How We Behave Matters

Bullying is aggressive behavior with intent to hurt, threaten, frighten a person, group, or even a country. Playing out on the world stage right now are lessons in what happens when bullying escalates to warfare and war mongering. We are seeing the consequences of avoidant and disengaged foreign policies; countries that have colluded and deluded each other that they (we) could go on about our national interests and not deal with Russia… or North Korea… or any other autocrat bent on terrorizing the international scene.

Bullying succeeds until stopped. And if not stopped until it is very big and dangerous and armed to the teeth you get what’s happening right now with Putin using his power to invade Ukraine and bully it into submission. You get what’s happening in the United States, with the entitlement of white supremacy attempting to put voting rights, abortion rights, LGBTQ+ rights, BIPOC rights, and public education back into a very prescribed reality. Bullying does not voluntarily go away.

When I was in fourth grade, I had to pass my arithmetic papers to Bobby Cox, the boy in the next desk, for “grading.” I guess the teacher thought this system removed the temptation to “correct” our answers as we went through the problems. But the problem for me was that Bobby liked to change my answers to be wrong. He would turn a 3 into an 8 or a 1 into a 4, and then he’d make fun of me, calling out that I was stupid, and writing a big red F on the page. I earnestly showed the teacher how the numbers had been rewritten and she believed me enough to give me a B, but she didn’t discipline Bobby. She passed this volatile boy into fifth grade where he took to drawing buttocks on the top of my papers and coloring globs of brown poop down my homework so I had to recopy assignments.

My mother counseled compassion. “Maybe nobody loves him,” she said. “Maybe his father is mean to him. A child mimics the behavior he sees. He wants you to be mad at him, so be nice instead. Here, make him a valentine. You don’t have to sign it, but there will be at least one in his shoebox.” Mom was probably right about the lacks in his home—but no one in authority intervened on Bobby’s behalf. He drew his signature buttocks and poop on the only valentine in his box and taped it to the blackboard, laughing and lonely. In junior high he picked fights in the back of the school bus, put spitballs and chewing gum in kids’ hair. In high school he was repeatedly suspended for aggressive behavior. Instead of graduating, he was in juvenile hall for stabbing another boy in a street fight. I have no idea what happened to him.

Such a child is a tragic tale. Bobby’s access to his own moral compass had been destroyed and while he sat in the middle row, he was separated from the schoolroom society around him, unable to adhere to common codes of behavior. In the 1986 classic, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, Robert Fulghum asserted that most human beings have (by age five) an understanding of what constitutes moral/civil behavior and he suggested adults remember these basics. His list had such universal appeal the book sold 17-million copies and was translated in twenty-seven languages. It included: Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. Wash your hands before you eat. Flush. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.  Take a nap . Watch for traffic. Hold hands and stick together. Be aware of wonder.

It is heartbreaking and havoc-creating when the umbilical cord to our moral/civil code is severed. As such children grow, bullying often becomes their primary way of relating in the world. Unconfronted bullying escalates in thoughts, words, deeds. And right now, bullying is a global pandemic. Here in the US, fringe political groups carry assault rifles into school board meetings, people have weaponized the flag, the pledge of allegiance, social media, and civic spaces. Where is the Commons, the town square, where we might meet and remember the things we learned in kindergarten?

I believe it is up to us to become the “Commons,” to speak and behave with decency and to intercept the rise in bullying in whatever ways we find ourselves capable. In our years teaching circle practice, people often asked for help to confront bullying.

Here is what we learned:

  1. Self-care is primary. We cannot succumb to victimization. (Think of all those Ukrainians rising up to meet their bully!) We can talk with friends, get reality checks, run through scenarios, process our emotions so that we remain calm in the work of the moment. If we are the target, acknowledge how draining this is. Rest in whatever ways are most nourishing.
  2. Set clear parameters. We can define what behavior/language is most important to us to intercept and why. Knowing our own motivation helps keep us out of ego conflict and supports neutral language. Who or what are we defending? We can be compassionate and fierce; confront behavior while honoring the humanity of a person.
  3. Refuse to meet escalation with escalation. We can walk away, hang up, delete social media attacks. As appropriate, we can confront behavior in witness with others. If someone else is being bullied, or confronting bullying, we can be an ally, an active bystander, a recorder of the moment. (Think of the teenager who videoed George Floyd’s murder and changed the world.)
  4. Define meaningful outcome and hold to it. Bullies may or may not transform into citizens, colleagues, or friends, but their behavior can be corralled, and their influence diminished when we insist that rules of decency, civility, and truthfulness prevail. Entrenched behavior takes strategy, effort, and time to untrench. People need to be creative, supportive, active, persistent and collaborative.

