Resilience

Recently we had the privilege of hosting our dear grandchildren for a week. Because of COVID and the fact that they live far away, we had not seen them for 18 months. The very first thing we did after getting our second COVID shots was to call our daughter and see if we could bring them here for spring break. Ah, the benefits of vaccination!

Sasha, Jaden, Christina, Ann and Vivi

Sasha, Jaden, Christina, Ann and Vivi, photo by Nicole Luce

There are so many memories from our recent week together: The joy of watching them play with the young dog they had never met as a puppy. . . their familiarity with rhythms from years past like planting peas . . . the fun of board games on rainy days . . .growing skill at helping in the kitchen . . . and their deepening ability to articulate themselves during morning check-ins.

Photos in collage below

In many ways it was not so different from previous years. Well, Jaden is now old enough to be driving us around! And Sasha is now old enough to sleep in her own bedroom. But the thing that struck me the most about being with them this time is their resilience.

Since COVID cancelled our annual spring break visit in 2020, they have had a year of school entirely on ZOOM. The vast majority of their time has been spent in a two-bedroom apartment or running errands with their dear parents. They have had very limited access to friends. And once our daughter found a new job which took her away from home, the two of them had to learn to take care of each other at a whole other level.

I am so impressed with both of them! What I see is how this past year has matured them—made them stronger and better versions of the selves they have always been. This, of course, is certainly a tribute to the fine job their parents are doing and the closeness of their family unit. But it also speaks to how adversity can grow our souls.

A lot is being written about “the lost year” of COVID for young people. I know there have been huge losses and challenges. But what I see in our grandchildren is strength and resilience. I am defining resilience as an ability to recover and grow from adversity. This is a skill that will stead them well.

None of us knows what the future holds for our beloved children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, family friends, and neighbor kids. We wish we could have a crystal ball that told us what is coming so we could help prepare them to create the world they want. But we don’t. We must simply love, encourage, and support them to the best of our abilities and resources. And then we must step back and trust their incredible youthful spirits.

I trust Sasha and Jaden’s spirits even more after this recent visit. May I have the privilege of being with them for many years to come.

Morning wakeup and conversations

With Jaden as my ally I am SAFE!

Neighborhood work party with Sarah

Jaden at the wheel

Playing at the beach

Wrestling on the floor with Vivi

Ann and Sasha baking

Writing our note in the bottle

Inserting note into the bottle and sealing with beeswax

Football player Jaden getting ready to throw the bottle into the outgoing tide on a very chilly morning

Many games of UNO

Sasha planting peas

 

Give the world a week of wonder

“The breezes at dawn have secrets to tell you
Don’t go back to sleep!

Rumi

Every year, April 22 is designated as Earth Day… As though every day isn’t earth day? What do we think our lives depend on the other 364 days of the year? Of course every day is earth day, but like many other humans, I can get distracted and take all this life support for granted.

  I am fortunate enough to live in a place where Nature is very much my neighbor; where tending yard and garden very much part of my daily life and the dog gets me out morning-noon-evening in every weather offered up. I write with a desk that faces a view of mountains and sea that after a quarter century still thrills me morning by morning. It is easy in this environment for me to stay attached to Earth. But I have not always lived here.

I was born in west central Montana, a landscape of boxy buttes, rolling prairie and cultivated wheat fields. I remember asking my grandfather on one summer visit, “Why didn’t you keep going until there were more trees?”

We lived in New Jersey and Illinois (remembered only through a few remaining black and white photos) and then when I was five, moved to Indianapolis, living first downtown with grass in cracked sidewalks. When I was six, my parents bought a tiny house on the edge of the city (then) inside a flood plain, across the street from a sycamore tree I loved to climb, and a bike ride from a creek full of crawdads and polliwogs we carted home in mason jars.

When I was nine, we moved to the edge of Minneapolis, a half-acre yard with 23 oak trees—too many leaves for even four Baldwin children to rake!

