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.

Small Days & Big Thoughts

Tending a garden focuses our attention on the here and now, the daily patterns and seasonal patterns. We have already begun to gather food–this from my lunch the other day: sea kale, asparagus, and wine cap mushrooms which sprang up near the carrots seeds I had planted in the food forest. (We had inoculated the wood chips with mushroom spore a year ago so we knew how to identify them.)

Food from Garden

But while I was not in the garden, I decided to re-read Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. I was inspired by watching an online presentation of  Toshi Reagon’s concert production inspired by Parable of the Sower.  A powerful dystopia first published back in 1993, Parable of the Sower follows the story of Lauren Oya Olamina, as she faces the destruction of society all around her from environmental devastation and a widening divide between rich and poor. Eerily, the novel begins in the year “2024.” Eerily, in the second novel, there is a dangerous president who is going to “Make America Great Again.”

For those who don’t know her, get to know her!  Octavia Butler is an African American feminist sci-fi writer, who died in 2006.  I think I have read and loved all of her novels.  Her own experience of oppression shapes the way she tackles complex issues, painful realities, and paradoxical truths. These two books fit into that realm of sci-fi which asks the question, “What if things keep going the way they are?”  When her family’s neighborhood is destroyed, Lauren Olamina sets out on a journey north, and creates a new religion, gathering a few followers as she goes. She calls it Earthseed, and there are excerpts of her Earthseed writings within the novel, starting with these words:

All that you touch, You Change

All that you Change, Changes you

The only lasting truth Is Change.

God Is Change.

When I finished Parable of the Talents, I wondered whether Octavia actually believed the Earthseed ideas, or whether it was a fictional exercise in imagining a modern founder of a new religion. I found an article that suggested that her journals reveal Earthseed did align with her own beliefs. I can find much inspiration in Earthseed, though parts of it don’t work for me. I’ve always experienced the divine as more personal and loving, rather than the impersonal force of change that Lauren Olamina elucidates.  But if I had had the experiences that Lauren had, that Octavia had, might I experience a different sort of divinity as well? Still, never to leave it simple, Octavia has another major character–Lauren’s brother–raise the same criticism and choose a personal God.

I cannot say enough how much I love Octavia’s writing, but it is also devastating to read. Somehow when the writing is beautiful enough, I can bear the challenge.  (Spoiler alert!) For example, in Parable of the Talents, Acorn, the first community of Earthseed, is attacked and the children are all taken from their families, and adopted away into “Christian” families. Later, when the adults in the community finally escape from their captivity, they search for the children, but mostly cannot find them. Parable of the Talents is narrated by Lauren’s daughter who was taken when she was only a baby–and she doesn’t meet her mother until many years later when she has become an adult. However, they never recover from everything that has happened in between. Devastating.

I think about the children of the Disappeared in Argentina who were stolen and adopted by the murderers of their parents. I think about Indigenous children taken from their families over many decades, losing their language and culture, traumatized. I think about enslaved African-Americans whose children were sold away, and how much they struggled to reunite when slavery finally ended.  I think about the migrant children at the border right now being separated from their families and locked in cages, deported alone, or adopted to others.

In this way, the dystopia of the Parables isn’t really a future danger, but a present reality.  Just as in the novel many people were walking along the highway trying to find a way to survive, migrant people are right now walking along the roads north, facing danger from robbers, murderers, rapists, and smugglers, and then at the U.S. border being locked in cages, their children taken.  Undocumented people have no protections other than what they can give to each other in communities.  All the while a semblance of “ordinary life” goes on for other people like myself (except for COVID 19–but we are safe in homes with food).  I find myself wanting to talk with others about all the ideas that Octavia Butler raises, so many more than I can even hint at.

In the story, the Acorn community for a while was able to live by the work of their hands. They plant a garden and harvest the fruit of the trees. They go day by day until they no longer can. Meanwhile, our cherry trees are forming their first few little green cherry starts. I am so awed by it. Day by day, we are learning to partner with the earth for food.

