What does an elder do?

I am writing on the New Moon day, while in Congress our representatives are debating the impeachment of President Trump. On the New Moon, I always read my journal from the day of the last New Moon, and I note recurring themes in my days. One recurring theme for me this moon has been feeling empty and lost–I asked in my journal several times, “What is my purpose in this time of my life?” I am an elder now, and because of chronic illness, my energy is limited. What does it mean to be an elder in these times?

One of my images for the Divine Mystery is the River–the flow, the great unfolding of all things, the mysterious energy that holds us in its flowing. So one day, I prayed: I do not know my purpose–I open to your flowing oh River, I open to your flowing, and thank you.

I went outside after that, and there were tiny bits of hail on the dry ground. I started on a walk down the street and around the corner and directly toward the Capisic Brook near my house. Part-way there, I slid on a small patch of ice hidden under the scattered hail and landed on my back and elbow. I was bruised but okay, and even continued on to the brook and back, though I felt shaky about it into the next day, and have been sore since then.

The tiny hail on the ground in our back yard that day.

So reading my journal, I couldn’t help but notice that this fall came directly after my prayer to the River about my purpose, my surrender to the flowing. I wondered, “What’s that about, Spirit? What kind of answer to prayer is that?” I remembered a story about St. Teresa of Avila, who after a bad day had a fall of her own into the mud. She challenged God then, “Why?” and God said, “That is how I treat my friends.” She replied, “That is why you have so few!” (These were the Catholic stories I grew up on.)

I do know that the Spirit has a sense of humor, but might this fall mean something more subtle, like “Now is not the time to move forward or worry about having a purpose?” “Or, what?” And so today I sat quietly with Spirit, and with Billie kitty on my arm, seeking help to understand. Here is what came to me.

Don’t worry. The answer is to live into the answer by a hundred small intuitions. Joy. Love. As an elder, to let go of fixing, to be rooted in joy and love. You learn to end a day, or a life, by living into each day, each life. Feel the feelings. I didn’t knock you over, but it is in the nature of life to fall and to get up, to be wounded and to heal, to encounter hidden dangers without warning, to take time for recovery and to build resilience, to be broken and to be one with the whole.

As an eldest child, you felt responsible for everything. As an elder, you can learn that you are not responsible for everything. And yes, that is frightening. But you can feel the fear and rest in my love. You can lead as you have been leading, by sharing the skills and sharing the responsibility with each other, caring and connecting, just as you are.

And so here I am, in this hermitage life, trying to listen to the flow of the Spirit, learning a new way of being, an elder way of being, not responsible for everything. Even in this hermitage, the storms of the outside world rage into our lives through internet and television, and our power to act is so small. I hope and pray that those who can act, will do the right thing, do the brave thing, will hold fast to the good and resist greed and racism and violence and fascism. I hope and pray for a world in which all people care for each other and care for the earth. It is a frightening time. So I feel those feelings, and remember the next part–to rest in the love of Spirit.

Capisic Brook, the little stream that reminds me of the deep River.

My Lesbian Book

Thirty years ago, I wrote a thesis about lesbian identities and lesbian spiritualities: a lesbian theology of liberation. I didn’t have the grounding and context to publish it beyond my academic program, and I have always regretted that it didn’t make it into a book. Recently, I have been asking myself, could I find a way to publish it now?

It seems in one sense a foolish idea, because so much has changed in thirty years. The realities of then are not the realities of now. But while much of the change has been empowering for lesbians and others on the LGBTQ continuum, some things have been lost as well. There was something amazing about the flowering of lesbian community I experienced during that time–joyful, life altering, transformative.

I first encountered lesbian community in Grand Rapids, Michigan, of all places, and at the Michigan Women’s Music Festival in 1979. This was before my own coming out, and certainly an instrumental part of my coming out, though that process took several years. There was a fundamental intersection between lesbian and feminist communities that was happening then, that opened up this world to me. In 1983 I moved to Chicago to go back to school, and found more lesbian community there.

