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.

 

 

Bones to the Ground

July 15-23, 2019: Ann and I took a 2200-mile road trip around western Montana that held so many layers of significance it is taking weeks let the heart and soul of our experiences weave into meaning-making. There are moments in this trip I am not ready to share; moments I will probably never have words for, moments that will be transformed into later stories that can only emerge from the perspective of long time. Here is one moment around which my heart swirls:

On the way east, we drove with a small, stainless steel canister containing my father’s ashes riding in the backseat. We were meandering toward the family homestead in Fort Shaw, and the family grave plot at the community cemetery in Sun River, Montana. This grave has been an informal pilgrimage site ever since my grandmother was buried there in 1960, followed by my grandfather in 1970. The headstone is engraved simply: Baldwin.

Dad/Leo Jr. at his parents’ grave: 2011

Over the years the ashes of my Uncle Kenny and Aunt Florence, my Aunt Grace, and now my father, Leo Jr.,  have been set over the coffins of Leo and Mary. Down the row is my Aunt Dorothy, Uncle Reese, and their son, my cousin Richard. With my father’s death at age 98 last October, and his sister Francie’s death at 103 this past February, all the eight first generation Montanans are now laid to ground. In our family’s sense of collective lineage, this marks the end of something. So seventy-five descendants came to acknowledge this cycle, to walk this valley one more time, to pose in front of the Square Butte that looms over the bee-yards and church steeple that defined us, to tour the honey house now operated by Treasure State Honey, evolving our grandfather’s standards of “pure, raw, unfiltered.”

75 descendants at the West Side Methodist Church in Great Falls where Grandpa B. was minister in the 1930s.

Sunday morning, July 14, in the midst of our reunion weekend, we all arrive at the cemetery. A new, flat stone marker is set in place. There is a small urn sized hole in the ground. It is sunny, windy, and we are all milling around in a large clump.

My cousin, Bill, calls us together playing the violin that my father gave him as a boy, his first learner instrument. His granddaughters hold the music pages balanced on the tombstone; his six-year-old grand-nephew comes running over, “That’s amazing sound,” Rhys says, “Can I learn to play that?”

“Yes, you can,” he says to the boy. “And so it goes,” he says to me.

I read a Wendell Berry poem. My brother Eric reads some words of his own, and words of our father’s. We sing Kipp Lennon’s song, “Family Tree,” and cry through the lyrics. And then it is time to lay the shiny canister into earth. I set down the old man’s bones. I invite anyone  who wishes to step forward and put some dirt in the hole. Who comes first are the children: Leo’s fourth generation of great-grandchildren, great-grandnieces and nephews, little hands solemnly spreading summer-dried soil over their ancestor.

Ashes to ashes, they understand the heartfulness of this ceremony.

 

We send silent prayers on the wind. We give thanks.

My niece Colleen with Leo4

 

After folks have drifted off to the brunch awaiting us at the local Methodist church, I sit for a last time with my dad, holding the story I am writing onward, honoring my lineage of Leos, asking forgiveness from the Blackfeet people whose horrific displacement made our placement possible.  Morning glory flowers creep through the grass. Bees buzz. There is both blood and bounty on this land. The wind is still blowing. I pray that all may come to healing; that we may cherish what is good, true, and beautiful; that we may find peace in the wildness of things; that we may learn to better love all our relations and the world.

Butte and bees–what remains the same

After a few moments I rise and walk into the arms of my grandchildren—where my responsibility lives now. They look thoughtfully into my teary eyes, “You okay, Nina?”

I look thoughtfully into their clear gazes. “I’m okay…” and inside I’m thinking to myself: stay healthy, stay fierce, stay strong, stay one whom they can lean upon.

Parents gone, we siblings stand on the ground of bones.

Goodbye to an Old Friend

 

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

Out the door on an April morning.

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until last week.

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

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

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

 

Lights out!

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

Driftwood plowed off the road, Keystone Spit Rd.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A community communicating–thank you Whidbey Telecom.

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

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

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

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

Morning prayer light, dawn in the dining room.

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

End of Part One

 

 

Writing on

My father died.

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

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

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

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

And when my father died, my editor died.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dad and I were on Chapter 42.

I am on Chapter 43.

 

How Apology Works

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

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

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

That’s how apology works.

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

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

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

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

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

But no.

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

But no.

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

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

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

“I’m sorry.”

 

Rocks of Ages

I’m walking in a narrow riverbed, wearing special river boots and feeling my way carefully over rocks hidden under murky water. I am carrying a hiking stick, probing for balance. Above me, cliffs soar 1500 feet revealing a slit of morning sky. I place my hand along the sandstone walls of the slot canyon, touching what was seabed 61 million years ago. Touching what water can do to rock. Touching a strip of smoothed rock-face about shoulder height, burnished by hundreds of thousands of hands just like mine, pressing skin on stone.