Cherry start

Garden work & rest

The last few weeks I have been outside a lot, but not writing a lot. I have been adding soil and compost to the hugelkultur mound little by little, and stuffing sod into the sides, but in photos it doesn’t change much. I created a new tool–a screen to sift compost that has become inundated with small roots. It is just two dowels, with a metal screen attached with staples and duct tape, but it fits over the top of the wheelbarrow, and makes it so much easier: I shovel compost from the pile onto the screen, then rub it back and forth with gloved hands to sift out the roots, and the usable compost falls through.Compost sifter

I also put spigots and drain hoses back into six of our rain barrels. They are designed to capture rain from the gutters, fill one barrel, and then overflow into the second barrel, and then overflow through a drain away from the house. The joy of these rain barrels is they can stay out through the winter as long as we remove the spigots and any long hoses. I had to go through the plastic drain hoses and cut off sections that had cracked, but luckily we had enough left to make it work. So I thought they were ready for rain again, but then yesterday as I checked them during our rainstorm, I discovered that one fitting had cracked–we’ll see if I can figure out how to fix that.

Rain barrels setup

Our new mulberry tree from Fedco arrived on Wednesday. Our old one didn’t do well where we had first planted it–too much shade, and then after I transplanted it last year, sadly it didn’t survive. But most of the work was done, because I had prepared such a great bed for it last year–so all I had to do was pull back the mulch, dig a small hole, and place the new baby tree inside. Baby trees aren’t that photogenic, a brown stick with a brown mulch background, so here is a photo of her roots all tangled up and gnarly before I placed her in the hole filled with water. May our tree be blessed in her new home, and provide food for birds and us too!

mulberry roots

Two springs ago, as I was preparing for retirement due to chronic illness, Margy bought me an early retirement gift–a hammock. Lately, after working for a while in the garden, I climb into that hammock and rest–so perfect! It feels a bit like laying on the beach in the sun, or floating on the ocean water. I can relax deeply, let go of trying to carry anything or do anything.  It has been so healing in this time of existential stress and grief for our world. I rock as if held in the arms of the air, the birds singing, blue sky and greening trees surrounding me, sun warming me.  It reminds me that we are held in the embrace of a larger Love, even when we feel so helpless in the face of the troubles that plague our country. May you also find ways to rest your spirit in this beautiful earth!

hammock

“I don’t know how to love him…”

I was watching Jesus Christ Superstar this evening, starring John Legend as Jesus. He is a wonderful Jesus! Each time I see it, it pulls me back to a time in my life that was so deep, so intense. I think of Lori and Tom, the best friends I met in my first week of college, and how the three of us were so in love with Jesus, and all he represented–a life beyond the ambition and greed of our society, something radical, something full of love, a life that let go of material things and chose a different kind of joy. We three were in love with all that. But we often asked each other, how can we follow Jesus’ way in this day and age? And so the song, “I don’t know how to love him,” touched something of that powerful confusion and desire in our hearts.

Now, Lori and Tom are gone, dying too soon, so I have no one with whom to reminisce; but the music calls to mind the idealism and passion we inspired in each other.  I have very few pictures of us, maybe none from college. We were so young then. This picture was taken about a year or two after graduation I think, when Lori was making her vows as a Franciscan sister. (Francis of Assisi was another one who inspired our best dreams.) That was how she tried to love Jesus.

Lori, Tom, and I

Me, Lori & Tom, 1977 or so?

Jesus Christ Superstar had debuted on Broadway the year of my high school graduation. We were lucky enough at Aquinas College to have as a professor a Catholic priest, Fr. Philip Hanley, who brought it into our theology class. He said that Jesus Christ Superstar asked all the questions that people had been asking for centuries about Jesus. And that was what theology was all about. Fr. Hanley is dead now, too, but I still remember how he encouraged us to ask all the questions, how he opened up our minds and hearts.

Lori was a nun for most of her life. Tom worked for the church–it was complicated because he was gay. But eventually he was working for the church and living with a long time partner, so that was a blessing. A few years after that photo, I found the Catholic Worker movement, the best example I knew of people trying to actually live the values of the gospel in our day and age. Radical, and a different kind of joy.

