Women’s Herstory

Tall thin woman with big curly hair, in old newsprint photo, singing open-mouthed holding a tambourine.
Me at 29, singing and holding a tambourine

I’ve been going through old boxes from my past, and am currently working on the time I lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan, from 1979 to 1983. It was such a different time–not many photos, for example. But I found this one in a clipping from a women’s periodical, attached to an article I wrote about how women’s history is not just reading about women from the past, but an imperative for us to make history in the present–herstory. I still believe that!

My partner at the time, Gary, and I were trying to make history/herstory through non-violent activism, and through running a Catholic Worker hospitality house. We called it Grimke Community, named after Angelina and Sarah Grimke, white southern women who worked for the abolition of slavery in the early 1800s. We opened our house to a person or family in need of emergency shelter, often in cooperation with the local battered women’s organization. The house was in a kind of land trust, and we lived there rent-free. We could pay the bills if one of us had some sort of half-time job at minimum wage.

I held various jobs during those years, from being a maternity aide for a home-birth midwifery group, to visiting women in the local jail, to cleaning houses, to being a library “page.” I was also doing a lot of music those days, and performing in any local venue I could arrange, from nursing homes to social justice rallies. It is funny to look back at my big naturally-curly hair, my extremely thin torso, and my wide-open mouth. I was learning to use my voice!

In early 1983, when this picture was taken, I was trying to make sense of how to follow my calling. It was something like a call to ministry, but still being Catholic, and being a woman, I felt like I had to invent something totally new. Eventually, I was able to take the next steps by going to Chicago to attend the Chicago Theological Seminary, where I was lucky to receive a full fellowship. Gary and I moved to Chicago to take over also, serendipitously, the leadership of St. Elizabeth Catholic Worker House. Those were years of profound transformations. And after seminary, I did invent something new for myself–a ministry which was a combination of activism, offering feminist therapy for women, and leading feminist ritual and community education. (This was years before I eventually was ordained as a Unitarian Universalist minister.)

Now, looking back at my own herstory, I can feel the continuity between the me of now and the me of back then. But I feel some sadness that the changes for which I struggled, while meeting some success, have also faced incredible backlash and new challenges. Still, I don’t regret any of it.

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Season Changes

Ice forming on the surface of the pond yesterday, like wrinkles over the water. You can see stones around the water in a ring.
Ice was forming on the surface of the pond yesterday.

Yesterday felt like the true turning of the seasons, from warm autumn 70 degree days to a chilly, almost winter, high of 40 degrees. We had a freeze overnight and the pond surface was wrinkled with ice forming. I went around the yard putting away the last garden hose, the five-gallon buckets, the little tables we use in the back next to chairs. I turned over the wheelbarrows behind the garage. I covered our patio table and chairs with a tarp, and I plugged in the bird bath so it will keep water thawed during frozen weather. I got out the snow shovel and sand mixture to put on the back porch. I left 4 chairs around the fire circle–maybe we’ll get outside around a fire–it could happen!

Last Thursday was my last time lying in the hammock for the season. I could see two frogs still hanging out in the pond, the color of mud, not the green of summer. While I was lying there, suddenly I saw a huge bird flying nearby, up to the pine trees at the back near our yard. Looking closer, I recognized the characteristic shape of a turkey! It was dusk and the light was turning all black and white and shades of gray. We’ve had a little trio wandering in the yard during the last few weeks, so I am guessing this was one of them. I had to put the hammock away the next day.

Turkey in a pine tree at dusk, mostly black and white silhouette.
Turkey in a pine tree at dusk

This morning, we had a bit of snow, mixed with rain, so here we are. The gardening work, whether fully complete or not, is done for the season. And I was inspired to get back to my winter project–going through boxes of old papers in the basement. I am proud of myself for diving into it today!

Last winter, I went through 11 boxes from my years in Boston, organized, winnowed, and reduced them to four. I had just started on some boxes from the time before I moved there. This winter, I will go through papers from my time at the Women’s Peace Camp, and in Chicago, and in Grand Rapids. I went to Chicago from Grand Rapids in 1983 to attend Chicago Theological Seminary, from which I graduated in 1986. I visited the Peace Camp in the summer of 1983, and then lived there in the summer of 1985, and winter/summer 1986. These places were the scenes of my coming out as a lesbian, and my trying to figure out what ministry might look like for someone like me. At the time I had left the Catholic church, and was part of the emerging feminist spirituality movement. I experienced so much transformation during those years, and I am fascinated to read what I wrote about it. It was a season of profound personal change.

