a good idea to catch an egg in close to your body. Laughter and fun aligned our energies with the rising energies of the soil beneath our feet.

Teams working to safely toss raw eggs as part of a spring celebration

 Another team worked to transform an ignored garden bed behind the school. Overgrown with grasses and weeds, the twenty-foot long bed appeared an impossible task for a short activity period. Dozens of girls with shovels and good instruction went to work. An hour later the bed was ready for the next shift of girls to plant cold weather seeds like radish, spinach and peas. Spring in the northern hemisphere signals the beginning of our “agricultural year”. It important for all of us to understand and appreciate where our food comes from and how it grows.

 

Under the direction of the schools gardening director, Cary Peterson, girls tackle the difficult task of turning over an overgrown garden bed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One hour later and the 20-foot garden bed was ready to plant peas and radishes.

For me the most basic fact of planetary survival is to raise young people who love, care for, and understand the earth they live on. They don’t have to go on exotic trips or live in what might be defined as a beautiful natural place. They simply need help going outside and learning about the part of the planet right under their feet. No Child Left Inside is a tall order, but it is something we who have our own child-in-nature memories can make happen with grandchildren, school children and neighborhood children.

Sunset over Fisherman’s Bay on Lopez Island

 

The Courage of our Elders

In six weeks, my mother moved three times, received physical therapy four times/day, and returned to using a walker just two weeks after fracturing her pelvis. This is heroic stuff for anyone. Mom is 92 years old.

It is heroic because in your tenth decade, it is not just one thing not working like you expect. There is arthritis, misbehaving bowels, wavering balance, misfiring memory or mental synapses, and a general slowness to movement, to name a few. When a “new” event, often a fall, triggers a “big” malady, the accumulated stress on the body is often completely overwhelming and debilitating.

Mom was overwhelmed and discouraged after her fall, but her usual kind nature drew health care workers to her. Her resolve to do her best during rigorous physical therapy sessions surprised everyone. Mom has not been an exerciser, but she wanted to get back on her walker. She did occasionally joke about hiding from her young, eager, skilled physical therapists. But they always found her!

Mom working with a physical therapist at Christmas

She still needs a watchful eye when walking or self-transferring, so she has been placed in a new section of her health care facility. And once again she is working to make friends, to participate in activities, and to be kind to her healthcare workers.

As a life-long piano player, she has brought new life into the wing of her facility. She wheels her wheelchair over to her piano in the family gathering area, carefully gets up on the piano bench and begins playing dozens of songs she has committed to memory. People begin wheeling themselves out of their rooms to hear her play.

Mom playing her piano

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am incredibly proud of my mother and I realize her story is being played out every single day in homes and facilities around the world. Who do you know that is determinedly putting one foot in front of the other— overcoming sometimes great physical, emotional, and financial odds. A neighbor? A relative? A friend of a relative?

Find a way to spend time with them. Their time is not long on this earth. Their conversation might be slow, but their ability to get us to slow down and really listen is a gift. Their insights can be fresh and thought provoking if we let them.

When Christina’s mother was in her mid-90s, she often recited this poem:

“You see me dreaming alone in my chair,

You think that I’m ‘here’ but I’m really out ‘there.’

I’m talking with angels and I’ll join them soon,

Just after I learn how to fly over the moon.”

Mom and I talk about the veil between the worlds, about God’s plan for her, about conversing with Dad who passed away 5 years ago. I am not afraid of these conversations and listen carefully for openings that might encourage her to articulate some of her current inner journey. But I certainly notice how much happier she is now in her new setting thinking about playing the piano or participating in the next activity for residents. It clearly is a lot more fun to be engaged “here” and I am happy she still has that life force.

Mom visiting with her hometown pastor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Really, you think I am courageous?” she asked when I wondered if she would be OK with me writing a blog about her.

“Without a doubt, Mom! May you cherish the time you have left on this earth and may you continue to be of fine service to the people around you.”

I am lucky. Mom can still converse, play the piano, read books, write in her journal and play cards. I intend to see her as often as possible in whatever months or years she has left.

Ann and her mother, photo by Ann’s sister Kathy Harrington

Lights out!

