Gratitude for the Ordinary

Goldenrod gone to seed.
Goldenrod gone to seed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Peach Abundance

Peaches are ripening, bright red and yellow, crowded together on the branches.

Those of you who perhaps followed my peach tree saga last year might remember that after hours and hours of tending–including several organic sprays, thinning the small green peaches, putting little mesh bags on the remaining ones–the squirrels ran off with every single green peach, or knocked them off the branches as they tried to get into the bags. We got zero peaches to eat.

Well this year, I didn’t have the heart or energy to do all that tending. I did one holistic spray early in the season. I felt very non-attached to any outcome, since one might assume that squirrels would eat them all again. But that didn’t happen. A few weeks ago, I started picking a few small random peaches, so that others would have more room to grow, and the branches wouldn’t break under their weight–but only a few at a time, not systemically. I put them in paper bags, which is the actual way to help them ripen. (Not on window sills as I had previously thought.) A few weeks ago, the squirrels started eating some peaches too, sitting in the tree, or taking ones with broken spots that I left on the patio table. I found their leavings on the deck railing. It was fun.

Broken peach bits on the deck railing.

But they didn’t take all the peaches. And the peaches started to really ripen. Now they are bright red and yellow, crowded though they are on the branches. Now, we are processing all the bags of ripening peaches in the house, as well as gathering peaches literally dropping from the tree. I have cut them in slices to freeze–first on a tray, and then put into freezer bags. Yesterday I made a gluten free peach cobbler. We have invited friends and neighbors over to share in the abundance. More people are coming by this weekend. This morning, I saw this little bird pecking for its delicious breakfast. There is plenty to share!

Bird eating a peach on the tree.

I feel grateful and humbled by this turn of events. Sometimes gardening feels like a battle between the gardener and the “pests.” I didn’t have the heart to try too hard to fight this battle this season. (And our cucumbers and zucchinis are succumbing to bugs-so it goes.) I was surprised that the peaches thrived so well without my efforts. I was surprised that the squirrels took some, and it seems they felt okay about sharing. Maybe they sensed that we were not enemies this time. Margy and I feel so good to be able to give them away to others. The garden is such a great mystery! I continue to feel humble and grateful by all it teaches us.

Oh, and here is the recipe for gluten-free peach cobbler. I searched the internet, and then adapted this one from several I had seen:

Peach Cobbler: preheat oven to 375 degrees

Slice peaches and place in a lightly buttered 9 x 13 pan. Basically use enough to cover the bottom well, or more if you like. Sprinkle with cinnamon, and a tiny bit of ground cloves.

Whisk together 1 & 3/4 cup almond flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 2 teaspoons baking powder. Blend together 1 large egg, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1 tablespoon honey, 1/4 cup Greek whole milk yogurt, and 2 tablespoons softened butter. Add that to the flour mixture and blend, and then spoon over the peaches–it won’t cover them completely, but spread it around as you can. Bake 25-30 minutes or until golden and bubbling. Remove and let cool a bit so you don’t burn your tongue. You can serve as is, or with cream, whipped cream, or ice cream.

Peach cobbler in a glass pan, with some pieces removed.

To Be of Use

Chipmunk drinking at the pond

Yesterday morning, I was sitting next to the pond, writing in my journal. After I’d been there, and quiet for a long time, this chipmunk approached the other side of the pond, climbed down the rocks and took long drinks of water. After a couple minutes, it quickly climbed back up the rocks and ran back into the field behind.

If you’ve been following my posts recently, you know that I’ve been dealing with chronic illness causing me to have much less energy this summer. So my relationship with the garden has changed. It has been less purposeful and project oriented, and more, “Let’s see what the yard wants to do this season.” To listen more, to do less, to observe more, to try less–and I’ve learned so much, actually.

It’s true that we had already done a lot to shape the yard–we planted many fruit trees and bushes, let wildflowers grow, planted perennials, pulled invasives, and created the pond last year. Some of the plants that were in the pond didn’t survive the winter, and I did add a few more this spring. But it wasn’t enough to prevent algae from flourishing. So periodically, I get inspired to pull out as much as I can. But I’ve also noticed that bees love to perch on the algae, to get a drink of water presumably. (There is always enough algae left for them.) It gives me gratitude to know that this pond, imperfect though it is, has been of use to these creatures in a drought-burdened summer.