After college, I lived in San Francisco in a communal Victorian tucked under the elevated freeway, with no outdoors tolerable at all. And over the decades, I’ve traveled and lived many places—a list fascinating to me, but probably not to anyone else. And every place I go: there is nature.

Nature is present: it is to me to look for it, notice it, nurture it, and humble myself before this huge gift of which I am one miniscule breathing participant. So here comes Earth Day, and the question of how to honor the gorgeous complexity that is life surrounding.

For the week of April 18-24, I am going to start each day sitting on the front porch of our house—at the edge of whatever weather the spring wants to offer up—watching the mornings rise and writing in my journal. I may ramble off on stories that reside behind the above sentences; I may ruminate on the scene before me; I may enter a territory of meditative surprise. I invite you to join me.

This April, some  people are emerging from pandemic isolation and some are going back into isolation in response to viral surges. Whether opening or closing the doors and windows of our lives, we are living at the beginning of the “Next Now.” We should not go back to sleep. There are so many variables and unknowns in our situations, but our one shared constant is that we are all living embedded in Nature. And we need to find ways of more respectful living forward.

I know some things that I can do to make my lifestyle more sustainable… but I am not the authority: I dedicate this week to listening, to reflective inquiry, to translating the breezes of dawn into messages that help me live more honorably connected to the planet.

The page is blank and waiting.

My cup of tea is brewing.

The new day dawns.

Spring is Coming!

I have lived in the northern part of the northern hemisphere my entire life, including 15 cherished years in Duluth, MN where snow can arrive as early as October and leave as late as May. So, I know the length and breadth of winter—and, I do not think I have ever been so eager for spring as I am this year. After a year of Covid winter, I am ready for some thawing, some blooming, and for sure, more joy!

It has been a very long year for everyone. There has been much suffering, ambiguity, frustration, adjustment, upheaval, and insecurity. Yikes! We have had no visitors inside our home. Our tiny, socially distanced gatherings occur under the patio heater on our porch on days with little wind or rain. We still walk hiking trails here with masks on. All of my family connections, friendly outreach and community meetings have turned to ZOOM. We last saw our daughter, her partner, and the grandchildren in October 2019. And I know these stresses are small in the scheme of things. We who are the middle class retired have been inconvenienced, but not bearing the brunt of disruption. We have stood by to assist others as best we can. We have a home, heat, enough to eat, relative health, love. AND— I am ready for some opening up!

Tea on the porch under the patio heater with neighbors

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How can I tell? Well, my moods are as variable as spring weather. Valentine’s weekend we had snow at our house, a rare sea level occurrence. I got to ski down our street and make a snowman! It was great fun.

Ann skiing down the gravel road in front of her house

Ann making a snowman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then in perfect Seattle snowstorm fashion, it all promptly melted in three days and the inexorable, erratic march of spring returned. Immediately, I was out in the garden turning over the winter cover crop. I walked over to our neighboring farm to get my garden seeds. The next day the sun came out and I got so excited I nearly planted grass seed in the thin spots in our front patio yard until I read the package which instructed me, “Seed when the air temperature is 60 degrees F.(15.5 degrees C.)” More waiting!

3 days later turning over the winter cover crop in the garden

Neighboring Deep Harvest farm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I laughed out loud at myself. Geez, it IS only February, and the temperature has not even gotten up to 50 degrees F yet (10 degrees C.)! So, I restrained my optimistic impulses and strolled around the yard appreciating all of the blooming plants that came through the snowstorm in great beauty: Hellebores, heather, and Pieris. I do feel lucky to live here.

Blooming Hellebore in our February backyard

Blooming heather in our February front yard

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A couple of days later I was walking with our puppy on our favorite trail in the state park. “Oh, my gosh!” I exclaimed aloud to little Vivi. “It is the first salmonberry flower in our park! Spring IS coming!” My steps on the muddy trails became ever lighter.

