A Larger View

Reflections on death from one who has died:  As I was going through some papers in the basement, I found a newsletter article from the spring of 2002, written by my dear mentor in ministry, Rev. Victor Carpenter, who died last year in June.  I want to share his words for this coming week, his reflection on Easter and death and life.

Easter Week.  My attention turns to stories of death and the meaning of life. And not necessarily the Jesus story. Sometimes, that story, so overworked and layered with interpretations, shuts me down rather than awakens me.  Instead I commend a wonderfully imaginative perspective from a favorite novel, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible.

The novel concerns a missionary and his family in Africa (actually in the area of the Congo.) One of their daughters, the child Ruth Ann, dies. She assumes the form of a serpent in keeping with Congolese beliefs. As a green snake lying on a tree limb she watches her mother and her sisters who, after many years, return to the Congo to search for her grave. What she wishes she could tell them is, “Listen! Being dead is not worse that being alive. It is different, though. You could say the view is larger.”

I love that interpretation! As the great scholar of religion, Huston Smith tells us, all religions teach that after death one is aware of who one has been and who one is and adds that one’s work is not completed. Those who teach reincarnation hold that the soul returns to earth to take up unfinished business. Sometimes many rounds are required to get it all done. As Ruth Ann says, “The view is larger.”

As for what that remaining business is I have only guesses. Probably something along the lines of getting rid of all the false and misleading ideas that have hung us up during our physical lives. Acquiring a larger view. Whatever brings us to that larger view is to be welcomed. Happy Easter.  Warmly, Victor

I am thinking of you Victor, and imagining you in that space of those who have gone on before us, waking up to that larger view. Tree and sky

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Plants and their wisdom

Sea Kale emerging

Sea Kale emerging in my garden, April 3rd.

This morning, I have been reading Farming While Black, by Leah Penniman. It is a marvelous book on so many levels–history lesson, gardening guide, liberation manual–and it feels a privilege to learn so much from a work that is actually focused toward Black farmers and gardeners. I knew so little about the skills of enslaved Africans who brought with them to these lands African plants and knowledge of growing them.  I knew so little about the work of George Washington Carver who was one of the first to study and promote regenerative land practices.  I know so little about multiple plants and their habits and their gifts for us.  Get this book!  

But then, after reveling in reading all morning, I find myself opening to multiple layers of deep grief underneath the joy of reading the book.  Grief for the African peoples who were stolen from their land and enslaved.  Grief for these Turtle Island lands, whose balanced ecosystems and soils were so depleted by the cutting of forests, and the plowing under of the soil, as well as by the war waged on their people.  And grief for myself and my communities–that we have lost our connection to the ecosystems, we have lost our connection to the wisdoms, we have lost our connection to the plants.

I get overwhelmed with the abundant knowledge in the book, and I remember this feeling in other wonderful books I have read, the feeling that I have no hope of learning everything I need to learn, in the limited years left to me on this planet.  I get the feeling that I have no hope of regaining access to the collective wisdom that has been cut off in so many ways.  And I realize that this too is part of colonization.

My East Frisian ancestors were some of those who plowed over the fertile prairies back in the 19th century.  Grief.  But at least they knew how to grow their own food, and provide for their families from their land.  I read online recently that in the last two generations, most Americans have lost the capacity to do that.  More grief.  I don’t know how to do that.  And I can’t envision getting to that ability before I die.  Plus, it is not really something we can learn from books.

In Farming While Black, I was reading about herbs and their healing properties, and there were too many to take in–even though it was a limited list of the herbs they grow and find to use in their community.  I feel lucky if I can learn about two or three herbs in a season.  All of us should have been learning the herbs since the early days of childhood wandering in the woods.  The plants are our elders, our guides, the wise beings who know how to feed us and heal us and care for us.  This separation from the plants is also a part of colonization.

One answer to my dilemma is about community.  No one is meant to have all the knowledge on their own.  It is okay that I can’t learn it all on my own.  But I feel grief too for the fragmentation of communities that has kept us from sharing this learning and wisdom with each other.  And I feel grateful for each person who has shared their knowledge of plants with me.  I feel grateful for organizations like the Resilience Hub, who bring people together to share so much wisdom of soil and plants and ecosystems.