Bullying is misuse of power, and in the world of now, we best do everything we can to confront bullying while it is still manageable in our lives. The list of crises we face is longer than Fulghum’s list of how we face them. Standing up to bullying is not comfortable work, but it keeps the Commons alive. It provides social spaces where children can learn how to be good humans and we can hold hands in uncertainty. In the 21st century, this is a skill we best cultivate and support each other to practice.

Covid 19—the Never-ending Story

“When you go out and see the empty streets, the empty stadiums, the empty train platforms,

don’t say to yourself, ‘It looks like the end of the world.’ What you’re seeing is love in action.

What you’re seeing, in that negative space, is how much we do care for each other…

Let it fill you and sustain you. It isn’t the end of the world.

It is the most remarkable act of global solidarity we may ever witness.”

from the Belfast Corona Virus network, Feb. 2020

People like events. Events occur with a beginning/middle/end. We like a good story, or a sporting contest (who won—and we know the score), or a family reunion when all our relatives leave on Tuesday and we can “put things back to rights,” as my mother used to say.

When the Covid-19 Pandemic started, it was articulated as an event, a huge global occurrence playing out on the world stage. It felt like we were all living in a disaster movie, complete with spooky music and escalated voices on the news. The virus was a sneaky monster, microscopically unreal, but lurking everywhere. We watched in astonishment as the modern world came to a sudden halt. Lots of real-life drama was generated in Act One watching healthcare systems near to collapsing under the load of need, and heartfelt relief was provided by stories and gestures of kindness and support.

But now, in its second year of ongoing disruption, the pandemic is not behaving properly. The plot is very unclear, unmanageable subplots are bobbing like container ships at the edges of ports. The story needs serious editing. It seems stuck in what my editor refers to as “the muddle of the middle.” Well, if we are even in the middle. And in the early summer of 2021, just when the vaccinated were dashing toward the exits and a promised return to normalcy, Delta variant cancelled Intermission. Anti-vaxxers cancelled civility. Misinformation cancelled confidence. We don’t know where we are or how to live our ways forward. And now, Omicron (OMG) brings on another winter of uncertainty. The muddle indeed!

Attending our nephews’ wedding–August 2021–the masked aunties. We tested before and after–no one got sick. Whew.

Oh, a new reality is dawning. The pandemic is not an event: the pandemic is a shift.

A shift is a much harder experience. We don’t know how long it is, how big it is, or what consequences it enforces. We don’t know if it actually ever comes to resolution in which the protagonists have triumphed, good has won the day, the dust-up of drama has settled, and we can finish our popcorn and eye the satisfying announcement, THE END… In a shift, is the end just THE BEGINNING? And beginning of what? And what just ended? And who am I in the muddle of this? How can I make story and meaning when everything keeps changing? And what happened to the camaraderie when we were cheering for team humanity?

I want opera on the balconies again and clanging pans for nurses, and poetry about togetherness, and thoughtful pieces about how this might change our lives for the better. I want to believe that beautiful declaration of the Belfast Corona Virus Network, “It isn’t the end of the world. It is the most remarkable act of global solidarity we may ever witness.”

Yes, and it is the end of the world: the world of putting off facing our accumulating crises, of luxuriating in our fantasies that some other generation and some other time will require sacrifices but we can keep driving our cars, shopping at Costco, and sustaining economies reliant on citizen over-consumption.

Shift is admitting we are standing at the edge of forces in Nature and human nature we have never lived through before.  The pandemic is the messenger–along with social erosion and violence, floods and firestorms, tornadoes for Christmas, and governments that barely function on the standard of “of the people, by the people, for the people.” We are living inside a contagion of social variants and the longer we fling our attention from one false flag to another, the more these variants multiply and the more serious the threats become.

Shift asks us to live by our moral compass and help one another remember our best selves. In spite of the the news and dire predictions, I believe most people can access shared human values of preservation and altruism, love for children, empathy for each other’s challenges, compassion for suffering, desire for balance. All of us wake in the morning trying to orient ourselves and figure out how we’re going to get through the day in a world that won’t stop wobbling. Take a breath. Stretch. Ask for guidance: listen. Write it down. Make a bit of  story to step into the day. Tell someone how you are; listen to how they are.