Salmonberry bud about to burst. Once they do, the incorrigible rufous hummingbirds arrive from their long migration to begin their incredible summer lives in the NW.

 

 

And yesterday we got our second COVID vaccination. It does feel like slowly, slowly the door of possibilities is beginning to open. My daughter and I immediately made plans for the grandkids to come up for spring break. I was so happy that I cried. Yes, we still have to be very careful—need to get COVID tests, need to fly with cautious protocols, need to keep masking up in public. But spring is coming. Warmth. Possibility. Hope.

Decades ago, I worked as a newspaper reporter in northern Utah. I was the cub reporter. One of the more seasoned reporters I looked up to very much, Jim Godbold, said he heard I was from Minnesota. He then proceeded to tell me the story of his year working at the Minneapolis Star and Tribune. “Coldest, most miserable year of my life,” he said. “But when spring came I was more creative than I have ever been. There was such a release of my energy as things began to thaw. I couldn’t believe it. Haven’t experienced it since, but I never forgot that feeling.”

That is exactly how I am feeling at this moment. Spring IS coming. (Honestly, to my Minnesota and Canadian friends, it WILL come.) The Earth’s signals do not lie. They may taunt us, but they do not go away. Lighter weight jackets can come out of the closet. Mittens and scarves will soon go into storage. Masks will still be with us for a long time. But somehow the necessary changes we face no longer feel as daunting.

In 1732 the English poet, Alexander Pope wrote, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” That’s me. I wish he was around this spring, I’d give him a high-five and a hug. Masked, of course.

 

 

 

 

Stop the steal of our story

Remember four-year-olds and how fantastic their story-making capacities are? “Where were you?” asks the mama. “I said you could be in the backyard, but when I called you didn’t come.”

“I almost comed, but then a bear came out of the woods and said, ‘get on my back and I’ll give you a ride to your mama.’ So I got on him’s back, and then he didn’t ride me to you. The bear said, ‘I has a ice cream machine in my cave and we can have chocolate-vanilla swirls and then I’ll take you to your mama.’” A look of huge satisfaction crosses the face of the child.

“Honey, you are making that up.”

“No it really happened mama, smell my breaths.”

So, indulging him, mama smells his breath—chocolate.

So what is reality?

That is the question being asked these days in a much more serious realm. In America, the storylines required to hold people to a shared concept of reality have been shattered. Deliberately. When a people can no longer agree on basic perceptions of who we are and what is occurring around us, we become vulnerable to manipulation at just the time we most need shared perceptions. A huge part of the problem is that technology has advanced its capacities to manipulate what we see and hear way beyond our capacities to discern truth, lies, or reality in a split second electronic flash.

Bernie and the “bros” on a construction site.

Chocolate or vanilla?

In this environment, it’s amusing to watch the meme of Senator Bernie Sanders, crouched in his jacket and mittens in the chilly wind of the Inauguration, get superimposed on a thousand scenes, because we know it is false. We offer it as entertainment not reality, and we did it “ourselves”—clever photoshopping, the collective imagination at play.

 

Bernie lands on the moon

 

A bear with mittens?

 

However, it is not amusing to watch our collective imagination get played! When parts of the multi-media industry abdicate responsibility for maintaining defined “reality,” the resulting confusion fissures people into wildly divergent storylines. The outfall of anguish and anger is tearing up the lives of ordinary families, former friends and coworkers, religious congregations, and the aisles of Congress. This is a perilous moment in which our drive for meaning makes us vulnerable to technologies and influences that have outpaced our capacities for discernment. In this story stew, the loss of a cohesive national narrative is profoundly dangerous—as January 6, and whatever comes next, makes clear.

Beyond geography and economy, a nation state is a complex narrative of identity about who we are and how our country behaves within a world of nations. Stories shape national identity and form the foundation of our actions, from the level of policy to personal behavior toward one another.