ADB jam, Women’s Peace Camp, 1985. Photo by hershe Michele. https://peacecampherstory.blogspot.com/2014/12/herstory-028-helen-friedman-aka-helen.html

In 1985 and 86, I lived at the Women’s Peace Encampment in upstate New York for several months of each year, and that was like crossing the border into Lesbian Nation. The photo above is from a musical jam session that was one of many I participated in, though I am not in that particular photo. In 1986 I moved to the Boston area. The feminist and lesbian communities there were large and diverse: they supported–and were supported by–two book stores, several lesbian bars, a women’s community center, a woman’s monthly periodical, and so much more. It was in 1990-91 that I wrote my thesis in the context of Episcopal Divinity School’s Feminist Liberation Theology and Ministry program.

When I left Boston in 1999, it was to venture into a career as a Unitarian Universalist minister, which brought me back into the more mainstream world. I was still out as a lesbian, I was still connected to other lesbians, but being a minister shaped my role and altered my relationship to community. That, and the fact of changing my location, first to Cape Cod and then to Portland, Maine, which were very different places from Boston. Somewhere along the way, it seemed like the lesbian community I knew disappeared. I might have thought this was just my personal experience, but then in 2016, Bonnie Morris published The Disappearing L: Erasure of Lesbians Spaces and Culture. I haven’t yet read her book, but it has been sitting on my bedside table waiting.

It has only been in retirement, in older age, and perhaps in the isolation of this pandemic, that I have looked back at my lesbian thesis and wondered about it. From thirty years on, I can see how difficult it has been for us to pass on a “lesbian heritage” from one generation to the next. I notice how individuals of newer generations may sometimes find themselves lost and lonely as they try to grapple with sexual or gender identity. I also notice how newer generations re-invent themselves on their own, and in their own ways, very differently from those of us in earlier generations. So perhaps all of that is fine.

But perhaps there might be something valuable in resurrecting the voice of the me of thirty years ago, perhaps it might be useful to someone. After I did an oral history for a program at the University of Southern Maine, a student who listened to the recording was inspired to write a poem, “What if God were a lesbian?” And significantly, that was very like the original question that inspired my own book. What if?

What’s Next?

Fruit trees with painted trunks.

Today I felt filled with an enormous dread, watching the attempted coup by a president who won’t acknowledge the results of a valid election, watching the followers who enable him to keep undermining the vote. I had felt relieved after the votes were counted. Perhaps we were back to more ordinary times and struggles–certainly the struggles were not over, but some semblance of a social order were on track to be restored.

But then I read an account by someone who had lived through a coup in their own country, Sri Lanka, who said that America is already having one right now, and I sank into a kind of terror. I won’t repeat their story here–you can read it via the link. Just to say that undermining faith in the results of an election can disrupt the very fabric of a fragile democracy, and is an invitation to ongoing chaos.

In my dread, I went outside–into a cloudy warm day–perhaps the last of these summer-like days–where Margy was working in the yard. She got in the hammock with me and I could just feel all the feelings of terror, but with the comfort of love, the comfort of the earth and sky. I certainly don’t have the answers for what we can do, what anyone can do, about this coup. I hope someone who might have the power and the answers is talking about it somewhere.

The other thing that, ironically, has relieved my anxieties about the election and the coup is a novel I have been reading about climate change. It is the latest work by Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future. Set in the very near future, the title refers to an international agency that is formed to be a voice for future generations in the international arena. It’s a fragmented sort of novel, with each chapter a small piece in a larger fabric, and only a few on-going characters to help keep the thread going. Like in some of his other works, Robinson’s characters are trying out all sorts of ideas to turn around or mitigate the catastrophes of climate warming. Perhaps it will get more hopeful as I keep reading, but for now, it is sobering. So the terrors of a coup are replaced by the terrors of climate catastrophe–but those terrors are more familiar to me.

In the meantime, Margy and I seize the opportunity of our own strange weather to replenish the soil in our little part of the earth–another visit to the beach to get more seaweed, more sifting of compost (to get the roots and stones out) to put near the fruit trees, raspberries, bushes in the back of the yard. As much compost as I can sift, I put it somewhere. As much seaweed as we can collect, we put it somewhere.

For the fruit trees, also, a few weeks ago I painted their trunks white. There is a whole story to this. I had read about painting the trunks of trees white to protect them from sun damage in the winter, to protect from insects burrowing. But when I first read about it, people were talking about using latex paint, and that didn’t feel true to the spirit of organic permaculture.