Bees on green algae

Lately, my old nemesis the squirrel has come back to start eating peaches. But since I was doing so much less to nurture the peach tree–less holistic sprays, less thinning of peaches, and so on–and since I had somewhat resigned myself to having no peaches after last year, I haven’t been stressed out about that. And the squirrel or squirrels seem more mellow as well. The peaches are actually very crowded together, and every couple days, I twist off a few tightly squeezed ones, even though they are not ripe yet, to make room for the others to grow bigger. I’ve put a few on window sills in the house to see if they will ripen. I tell myself the squirrel is also thinning the peaches. We are collaborators, rather than enemies. Who knows, maybe there will be enough for all of us?

Squirrel sitting on a branch in the peach tree nibbling on a green peach.

In a world with so many horrors that I can do nothing to stop, or even to protest, I am grateful to be of use to these small companions who share our back yard with us.

[And thanks to Marge Piercy‘s poem, To Be of Use, for its evocative and helpful title.]

Bird Joy

There are two robins in or near the nest on our back porch.

The robins are trying once again–for the third time–to raise young in a nest on our back porch. The two previous times either the eggs never hatched, or the young died very soon after. I hesitate to even post this, for fear they will fail again–but, this time, both the father and mother are staying close to each other, and seem to be taking turns on nest duties. I have learned that they open their beaks as a way to cool off in the heat. I wonder if they are new parents, and just didn’t get their parenting act together before? I hope they make it this time!

Meanwhile, goldfinches are enjoying the sunflowers that planted themselves under the bird feeder, as well as the evening primroses that planted themselves near our porch. This little female was perched on that sunflower for at least twenty minutes, just taking her time with a meal.

Female Goldfinch eating seeds of the sunflower.

In these hot dry days here in Maine, I just go outside in the early morning to water the veggies or trees, and to pick blueberries or raspberries, now almost done. But looking out the window brings many moments of joy because of these birds who live in our yard. I learned the Passamaquoddy words for goldfinch–wisawiyehs–and robin–ankuwiposehehs. (wisawi refers to yellow and ankuwi refers to farther, perhaps because they migrate) For them I am always grateful.

Ocean Visit

Sun halo seen at Kettle Cove on Wednesday

We finally made it to the ocean on Wednesday! Between Margy’s knee surgery and physical therapy, and my general fatigue, we just couldn’t do it before, despite it being our favorite summer outing. But Wednesday afternoon, we drove to Kettle Cove. We stopped for ice cream at the nearby stand first, coffee ice cream with hot fudge for me, and a strawberry hot fudge sundae for Margy. Then we negotiated road repairs, and finally parked the car near the beach. Kettle Cove was our choice because the path between the car and the beach was not too long for Margy to negotiate with her cane. Plus we love this little beach and cove. We sat in our beach chairs for a while, and that was when I noticed the sun halo in the sky, and took this photo.

Then I went into the water and swam a little bit. It was just lovely. I can’t even describe how happy it made me feel. Then, afterwards, I sat with the sun’s warmth on my skin, a slight breeze blowing, and that felt like heaven. It has been harder to visit the ocean since being chronically ill. Not only the effort to drive there, but the coldness of the water sometimes triggers me into not being able to get warm again. But this time, I felt deliciously cool in the water, and deliciously warm afterwards in the sun. However, full disclosure, after we got home, I took a shower and then collapsed, exhausted over my whole body. It seems I can’t write much lately without writing about chronic illness, and how it has re-shaped my days.

Sometimes I feel envious of the adventures that friends post on Facebook. I have to shift my heart around and remember to be thankful for the blessings in our life here, even though it might be small in scope. To have food, a home, a garden–I am so grateful for those, and I don’t take them for granted. To have love in my life–that my partner stretches her energy to visit the beach with me, and stays longer than comfortable for her, so I got to experience my little heaven. And my love for her too, to leave sooner than I might have wanted, so she can get home and rest. I am so grateful for our love for each other.