There is no predictable path: we are making the path we predict.

The outcome is not decided.

We are deciding.

Together.

 

The first part of this blog is an edited version from the foreword I wrote for The Story Circle Network’s 2021 anthology series, Real Women Write. This volume is titled: Beyond Covid: Leaning into Tomorrow, edited by Susan Schoch, the book contains prose and poetry by over 50 women reflecting on their personal journeys through Covid times. It was an honor to provide the foreword, and with Susan’s permission to include some of it here and spread word of the book.

What shall I do with my old white skin?

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Rumi, BIPOC

“If you are trying to transform a brutalized society into one where people can live in dignity and hope, you begin with the empowering of the most powerless. You build from the ground up. You begin by stopping the torture and killing of the unprotected, by feeding the hungry so that they have the energy to think about what they want beyond food.

Adrienne Rich, LGBTQ+

 

Squinting into the world with newborn eyes, I didn’t ask to be born “white” any more than someone else asked to be born brown. I always thought white skin was basically boring, like bread dough. Having brown eyes in a blue-eyed family was my only distinguishing characteristic. My mother (source of those brown eyes) had almond shaped eyes, a Eurasian look descending from her father’s father’s father, a “black Swede.” Years later I wonder about Sami blood. And shall I get a DNA test to prove that I am (somewhere in the shroud of my history) not the oppressor?

And then what do I do with this white skin of mine? I have benefitted from it all my life, much of that time ignorant of the privilege whiteness conferred. In recent decades of humbling awareness, I continue to benefit without asking for that privilege or being able to return it to the historical storehouse from whence it came.

In 1950s America, we lived in white world. My grandfather lent my struggling parents money to buy a falling down house that sat on a corner lot big enough for chickens and a garden at the edge of Indianapolis. We were poor folks, growing our own food, my father driving milk truck and taxicab. But still: white. And he, a conscientious objector in the War, had gotten a master’s degree that after every veteran had been given first choice at jobs, he would finally parlay into a middle-class life for his wife and children. Because: white.

Nora School, 1952, the first wave of boomer babies enters first grade: thirty-five faces, none of them any color other than the “flesh” crayon in our little green and yellow boxes. White skin is all I see. Dick, Jane, and Sally—learning to read in a white child world. The school sits on Lenapé land, but there is no mention that whiteness is not first on the playground in the state of Indian/a. No one mentions the 1818 Treaty of St. Mary’s, or teaches me about the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Mrs. Able, hair in a tight black bun, teaches us to sing, “One little, two little, three little Indians…” That November I appear on the still-new invention of television dressed as a pilgrim with a black paper collar and white hanky costume while other classmates sport construction paper feathers—all of us white. None of us knows what myth we are perpetuating: what this story omits or reveals. Local kids posing on an afternoon clown show: white.

We move north. My mother’s family immigrated from Sweden and Norway in the late 1800’s and settled into Minnesota after the Dakota War of 1862, an armed conflict between the United States and several bands of treaty-betrayed Sioux. The battles ended with the surrender of 400 Dakota, and eventually 1600 Sioux captives, including women, children and elderly. Abraham Lincoln, far away in the nation’s capital, in the middle of signing the Emancipation Proclamation, also signed orders for execution by hanging of 38 Dakota men on the day after Christmas in 1862, the largest one-day mass execution in US history. The rest of the captured Indians were herded onto an island in the Mississippi River where disease and neglect took hundreds of them before survivors were banished into western territories. This is a complex story, with rage on both sides, and the desperation of genocidal wrong-doing.

The Great Seal of the State of Minnesota, commemorates this turning point, showing an “Indian brave” riding by a field where a settler is plowing his land with his musket and powder resting on a tree stump. I know this seal well, because in 1958, when I was twelve and Minnesota statehood was one hundred, I spent hours on my hands and knees on the gymnasium stage of Beacon Heights Elementary School carefully applying tempera paint to a five foot replica of this drawing that would hang (no pun intended) behind the all-white student body as we made pageantry out of our families’ pioneering arrivals onto the lands of the Dakota and Anishinaabe. Because: white.