A national story requires consistent revision as the nation and its people mature. Revision in national narrative means that citizens are educated toward increased understanding of complexity and encouraged to include diverse, previously excluded experiences in how we name ourselves. We are called to revise our societal story to address issues of “white privilege,” “black lives matter,” and “land acknowledgement.”

Revision always generates blowback from folks and influences who don’t want the story to change: but blowback does not mean rampant lying is allowed. Except, it has been allowed. America’s story in the hands of Fox News, QAnon, a former president, and dark-web media have weaponized humanity’s most creative tool by provoking story’s capacity to disintegrate reality as well as weave a cohesive agreement of the world around us.

Family photos and family stories

Story is a neurological necessity. Story is the linguistic vehicle the mind uses to translate information and integrate experience into meaning-making. We are wired to make meaning; we are wired for story. Words are how we think, but story is how we link. And once we have linked ourselves to a story-line and given credence to ideas embedded in that story, it is hard to pull back and open our minds again. Possible, but difficult. We become entrenched. We filter reality through the story lens we are devoted to in attempts to make more and more meaning.

There really was a bear. This fuzz is not moss it’s fur! He was a green bear. He promised me ice cream.

Words lead to actions. A cohesive society is based on a collective social agreement that no matter how much we struggle and disagree, some boundaries will not be crossed: we will not lead, nor allow ourselves to be led, astray of commonsense reality. That social contract is currently broken. In the zero-gravity environment of ‘down-the-rabbit-hole’ clicking and algorithm determined suggested links, people have come to believe that evidence is just a chosen story-line and that they are under no obligation to give it credence unless they want to. So, for example, the flat earth theory is just as credible as round earth science; both should be taught in school and children allowed to decide what they want to believe.

The green bear is real because I say he is.

In the political realm, the danger of Donald Trump is that he was granted four years of tweeting whatever served his will of the moment. He broke the contract of adherence to commonsense reality and legitimized falsehoods at a grand scale, culminating in over 30,000 “false or misleading claims.” The danger in the Republican party is that they acquiesced to the erosion of reality and some have joined the storyline to retain power and future votes. The danger in the Democratic party is that the call for unity needs to recognize what cannot be unified and to reckon with the scale of this disaster. The danger for us is that we allowed the power of story to be stolen from our mouths and minds and we need it back.

The view from Zoom

Story is oral tradition. Story is the voice of the people. In this long winter, we must speak out from our porches and Zoom rooms to re-personalize and repopulate the story-field and call each other home. By voice, email, tweet, and social media we can take charge of what storylines we perpetuate. We can raise up what is good, true, meaningful and call out what is evil, false, denigrating.

One responsibility of citizenship is to hold the story-field accountable. If we want this country back, we need to get the story back. Though the pandemic necessarily separates us, it does not necessarily divide us. We the people can hold the outer rim of cohesiveness that allows us to encompass difference, to work for justice, and to reweave our belonging to one another. It’s time for the “mama” voice to re-establish basic reality.

The bear is brown. The world is round. 

If story can transport people into such dark corners of belief: then story can retrieve people from these places. Not all people, but enough of us to carry on with the business the world calls us to at this crucial time.

May this be the story that guides us, the story that inspires us, and the story that tells ages yet to come that we answered the call of history. We met the moment. Democracy and hope, truth and justice did not die on our watch but thrived, that America secured liberty at home and stood once again is a beacon to the world. President Joseph R. Biden, January 20, 2021

 

2020—A Good Year for Fungi

Originally I was going to post this blog on January 6. But on that day the President of the United States, whose job is to protect our government, incited rioters and looters to attack the U.S. Capitol. My father, a lifelong Republican who risked his life for democracy by fighting in World War II, would be furious. My mother, who lived her life as a model citizen of democracy, would be appalled and profoundly saddened. I carry both their emotions.