A sun halo is said to be a good omen, that might predict rain (or snow in winter). We did get a much needed, drenching thunderstorm last night. Our garden is so grateful for that. And I am grateful for the ocean, challenging to my body, but still a ceremony of healing for my spirit.

The Gifts of Birds and Berries

Blueberries and raspberries from our garden

Right now the garden is happy with berries: the raspberries are loaded with fruit, and this is the first year for a blueberry harvest. We planted these blueberry bushes in 2017. This year, I put up some fence posts and draped the berry bushes with gauzy fabric after the berries started to form. (Tried it first without the posts, but the weight bent the bushes over when it rained.) This is to keep the birds from eating all the berries. But we have three younger plants in the back that I left open. And the raspberries do fine on their own. So every other day, I go out and pick a bowlful of ripe berries.

Blueberry bushes wrapped with tulle fabric

The fabric barrier is a bit ironic really. I don’t mean to discourage the birds at all. But expert gardener’s advice says that they will eat all the blueberries before we can. I think of myself as a very novice gardener. Our garden only provides us with a very modest harvest. Last year the squirrels took all the peaches, and cabbage moths are now eating a lot of the kale. I have given up on the idea of creating a food forest that will provide all our needs. This year, I haven’t had the energy to give any of it much attention at all.

But somehow, in the midst of it all, the garden keeps giving back to us in unexpected ways. The orchard has become a bird heaven. We now regularly see cardinals, a robin couple (who, after two failed attempts, are again playing with the nest on our porch), gold finches, house finches, sparrows, chickadees, catbirds, starling visitors, not to mention the turkey mom and her two babies that keep coming through, and so many more. The small birds love perching in the fruit trees–and I love seeing them there. They ate the few cherries, which I didn’t try to protect. I think they are also eating a lot of bugs. They even love perching on top of the stakes in the zucchini bed. We provide sunflower seeds in the bird feeder, and they planted sunflowers all around it with the droppings. So we are gifted with all this beauty.

Sunflowers in bloom around a green bird feeder with a small sparrow on it.

This has been a summer of much gifted beauty. Another example is the wild evening primrose. I pulled all of the primrose plants that had sprouted up in the orchard, because I knew they would be too tall and block the paths. But I purposely left the ones on the other side of our back porch, this one in front of irises that bloomed earlier. And now they sparkle a bit like a Christmas tree in July.

Tall evening primrose in bloom

Each year I do learn a bit more about how to garden. This year, it seems that what I am learning most of all is how much the earth gifts to us and to all her creatures, how generous and abundant she is, when we merely open to her and open to other creatures, and stop trying so hard to make something specific happen. I am feeling the interconnected family of beings, and especially the joy of birds who now find a home in our yard. It’s amazing! Finally, I just want to also express gratitude for a monarch butterfly who came to visit a few days ago.

Monarch perched on volunteer elecampane flowers

Cardinal at the Pond

Cardinal ready to drink water at the pond

Today is the new moon. This morning I sat near the pond, reading my journal from the date of the last new moon, as is my practice. Then along came this cardinal landing on a rock on the other side of the pond, about 12 feet away from me. After I took this photo, it flew away, but then he came back a little while later, and took a sip of water. We know that having the pond is beneficial to all sorts of wildlife in the yard, but this is the first time I actually observed a bird taking a drink, especially with me sitting right there. I am grateful for this cardinal’s visit, and his acceptance of my presence in his ecosystem.

Some thoughts to remember from the journal: It is good to be claimed by this ecosystem. It is good to listen to the earth, to the plants and all beings, and to the spirits, and to follow their lead about what to do to tend this garden, and when.

Learning Passamaquoddy as a Non-Native

Photo: Snow covered tree at dawn.

What a beautiful dawn the other day, all the branches coated with light snowy adornment! I’ve been feeling grateful these days. In particular, I’ve been thinking about how lucky I have been to study the Passamaquoddy language with Roger Paul during the last 3 1/2 years. I recently saw an article published a few years ago, by Taté Walker, “3 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Learning an Indigenous Language as a Non-Native.” It got me reflecting about the questions, some of which I had already considered when I began. #1 Why am I learning this language? #2 How will I center tribal perspectives as I learn this language? #3 How will I handle criticism from Indigenous people? Today, I also have a fourth question which I will explore.