But for this moment, I want to honor the pain of colonization, honor the pain of what has been lost, honor the pain of so many threads of connection that were torn apart and destroyed, never to be rewoven.  It is a long journey to healing.

Wolasuweltom

“When you think in Passamaquoddy, your whole life revolves around being thankful for everything that’s around you,” says Roger Paul, our Wabanaki Languages teacher.  “Everything about what you look at, or what somebody tells you, you think gratitude.” The root verb for giving thanks is wolasuweltom (he or she gives thanks, is grateful). To say “thank you” to someone you say “Woliwon.”  

He went on to comment, “…in other cultures I’ve noticed it’s about, ‘What am I to gain from this?’, …or ‘What’s my goal?'”  He told a story about a woman he met in Washington, DC, who wondered why Indigenous people didn’t come to testify in Congress about why they needed certain funding–they might send lawyers or other non-Native employees to explain–but she had never seen an actual Indigenous person explain why they needed this funding.

Roger said, “It took me a while, but I figured it out. …The reason, I told her, was because we’re not about going to demand what we deserve. We’re about being thankful for what we already have… So… we’re not good at going up to say, ‘Hey, we deserve this–we have an entitlement to this–you owe us this.’ …We’re more at, ‘Oh, this is all we get? But, you know what, I can use this. Thank you.'”  He said, “It’s that attitude, that almost every word in our language surrounds that concept of gratitude.”

All this was during a conversation among a few of us before class last month.  Ironically, earlier that morning I had been thinking about my final presentation, in which we were supposed to introduce ourselves in the language.  I had thought to myself that perhaps I should try to say something about why, as a non-Wabanaki person, I wanted to learn to speak Passamaquoddy.  What was my purpose or goal in doing this?  In English, I have said, I wanted to “decolonize my mind and learn to think in a new way.”  But I couldn’t figure out how to express what I meant in the language, even with the help of the online dictionary.

So when Roger spoke of how the language itself was not so much about expressing goals, as it was about giving thanks, I was struck by the irony of it all.  Here I was, even in my attempts to speak the language, thinking exactly like a white person.  And maybe, the goals and purposes didn’t matter as much as I thought they did.  Maybe I should try to say, instead, what I am thankful for.

Later, I asked Roger if it would be okay to quote him for the blog, and he gave me a generous yes.  I am thankful for all of these conversations, more than I can say.  These days, I am less and less sure of the purpose of anything I am doing.  I am less and less sure of my goals.  But I am reminded, each morning, to give thanks for everything around me.

Ducks in Spring

Disruptions of Spring

Turkey Tom display

Spring is here in its northern way, with unexpected delights and disruptions–the wild turkey toms proudly displaying in the midst of old snow and random automobiles–a flock of starlings taking over the trees in our yard—two ducks hanging out in the brook. A small group of us celebrated with ritual on the Equinox to welcome these disruptive forces into our lives, to undo the stuck places we’ve found ourselves, and make room for new growth, new movement. We used a frozen bowl of ice, in which we placed candles, to symbolize the thawing times.

We do still have snow or ice over most of the yard, but each day another small patch of brown grass appears; our neighbor was already out raking in her snow-free yard.  In the middle of this, two days ago, my car was rear-ended as I was driving the on-ramp toward the highway after grocery shopping in town. No one was hurt, thankfully, though my car is now in the shop waiting for the insurance bureaucracy to authorize repairs. I was able to drive it home from the scene, and take out the groceries, being careful to go through and watch for broken glass in the bags.

Still, it shook me up with the vulnerability that is life.  We never know which day might be the last.  And meanwhile I’ve been watching a show on Netflix called “Last Chance to See” which follows Stephen Fry and Mark Carwardine as they make a journey in 2009 to visit endangered animals that were first documented twenty years earlier by Mark and Douglas Adams (author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). Stephen Fry brings a comedic voice to their adventures as the urban klutz who doesn’t usually traipse about in nature. (I recognized his voice from the movie version of Hitchhiker’s Guide.)