On December 20, 2018, I was home alone with the dog (Ann was in Minnesota) when Whidbey Island was engulfed in a storm of sustained winds 50+ MPH. Trees fell, but not on our house, power went out for 3-5 days depending on the neighborhood. So while waiting for electricity to resume, I had a chance to renew my survival and emergency skills.

Driftwood plowed off the road, Keystone Spit Rd.

Wherever we live, the modern conveniences of our lives are at risk! We watch the news of floods, hurricanes and tornadoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, fires, winds with a kind of morbid fascination—unless these events are disrupting/wrecking/ending our own comfortable lives. We need different kinds of emergency preparedness and social/spiritual resilience for each of these scenarios. My responses during and after the storm are an invitation for you to identify your vulnerabilities and design your own plan.

Get water: When winds came up and lights blinked, I ran a 3-gallon bucket for flushing and set it in the shower near the toilet. I filled a soup pot with 1-gallon of drinking water and all other water bottles in the house. In our earthquake supplies we have additional reserve supplies of water. (We also have 250 gallons in a hot tub that could be shared and/or converted for multiple uses by camp filters.)

Preserve food: We always keep 2 blocks of ice in our box freezer to turn it into an ice chest if needed. Once the power was out, I arranged frozen food and ice and covered the freezer with a feather duvet and wool blankets. (I took out and ate ½ pint of ice cream as precautionary measure!) Fifty-six hours later when power returned, everything in the freezer was still frozen except some bags of blackberries. I also got a camping ice chest in the kitchen with another block of ice to store refrigerator things like milk, mayo, and fresh veggies to use daily.

Stay warm: I chopped a lot of kindling and filled the wood bin by front door. Our wood stove kept the temperature in the living room at 62 Fahrenheit (16 Celsius). I lived comfortably in sweaters, put two duvets on the bed, drank lots of hot tea, soup, ate well because I could match light the propane stove top. Several neighbors were toasty by their propane stoves or fireplaces—very helpful to have alternative heat source! And it helped enormously that outside temperatures were in the mid forty-degree Fahrenheit range.

Prepare for darkness: We have little solar camping lights that I made sure were in the windows charging up. I also used candles, both flame and battery operated. I wore a headlamp as a necklace and beamed my way around the house in the evenings. This time of the year we have 16 hours of darkness.

Check neighbors: Some of ours had generators they hauled out on the second day. Some had no back-up heat and were shivering in place. I talked to the new folks about not flushing (water won’t flow uphill to your septic field, and the pump between the tanks is not working) and answered any other questions gleaned from our 25 years living here through power outages. Just talking with neighbors helped them not feel so isolated and encouraged some to pull out extra blankets and clothing. Others left for relatives’s and friend’s homes or mainland motels.

Communicate: Create a little texting group and keep track of one another to encourage resilience and safety, share information, and support a sense of community in place.

Wait out the storm: the only thing more dangerous than living under 150-foot-tall conifers is driving under them! On the 10-mile main road that feeds into our 25-household community, there were 20 trees down over the road and 3 or 4 of them on hot wires (until the wires broke). The wind blew hard for 9 hours, and then abated at dark—very dark, very quiet. Starry night and Solstice full moon.

Once the practicalities were in place, I could practice living with this event at multiple levels, so here are two more suggestions.

Look for surprises and stories: The headquarters and WiFire coffee shop of the local telecom company (Yes—Whidbey still has a locally owned/operated phone and WIFI company) ran its mega-generator and served as a community hub for recharging devices, being on-line, getting warm, and getting espresso and baked goods. The camaraderie was magic: island folks showing up to share stories of how they made it through the night, where the worst of the tree damage appeared to be, what roads had been cleared, what stores were open. Everyone had access to free WIFI and electricity. A conference room had 40+ people in it. The line-up for coffee was 30 minutes with plenty of hugs and hellos. Collective hosting emerged, honor systems engaged.

A community communicating–thank you Whidbey Telecom.

One woman told me, “I found a laptop in the parking lot last night. Someone leaving in the dark, I’m sure, disoriented by all this, set it down to find keys, drove off…I turned it in to the desk here and hope the person wasn’t too panicked and got back here to pick it up.”