I looked back to my earlier posts to remember my thoughts about why I was learning this language. I had asked permission from the teacher, and also from my Wabanaki friend who was going to take the class, and both had been very welcoming. Roger has talked about how his elders had decided it was time to share the language with others beyond the community. On a very practical level, it was hoped that by increasing the number of registrations, the class was more likely to be offered at USM, so more available to Wabanaki students who wanted to learn.

On a deeper level, I wrote that it was a way to begin to decolonize my mind, “I want to think differently”–Nkoti piluwitahas. I also had the thought that, ideally, any of us who came to live in Wabanaki territory should learn the original language of this land, as respectful visitors. Also, years ago, an Indigenous woman had said, “If you really want to understand our spirituality, you must learn our language.” It stayed in my mind though I can’t remember now who it was who said it. (This was during the time I was working on the issue of cultural appropriation by white people of Indigenous spiritualities.)

Today, thinking about it again, I know I had the privilege of retiring from work right at the time the class began, and there was a program for seniors to enroll in university classes for free. Everything came together so easily. My heart led me into it and the door opened. I think perhaps, too, though I didn’t realize it at the time, it was a way to connect to my own Innu ancestors.

During the process of taking these classes, I have learned so much about the perspectives and history of Wabanaki people. I have learned how few people are now fluent in the language, because of forced assimilation, and because of the terror of the boarding schools and day schools, where children were punished for speaking their language. I have learned that for me to learn the language is a privilege that many Wabanaki people do not have, if only because they are busy trying to survive in the English-speaking world. I understand that if I were to speak the language in most contexts, it might be a painful trigger for Native people who carry so much trauma about the loss of their language. So mostly, I haven’t tried to speak it except in our class contexts. And though I am beginning to understand more than I could have imagined, I am humbled too by how difficult it is for me to speak any of it, except for carefully constructed dialogues. I am truly still a beginner.

But the question closest to my heart these days is this: Since I have been granted this gift of learning the Passamaquoddy language, how can I give back? From this course, I’ve learned gratitude and the importance of reciprocity: so what is my responsibility now, as the recipient of such a gift of knowledge? Bearing in mind that I’m not training to be a professional teacher, and I have so little energy anyway because of chronic illness. I have done some activities in solidarity to Wabanaki concerns–but these are not related to language. I don’t have an answer right now. But I am holding this question closely. How can I give back? What is my responsibility in light of the gift of this knowledge? It may be that by holding the question, an answer will be revealed.

Healing Turtle Island

Two deer browsing in the trees behind our yard.

Tonight I feel grateful to participate in the virtual opening ceremony for the Healing Turtle Island gathering. Songs, prayers in Indigenous languages, stories of grief, woundedness, devastating loss, and yet, gratitude. How do we bring healing, bring back balance in our relationships, with each other, with the earth, with spirit? This weekend will be filled with many speakers… (anyone can join on Facebook, or on Zoom, just follow the link). I don’t have a lot of words right now but one of the strange blessings of the pandemic is that because this gathering is virtual, I am able to participate. I was present for the very first gathering here in Wabanaki land, the eastern door. There will be 21 gatherings all together.

This photo is of two deer whom we sighted in our backyard on Tuesday–there were four all together. They were a gift in the midst of a painful week. I found myself just sitting on the back porch watching as they took their time amidst the trees and brush. Sitting still and watching. I feel the presence of such a compassionate Spirit through these visitors from the natural world.

Ancestor Yearnings

My great grandmother Claudia Tremblay

Today, September 29, is my great grandmother Claudia’s birthday–she was born in 1865. I never got to meet her, but I was named for her (my middle name) and so I have felt a connection to her for quite a while. This week I was once again caught in the throes of this strange yearning obsession to try to understand the lives of my matrilineal forbears. I happened to be looking at a document about Claudia that I compiled a few years ago, and it mentioned a resource–the “General Catalogue of the Entire Montagnais Nation.” [Except the title was in Latin and the book was in French. Denis Brassard, Catalogus generalis totius Montanensium Gentis of Father Jean-Joseph Roy, 1785-1795 ]

It was a record of baptisms and other religious rites at the King’s Posts (Postes du Roi) in the Saguenay River area and North Shore of the St. Lawrence River of Quebec, in the 18th century. The Postes du Roi were the site of trading between the Innu/Montagnais and the French/British. They were also the site of missionary priests coming round to offer religious instruction and ceremonies to the Innu people. (The French called the Indigenous people of this region Montagnais, but since then, the people have reclaimed their own word, Innu.)