This is a hike called the Zion Narrows, where the Virgin River flows through Zion National Park in southern Utah. It is a spectacular end-of-summer adventure that Ann and I have been training for by walking Whidbey trails for months: increasing distance, hours, weight in our backpacks. We ride the first park shuttle of the day and arrive at the wade-in point, in the middle of the park about 7:30 AM.

People dwarfed by canyon walls. Zion Narrows.

We will stay “in river” for over nine hours, walk over 10 miles, and alternate between moments of utter aloneness with Nature, and navigating around clumps of people in various stages of appreciation and athleticism. People come from all over the world to do this hike and the languages that stream by us babble like the river itself. There are many families, mid-life and younger parents, teens and toddlers, some younger grandparents. I would say I am the elder here—except that is a ridiculous, egocentric, anthropomorphic comment when walking along these cliffs comprised of sedimentary deposits of unimaginable age.

In the National Park Service brochure, it is written: “These rock layers hold stories of ancient environments and inhabitants very different from those found in Zion today. In this distant past, Zion and the Colorado Plateau were near sea level and were even in a different place on the globe—close to the equator. The rock layers found in Zion today were deposited approximately 110-270 million years ago, and only in recent geologic time uplifted to form the scenery of Zion National Park.”

And I am a seventy-two year old human-being walking in the floor of the canyon, pressing my palms onto the skin of the rock, awash in awe and wonder. I am humbled by the beauty, and calmed inside the incomprehensible bigness of this story. Truly, Earth is the planet of the stones.

Moving slowly, deliberately upriver, I am held in a beauty that allows both gratitude and grief to rise. Gratitude that the canyon is still protected; grief for most everything else, especially that other Utah canyon lands are being auctioned off by shortsightedness and greed to the oil and gas industry. The mantra, “forgive me, forgive us,” wrenches through my heart…but just as quickly the thought races back, “What humanity has done to the Earth is not forgivable. It is not even appropriate to ask such a thing of these stones.”

Forgiveness is a human issue. Inadvertently or intentionally we trespass on one another’s trust. As we become aware of our transgressions, most of us try to be accountable for harm done, we practice making amends, learn to ask to be forgiven, and to forgive. We ask this of one another. We ask this of institutions because corporations, churches, governments, and militaries are all run by people. Forgiveness functions at the scale of human flaw, human harm, and human capacity for recovery.

Zion Narrows–high noon

The stone I am touching is outside this drama. I am standing under a cliff that does not register my presence: forgiveness is not the business of these stones. They are invulnerable. They are the body of the Earth. I am the disposable being here. My species is so young we are not even embedded in the geologic layer. And when this era crumbles to dust, what a layer that will be: landfills, atomic waste and nuclear warheads, mountains of plastics, tumbled skyscrapers, rusting vehicles, the bones of billions and the Sixth Great Extinction. But the cliffs will take it all and press it down and make more layers atop us.

Geologists have named and chronicled these layers: the Carmel Formation, the Temple Cap Formation, the Navajo Sandstone, the Kenyeta Foundation—representing several hundred millions of years of compression and upheaval. The waterfalls seeping out of the sandstone have been a thousand years in the making, since an ancient rainy day drove droplets into the top layer and they filtered down and down and down. Purified, they fall on my uplifted face. The earth has cleansed it all—whatever happened then, the stink of dying mastodons, the rotting seaweed of a long gone sea, and whatever happens now and tomorrow—eventually we all become a chapter in the story of the stones.

I stand in a moment of profound recognition: human beings cannot destroy the Earth. I kiss the cliff walls with unbounded joy, with the certainty that this rock will survive.

The land I live on, my island in Puget Sound, is an old river delta made by glacial melting 10,000 years ago. It is young and unstable, the layers loosely packed and crumbling back into the sea. It rests on the edge of deep coastal fault-lines.

This land I visit is old, weathered, wise even. It transmits endurance. Standing in place. Allowing wind and water to shape it. To sustain joy in these times is a matter of what I identify as source, as ground. I pause here: feet in the river, hands on the stone, sun and shadow all around me.

Stilled.

It is still true that beyond the canyon walls humanity is busily destroying the biosphere that makes our version of life-on-Earth possible. It is still true that the foundational question of life on Earth at this time is whether or not we as a species will rally ourselves to correct our relationship with Nature. It is still true that the answer may be no: or that our systemic tampering with biological and geological energies is beyond our capacity to correct to our liking. It is still true that how we have treated one another, and how we have treated the species that companion us, and used the resources offered us, is unforgivable and has grave consequences that are all coming due. But in this moment I am just a tiny desert lizard licking the water of life off the rock walls. I am in sunshine. I am home. I surrender to what is.