Then, this fall, searching the web for another project–looking for food safe paints–I came across milk paint. This is the old-fashioned white wash that Tom Sawyer used, that most people used before the modern age. It’s made of natural ingredients: milk proteins, lime, and pigments. It has no VOCs to emit, no scents to be allergic to. It came in a powder that I mixed with water, in the amount I needed for the trees. The powder will last a long time, but the mixed paint only a couple weeks. So I painted the tree trunks. You can use it for lots of things, not just trees. Finding resources that cause no harm to the earth–that help the earth–these are like little miracles that never cease to delight me.

Grounding

Range Pond October 1

A shift has happened in my spirit, and I feel grounded in a way I haven’t felt for several weeks. I’m not sure why, but a few things have happened this week that might be related.

Three days ago, after windy rain, the power went out about 9:30 in the morning. Happily, I’d already eaten breakfast and installed a new shop light in the garage. (As a friend framed it on Facebook one day, it was a project that took two months and fifteen minutes.) So I took a short walk and discovered a few blocks away that a tree had fallen on some wires. It might be a while. I had an appointment to pick up groceries from the store, but also happily, when I called, they said it would be okay to wait until our power was back on.

Waiting for the next several hours, I noticed that my mind was in a kind of tormented withdrawal from its usual access to constant stimulation. No social media (saving my phone battery for more important things), no book to read (saving my phone, etc.), no television shows. Not enough energy to do a project. A really uncomfortable stillness. Margy and I ate lunch on the patio, and I noticed it was much easier to deal with my mind outside, so after lunch I pruned out some raspberry canes. Finally, the electricity came back–and then it was groceries to pick up and process.

Two days ago, in the morning I facilitated a very productive meeting of our Decolonizing Faith Project. We are moving toward completion of a Zoom version of our workshop for faith communities. That felt good.

Later that day, Margy and I decided to go on a rare outing. We took a drive to search for beautiful autumn color, and found our way out to Range Pond, about forty minutes from where we live. (And by the way, for those who aren’t from around here, I don’t know why but Range Pond is pronounced Rang Pond.) I took my shoes off and waded in the still warm water, delighted to watch the sun ripple off the sand. Sun, water, trees: a healing balm for our souls.

Yesterday morning, after a long night’s sleep, I woke quite early and was writing in my journal, surprised at how peaceful and grounded I felt. I remembered–and this is key I think–I remembered that throughout my adult life there has never been a time I did not hate the atrocities committed by our government. (Wars, empire, ravaging the earth for profit, oppression of people of color, you know the list.) Yes, lately, those atrocities have intensified. But I had protested every administration, and realistically, felt little power to stop those atrocities.

I also remembered that when I was part of the Catholic Worker movement, I learned that resistance can take the form of personalism: we attempt to live out our values personally, and in community–we fed the hungry, housed the homeless, welcomed the “stranger.” We treated all people with respect, and practiced peaceful ways to resolve conflicts. We also protested, not merely to try to change the government, but also to keep clarity in the values we affirmed.

And I remembered that that has always been my own best path of resistance. (That’s why Margy and I chose to green our own living situation, to plant a garden, to learn to more deeply love the land we are living on.) When I was active as the minister of a congregation for many years, I needed to widen my perspective, to hold and affirm many ways of living our values. But now that I am retired, now that I am chronically ill, I am coming back to the core of my own journey. And it is okay to do what I can, and not to be tormented by what I have no power to change.

So all of that was grounding my spirit as the sun was rising yesterday.

And then, later, I did check Facebook, and saw everyone posting about the president getting a positive test for COVID19, and speculating about whether it was true, and what it might mean. And I really do honor the angst that people are feeling about the state of our country, and the election coming up, and the possible undermining of democracy, and so much more. But this time, I didn’t lose my balance. I didn’t get hooked into the chaos. I remembered that I don’t have to loudly condemn every atrocity or agonize over all the pain that I cannot alleviate. It is not a moral necessity to be panicked and despairing over all the evil in the world.

I remembered my own path, my own calling, the small ways that I can live into a vision of mutuality, of respect, of healing. I am writing to help myself remember, for those times that I forget again and again. And perhaps to help you remember your own calling, if you have forgotten in the midst of these strange times. May our many small actions be joined together by the great Mystery into the beauty that is possible.