Then, in the midst of our peace activism, I found feminism and needed to launch on an even more radical journey that brought me out of the Catholic church, and into a spiritual movement with women becoming free. I came out as a lesbian, and named myself a witch, and eventually became a Unitarian Universalist minister. All of that brought me far from the paths that Lori and Tom had traveled, so we were not as close in later years, though I visited Lori when she was dying from cancer, and our love for each other went beyond all those differences.

The thing is, that idealistic and passionate young woman is still inside, however the years have transformed me. And listening to the musical this time, when Jesus/John Legend sang, “then, I was inspired; now, I’m sad and tired…” it resonated. We had such hope for changing the world, back then. It is hard to see the fruits of our labor as the backlash against social change movements rocks our nation. I don’t know if my life has lived up to the hopes and dreams I held in those days. Did it all mean anything? Yet Jesus asked those questions too, in Jesus Christ Superstar.

And it is complicated for me now, sorting out where Jesus fits into my life as a witch. But he hasn’t gone away. I remember him encouraging me as I set out on my feminist journey.  I am still wondering how to love him.  Still wondering about that radical way of living and loving. It brings tears to my eyes, even as an old tired woman.

Awake in the Night

I wake in the night with pain in my heart for all that is happening in our country, and I feel utterly powerless.  How can we respond to a reign of terror?  How can we respond to cruelty after cruelty promulgated by people in power? Money grabs, land grabs, malevolent neglect, direct abuse, more power grabs.  I have been an activist most of my life, and I believed and hoped that activism might help to change the world for the better.  In some ways, it really has.  But the dream–of a whole society that was rooted in cooperation and mutuality, in care for all of its people–that dream feels lost in a nightmare of empire re-emerging like some multi-headed dragon from the flames of disaster.

In my feelings of powerless, an old friend comes to me.  Jesus sits with me in the dark night. He comforts me, strangely, by reminding me that in many ways I am powerless. I can’t control what “my government” is doing right now.  The idea that it is “my government” is an illusion, democracy has become an illusion, a thin veneer over oligarchy, over fascism.  But Jesus too was powerless: he and his friends had no political power.  He lived his whole life in the shadow of the Roman empire, and that empire killed him.  Yet he was able to respond, to act, to live a life.

How? He prayed, he taught, he healed the sick, he listened, he walked among the ordinary people, in the lowly places.  He recalled the words of the prophet Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Holy is upon me,
    that one has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
That one has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the time of blessing from the Holy.”

He didn’t concern himself very often with the emperor or king or governor–he was clear that those powers were evil. Rather, he went directly to the poor, the oppressed, the sick, those were the ones who caught the eye of the divine blessing.  And later, when he painted a picture of the end of the world, this was the measure by which all people were judged:

I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. … Whatsoever you do for the least of these, my relatives, you do for me.”  

There is a certain clarity in all of this. A letting go of all that I cannot control. A shift in focus to what is possible, what really matters. An appreciation for the heroes who are risking their lives to look after the sick, those who are bringing food for the hungry.  A remembrance of the One who is with us in the midst of our powerlessness. Thank you.

 

helper 485_108321

Photo Source Unknown

Death and All the Stuff

Prompted by sheltering at home during the COVID 19 plague, the question came up: maybe it’s time for Margy and I to update our wills and other legal documents which we last visited in 2012. The basic purpose for us in these documents is to protect each other and make sure that we have the power to make decisions for each other, and inherit from each other. As a lesbian couple who are not married, this is what protects our “next of kin” status.

But each of these documents also has a secondary feature.  What if one of us is not available or able, or dies first–what then, who is next? That has always been a more challenging part of the process. In this age of plague, it is not outside the realm of possibility that both of us could succumb.  Who could we ask to take on the role of health care agent, or financial agent, if we were both incapacitated?

We don’t have children, and our family members are far away, and not always supportive of our identities. We have several good friends, but not a “best” friend, and many live far away. Can we ask any of our local friends to take on these roles? Are they close enough, or not too busy, or would they be overwhelmed by such a request? Who would bury us if we both died? Who are our people?