Canyon lizard–the weeping rocks, near entrance. All photos by Ann Linnea

 

Managing my outraged heart in a time of horrors

In the back of my journal are pages devoted to news clippings, magazine articles and photos: the Parkland students, injured Syrian children, Rohingya families fleeing into the poorest country on earth for shelter, addicts shooting up on city streets on their way to work, ICE patrols breaking up families of farm workers, earthquakes and storm surges, a starving polar bear leading her emaciated cubs to suicide at sea, the destruction of our protected national wild lands. Now also the photos of children being torn from their parents’ arms and shipped around the country to secret detention centers. Lost.

I paste some variety of these pages into each journal volume. My life ramblings filling pages front to back: these wider horrors and concerns pasted back to front. To endure being informed I have to find a sacred way to hold what’s actually happening, not just toss the daily news into the recycle bin or trash icon. I am a journal writer: the journal is an archive, a document of witness.

LOOK, my journal says, while you are sitting on the deck writing the morning up, or having dinner with family or friends, or working your way through personal challenges—this and this and this is also happening.

I have scrawled in black marker on these pages: I allow myself to believe that I can live with integrity inside the territory of my personal life; but I do not know how to live with integrity in relationship to the shattering of the wider world. My privilege contributes to destruction; the beauty, safety, and love around me I offer as prayer.

Right now, with the separation and incarceration of thousands of children and parents on the Mexican/US border, I can no longer claim to live with integrity in my own personal life: certainly not in my life as an American. I cast about in anguish for something effective to do.

A few days ago I emailed all my representatives. I wrote to a list of names that I’m told are the PR folks at the contractor companies that are putting up the detention centers. I shout at the people in the news stream—the young ICE officers, border patrol guards, attorneys, social workers, food delivery truck drivers, Congress members—“Resist! Resist! Resist! Don’t leave that room without taking the children. Run with them toward the cameras, make us all look, make the media become your protector.” I send small donations. I stand in protest—but I am far away.

I am a 72 year-old, only English speaking, Caucasian woman living just south of the Canadian border. I have few skills to help in this crisis except my own grandmothering arms; how I would make dinner, how I would encircle mother/father/child and refuse to let anyone rip them apart, how I would step between… Would I? How do I?

How do I manage my outraged heart in a time of impossible horrors?

In Bob Stilger’s book, After Now, When we cannot see the future where do we begin? he explores the potent idea that disaster gives us a chance that will never come again: to create the community we want. After the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and the reactor meltdown, Bob says some Japanese were courageous enough to admit, “This disaster has the potential to release us (Japan) from a future we did not actually want and to redefine where we are going.”

The United States is in a huge reset button: the end game of capitalist corporatism is now flashing uncontrolled in front of us. This is where we have long been headed—it’s just all laid bare; this imbalance of power was already available for misuse in the system; this is the greed of the great Monopoly board turning on itself. Our current disasters—both natural and politically generated—have the potential to imprison or empower us. Inside the walls of our nation I want the world to know millions of us are stirring awake and asking, how can we use this disaster to release ourselves from a future we did not actually want—and to step boldly, humbly, courageously into the future we do want, embracing the losses and reaching for the new promises that we ourselves call into being.

I carry my journal and my fountain pen with me everywhere. The pages of my life story and the larger context story are racing toward that point where they will meet in the middle of the notebook.

LOOK, my journal says: Look at everything: do not turn away. Carry it all: release it all. Refrain from violence, especially in your own heart, and understand the nature of fierceness, of holy outrage. Then take what action you can. Now. Today before one more child suffers, before one more piece of our precious earth is destroyed.

Grandmother in the 21st Century

Jaden, age 5, meeting baby Sasha on the day she was born.

Something happened to my heart when Jaden was born. A chamber opened that I didn’t know was there: the grandmother room. He, and now Sasha, reside in this special place. I am honored to be their “Nina” and delighted to be partnering with their “Maga,” to be the nature grannies.

 

We bring them Island Life: unstructured and unsupervised time outside, time on the beach making up games with the corgi dog, constructing driftwood caves. We draw and collage and cook. We watch videos and eat popcorn in the evenings. We give their parents “Spring Break” through the deliciousness of having them with us for spring break.

Sasha and Nina on beach

 

Pretending to be a cave man.

 

 

And last month, we all spent Spring Break on our pilgrimage to South Korea, when Sally returned with her entire family around her to put her feet on the soil of her birth. Ann’s blog chronicles this trip; so what is left for me is a look at grandmothering through the lens of two moments with these beloved kids on their first foray into a world way beyond America.