Mushrooms Again

Wine Cap Mushrooms in our garden

What elements are necessary for me to experience joy? What if the forests are burning in the west? Can I feel joy here in the east where the forests are not burning? What if fascism has stolen the possibility of democracy? Can I smile and sing a song about humbling ourselves before the trees? What if migrant children are still locked in cages without their families? Can I steal a moment of joy in the morning when the mist covers the sun? When I know my beloved is asleep in our home?

Today there are mushrooms again in the food forest, wine cap mushrooms that we inoculated into our wood chips over a year ago in the spring. We started something, but we don’t have any control over what they now do. I don’t know what elements are necessary for the mycelium to decide, after these months of invisibility underground, now is the time for mushrooms. The mist in the morning? Only they seem to know, and only they decide.

Last night I fell asleep asking the question, “What elements are necessary for me to experience joy?” Or perhaps I was asking its heavy twin question, “How can I dare to feel joy while the earth is suffering, so many people are suffering, the nation is suffering?” How can I be permitted any moments of joy given the reality of our world right now?

I remember when I was part of the Women’s Peace Camp, a peaceful protest next to a nuclear weapons military base–we had many moments of joy–despite the serious nature of our witness: evenings full of music, exciting sexual liaisons, long talks planting seeds of friendship that have grown and endured through time, delicious meals. I remember our wild dance parties and Emma Goldman’s words we often paraphrased: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of the revolution.”

Someone commented on Facebook the other day that we need to prepare for a disaster–they were worried about the possibility of civil war after the November elections. But when this idea rolls around in my head at 3 in the morning, I am not even sure what disaster to imagine preparing for: no electricity? food systems cut off? hurricanes? loss of social security income? no water? no internet? people in the streets with guns? evacuation? There are so many possible disasters that cannot be “prepared” for.

With age and illness, Margy and I are more isolated now, though certainly not all alone. But I miss being at some sort of front line in community. I can say to myself–we are trying to live a dream of a life more in harmony with the Mother Earth–the downsizing, the solar panels, the food forest. And I don’t forget the importance of choosing to love a woman in the face of patriarchy. Imagining decolonization in the face of white supremacy. But I feel helpless in the face of the destruction of so many people and landscapes across the nation.

It is almost as if all I have to offer now is my profound grief.

So, is it still possible to find joy in this grief time? Is it hiding underground like mycelial networks? Can it spring forth like mushrooms when something decides there is room for it now? Is it me who decides? Can I fully honor the grief that our times require, and yet still find those moments of song, smile, lightness, beauty, gratitude?

Unraveling

Waking in the night again and trying to make meaning of everything. Dangerous. I think I must be more of a writer than a gardener. Needing so much to make meaning of it all. But I’ve had a hard time writing lately. I can’t seem to find any words for what has been happening in our world. But I am sitting here in the sleepless dawntime trying to see what might come out if I put my fingers on the keyboard anyway.

I have been a protester most of my life: peace activist, justice activist, feminist activist, anti-racist activist. Perhaps ironically, given the current state of Christianity in our country, it was the teachings of Jesus that first opened my eyes to the problems in how we were living in the United States. I began to see the cracks in the American “building,” who was left out, who was pressed down, who was held under. And on the other side, I was imagining how we might live if we followed our deep values, if we cared for each other, if we cherished all of us. Sometimes I even got the chance to put that imagination into practice.

As an activist, I certainly had moments when I wished for revolution, wished for the whole unjust system to come crashing down. Of course I did, awake to all that was broken in our country. But that awareness meant I also didn’t pay as much attention to the parts that did work for the good of the whole. And now, it seems those are the parts that might come crashing down, might be unraveled. Who could have guessed the Postal Service would come under attack? I never imagined that we might need to defend the Postal Service. Especially now when we rely on it more than ever because of COVID 19.

We know that Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid are also under attack. I feel vulnerable to that personally, because I now rely on Social Security and Medicare to survive in my older age, since I am no longer able to work.  I think Social Security is about 65% of my income, because I am lucky enough to also have a small retirement annuity. But according to SSA statistics, among elder Social Security beneficiaries, 21% of married couples and about 45% of unmarried persons rely on Social Security for 90% or more of their income.  These are not perfect systems by any means. But they at least acknowledge the common reality that we all might grow old, we all face vulnerability to illness, we all need each other.