But underneath that veneer of comedy is wonder and grief.  The final episode was originally going to be about the Yangtze river dolphin, but the dolphins were declared extinct in 2007.  So instead, they search for blue whales.  Mark tells Stephen that blue whales, the largest animals ever on the planet, have been here for forty million years.  Forty million years. And now they are endangered, along with so many others.

I was caught up in the awe Stephen and Mark experienced in getting up close to these majestic beings.  I was filled with amazement at the beauty of this complex interwoven planet that we have been blessed to inhabit.  And I tapped into the grief that has been haunting so many of us these days.  Grief for the demise of so many beings.  Grief for the losses that are being propelled by human activity.

I feel so powerless to stop this roaring train that “western civilization” has become.  Perhaps there is nothing we can do to save all that is dying.  All I could think to do was to let myself choose conscious gratitude and love–gratitude and love for the utter wonder of life on our planet.  Gratitude and love for the animals and plants that are our elders and companions.  Gratitude and love in the midst of grief.

Flock of Starlings

Starlings in the trees.

 

 

Anishinaabe Land

Anishinabe Treaty ConferenceIn an earlier post, I began to explore which Indigenous people belonged to the land where my East Frisian ancestors had settled in the 1850s.  But I had not done that for the land where I was born, in Detroit, Michigan. I wasn’t surprised to read that it was Anishanaabe land, the land of the people of the three fires, Ojibwe (Chippewa), Odawa (Ottawa), and Potawatomi.  Significantly, I didn’t learn about them while I was growing up. Nothing. But as a young adult, that changed as I became an activist. I remember participating in an Anishanaabe gathering in Muskegon, Michigan. I found the button I still have from that gathering, the “Great Lakes Anishinabe Treaty Conference,” in 1982.

The Anishinaabek were really the first Indigenous peoples that I learned about. It has been so long since I lived in Michigan (I left in 1983), that it is hard to remember too many details about what I learned at that time, rather than later.  I remember a children’s book written by Edward Benton-Banai, in which I learned the word for grandmother was Nokomis.  I remember that sovereignty was important, and treaties had historically been tools for taking land away from the people, but they also preserved certain rights to hunting and fishing.  Louise Erdrich is a brilliant Anishinaabe novelist from whom I learned much more of the people’s lives in the context of colonization.

The Anishinaabek lived in the area of the Great Lakes before any Europeans arrived.  I learned from Roger Paul, in my Wabanaki Languages class, that the Anishinaabek were related to the Wabanaki many generations ago, and lived on the east coast.  About a thousand years ago, they were led to move west, and they were guided to stop in the Great Lakes. The Anishinaabe languages are in the same language family as the Wabanaki, (and the Innu as well), called Algonquian by linguists. The word for “my grandmother” in Passamaquoddy is Nuhkomoss.  The Innu would say, Nukum.

The first Europeans who interacted with the Anishinaabek in the Great Lakes region were the French.  When Michigan later became a territory of the new United States, the majority of people living in Michigan were Native people.  You can find out many more details of the history of the people from that time forward on the website of the Ziibiwing Center of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan.  Michigan still has twelve federally recognized tribes today.

I think the first step in the process of making right relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples is to learn the history of our peoples’ interactions with each other, to understand the traumatic process of colonization that occurred on these lands. Only if we know the history can we begin to make sense of the present.  With the mixed blessing of the internet, it isn’t so hard to find out these things if we look.  Do you know what Indigenous people lived on the land which you now occupy?

Angela Andrew

angela-andrew

Photo by John Gaudi/CBC

I just learned today that Angela Andrew, an Innu artist in what is now Labrador, best known for her crafting of traditional Innu tea dolls, died February 5th at the age of 72. I posted earlier about the Innu tea doll that my friend Wells gave me, which was created by her. I found this article in the CBC News from Canada.  I am so glad I learned about her and her tea dolls before she died.  The article said she was also instrumental in teaching the Innu-Aimun language to young people, and she had an infectious smile. If you can hear me in the spirit world, Angela, thank you for your beautiful work! her daughters plan to continue making the dolls.