Sasha at Jogyesa Temple

On our second day in Seoul, we stopped to visit the Jogyesa temple grounds on our way home from the Namdaemon market—two very different scenes! The temple was preparing for Buddha’s Birthday, a major public and religious holiday in South Korea. As we stepped off the street, we were offered green tea to shift from street vibes to spiritual quiet. Noticing our foreignness, they arranged for a woman who spoke English to escort us. Sasha and I went into a little welcome room where we were handed a decorated card and an opportunity to write a prayer to be hung on the side panels of the temple ground gates. Sasha’s private prayer was so thoughtful I knew we were going to have a special time. We hung our cards and stepped under a canopy of colorful hanging lanterns that made the whole place magical.

Sasha at the Dharma Hall

We stood respectfully on the steps of the main Dharma Hall. Inside the glass walls several hundred women were engaged in chanting and prostrations before tall golden statues of the Buddha. Sasha whispered:

“Is that their Jesus?”

After a while we wandered over to the smaller hall dedicated to ancestors. Here all the hanging lanterns were white, the meditation pillows and interior walls were white. We stood in silence at the back of the room while people on cushions sat is silent meditation.

“Is Uncle Brian an ancestor?”

The third room we visited was the hall of the Bodhisattvas. A central figure, with offerings placed at its feet, was the focal point of meditation. We—Ann, Sally, Jaden, Sasha, and I—all took off our shoes and sat. Behind the large statue was a wall of shallow boxes each housing a smaller statue.

“Are those guys like angels?”

A few minutes later we were outside the room putting on our shoes. “So they believe in Buddha, and we believe in God?”

I tied my laces, “Well, all religions believe in God,” I said. “God is the Great Mystery, a Creator who made the whole universe. This idea is so big human beings can’t really understand what God is. So religions show us different ways of practicing respect for this Mystery. In Christianity, Jesus comes as the Son of God to show people one way, and in Buddhism, Buddha comes as another way.”

“So everybody’s okay?”

“What’s important is to be a good person—following the teachings that mean the most to you to your heart. They all lead to God.”

“Like all these lanterns and the tree of lights, it’s kind of like Christmas, even though it’s Buddha’s birthday.” And she was off, skipping across the temple grounds.

 

Jaden in Busan

Taller than his mom, slender, wearing black jeans and black hoodie, phone in hand and playing some kind of game every moment we weren’t “touristing,” Jaden looked the part of an Asian teen. He could fit in, slipping into the street scene at night with his dad the official trip photographer or cruising the market eating fresh doughnuts, shopping for a cool shoulder bag. It was the company he kept, the language he spoke, that made him different and set him to thinking: how would life have been different if I’d been born here?

Dusk on the harbor cruise in Busan.

He spent a reflective evening staring at the light spangled cityscape by Haeundae beach, trying to piece together an image of himself in a completely alternative reality. Well, that’s what he does all the time on the phone—play in other worlds—only this time he was his own avatar.

After listening to him think through his “other life”—the one he’d would have had if his mother had been raised Korean, and he’d been raised Korean, I said to him, “You know, this is your century. You will define it, live your whole life in it, and make the choices that create the world around you. And by your bloodlines you are uniquely positioned to discover a special kind of leadership that is uniquely you.”

“What do you mean—my bloodlines?” He put down the phone.

“You are half Korean and half Hispanic, and especially after being here, it seems clear to me that in the 21st century Asians will rule the world, and Hispanics and other minorities will pretty much rule America. Hispanics are already nearly 20% of the US population, and in some cities are at a 50% mark. You attend one of the most diverse school systems in the country. And here in Korea you get to see the determination of the people to become a nation making a global technological impact.”

He was still listening, so I added—“Who will you be? How will you use the incredible diversity of your upbringing to be a 21st century citizen? What wisdom lives in your bones that can guide you?”

My dear grandson is a sweet-natured young man, thoughtful when probed and prodded, both shy and gregarious, newly elected to his middle school council, a kid who hangs out in his science teacher’s classroom after hours because the teacher is cool and an informal mentor. He’s piecing himself together in a world I barely comprehend. It’s like a video game—fast action, options coming and going, opportunities morphing. My role, my love, is to provide a thread that weaves through all this action, a whisper to the inner boy. I watched my comments sink into his thinking… Where are they now? I don’t know, and probably he does not know. What I do know is that they are working in his giant jig-saw puzzle of putting himself together.

Oh so thirteen.

I am grateful both these children are willing to listen to their sometimes so serious Nina, to allow me these moments.