The thing is, right before our eyes, those in power are bankrupting the best parts of our country for their own personal gain. They are undoing the very idea of government’s purpose to uphold the common good.  Will there be anything left when they are done?

I am reminded of how, in the Work That Reconnects, Joanna Macy talks about the Great Unraveling, “the on-going derangement and collapse of biological, ecological, economic, and social systems,” caused by business as usual in an industrial growth society. It seems like 2020 has become the year of the great unraveling, what with the pandemic exacerbating everything. (And novel viruses are related to ecological habitat destruction as well–but that is another story.) However, this is not really a new phenomenon.

The Great Unraveling may be more apparent today, because of the accelerating rate of change and technological advances in communication, but the living systems of Earth have been unraveling for generations. Under colonial expansion and rule, indigenous, brown, black, and impoverished communities have carried the weight of the unraveling for centuries.

So I don’t know how to make meaning of all of it, how to respond to all of it. I feel the unraveling all around me. Perhaps I have been privileged enough to escape the worst of it before now, and in fact am still privileged enough to have a home, food, even air conditioning in this heat wave we’ve been having in Maine. But I still feel the unraveling all around me.

I usually like to include a photo in my posts, and this is the best I could do this morning: Back in June, the walkway to our front door started to collapse. When I took it apart, and lifted the pavers that had sunk down, there was a huge empty space beneath them. The foundation of the path had disappeared.

Broken walkway This is how it feels in our country right now too. The path crumbling beneath our feet. The foundations of common wellbeing disappearing. Well actually, it feels much worse, but I’m stretching for a metaphor here. And besides, this hole made it difficult for the mail carrier to reach our mailbox, so that’s a link.

Eventually, the walkway was fixable. I finally purchased some paver sand “base” and next layer sand (with curbside pickup), and then this past weekend, I dug out the loose sand, refilled the foundation under the hole, leveled it off with sand, and put the pavers back into place. It was hard work, but doable. Can anyone repair the breach in our country’s foundations?

Language Roots

Some presenters at Healing Turtle Island this summer suggested that we all, colonizers included, should seek to uncover our own distant Indigenous languages. I had the idea then to learn to introduce myself in the Innu language, the language of my matrilineal ancestors, and then to mark their transitions to other languages. (Three of my grandparents have Germanic roots, but in this exercise, I limited myself to my matrilineal line.)

I want to thank Roger Paul, my teacher of Passamaquoddy/Wolastaqey, because I could not have approached the Innu language without having learned so much about Passamaquoddy. From what I can tell, the structures of these languages are the same, the grammar, the animacy, even some of the words are cognates. So with this foundation, I was able to use the Innu dictionary online to shape sentences that might bear some resemblance to how the language is spoken, though no doubt I have made errors.

After I was deep into it, I laughed at myself, because to whom could I speak these words, since I am not in touch with any Innu people right now? But then it seemed that perhaps they were for my ancestors in the spirit world. And so this is dedicated to them. I also want to acknowledge that though I have studied French, Google translate was my helper in the French language parts of this exercise, and unfortunately there is no Quebecois French in that translation program, so some subtleties have not been included. I have heard it said that Quebec French is closer to ancient French ways of speaking. I begin with a photo of my great-grandmother, since she is at the heart of the story.

Claudia Tremblay

My great-grandmother Claudia Tremblay.

Mishen Claudia nitishinikashun.
My name is Mykel Claudia.

Claudia iapit nitanishkutapanukum ishinikashu.
Claudia is also the name of my great grandmother.

Shekutimit utshiu, ińnu-assit.
She is from Chicoutimi, in Innu territory.

Ukuma ińnushkueuńua, Mańi-Matińin ishinikashuńua.
Her grandmother is an Innu woman, whose name is Marie-Madeleine.

Ińnu-aimińua.
She speaks the Innu language.

Eukuannu nui ińnu-aimin.
That is why I want to speak the Innu language.

Mańi-Matińin uitshimeu Pień McLeod, kie mitshetusheu.
Marie-Madeleine marries Peter McLeod and she has many children.

Utanishu, Anisheń ishinikashuńua.
She has a daughter, named Angele.

Ashku Anisheń kutuńnuepipuneshit ashu nishtᵘ, ukauia Mańi-Matińin nipińua.
When Angele is thirteen years old, her mother Marie-Madeleine dies.