Lunar Eclipse

I woke at 3 a.m. and saw the bright full moon through my window. I woke again at 5:30 a.m., but could not see the eclipsed red moon because it was hiding low in the sky behind the many trees and buildings around our house. Still, I dreamt about the lunar eclipse all through the night. First I saw it like a giant pale cookie with a bite taken out. Then I was talking about it with others, and talking about other lunar eclipses. In my dream, I told someone about the memorable total eclipse on the night when the Red Sox were winning the world series for the first time in 86 years. That was October, 2004. We lived on Cape Cod. We were watching the baseball game, and periodically, I’d go out the front door to watch the eclipse. In my dream, I talked about how one of the effects of being old was that I remembered other lunar eclipses, and didn’t have as great a need to see this one. In a later dream, a group of people were getting ready to create a ritual to honor the moon–children, adults of all ages–and I was getting a drink of water, and then, trying to find a mug to hold more water to bring to the ritual, but everything in the cupboard was plastic or otherwise weird. Random people, both known and unknown to me. When I woke up, my cat Billie was at the window looking outside, but neither of us could see the moon. Still, we were feeling it I think. Yesterday, Margy and I filled in and dropped off our election ballots at the City Hall dropbox, and then we drove to Kettle Cove to be with the ocean. The weather was warm, sunny. I took my shoes off and waded in the water on the shore, took some photos of rocks and seagulls. We gathered seaweed to bring back to the garden. But mostly, we just sat in chairs on the sand, and listened to the surf, felt the breeze on our skin.
Seagull standing on the sandy wet shore, with surf rolling in on the right side.
A lunar eclipse feels like a transition, an omen–but for good or ill? The 2004 eclipse was good news for the Red Sox. Undoing the reputed curse of the bambino. But election day is not like a sports game, despite the way the media often frame it. Lives are at stake. When I was quite young, I was a sort of anarchist, and I heard the Emma Goldman quote, “If voting changed anything, they would make it illegal.” I am less dismissive with age. Even if I am voting for the lesser of two evils, I will do so. And I think of the people who died to bring the vote to women and to black Americans. They knew it was that important. But perhaps the quote holds true now, because there are politicians who are trying to make voting illegal–at least for the people they are trying to exclude. Still, I don’t hold with fear-mongering. No matter what, we keep doing whatever we can do, with whatever energy we have, for justice, against oppression, for compassion and respect for all beings. We can’t see the future, we can’t know what wonders might emerge over the horizon. As Rebecca Solnit reminds us, that is a source for hope.
Dark gray huge boulders on a rocky shore with ocean water behind, fading out into the horizon.

Gratitude for the Ordinary

Goldenrod gone to seed.
Goldenrod gone to seed

The last few weeks have been full of ordinary tasks around the house and yard. Sometimes we forget to be grateful for these very ordinary things. I think about people whose lives have been disrupted by war, by floods, by fire, by despots. Margy and I are able to do our ordinary tasks and ordinary meals and ordinary rest, undisrupted, and for that I am grateful.

A couple weeks ago, I painted the trunks of the orchard trees, to protect against winter sunburn and insects. This time I used a half and half mix of white milk paint and “Surround”–both powders that are mixed in water. I don’t know if it is really necessary–certainly I see fruit trees around the neighborhood without anything on them. But one morning, I had the energy and decided to try out the mixture. Surround is a kind of porcelain clay organic product that can disrupt certain insects. Last summer, I sprayed the fruit trees with it, and they remained light colored all winter. This summer I didn’t do any sprays like that, but why not try it as a winter paint? So that was one little project.

Peach tree with white paint on trunk.
Peach tree with white paint on trunk.

I’ve been using the skimmer to clear leaves off the pond, and then I also have been cutting off the dead stalks of pond plants. I got into the pond one day, placing my feet very carefully down to the second step in, and lifted the pond lily pot, then dropped it down to the deepest part of the pond. The deepest part is 2 1/2 feet, so I am hoping that the hardy lily might survive the winter this way. And maybe in the spring it will need to be lifted back out, or maybe it will just reach its leaves up to the surface from there. I asked Margy to watch with me, just in case I slipped. But I didn’t! A few frogs are still hanging out, since the weather has been unseasonably warm still.