My father’s family arrived in “the New World” before the American Revolution, founding a town in Connecticut in 1739 on the land of the Narragansett, Mohegans, Wampanoag, Nipmuck, Pocumtuck, Abenaki and Pequot. A man of his time, Nathaniel Baldwin was surely a white supremacist whose breath was a pestilence worse than a musket. He and his wife Abigail exhaled diseases capable of decimating whole tribes. Empowered by the Doctrine of Discovery of 1493, signed in Europe among kings and popes, they believed any land not occupied by Christians to be available for colonization. Because: white.

There was a time in my earlier adulthood when I perused my genealogy and not finding slaveholders or Cavalry relaxed into the fantasy of being among “the good white people.” There is no relaxing. Because: white.

In 1908, Nathaniel’s descendant, Leo Baldwin, a newly ordained Methodist clergy, homesteaded with his wife Mary, in western Montana on territory of the Amskapi Piikani, in Nitsitapii, the Blackfeet Confederacy. He was charged to start churches and to teach at the Fort Shaw Indian Industrial School. The conditions at the school challenged his theology and sense of justice. He helped to close it in 1910, because he could, because: white.

My father was born into this valley in 1920, raised there, and though he lived his adult life in other states, he returned to the family homestead time and again, and his ashes rest in that soil. I was born there in 1946, the great-great-great-great-granddaughter of genocide, perpetrator of marginalization, singer of the missing “ten little Indian boys.” No matter how conscientiously I try to live, I live on land stolen by my ancestors. And I live within an ongoing theft that has never been rectified.

It’s like this: imagine a diamond ring comes down the family line: it belonged to my mother, a gift from her mother, who got it from her father who got it from his uncle who bought it from another uncle who fought in the Civil War, who stole it off the dead finger of Confederate soldier who had a letter from his wife in his pocket… so it could have been returned, but it wasn’t. For generations the ring has been passed along as an heirloom, but none of that makes it not stolen.

So “we” can’t just move on, and “they” can’t just get over it because WHITE has always been the lie and DIVERSITY has always been the truth. And here we are: living in the time of Black Lives Matter, and BIPOC and LBGTQ+ reckoning. Finally. Systems of supremacy and consequent oppression in all forms—racial, ethnic, economic, religious, gender, even human-centric–must now be justly accounted for and reconciled if people of any color are to survive within the matrix of creation.

So, here is the question I am standing in: How can seven generations of guilt intersect with seven generations of trauma in healing ways?

I do not have an answer. But I am willing to bring my lineage of prejudice, and privilege to the  the fire; to that holy space “out beyond notions of wrong-doing and right-doing.” I am committed with the rest of my days to “empower the most powerless and build from the ground up.”

 

To be continued…

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.

Timeless Texts from Buddha

This is not the first time that people have individually and collectively been asked to inhibit their usual behaviors, sacrifice for one another, or find creative ways to reach out when reaching out itself is banned for our protection.

Isolation is strenuous daily practice. The old are lonely, the mid-lifers are stretched and stressed, the young are idled and eager to launch a new world, the children are typing and swiping through school. This is not the first time, nor the worst time. But it’s our time, and it’s hard, and we don’t know if seeing the local to global impact helps or overwhelms.

The lonely beach by our house: looking south to Mt. Rainer

And then I found this poem called Buddha’s Five Remembrances, spoken of by Thich Nhat Hanh. The stark truth of the words is sobering and yet their timelessness helps me in this somber season. So here it is, first in entirety and then with some of my thoughts after each stanza. Recite it as a litany of acknowledgement and exploration, for that is how Buddha’s teachings are offered.

I am of the nature to grow old.

There is no way I can escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill health.

There is no way to escape ill health.

I am of the nature to die.

There is no way I can escape death.

All that is dear to me, and everyone that I love, is of the nature to change.

There is no way I can escape being separated from them.

My actions are my only true belongings.

There is no way to escape the consequences of my actions.

My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

feather in sand

I am of the nature to grow old.

There is no way I can escape growing old.

What’s clear to me in this COVID time is that growing old, or at least older, is the goal. I’m alive. I have the moment. Like Scrooge throwing back the curtains on Christmas morning, I can shout out my presence and set about doing some act of reparation. And my personal lifetime is finite, there is a “deadline” and I don’t know when it is coming.

I am of the nature to have ill health.

There is no way to escape ill health.

This is the truism we have had to face in pandemic: we are contagious to one another. We are coping with our own vulnerability and the vulnerability of others— both people we love and complete strangers. We are dealing with our own denial and the denial of others— both people we love and complete strangers. Maybe my isolation, cleanliness protocols, adherence to mask-wearing, and overall health will get me through without catching Covid-19, but the lesson is—vulnerability is a universal experience and impacts everyone.