Natshe uitshimeu Anisheń kakussesht. Shushep Tremblay, kie mitshetusheu.
Later, Angele marries a French-Canadian, Joseph Tremblay, and she has many children.

Anisheń utanishu Claudia, nitanishkutapanukum an.
Angele has a daughter Claudia, that’s my great-grandmother.

Kakusseshiu-aimu.
She speaks the French-Canadian language.

Mon arrière-grand-mère Claudia parle la langue canadienne-française, comme son père Joseph Tremblay.
My great-grandmother
Claudia speaks the French-Canadian language, like her father Joseph Tremblay.

Très probablement, Marie-Madeleine et Angele parlaient aussi la langue canadienne-française, ainsi que leur langue maternelle.
Most likely Marie-Madeleine and Angele also spoke the French-Canadian language, along with their mother tongue.

Mes ancêtres canadiens-français sont au Canada depuis le début de la colonisation, depuis l’an seize vingt.
My French-Canadian ancestors have been in Canada from the beginning of colonization, since the year 1620.

Je ne peux pas compter le nombre d’ancêtres français qui se sont installés au Québec, atteignant onze générations en arrière.
I cannot count the number of French ancestors who settled in Quebec, reaching eleven generations back.

Ils ont abattu de très nombreux arbres et cultivé la terre dans un climat difficile.
They cut down many, many trees and farmed the land in the difficult climate.

Malheureusement, leur arrivée a entraîné la maladie et la mort de nombreux Innus.
Sadly, their arrival brought disease and death to many Innu people.

Les Innus vivent dans leur terre depuis des temps immémoriaux, et y vivent encore aujourd’hui.
The Innu have lived in their land since time immemorial, and still live there today.

Claudia a une fille Yvonne, c’est ma grand-mère.
Claudia utanishu Ipuan, nukum an.
Claudia has a daughter Yvonne, that’s my grandmother.

Par ma grand-mère Yvonne, j’ai l’héritage des colonisateurs mais aussi, dans ma descendance matrilinéaire, l’héritage des colonisés.
Through my grandmother Yvonne, I have the heritage of the colonizers but also, in my matrilineal descent, the heritage of the colonized.

Yvonne a déménagé aux États-Unis à l’âge de dix-huit ans, où elle parlait anglais.
Yvonne moved to the United States when she was eighteen, where she spoke English.
Ipuan atutsheu Upashtuneu-assit ashku kutuńnuepipuneshit ashu nishuaush, tanite akańeshau-aimit.

Yvonne has a daughter Carol, that’s my mother.
Yvonne a une fille Carol, c’est ma mère.
Ipuan utanishu Kańań, nikaui an.

English is my first language.
L’anglais est ma première langue.
Nitakańeshau-aimin ńishtam.

Kci Woliwon/Thank you very much

I feel such gratitude that I was able to participate in the 4th gathering for Healing Turtle Island, this year held online via Zoom and Facebook Live. Healing Turtle Island is a 21-year ceremony, born through a vision of Penobscot Sherri Mitchell, bringing together Indigenous spiritual leaders from around this land and around the world, to share teachings and ceremony for the healing we need for our times. I am grateful that those of us descended from colonizers have also been welcomed into the circle, that we too might listen and participate in this healing.

I was present for the first year’s ceremonies in 2017 at Nibezun in Passadumkeag, and though I have held its intentions close to my heart, my health has prevented me from attending the last two years. Being online this year, while a disappointment in some ways, enabled me and thousands of other people to participate from all over the world. (You can participate too, by viewing the recordings made of most of the sessions on Sherri’s Facebook page.)

Healing Turtle Island 2020

Poster announcing the schedule, from Healing Turtle Island page.

I am sitting in the silence now, after the closing ceremonies from this morning, thinking about what I have learned, what I carry with me going forward. First of all, it was grounding to hear so many people talk about the need to restore our connection with the land, with the spirit, with each other. It helps me to remember that that has been a guiding principle for me for the last several years, (as well as the theme of this blog and of my book .) By seeing this expressed so passionately by so many people, I felt renewed in my own spiritual journey into earth community.