A man said, “You think taking car keys away from your aging parents is hard—this is the storm we finally had to take mom’s chainsaw away! She’s always prided herself at being able to saw her way out of her driveway, but she really doesn’t have the strength to safely heft that thing around anymore.”

Participate in the sacred: Two friends host an annual Solstice Ceremony that has come to serve as a spiritual marker in the year. I called at 4:00 PM as the winds died down and the host said he’d driven several routes and laid out the safe byways to their home: the party would go on in candle-light. I put on a sweater that highlighted the jeweled tones of my headlamp and headed off into the dusk, glad to be driving while I could still see the wires and leaning trees along my way. About 45 people showed up and stepped into the glowing feast of food and fellowship.

We held a Solstice ceremony with everyone clustered in the living room. We became collective prayer. We prayed for the world. We prayed for three among us currently fighting brain cancer. We became a peer spirited voice of quiet insights offered to the candlelight center. We anchored one another in a ritual of nonsectarian spirituality that shimmers in me still.

Morning prayer light, dawn in the dining room.

Saturday night the lights flicked on, the furnace kicked in, the clocks blinked awake, and with a sigh of relief I resumed modern living—the lessons in that are the next blog.

End of Part One

 

 

Winter Storm in the Forest

When big storms blow in off the Pacific Ocean and hit our island sitting at the inland mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, huge damage can occur.

 

Storm debris was literally blown out of Puget Sound, onto some roads, and had to be plowed to be cleared.

Two grand firs were blown over and through the roof of this local, iconic structure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recently we had a storm with over 60 mph winds that left many parts of the island without power for up to 5 days. Thousands of islanders were discovering how essential electricity is to comfort, and how prepared or unprepared their household was to live without it. We were able to keep the house warm with our wood stove and live by candle light with our carefully saved containers of clean water. (See Christina’s blog: Lights out.) When electricity returned, I was eager to see what had happened at my favorite local forest.

None of the towering old growth Douglas fir or cedar trees were down. They were deep in the forest surrounded by their younger offspring and their roots “held” on to each other. They were lucky, but many trees were not.

A tree was literally sheered off, making visceral the power of the wind.

 

A tree snapped off right at trails edge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New openings now exist in places that previously were heavily shaded. This will bring light to the forest floor and unleash a whole new growth spurt of young trees reaching towards the light. This is the natural order of things in a forest. Nothing is static. Everything is constantly changing.

In the midst of my awe at the power of wind on these standing giants, I wondered how many birds were killed by falling trees and branches. Where did the deer and coyotes and squirrels hide to avoid certain death? I could find no evidence to help me answer those questions. It was just very obvious that walking in a forest in the wind is a seriously bad idea.

Forest trail barely visible amidst the downed debris.

In some places our little dog had a much easier time finding her way on the trail than I did! I could barely roll under this tree.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One thing I did find that amazed me was the telltale sign of a tree getting ready to “let go”. In the quiet of the forest a week after the storm I found a line of disturbed soil about two feet from the base of a sixty-foot western hemlock. As the tree top was whipping around in the wind, the root ball supporting it was also beginning to move—a very bad sign for the tree’s longevity. It made it through this storm, but what about the next high wind?

 

The disturbed soil line of the moving rootball is just at the edge of the vegetation.

Closeup of the disturbed soil line. If you see this near a tree by your house, have it removed immediately!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is what an overturned rootball looks like.

In the quiet aftermath, this walk brings forth a message I am listening to as the year turns:  Be a part of a community. You have someone to hang onto, someone to share resources, someone to register when you are in trouble. This is true whether you are a tree, a bird, a forest mammal or a wandering, wondering human.

 

Writing on

My father died.

Leo Baldwin was good at living, amazing at aging, determined to continue contributing up to his last days. He remained cheerful and present even while suffering the pain, indignities, and procedures of his final trip through the medical system. He was 98 years old and had never had an illness that he didn’t fully recover from with a little Tylenol and determination. It took him (and me, and us, and his community) a month to admit that his body wasn’t going to carry him any farther: he’d come to the end of his road.  And when he let go, he let go fully and was gone in 28 hours.