Claudia’s mother was Angele McLeod, and her mother was Marie-Madeleine, who was identified as “Montagnaise” in any records I had been able to find. But I had been unable to go any further back in her family, and only had estimates of her birth to be about 1789, perhaps linked to a Post du Roi. So I went looking for that book, which was available in a digital format for not so much expense. And it had a built-in translation function, which helped a lot since my French is shaky. The first half of the book was a description of how things were at the Postes du Roi. The Innu generally spent fall/winter/spring in the inland forests, hunting and gathering, and then came to the shores of the Saguenay or St. Lawrence in the summer, to fish and gather with each other. The Posts were built at these established summer gathering places to foster the fur trade, and the conversion of Innu people to Catholicism by the priests.

By searching record by record through the hundreds in the chart, I was able to find two Marie-Madeleines (Maria Magdalena) whose births were within 10 years of 1789: 1795, 1797. The Innu people did not use surnames, but rather single descriptive names, so each record included a Christian name (in Latin) and a personal name for the child in the Innu language. I found Marie Madeleine Katshisheiskueit (record #1065), and Marie Madeleine Manitukueu (record #1079). I don’t know that I will ever be able to establish a definite link between one of them and my Marie Madeleine, but one of them could be related to me. My Marie Madeleine eventually was married to Peter McLeod who worked for the King’s Posts in many places. And she was identified as Catholic, so it would be likely for her to be in these records.

Finding these names is touching a deep place in my spirit. I can’t even describe it. And deeper still, was searching out the meanings of the Innu names in the language. I was able to determine that Katshisheiskueit likely means “Hard-working/female” and her parents’ names were Antonius/ Tshinusheu which means “Northern Pike”, and Anna/ Kukuminau, which means “old woman” or “wife.” (Now the parents were only about 16 then, so likely it was an endearment, or Tshinusheu just said–“that’s my wife.”)

Manitukueu has something to do with Spirit–Manitu is the Innu word for Spirit. But I couldn’t find an exact reference. Manitushiu means someone who uses spiritual or mental power. “kueu” seems to be a common verb ending signifying something being or having. It is like detective work–and I wouldn’t be able to do any of it if I hadn’t been studying Passamaquoddy, which is related to the Innu language. Words are formed polysynthetically, with smaller parts joined together to create long descriptive concepts in one word. So I search the online Innu dictionary, with my framework of Passamaquoddy, and try to recreate what they might mean.

Manitukueu’s parent’s names were also challenging. Her father was Simeon Tshinapesuan, and the closest word I could find was something meaning “slips on a rock”, or “slippery.” Her mother was Marie Madeleine Tshuamiskuskueu, part of which meant “finding it by detecting it with body or feet.” But then I lucked out because her own birth record called it Iskamiskuskueu–which means “from Jeremy Islets,” and she was from Jeremy Islets. According to another source, this Innu name of that place meant “where you can see polar bears.” (Where you can find polar bears?) I guess I was rather far off.

So, it’s hard to trace “family trees” without surnames, but each child was listed with their parents, and by going through again searching for the parents’ names, I could find their parents too. And in fact, there were a few generations in each of their families to be found in the charts, with a lot of holding a magnifying glass over my computer screen so I could read the small letters in the charts. Much more still to do.

It is a whole world uncovered to me. And whether or not one of these women is my actual relation, this is the world she lived in, the world she came out from to enter a path that eventually would lead her daughters and granddaughters into other worlds. I never imagined that I might learn the Innu name of my great, great, great grandmother… and now there are all these names dancing in my mind, trying to form in my mouth, bringing much depth to my heart. I feel such gratitude and curiosity.

Yellow sunflower planted by squirrels, with a bee inside.