Secondly, I was struck by how many people spoke of the importance of Indigenous languages for the healing and decolonization of the land and the peoples of the land. Over and over people reminded us that the spirituality and guiding principles of Indigenous peoples are found in their languages. Many people spoke in their native languages, offered prayers, offered songs, and then sharing partial translations, acknowledging that so much cannot be translated into the violence of the colonizer languages. They also spoke of how colonization disrupted the languages, how a whole generation of children were punished for speaking their languages, how difficult it is to bring back the languages, decolonize the languages, but how utterly necessary.

This touched me deeply, especially now that I have been studying a Wabanaki language for the past two years. On the one hand, I was so happy to understand a modest percentage of what Passamaquoddy and Wolostaqi elders were sharing in their language, especially in the prayers and songs and personal introductions. On the other hand, it has sometimes been bewildering to me that I find myself on the path of learning this language. A door opened so fortuitously just after I retired, and I walked through it into Roger Paul’s class at USM. I often ask myself, what is this about?

I feel glad that I helped to increase the numbers to enable the class to continue for its mostly Wabanaki participants through four semesters. I am glad that Roger got permission from his elders to share the language beyond the community. I have said that I want to decolonize my mind, I want to think differently: nkoti-piluwitahas. During the weekend another thought came to me, that any of us who come to live in Wabanaki land should learn the original language of this land. It is only appropriate as respectful visitors. And I remember someone saying, years ago, if you really want to understand our spirituality, you must learn our language.

But I still wonder what my responsibility might be, as a white person learning to speak a Wabanaki language. I am very sensitive to how much pain there is, in the loss of the language, and the slow revitalization that is happening now. Who am I to be learning, while so many Wabanaki people have not been able to do so? So I go forward with carefulness and respect and humility.

One other thing that was shared over the weekend lit a spark in me: that we all, colonizers included, should be seeking to uncover our own distant Indigenous languages. I had this idea to learn to introduce myself in the Innu language, the language of my matrilineal ancestors, and then a few lines in the language of my French and Scottish colonizer ancestors, and then a few lines in the language of my Germanic-speaking immigrant ancestors who came later, but who form the largest part of my inheritance.

The thing is, the Innu language is in the same family as Wabanaki languages, and structured in the same ways, so I feel like I am learning so much about those Innu ancestors by this process. That has been one of the very great personal gifts for me of learning a Wabanaki language. So I say kci-woliwon, thank you very much, for the blessings of this Healing Turtle Island gathering, and to all the language teachers, and especially to the Spirits of my ancestors who lead me into paths I could not have foreseen or chosen on my own.

Unimaginable

Margy and I finally had a chance to see the movie version of the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical Hamilton.  We loved it. I have seen many reviews and commentary on the musical, and I love its capacity to get us thinking and talking about so many issues–I love its lyrical, historical, and political density.  Some commentary is highly critical of the musical, but I love what African-American historian Annette Gordon-Reed has said about how we can love art, and also enter a critical engagement with it.

(First indulge me in one ironic moment about how certain Broadway musicals have so much to say to audiences that can’t afford to go to Broadway. It reminded me of seeing Les Miserables many years ago in a theatre in Boston–my lover’s middle-class parents had given us tickets–and how weird it was to see this revolutionary drama about poor people, side by side with folks who were wearing their furs and jewelry. So Broadway, and most mainstream theater, has never been very accessible to my class location. But I am glad that this one was finally made into a movie.)

Some critics have chided Miranda for making the “founding fathers” more heroic than they were in actuality, and keeping the historical narrative focused on the white elites, despite his casting people of color as these historic figures.  I found myself having a different response. I was thinking about the musical as it speaks to our time, to the situation of black and brown people in 21st century America. The way I experienced it, in the casting of people of color, the revolutionary heroism which has often been attributed to the “founding fathers” is being visually and transgressively applied to black and brown activists of today, illuminating their struggle and their heroism.

I see it in the lyrics (and music) from the song, My Shot:

Hey yo, I’m just like my country
I’m young, scrappy and hungry
And I’m not throwing away my shot…

Come on, let’s go
Rise up
When you’re living on your knees, you rise up

And then the parallels to our own times cut me to my core in one particularly poignant song–It’s Quiet Uptown. We see the Hamiltons grieving the death of their first born son Phillip (who was shot in a duel). And because the characters are people of color, I can’t help but envision the pain of the parents of so many black and brown children killed by police brutality today.