I am happy he was able to finish as himself. I am swept into waves of missing him. He was a much loved and respected central figure in our island lives. Ann and I move through a community that misses him as well. We pause and tell each other stories of his influence and friendship.

“A man and his butte,” photo by Becky Dougherty.

His local memorial service was teary and celebratory and the hall was packed with his wide range of friends. His descendants and extended family will gather in Montana next summer to bury some of his ashes in the soil that birthed him and to lift some of his ashes to the prevailing winds around those buttes and valleys.

And when my father died, my editor died.

I am writing a novel based on a fictionalized version of the town where my father grew up in west central Montana. The story takes place during the early years of WWII, when the first generation of homesteaders is ready for their sons to take over—but many of those sons are called into the war. The central story revolves around the Cooper family: an older beekeeper/Methodist minister named Leo and his relationship with his sons and their wives and the community at large.

My father, Leo, was the age of the young men in this story, and the lineage of the Baldwin family—the bees, the homespun ethics of Protestantism and citizenship, and the social justice issues that lay on this land—are a blend of family heritage and fiction. My ability to capture this time before I was born has been greatly enhanced by the spidery handwritten commentary my father added to my first drafts, and by the hours and hours of conversation at his dining table as we went through the story page by page. He found the typos, tweaked the dialogue, and dived into exploring the themes that activate the subtext of the story. He drummed into me his knowledge of bees and beekeeping.

This process was the most powerful experience of transmission I have ever received from another person. Novelist Barbara Kingsolver, in speaking of writing and rewriting said, “It is thrilling to take an ending and pull it backward like a shiny thread through the whole fabric of a manuscript.” We were pulling threads. I was writing my way forward, forging the story as the characters worded themselves into being. I was working the loom of the first draft. He was reflecting his way backward, seeing his life transformed and woven through the voices of the Coopers. It was a mystical interaction we each surrendered to in different ways.

All this past year I noticed him wearing down and wrote as fast as I could. He asked me once, “Does Leo Cooper need to die in this story? Does the father need to step aside to make room for the next generation to fully become themselves?” We talked about it as a literary device. We talked about it in terms of the emotional maturation of the story’s characters.

“I don’t want Leo to die,” I told him. “I love him…”

Blue eyes looking deep into brown eyes, he assured me “I know you have the courage to write what needs to be written.” I wept all the way home, the eleven miles between his house and mine. That was July: we had two more months before he would turn his attention to letting himself depart.

In the story, it is June 1943. The fight against fascism is not won. People don’t know the outcome; don’t know who will live or die, or what will ultimately be asked of them. They may be far from the battlefields, but their lives are fraught with the tension and chaos of a world in shift. A young war bride and her baby are making a place in the valley. Her faraway husband has just been injured in battle. The angry brother is trying to make peace in himself, his family, and the community. Under the hot Montana sun, Leo Cooper has a stroke in his bee-yards.

In my life, it is November 2018. The fight against fascism is not won. We don’t know the outcome; don’t know who will live or die, or what will ultimately be asked of us. The battlefield is everywhere. Our lives are fraught with the tension and chaos of a world in shift.

I rally my writing skills to reach back to then and to them; I reach my imagination into the brokenness and openness of the Coopers to discover the story map that can help me live honorably in our world of dire consequences in which the lives of ordinary people may shine.

Dad and I were on Chapter 42.

I am on Chapter 43.

 

Family Reunions in Natural Settings

Where to hold a family reunion? Warm weather or cold? City or country? Beach or mountains? Travel time, cost, different preferences, backdrops for family photos—there are many choices that influence where we gather. Once we are there, Nature serves as a host that lures us outdoors.

In mid-October my mother, three sisters and I held an important reunion. The last time just the five of us—the Brown women— were together was 30 years ago for a mother/daughters canoe trip into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

1988 Brown Women BWCA canoe trip: Ann on top, left to right: Margaret, Mom, Susie, Kathy

A big clan, we have had many family reunions since then with partners, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. We have gathered for weddings, holidays, and funerals. But with just the five of us who live in four different time zones, it had been three decades.