I am of the nature to die.

There is no way I can escape death.

We die because that is our nature. We live, then we die. Life/death is a cycle we have been learning our whole lives. The upturned goldfish, the family dog we take to the vet for assisted death, or a grandparent with cancer remind us that death is around us and in us throughout life. I don’t know what will be required of me between now and when this is over. The pandemic does terrify me in this regard. I know I could die of this. My death walks toward me and I toward it. That is what is.

All that is dear to me, and everyone that I love, is of the nature to change.

There is no way I can escape being separated from them.

My attention is heightened. I give thanks for every ordinary bit of comfort, privilege and stability. It will all change. I do not know how it will change, or when, only that it will.

(Oh, Buddha you are a hard teacher! In the midst of all this urging for me to accept impermanence, is there nothing that I can claim? Ah, when I read this closing stanza the whole poem lit up for me.)

My actions are my only true belongings.

There is no way to escape the consequences of my actions.

My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

I am flooded with excitement. I am empowered. My actions belong to me. My actions, imperfect as they may be, are the ground I stand on. I work to make amends, to grow, and to understand. Actions define my life and identity.

 

In the ongoing travails after the US election, I understand and count on the importance of our individual actions. It empowers me to look ahead to the January 20, 2021 inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.

  • People have voted. Those votes have been counted and, in some cases, are being carefully recounted by committed election officials.
  • Votes represents courage. In many cases they required dedication to get out and stand in long lines, risking exposure to the pandemic. In some cases, revealing our votes has risked rupture in the family. In others our votes represent a shift in our communities of belonging.
  • We, the public, are standing now on our actions. We, the public, are sorting out truth and lies. The new government is forming and restoring norms, policies, and leadership in a thousand offices and cubicles. And we, the public, are awake and need to stay awake, to engage with our governments—from the neighborhood associations to the cities, counties, states, where we live. We, the public, and our governments, are in a conversation of profound importance in the midst of swirling hysteria. That hysteria is designed to create ineffectiveness, but we can focus through the noise.

And while I am focusing on the tangible empowerment of action, I remember:

  • I am going to die—but not just yet.
  • I am going to be ill—but today I am healthy.

    Meanwhile–tea.

  • I am going to face loss and change—and I will do my best to grieve and accept.
  • I am going to keep acting with the accrued skills of a lifetime.
  • And under these circumstances, we, the public, the collective, will prevail.

 

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!

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

 

 

 

 

Maintain the Web

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somewhere, you and I are on this web.

We can’t see it: we can be it.

 

Blooming where we are planted

In spite of catastrophes and crises, our beautiful island is in full-out spring. Blossoming, which began in February with Hellebores, and crocuses, followed by daffodils and rows of ornamental plum trees, is rolling through peak rhododendron season, and here come the tulips! Lifting our gaze from the television or other devices of dire news, our eyes fill with color, and we dip toward one flower and another like bees nosing for scent. Surely amidst all this generosity of Nature, we can rest in beauty for a few moments.

For myself, Nature is my greatest solace, and as life in the world of human concerns wobbles and shakes, I practice slowing down to really let Nature nourish me. I need nourishing. I need to drink green thoughts, to sip respite through a straw of flower stem, to roll in clover with my puppy for the silliness of it, and to savor the gifts of sunrise/sunset and another day—rain or shine. I bring bouquets into the house. I hug a tree—it’s not contagious.

So many issues in the wider world continue to concern us and disrupt our routines: the environment, politics, economics, and pandemics. Over the winter months and into spring, we have been made aware of our vulnerabilities and interconnectivity on multiple levels. And some of our routines needed interrupting, shifting, realignment, or letting go. The world is not as it was: the world is as it is. We are in the “Roaring 20’s” in a new century and much of what the 1920’s set in motion in society, we in the 2020s are now facing in terms of consequences. These consequences are unavoidable: they are corrections of course that demand redress.

When threatened by contagion, as we are right now in response to Covid-19, it’s easy to pull back and away from one another. We wash our hands more diligently. We replace hugs and kisses with friendly gazes and smiles at what we hope is a socially safe distance; we keep our hands off doorknobs and handrails, and wipe down public spots, but we still need to stay in community, to stay resilient. This is a moment to do whatever we can in our individual circles to be sure we know where and how everyone is. My texting outreach is going up: maybe I can’t help directly, but I can let someone in self-quarantine know I am checking on them, can put food on the doorstep or play “words with friends” on our phones. I can reach out to a niece in Milan, to a brother with compromised lung function, to neighbors I haven’t seen in a while. Just send love—it’s the right kind of contagious!