Since we had an extra weekend of warm weather, I finally painted the upper beam of the roof on our deck. Some of the wood had been left bare when a friend put in the roof, a few years ago, so protecting it has been on the long-term to-do list. Happily, there was some primer in our basement that I could use, leftover from the prior owners. It took three days, and each day after working on it for only a couple hours I was dead exhausted. But it is done today!

Deck beam half painted and half still undone bare wood, with a ladder underneath.
Deck beam half painted and half still undone bare wood.

Meanwhile, we’ve been filling in our absentee ballots, and researching the details of 13 referenda questions for our city of Portland, as well as the candidates running for office. I am grateful for democracy, as flawed as it might be practiced, and pray that we’ll still be able to have a democracy going forward. Rising fascism in our country has been alarming and discouraging, as well as the attack on the bodily autonomy of women, and the threats to such importance common goods as Social Security and Medicare. So much of my life’s work has been about expanding the benefits of democracy to those who have been excluded, fighting for equality and justice and liberation for myself as well as others. My work has included criticism of the way that our democracy has been incomplete, flawed, and unjust. But I think of voting as harm reduction–I may criticize candidates and policies, but I will vote for those who will do the least damage. Right now, with the Republican party being taken over by fascists, that means voting for Democrats across the board. So I am extra appreciative these days of the ordinary benefits we can take for granted, and pray that many many people will be moved to vote to keep those benefits.

Prayer to a Migrating Bird

Migrating geese in the sky, seen near the pitch pine.

You are a teacher for a time like this—

you who claim more than one home,

navigating each season by the compass

of yearning planted within your DNA

You know your destinations, no stranger

—I have heard it said—you return always

to the very sedges from which you depart.

You are a teacher for a people like this—

we who hesitate to claim any home,

yearning always, contrary wisdoms planted

like magnets in the dark, stretching

our souls across miles and languages

—strange cries echo in our throats—

tearing our arms apart with reaching.

You are a teacher for a journey like this—

your rhythms carry me through long stretches

in the white winter of my perennial flight

I remember there are seasons for departing

and returning, homes we locate by yearning

—planted like polar gravities in the wind—

your silent languages cry to my wandering wings.

Letting Go

Flag iris leaves in the pond changing color, and reflected

The many-colored transformations of autumn plants remind me of the beauty in the spiritual practice of letting go. As the leaves let go of their green chlorophyl, so their deep colors are revealed. When I feel encumbered by heavy memories, mistakes, failures. When I feel regret for things undone, unsung, I pray in this way. I take all the feelings and memories and release them into the loving hands of Spirit. Ego desires for acknowledgement, success. I let go. Ego wounds from rejections, betrayals. I let go. Loneliness, weariness, I let go.

Spirit, here I am, all imperfect, yet gifted, all hungering for justice, yet broken with this land and country. I sit alone, yet I feel your presence, and I turn to you, again and again. I let go. I am small, but I am surrounded by and filled with your Love. There is a time for action, and there is also a time for surrender. I surrender to the River flowing. In this surrender there is trust and peace.

Someday, I will let go into the mystery of eternity, the mystery that is death. Each night, I let go into the mystery that is sleep. Each morning, I let go of what is not mine for this day, and I open to what blessings and what actions are here for me to take up. I am too small to try to carry the world. And yet, in this surrender, I am at one with all of the beings who surround me, people, animals, plants, spirits. We are all flowing in the River of Love.

Part of the Landscape

I was stretched out, lying in the hammock, with my feet up, listening to an audio version of “Olive, Again.” Suddenly a chickadee landed on my black sneaker, and started pecking inquisitively around the seams. I wish I could have snapped a photo, but he was gone again in just a minute. I guess I must have seemed like a part of the landscape then. I can’t imagine a better way of being perceived!

Or maybe I might be seen as a friendly or annoying neighbor? The other day, a chipmunk was stuffing her cheeks at the bird feeder, and I decided to chase her away so the birds could get some too. I walked toward the feeder, and she just stayed put. I actually reached out and gently touched her back–at which point, she flew off the feeder and took off toward the pitch pine tree. Then, yesterday, I was lying in the hammock, and a chipmunk was perched on the trunk of the pitch pine, chattering at me. I wondered if it might be the same one.