Five Brown Women: Susan Lynch, Kathy Harrington, Astrid Brown, Ann Linnea, Margaret Brown photo courtesy of Kathy Harrington

We have aged, and we have an age spread of 32 years so a canoe trip was not an option this time. But nature is important to all of us and we all come from Minnesota so we chose to gather at a cottage on the shore of Lake Superior—a crown jewel of our home state.

Lake Superior, photo by Susan Lynch

 

Larsmount Cottage, Lake Superior, photo by Susan Lynch

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lake Superior is somewhat infamous for its weather. In fact, the week before our October gathering there was a gale-force storm with 65 mph winds. A snow squall covered the ground in white our first morning in Minneapolis. However, driving north we were lucky and had sunny skies and moderate winds even though our accommodations would have kept us comfortable regardless of wind or temperature. The inspiration of looking out our cottage’s window at the largest lake on the planet kept us in a place of wonder and encouraged our outdoor adventure.

Chairs at our beach front, photo by Susan Lynch

 

Our Mom overlooking the Gooseberry River, photo by Ann Linnea

The five of us at Split Rock Lighthouse, photo courtesy of Ann Linnea

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mom was celebrating her 92ndbirthday and our youngest sister, Margaret, was celebrating her 60thbirthday so there was a lot of fun and frivolity.

Dining room table adorned with birthday celebration things, photo by Ann Linnea

 

 

Sparkler play, Ann Linnea, Susan Lynch, Margaret Brown, photo by Kathy Harrington

As is always the case, wandering in nature or sitting by a campfire brings forth stories and memories and an opportunity to share more deeply.  We all have complex lives. It was incredible to come together for 4 days and reweave the bonds between us.

Our beach campfire, photo by Margaret Brown

Roasting marshmallows at the fire: Ann, Kathy, Susie, photo by Margaret Brown

Sisters Margaret and Ann at the fire, photo by Kathy Harrington

 

One morning we called a circle at our cottage’s dining room table and shared our respective health concerns. We spoke thoughtfully about the journeys of our children and grandchildren. We established a prayer list to better hold one another’s lives. As our elder, Mom spoke about her aging process and what she needs from us. I know we will work well together in the years ahead to support her.

As children, Mom and Dad annually took us on a family vacation to Colorado where we saw grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins and got to spend a week in the mountains hiking and fishing. The imprint of gathering for fun and togetherness in nature runs deep in all of us. It is part of the pattern that bonds us. I see how strongly Nature still holds us and I know that each of us has passed this love and respect on to our own children.

Late fall shot of Lake Superior birch trees at Split Rock lighthouse, photo by Ann Linnea

 

A grove of birch trees is one living organism, connected through a powerful underground system of roots and rootlets. Like the birch trees in this late fall scene along the shore of Lake Superior, we five have a deeply connected root system. We stand apparently separate but continue to nourish one another in ways that are both visible and invisible. And that is a lot to be grateful for!

 

 

 

How Apology Works

I’m on the beach with my corgi dog. She’s playing in the sand near my feet when she lets out a sudden sharp squeal—“ouch,” in dog talk. She looks at my foot in big boots, and with what I consider an accusing gaze, backs up and sits on her haunches staring at me.

“What?!” I say, “I didn’t move an inch. I’m sure I didn’t step on you.” Without breaking her steadfast gaze, she raises one paw—“hurt” in dog body-language. Whether or not I think I did it, I am 140 pound human looking at a 30 pound dog who trusts me with her life. I know what she wants. I kneel in the sand, hold her face in my hand and sweet-talk her while smoothing sand off her snout. “I’m sorry, Gracie. I didn’t mean to step on you. I’ll be more careful. Are you okay?”

In response, I get a lick on the nose and she resumes playing.

That’s how apology works.

I do not mean to diminish the complexity of human suffering, nor to equate this exchange with the need for accountability and reparations around issues of abuse and violation, but in the absolute purity of this interaction—hurt, apology, forgiveness, healing—in the moment, without festering—I saw stark contrast to the consequences when we follow instead the path of hurt, denial, outrage, trauma.