There is no escape from these times: we must bloom where we are planted and take charge of the quality of our lives by keeping our hearts open to beauty and to one another.

 

 

The Great Divorce

My great divorce is nearly impossible, but I am proceeding as steadfastly as possible to separate myself, my finances, my lifestyle and my future from PLASTIC. Though I don’t know how I’ll get from here to there, I am aiming toward zero-waste.

Plastic is one of the prime pollutants on the planet. It is breaking down into microfibers and nano-dots that float in our bloodstream, infiltrate the cells of our bodies, and cause documented health issues, disease, and death. Plastic is killing sea creatures and other animals who ingest it. The swirling gyres are now as big as some American states and current predictions state there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050. Great. Does that mean instead of ancestors crossing the land-bridge from Siberia to North America, our descendants can walk back to Siberia on plastic? Go online and search a bit—the photos, documentation, and suggestions for activism are everywhere.

My divorce begins locally at the grocery store:

No more plastic water bottles: I drink out of stainless steel or glass; bring my own mug to a coffee shop. (I have a rule—if I haven’t come prepared, I don’t get coffee…I wait until next time.)

Refuse plastic bags: I bring cloth bags, mesh bags for veggies and mushrooms, buy meat at the butcher counter instead of pre-wrapped and ask for butcher paper. Same with bakery items.

On a recent visit to our local grocery store I went to see the store manager whose office is above the backroom warehouse with a big plate glass window where he can oversee the aisles and aisles of goods he is responsible for. “I’m here to talk with you about plastic,” I said. We peered together over his domain. “There are aisles I don’t even go down. There are products I’m not buying anymore. I will not purchase from your bakery section, from the deli section, unless there is a paper alternative to plastic bags and clamshell containers. I take photos of products I have previously enjoyed and have now stopped purchasing and when I get home I write these companies and tell them good-bye until they change their packaging.”

“Great,” he said. “I know the destruction we’re causing. I see the photos of the ocean gyres. As we remodel and put in more bulk items we’re changing the bags to bioplastic… I need consumer help to pressure our suppliers and companies, so go for it.”

“Bioplastic helps,” I said, “and so does paper… and even more so to give people credit for bringing in their own recyclable containers and figuring out how to let people be more responsible when I know you’ve got all these health department restrictions.”

“I agree,” he said.

“We’ve got to get the story out,” (of course that’s what I said!), “wake people out of the trance of quick convenience that shopping often entails.”

In America, the average citizen uses 12 plastic bags/packaging a day. In Denmark the average citizen uses 4 plastic bags a year. This is because of how products are packaged and served. In the years Ann and I traveled for European work we saw alternative models working beautifully. For example, in the Copenhagen airport, when you order a meal (having staggered off that over-the-ocean flight looking down on the melting edge of Greenland) you are served on chinaware with metal cutlery. Tables to sit or stand at are placed all around the food court area. You eat, you leave your tray. A service worker comes by with a cart, takes food to be composted and service to be washed and reused—unlike the roaming garbage carts of American airports and malls.

I tell this story over and over again, especially while talking with strangers at the grocery store, engaging in friendly peer education. I have purchased my own supply of 100 small brown paper bags and 100 waxed paper sandwich baggies, so I have enough to use in the bulk aisles and enough to share with the next interested person. Spreading the word and the alternative.

My next step is to start placing post-it notes around places where I shop.

It cost me $13.83 for 100 of these. I can afford that. And doing something directly feels more empowered than signing Internet petitions. The little notes don’t hurt anything. I expect them to disappear. I hope my community will get into the spirit of many tiny actions equaling some kind of impact. And I appreciate that my local store manager is thinking about similar things, that we can be in dialogue and take action together.

Angeles Arrien said, “to heal a situation we must be able to speak about it.” I’m talking about plastic. I’m talking about the dilemma we find ourselves in. I’m refusing to buy plastic toys or gifts these coming holidays. I’m encouraging folks around me to take the issue seriously and practice it lightly–waking each other up. And I’m adding, “to change a situation we must be able to imagine the alternative.”

I’m imagining… What are you imagining? We can do this.