Or maybe it was the one that a few weeks ago was walking across the patio in what seemed like a drunken haze–she would go a few feet and than fall over on her side. I thought perhaps she was injured, and wondered about taking her to a wildlife center. I set a small box into her pathway and she ran right into it. But after doing a bit of research, the recommendation seemed to be to generally let them take care of themselves, so I released her and she ran into a nearby chipmunk hole. I hope she recovered!

The chipmunk on the patio next to our deck stairs

I’ve also been doing a few small projects in the yard. The biggest project was to change the level of the outflow channel for the pond. I removed the stones covering the channel near the edge of the pond, and lifted up the linings, and raised the opening a couple inches. I was thinking that perhaps having a couple more inches of water depth in the pond might help it over-winter better. Last year several plants didn’t survive. I filled it to the new level with water from two rain barrels and then put back stones over the channel top again. Probably no one else would notice the difference, but I am glad that I did it. I also went around and cut off dead leaves from the pond plants, and pulled out some more algae. I was sorry to disturb the frogs’ familiar habitat, but they seem to be doing fine now.

Pond with 2 inch higher level of water, (plus the scissors used to cut dead plants.)

Today, I harvested some more thyme, rinsed it, and put it into the herb dryer. I’ve harvested kale and broccoli for cooking, chives to cut up and freeze. Last week I harvested licorice roots. I scrubbed them well, cut them up into tiny pieces and put them in the herb dryer too.

Licorice root after washing

Today was a lovely warm day, so good to be outside, to be part of the landscape. Tomorrow it will be colder, and that is harder for me. But I am trying to enjoy this season of autumn, not just as a time of preparing for winter, but a graceful time of its own, all the golden leaves, harvest time. Harvest time for so many of the creatures all around us.

The Delicate Adventure

Arrowhead flowers and leaves and seeds, a pond plant

I am happy to be starting a new experimental adventure. After four years away following my retirement, I am venturing back into involvement with my former congregation, Allen Avenue Unitarian Universalist Church. In our faith community, a retiring minister traditionally stays away for a few years, to make room for a new minister to bond with the congregation, and to make real the fact that I am no longer their minister. If or when we return, we create a covenant with the current minister to clarify our relationship and offer our mutual support. I have done that with Rev. Tara Humphries who is now serving the congregation.

But it is still a delicate balance to negotiate. When I go back, I am not their minister, but I am also not just any other member of the church. I am still their Minister Emerita, an honorary designation expressing our mutual affection and connection. But with or without that designation, I still carry those thirteen years of affection and connection, and it gives me an influence different from other members. So for me, the experiment is measuring whether and how I might be a member of this community in that in-between zone. I am drawn back by a desire for the kind of community that church offers, I am drawn to that little village of care and support. Is it possible? Will it work for me, and for them?

Some parts of this feel very clear-cut. Dealing with chronic illness has made it impossible for me to carry out many ministry functions, like weddings, memorials, and leading worship, so I won’t even be tempted to be doing any of those. Another aspect clarified in our covenant recognizes that “since my position still carries some weight, I will decline to participate in the governance of the congregation, or take sides on any issue.” And both Tara and I will “decline to participate in, and will remove ourselves from, any conversations with church constituents which might try to evaluate each other’s ministries or contributions to church life.” All of that feels very down-to-earth and solid.

But more experimental are the personal interactions and connections. The first event I attended was an in-person, outdoor celebration of our 200th anniversary on September 10th. I am still being super cautious about COVID, so I wore a mask even though we were outside, though most others did not. This was the largest event to which I have gone at all since COVID. I would have loved to hug everyone, but I did air-hugs instead. It was wonderful to see people I knew, and meet a few I did not know. Heart-warming. It was also rather exhausting, and I had to rest afterward. Is that my chronic illness, or introversion, or somehow feeling once again all those threads of connection?

Worship services are now hybrid on Sundays–some people attend in person and others on Zoom, so I have attended a couple via Zoom, but I haven’t yet stayed for “zoom coffee-time.”

I went to the monthly “Elder Salon” and that felt really good. The structure made it easy for me to participate as others did, with a few minutes of check-in for each person, and a discussion following that. I like the reciprocity I felt in that group. The topics of concern to elders match many of the topics of concern in my own life right now. So it feels like I can join in as any other member might join in, and benefit from the collective wisdom in the group. I guess I am learning to be an elder. I like it.

All in all, I am taking it slow, and observing what comes up for me.

Looking On

Three small frogs perched on rocks next to the pond in morning sun.