Apology requires that we have the emotional maturity to say, “I’m sorry,” even when we are not 100% sure we are “100% to blame.” Training in this maturity begins in kindergarten as children are coached through ambiguous social interactions. By the time one child is crying, the sequence of events may no longer be clear. Bless kindergarten teachers who must sort through this justice: she hitted me with her shoe/he took my toy and wouldn’t give it back/he started it/she started it. And then the teacher says: I don’t know who started it, but you need to say you’re sorry.

Right now in America, justice is not child’s play. We are seeing the ugliest parts of ourselves and our histories brought to light; and we are seeing light shine through this anguish as truth-telling keeps geysering to the surface. During the escalated Senate proceedings of in September, Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s outraged lack of accountability and the defensive tirades of Republican senators, was not my hoped for outcome—for his personal soul or his capacity to balance the scales of justice. While the horrors of this time careen on and the media is stressed by the next outrage and the next, I find myself still riveted by this moment and how it impacts all that is happening next and next and next.

At 72, I could be I could have been Brett Kavanaugh’s kindergarten teacher, his auntie, or his law professor. And now that he is Justice Kavanaugh, I want to say to him: inside the complexity is the simplicity. Whether or not you believe you are the boy who covered Christine Blasey’s mouth and forced yourself atop her, you, and you alone, were in the position to heal or harm.

In my mind, the maturity that would lead me to believe that this Supreme Court could actually practice justice, would have required—at least—some statement like this from Brett Kavanaugh: “I am white male who lives inside gender, racial, and class privilege that I seek to comprehend. I was a teen who drank too much. I do not remember the night Dr. Christine Blasey Ford is referencing and therefore I can neither deny nor admit to what she says occurred. However, I acknowledge that the environment of our adolescence and the cultural norms we were swimming in were toxic. Boys objectified girls in ways that horrify me now as a man, a lawyer, a judge, a husband, and father of two girls. I vow to spend the rest of my judicial life working to rectify imbalances in the conditions women face. I am supremely sorry for what happened to you, Dr. Ford. I apologize for my role in that school, in those times, and in your trauma.”

But no.

Again and again we race past opportunities that could help us heal and choose instead to cause more harm. To compound tragedy, it seems quite clear that Justice Kavanaugh has no idea he missed his chance to cross the divide of privilege and pain in this country; that he could have called Senators to their integrity, rallied bipartisan support for his entry onto the Supreme Court, and most importantly, stood as a surrogate in the shattered places in a million women’s hearts by saying, “I’m sorry.” And we, the battered citizens of America, would have been shown a model for opening dialogue toward relationships of amends. He might even have shown the president how to behave.

But no.

He accepted the presidential “apology” and declaration of his innocence, and he has taken his seat on the high court justified—and isn’t that an interesting word—that the ends justifies the means. We the people shall see.

It was the Saturday after these hearings, when the judge was sworn to become a justice, that I was down on the beach. My little dog raised her paw—ouch—and I surrendered to her perception that I was at fault because repairing trust is the most important thing I can do.

That’s how apology works. And if we have any hope of restoring civility to our torn and violent nation, we need to perceive our shared accountability in the wounds that surface.

“I’m sorry.”

 

Celebrating the Seasons

Fall with its cooler temperatures and spectacular leaf colors has arrived in the northern hemisphere. Spring with sprouting plants and warming temperatures has arrived in the southern hemisphere.

Noticing these changes and taking the time to celebrate them is as natural to human rhythms as the various daily rituals we each have for rising with the light or retiring with the darkness.

Why not celebrate the change of seasons? At our home we mark seasonal changes with a bonfire, drumming, and using our garden lavender as prayer sticks.

Ann harvesting lavender for seasonal celebrations  Photo by Sarah MacDougall

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s not a complex celebration—something we design spontaneously that various neighbors have joined us for over the years.

Ann and Sarah drumming at opening of Fall Equinox celebration, photo by Christina Baldwin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The point is noticing the seasonal change and marking it by stopping to be outdoors in some self-designed ceremony. We are lucky enough to have a fire pit in our yard, but a person might just as easily walk to a city park collect a few colored leaves and take them home and arrange them on the dining room table.

Notice. Pause. Appreciate. Share your appreciation with a celebration of your own design.  You and the natural world come more closely into alignment. It is a form of activism.

Placing dried lavender sticks into the fire with each prayer, photo by Ann Linnea