Similar dilemmas confront us with our wills, and who would inherit if we both were to die. I find that I have new concerns now that didn’t show up in the last will. What would happen to our land and garden that we’ve been so carefully tending? How could we ensure that the land would find new caretakers who would love it as we have? And who would have to sort through all the stuff that fills our little house? My natural temperament is to live simply, to possess little, and treasure those few possessions.  But somehow over all these years, I’ve accumulated a lifetime’s worth of stuff. (How did that happen?)

In the past few months, my mother has been preparing to leave her own house, and move into the home of my sister.  She officially moved yesterday.  All of her nine children and multiple grandchildren were invited to consider things we might like to take from her lifetime’s worth of stuff. But, aside from a few mementos, most of it has nowhere to go.  So even more likely, my own stuff will have nowhere to go.  It occurs to me that if I want to share mementos with people, maybe I should just send them as gifts now.

When I first did a will, I noticed that I most cared about my writing–I wanted there to be a way for thoughts and words to survive, for journals, sermons, essays, to live on in some way, to be a legacy.  That is still true, though now that I have actually published a book, I feel less anxious about it.  It feels like something of me will endure, this book child. But I also have five archive boxes full of journals that I have saved, countless sermons, another unpublished book, and even these blog posts. Sometimes I imagine them in an archive somewhere, discovered by some future historian who will be intrigued by my story. Might I be a spiritual ancestor to someone?

What fuels my need to save the writings? What compels me to write in the first place?

I wonder, does anyone see the whole story, does anyone see each of our stories, whether written or unwritten? Are our lives inscribed in a Book of Life somewhere?  When I was a child, we learned that God could see everything we did. It was somewhat scary then.  But now I find the idea a comfort–I want my life to have a witness. I hope my life will be inscribed in a Book of Life.

Moon, Sun

Full Moon in the west

I wake early this morning and see the shadows of the two cats, sitting upright together on a small table, gazing out through the semi-sheer curtain to the bright full moon.  The moon is called nipawset kisuhs in Passamaquoddy, the one who walks in the night. The sun is espotewset kisuhs, the one who walks in the day.  The moon and the sun are both considered animate, living beings.  That is how it has always seemed to me as well.

And so I am lying quietly awake, lifted by this beautiful light, this moment of magic, as the moon begins her descent into the west, into the branches of trees. We earth beings, cat and human, love the moon.

These days have felt fraught with fears for me, new coronavirus fears adding to the larger fears of ecological destruction, the resurgence of white nationalism and fascism, the horrors being wrought by our government on innocent children and parents who seek refuge from even larger fears of their own. So many fears. Now that I am retired, now that I am not so occupied with constant pressure from work, the fears have more room to rise up from their subconscious depths to trouble me directly.

Yet, the moon.  The moon eases the fears with her beauty.

Something about the moon calls into my memory a poem I wrote many years ago, back when I lived in Boston. That poem was about the sun, and also about fear. I think I want to share it here this morning, though it feels vulnerable to do so. These sacred moments. But perhaps it will be a blessing for someone else who is living into fear. The moon and the sun shine for us all.

The Sun spoke to her sometimes,
early, mostly at dawn,
though dawn usually meant
first glimpse she got each
morning, maybe standing
on the front porch to get the paper,
maybe looking through the window
between branches and buildings.
The Sun spoke to her then.

Is that a prayer?
Seems like she didn’t call out
or ask for anything–maybe
just a heart full of certain
needs–but the Sun seemed so eager.
The Sun seemed eager to name the day.

It was through the window
between the tree branches one time,
and three story buildings,
the Sun gave her a name too.
She never talked about the name,
seemed like it would sound silly
repeated like ordinary words
into conversation.

When the Sun spoke her name,
that was different,
so clear and simple
like words of power are:
First Afraid.
As soon as she heard those words
she didn’t feel afraid any more,
even though she could see so clear
how true it was,
how fear was always first in line
when things came up,
her heart clutching at the moments,
not wanting to let go or let come.
First Afraid.

And there was the sky turning
from pink to yellow
and night was turning right into day.
She sees the moments passing,
and all quiet-like inside,
knows that even her fear
can’t stop that turning,
and her hands relax a little,
her eyes watch, curious.