 I wrote this blog to insert knowledge and hopefulness about good things that happened in the challenging year of 2020. It still does that and maybe more than ever this moment needs the story of two women scientists—one a friend and mentor, another living a short distance away—who have changed how we view the natural world, specifically the potential for fungi to be of help during this profound time in history.

When I was an undergraduate Botany major at Iowa State University (1967-71), my major professor was Dr. Lois H. Tiffany—a mycologist, an Iowa farmer’s wife, a mother, and a woman science professor in an era when women scientists were rare. She was known as “Iowa’s Mushroom Lady” because she taught and led field trips all over the state. She was a remarkable role model and teacher to me. Lately I have been thinking about her because even in a year overwhelmed by politics and pandemic, fungi, or more specifically their mycelium, have been making the news. If she were still alive, I think “Dr. T” would be gratified to see her long-held beliefs and research about soil, and mycelium in particular, validated as crucial to the health of plants.

Dr. Lois H. Tiffany, courtesy of Iowa State University special collections

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fungi are a “hot topic” right now

In the complex year of 2020, the emergence of ground-breaking understanding about the role of fungi in sustaining planetary life may contribute to our lives as much as vaccines and restorative political leadership. (The terms mushrooms and fungi are often used interchangeably, but technically mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of certain species of fungi.)

Early in 2020 the documentary, Fantastic Fungi https://fantasticfungi.com/  opened in independent movie theaters. (It was the last movie we saw in a real theater before COVID-19.) An LA Times review summarized the documentary this way, “Mushrooms are the new superheroes… a documentary of epic proportions.” The cinematography was superb—imagine subterranean, invisible to the naked eye, networks coming to life as we see them in action doing their work of sustaining plants and decomposing things that humans cannot figure out how to get rid of.

In December,  the New York Times magazine published an article entitled, “The Social Life of Forests” by Ferris Jabr: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/12/02/magazine/tree-communication-mycorrhiza.html?referringSource=articleShare . The article enables us to see the very real progress being made on understanding the underground world of the soil and fungi. And it opens our minds to thinking about defining “communication” in new ways—i.e. something other than human words.

At the end of the year, I finished reading Entangled Life: How Fungi Make our Worlds, Change our Minds & Shape our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake (2020 Random House/New York). This brilliant book by a young scientist with its 50 pages of notes and its 44 pages of bibliography details everything from the revolutionary work around lichens(extremophiles) to the mind-altering capabilities of mushrooms to the industrial potential for these organisms to decompose everything from plastics to nuclear waste. This young scientist has synthesized profound amounts of information to further help us understand the potential of this life form.

Cover of Merlin Sheldrake’s new book on fungi, photo by Ann Linnea

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conviction/persistence by a young woman scientist

All three of these 2020 works feature the research of Dr. Suzanne Simard, Professor of Forest Ecology at the University of British Columbia. She grew up in the old growth forests of British Columbia across the border from where I live. When she decided to pursue a career in forestry in the 1990s to study what she loved, she entered a discipline that thought of trees as commodities that would produce faster profit if grown in monocultures so the desirable species had no competition. This did not make sense to a woman who knew the aliveness of an old growth forest with its variety of trees, plants, and animals.

Dr. Suzanne Simard, courtesy of Wikipedia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Despite dismissal by many colleagues, she persisted in her conviction that there is a scientific way to “prove” the interrelatedness of trees in a forest. Her 1997 PhD thesis was the first study showing that carbon passed between plants in a natural setting (not in a greenhouse). Using radioisotopes and tracking the movement of activated molecules between trees, she showed that trees are not separate entities, they are connected via mycelium. Or as Jabr writes in his article, “Trees appear to communicate and cooperate through subterranean networks of fungi.”

The tiny fungi strands (mycelium) surround tree roots forming a partnership called mycorrhiza that enables the trees to get water and nutrients from the soil while fungi utilize the sugars the tree makes through photosynthesis. The forest and all habitats are a study of cooperation and linkage.