There are moments that the words don’t reach
There is suffering too terrible to name
You hold your child as tight as you can
And push away the unimaginable
The moments when you’re in so deep
It feels easier to just swim down

The Hamiltons move uptown
And learn to live with the unimaginable

The pain is unimaginable, but Hamilton helps us to imagine it. And isn’t that the amazing power of art–to open our hearts and souls to the pain and joy of our different but shared existences?

Of course the musical isn’t everything to everyone–but as an activist who cares about social change, I found it emotionally inspiring and intellectually engaging. Oh, one last thought–if you are like us, and don’t already know all the lyrics to all the songs, it helps to turn on subtitles so you don’t miss a word.

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Phillipa Soo as Alexander and Eliza Hamilton. (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Disney+)

 

Antiracism: New Learnings

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“Racism Has No Home Here” signs are appearing all around my neighborhood. 

I finally finished reading How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. A friend loaned me her copy, but it took a while for me to warm up to the book because its approach was jarring to what I previously had held to be important about antiracism.  However, by the time I finished it, my understanding was deepened and changed in profound ways.

Before:

I had spent much of my activist life trying to get folks to understand that racism is systemic–it is more than just direct prejudice against people of another race, or hatred toward people of other races. Rather, it was a whole institutionalization of that prejudice by those in power.  Thus, while individual people of any race could hold prejudice, only white people and white systems could be racist.  Even if individual white people did not harbor direct prejudice, we benefited from these structural systems that kept racism in place. Thus, there was no way for us to be “non-racist.” Rather we must commit to being “antiracist,” and to use the privilege that structural racism had conferred on us to work against racism.

During and After:

So right off, Kendi used examples of how he had been racist in various ways throughout his youth and young adulthood. He brought it back to a personal level, and did not agree that only white people could be racist. So that threw me off a bit. Later he explained it more directly. He wrote:

I thought only White people could be racist and that Black people could not be racist, because Black people did not have power…. This powerless defense, as I call it, emerged in the wake of racist Whites dismissing antiracist policies and ideas as racist in the late 1960s.  …Black voices critical of White racism defended themselves from these charges by saying, “Black people can’t be racist, because Black people don’t have power.”

Like every other racist idea, the powerless defense underestimates Black people and overestimates White people. …[It] does not consider people at all levels of power, from policymakers like politicians and executives who have the power to institute and eliminate racist and antiracist policies, to policy managers like officers and middle managers, empowered to execute or withhold racist and antiracist policies. Every single person actually has the power to protest racist and antiracist policies, to advance them, or, in some small ways, to stall them. …”Institutional power” or “systemic power” or “structural power” is the policy-making and managing power of people, in groups or individually.  … The truth is: Black people can be racist because Black people do have power, even if limited.

Note that I say limited Black power rather than no power. White power controls the United States. But not absolutely. [p. 140-142]  [He then shared multiple examples of Black men in various government positions who advanced policies that were detrimental to people of color, and says:] These were men who used the power they’d been given–no matter how limited and conditional–in inarguably racist ways. [p. 149]

He does not negate structural and institutional racism–but he makes it less covert and more identifiable, by shifting our attention to “policy.” He uses the term “racist policies” instead of “institutional racism.”

Policymakers and policies make societies and institutions, not the other way around. The United States is a racist nation because its policymakers and policies have been racist from the beginning. [p. 223]

Another major shift he articulates is that racist ideas are created by racist policies, and not the other way around.

The history of racist ideas is the history of powerful policy makers erecting racist policies out of self-interest, then producing racist ideas to defend and rationalize the inequitable effects of their policies, while everyday people consume those racist ideas, which in turn sparks ignorance and hate. [p. 230]

So if we want to eradicate racism, we cannot merely use education and persuasion to try to get rid of people’s ignorance and hate, but we must work primarily to change racist policies.

I am pulling out these particular ideas in the book because they changed my own way of thinking about antiracism. Kendi speaks about how if we have incorrect understandings of the problem of racism, that inhibits our ability to be successful in our desire to create an antiracist society.

I would encourage everyone who cares about the problems of racism or other oppressions to get this book and explore all of his ideas, to see which ones might challenge and transform you. It is powerful and essential.

Racist: One who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.

Antiracist: One who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.  [p. 13]