She remembers a child learning words
and colors and numbers,
the names of things.
All the world fitting
into the hands and mouth,
touched and eaten and spoken
–her mouth so full of power
she can’t help laughing–
words multiplying like popcorn,
words sweet like candy,
she wants to say everything.

But then her mother’s voice
tightens like a lid on a jar
–be careful, be careful–
as if naming were sharp like a knife
or heavy to drop and crush,
words so hot they might burn.
As if she just might eat up
the whole world and leave nothing left
at all, And so she stops to measure,
stops and measures.
First Afraid.

The Sun doesn’t slow down or speed up,
moves surely, gently, warmly.
Caresses with indifferent generosity
across the words
of morning or noontime.
The Sun speaks her.
Puts words back in her mouth
and on her fingers.
Sky turning from pink to yellow
and night turning into day
through the window
between the tree branches
and three story buildings.
The Sun puts words back in her mouth
and on her fingers.

Sun in winter

Ancient Beech Forests in Germany

Buchenwald_Frühling

Beech Forest Buchenwald Frühling by Nasenbär (Diskussion) / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)

I just learned this week that the ancient forests of Germany were beech forests. They were the first trees to grow in the land about 11700 years ago as the ice sheets retreated after the last ice age. If there had been no human beings or human agriculture, the beech forests would have covered the whole of Europe. But human development reduced the forests to a fraction of their former acreage. In 2011 five beech forests in Germany were made UNESCO World Heritage Sites to conserve them. 

I learned this after watching a movie called ‘Call Of The Forest – The Forgotten Wisdom Of Trees,’ a documentary featuring scientist and author Diana Beresford-Kroeger. Along with other people around the world, she interviews Dr. Silke Lanniger and Meinrad Joos, who are involved in German forest preservation. One of them said that Germany is committed to keeping 30% of its land forested. It is a beautiful movie, and I was heartened to learn about the German commitment to its forests.

Mostly, however, I was intrigued because of my own connection to a copper beech tree in Boston, which I have previously written about. The copper beech tree was a primary spiritual anchor for me during the time I lived near to its location in the Forest Hills Cemetery.  I was also intrigued because of my more recent reaching out to my ancient Germanic ancestors.  I realized that they were living in these primordial beech forests, likely during many generations of my relatives. Sometimes the beech trees were considered fairy trees, or a link to all that is magical.

And isn’t it ironic, or magical, that, knowing none of this, I found the beech tree in Boston, or perhaps the beech tree found me?  There are so many synchronicities here. When I wrote about the beech tree, I also wrote about the magic of the runes–that ancient alphabet of the Northern Europeans which has been another link to my Germanic ancestors. Now, when I imagine my ancient Germanic ancestors, I see them in this beautiful forest.

Going back to the film, its message was wider and more universal than merely a link to my own ancestors. In her visits to forests around the world, Beresford-Kroeger speaks so eloquently of the gifts that trees bring to human beings, and also how important they are to the balance of all life on our planet. How important they are to the climate.  Perhaps they might be the most important being for maintaining our life on this earth. My spirituality is a tree spirituality!

Poem for Disappearing

Robin hidden behind berries
It has now been eighteen months since I retired from church leadership, and when I began that new chapter of my life I was not sure what to expect. I was surprised by experiencing an insistent pull toward quietude. I was surprised by how comfortable it felt to be “disappearing,” from a very public role as a minister.
This morning, I stumbled upon this poem by Naomi Shihab Nye.  Perhaps it jumped out at me because I had the privilege yesterday of attending a beautiful ordination ceremony for someone who is entering the start of their ministry.  Perhaps because, at that ceremony, I had a chance to see briefly many people who were in my former church community.  I still feel such tenderness and love for them.
But I don’t have regrets about the decision to retire. As Nye says so well, “It’s not that you don’t love them anymore. You’re trying to remember something too important to forget.” Sometimes I am baffled by this time and by how to decide what to do in it.  This poem speaks to that bafflement.

The Art of Disappearing

When they say Don’t I know you?
say no.

When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
before answering.
Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
Then reply.

If they say We should get together
say why?

It’s not that you don’t love them anymore.
You’re trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.

When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven’t seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don’t start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.

Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.

From Words Under the Words: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, published by Far Corner Books, 1995.