Dr. Simard will be coming out with a new book on May 4, 2021, Finding the Mother Tree, Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest. The advertising for this book claims, “From the world’s leading forest ecologist who forever changed how people view trees and their connections to one another and to other living things in the forest.” I can hardly wait to read this new book!

Changing our perceptions

Dr. Tiffany published over 100 scientific papers and looked extensively at the relationship of fungi to Iowa’s prairie soils. Dr. Simard brings a similar impeccability of scientific research on the subject of forest soils and trees. Fungi are crucial to the web of life in all habitats. It is good to see them getting some “popular press”.

Every week, my little dog and I walk our local state park with its old growth and mid-growth forest. It is winter in the Pacific Northwest. The rains have made visible a lot of mushrooms. I am keenly aware that I am seeing only the most miniscule manifestation of the mycelium beneath my feet and scattered everywhere in the rotting and downed logs. So much has been learned about fungi in my lifetime! A bow to scientists who continue to pursue the true curiosity of real scientific inquiry to open our understanding of the world around.

A jelly fungus with the common name Witch’s Butter, photo by Ann Linnea at nearby state park

 

The Healing Power of Ceremony

October and November are important months for our small family. We honor the passage dates of each of our four parents and our son, Brian. All five of their lives were well-lived. Our four parents lived to honorably old ages. Brian died at 33 as the result of a line of duty accident as a paramedic captain. We take time to mark each of these passages in some way.

Part of our kitchen counter this fall was dedicated to remembering our ancestors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is Brian’s passage that we annually honor by taking an entire day to immerse ourselves in nature. Our choice of where to go and what to do is often spontaneous. This year our choice was prescient. We decided to spend our day walking the sandy beach created by the sediment being washed down from the Olympic Mountain National Park’s Elwha River into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Mouth of the Elwha River, WA before (left) and after (right) dam removal. The sediments are rich in nutrients. Photo from Olympic National Park website

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Outside of the Puget Sound region, the Elwha River is hardly known, but it is famous for being the site of the world’s largest dam removal project. For a hundred years two dams stopped the Elwha from flowing freely from the finger glacier on the east side of the Olympic National Park into the sea. The dams were used for electricity production. These dams, of course, prevented salmon from migrating from the sea back up to the pristine headwaters in the national park. However, by the early 21st century the amount of electricity produced was minimal and stakeholders from the Lower Elwha Tribe to politicians to environmentalists and businessmen began long and involved conversations about removing the two dams.

The removal of the dams took two years of careful engineering and deconstruction. Photo from Olympic National Park website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In 2012 the project was launched and by 2014 the dams were removed. Some thought it would take years to see if the original salmon stock would migrate upriver. It began happening within two months! The river is being extensively studied by scientists. They are using research methods from snorkel surveys to radio telemetry to sonar imagery to seining to discover which salmon runs are being restored, how fertile the sediments are at the river mouth, and how other species are being affected. Much data remains to be collected, but already the results are stunning for many species, not just salmon.

Fisheries biologists sample the Elwha for salmon. Photo from Olympic National Park website

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And so, we took our grief at losing Brian to the great river and its new and ever-changing delta. We walked. We talked. We stopped to self-design a ceremony of remembrance by creating a circle of  beach treasures and scattering some of his ashes around the edge. The stories flowed easily and freely. Brian was such a presence. The stories of both his heroics and his deep devotion to family just pour forth when his name is mentioned.

Brian in his beloved jeep. Photo by Cousin Molly Hilgenberg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In ways we could not anticipate or even totally articulate, we felt restored and renewed by our meandering walk and spontaneous ceremony. The ecosystem around us was being slowly restored and renewed, as are we. The Elwha and its great salmon runs is resilient, as are we. Brian would have it no other way.

Ann gazing at the Straits of Juan de Fuca attended by her little corgi. Photo by Christina Baldwin

 

Ceremonial circle of beach items and some of Brian’s ashes

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