Lately, my life is small, as if I am looking on to life happening nearby, just like these frogs looking out over the edge of the pond. So many big things going on in the world, much frightening, some inspiring, but all of it feels somehow at a distance. I haven’t had a lot of words the past couple weeks.

But there was something I learned about that I wanted to mention here. It relates to my essay, on this site, called “Wanting to Be Indian.” I first wrote and published it back in 1995. I’ve learned a lot since then, and adapted the essay as I did. When I first wrote it, I described the history of my ancestry using the word “Metis.” I had no understanding of what that word meant in a Canadian context. I just had seen it in a French book about my ancestors, meaning of mixed ancestry, white and Innu. I thought maybe it might apply to me. But as I began to learn more, I stopped using that word, because historically it refers to the people in western Canada who have been a distinct Metis community for a long time. So I thought perhaps that was that. (Now I describe myself as white, with a distant Innu ancestor, my third great grandmother Marie Madeleine.)

But more recently, in the last year and especially this past week, I’ve been doing a lot more reading about the current situation in Quebec and the Maritime provinces. I have been horrified to learn about white people there claiming a “Metis” identity, in order to fight against the indigenous rights of Innu and other Native peoples. I found a website called Race Shifting, a “resource for people who are concerned with or want to find out more about the rise of the so-called “Eastern Metis” in the eastern provinces (Ontario, Québec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia) and in New England (Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine).”

Many of these so-called “Metis” organizations in Quebec have roots in white supremacist organizations, trying to impede the work that the government of Canada and Quebec were doing with Innu communities to negotiate agreements for their government-to-government relationships. (Some resources are in French, like the article about these negotiations toward Innu agreements. But I was able to read it with the help of Google translate.) The Innu never signed a treaty or ceded their land in the days of early colonization up through the end of the 20th century. Just after the turn of the century, when they were beginning to set parameters for these agreement, in public hearings there was resistance from some white people, especially those living near Saguenay and Sept-Iles. And then the tactics of those white people changed: they created “Metis” organizations, based sometimes on a very distant Indigenous ancestor (17th century), and often none at all. They tried to claim their own “Indigenous rights.”

I’ve written briefly about this issue before, but this time I saw that one of the Saguenay historians who is supporting this effort is someone who had done research on one of my ancestors, whose article I had requested and received in an email. That felt creepy. It made me wonder if probably a lot of these people are distant relatives of mine–I mean, that is sort of true for all French Canadians–we really are all related. But Saguenay is the region my great grandmother came from. Sometimes I hate being white. And certainly it was from my own experience that I wrote about the problems of white people wanting to be Indian. But this is something even deeper and more sinister–to claim Indigeneity to fight against Indigenous communities?

It’s hard to understand all these phenomena from outside of Quebec, from outside of Canada. And I don’t have a voice in that setting–I don’t even speak the language. Yet I understand enough to feel so sad. And even here in New England, I am looking on from the sidelines. I certainly have no role in identity policing. But it seems somehow important to try to understand it all, and important to support, in whatever small ways I can, the sovereignty struggles of Wabanaki peoples in Maine. This is where I am.

And now, for just a little beauty to counter the ugliness of racism, here are three more green frogs from our pond. (And the irony is not lost on me–frogs were used prejudicially against the French, and more recently a cartoon frog has been co-opted by white supremacists.) But these frogs are simply themselves.

Three frogs on rocks, and their reflections in the water of the pond.

So Many Small Birds!

Two goldfinches on an evening primrose stalk

I feel such delight in all the small birds that love to be in our yard. Yesterday morning, the gold finches were all over the evening primrose stalks, eating seeds. Native self-seeded wildflowers for the win! Then I saw a few little brown ones–maybe sparrows–taking a bath in a puddle in the driveway, after the good rain we had the day before. Here is one drying off afterwards.

Sparrow after a bath, sitting on the deck rail.

He turned around while I was looking from the back door. So cute I had to share both photos!

Sparrow after a bath, on the deck rail, facing me.

The little birds just love our garden, our trees and bushes, our wildflowers, and we love them. If I had to pick just one sort of critter, birds are my folks! It makes me so happy that they are happy here!

One more bit of good news. The mama turkey has come back a couple times with her baby, after the horrible incident in our yard where her other baby was killed by a neighbor cat. We’re glad to see they are doing well.

Mama and baby turkey in the grass.