Climate Catastrophe in Disguise

Wild pansy purple and yellow, blooming in December

A climate catastrophe sometimes shows up as the fragile beauty of a wild pansy blooming in mid-December in Maine. I took a photo this morning, before the snow arrived this afternoon, our likely first plowable snow of the season. Very late for us. The unseasonably warm days feel bright and pleasant, nothing dangerous. But I am thinking of the deadly storms that blasted through the midwest last week, tornadoes killing dozens of people in an unprecedented long trail of destruction. I am thinking of giant raging wildfires in the west, and monster hurricanes in the Atlantic. Sometimes the change feels like nothing much at all, unless I stretch my eyes to take in the bigger picture.

We arrived at our current house and yard six years ago after a 4 month search to find greener housing. We were able to downsize, to add insulation, to cover the south facing roof with solar panels, to install energy efficient heat pumps, to create a garden. Our actions fit the best choices we could make at that time, to align with our love for the earth and all her creatures. In that, they were like a prayer, like a magical spell to further the possibilities of earth community based in mutual respect. On a spiritual level, I have to hope that our small choices can ripple out for good.

But these individual actions don’t make a dent in the greater physical scheme of things. The giant polluters of greenhouse gases continue to ignore the limits of earth to push for expanding profits. We, as a planet, have already exceeded the hopeful atmospheric carbon dioxide goals of environmental organizations like 350.org. Now we’re at 415 parts per million. We’re on the way to unmitigated disasters that we can no longer walk our way back from. Scientists can make some predictions, but no one really knows how the increase in global temperature will play out in the next years and decades.

From where I sit, I can feel overwhelmed and helpless. I don’t have the energy to be out in the streets anymore, an activist like in my younger days. I don’t have the money to donate to activist organizations like I used to when I was working. Many activists I respect talk about the coming collapse of economies and civilizations, even within the next decade. I don’t imagine that I have the physical capacity to survive such a collapse, given my age and health. So what is there to do?

What helps is to recognize my limitations, to take in the very smallness of my being. What helps is to see young activists in the street, sharing their anger and love with loud voices. What helps is to remember that Indigenous people the world over have already experienced the collapse of their economies and civilizations. Pay attention to their advice. What helps is to recognize the smallness of my being, and yet remember how I am interwoven with the ancestors and all the interrelated beings of earth. What helps is to keep on loving the trees and birds and frogs and even the squirrels of this small place we are lucky to share with them. What helps is to offer bird seed as a prayer in the morning. What helps is to imagine the unimaginable largeness of the Earth, our mother, and her mysterious powers that we cannot measure or predict.

Our pond, frozen, with light snow cover.

A Kettle of Hawks

Over 20 hawks high in a cloudy sky.

I was outside lying in the hammock two days ago, when I saw a hawk flying overhead, and then more and more hawks, higher and higher. I understand that a group of hawks is called a kettle of hawks, and only occurs during migration. It was amazing to see! A reminder that the seasons are changing. I am writing this outside today on a sunny day, but wearing my winter jacket.

I think I may have found an important clue in my search for the roots of my third great-grandmother Marie Madeleine. In the record for the baptism of her son Simon, in 1833, in Jeremy Islets, she is identified as “sauvage du dit poste,” which means, translating the racist imagery, “Indian of said post.” And just above that record, Jeremy Islets is the post in question. I just want to say that it took a lot of close handwriting inspection to pull out those four words, but I am fairly confident in them now. And so it seemed to me it might be identifying her place of origin. (Now, on the other side, I know that her husband Peter McLeod was a clerk of that post in 1833. But she, along with two other Indian couples baptizing their children were all identified as Indians of that post.)

To further clarify, generally speaking the Innu went into the woods in fall, winter, and spring to hunt, and came to the posts to trade and to connect with the priests who did the baptisms, marriages, burials, and such. And they didn’t just go to one post, while necessarily avoiding others. But following the clue, of the several Marie Madeleines in my list of possibilities, one was connected to Jeremy Islets, in the right time frame. She was identified in her baptismal record as Marie Madeleine Napeteiashu, baptised June 26, 1803, when she was about 7 years old, they said, which would put her birth about 1796. Napeteiashu was actually said to be her father’s name, with no Christian name attached, and her mother was identified as Catherine Mitisku.

After searching through hundreds of other records, I found a Catherine Mistiku, born in 1773, and baptized in 1786 in Jeremy Islets. She was married to Stanislaus Mishtanapeu, baptized in 1778 in Jeremy Islets. In other records, they are identified as Catherine Mistigu or Mitigu, or Stanislas Tshiuapan (actually the name of his son Paul). I think this is likely the same couple, though in this process, one can’t be positive. I found baptism and marriage records for sons Simon (b 1794, bap 1796) and Paul (b 1798), but no other links for Marie-Madeleine. (And why would Paul be baptized in 1798, but not Marie Madeleine until 1803?) In the marriage record for Paul, in 1817, Catherine is said to be deceased.

Along with the genealogy hunt, I have also been exploring the possible meanings of their Innu names. Mistiku (likely now spelled Mishtiku) can mean, a tree (animate), or a log (inanimate), or possibly a French Canadian or white person-(though Catherine would not be French, but someone might be called this perhaps because she was hanging around the French?) (I think the French were called this because of wearing wooden clogs.) Mishtanapeu means a remarkable man. Napeteiashu was harder to decipher–“nape” refers to a male, and if I stretch the spelling, it could mean a male fox–napeiatsheshu. Spelling was not a hard science in those days. I couldn’t find any other references to Napeteiashu. The one possibility was a marriage with no details attached of Catharina Matshiskueu to Nipituashu. No dates/places/or parents. Matshiskueu means “she is an ugly woman”. So you see, it’s all very mysterious and uncertain.

By the way, several of the names I was researching seemed to have “negative” connotations. I wondered if it was some kind of internalized oppression, or if maybe there was a function of the name to protect the child by acting as if it were not valuable in some way. There was a lot of oppression by the priests. For example, when an “illegitimate” child was baptized, often they did not even name either of the parents at all in the record. Some priests took more care than others. I think the earlier Jesuits learned the Innu language and taught people to read and write in their language. Later priests did not know the language at all.

But as for me, I was so excited to find this possibility. Maybe it was really her, with a place and parents! Then today, I was slowing down to remember that this process of search will continue, and I have to pace myself, to live with each possibility as it emerges. There are hundreds of pages of records, much of it not indexed, so I go through page by page looking for names–and with new names, that means all new searches. Still, I am amazed that these ancestors feel closer to me now, even if they are still like the hawks flying in the sky so far above me that I can’t see the individuals very well. Am I related to a tree, a fox, an ugly woman, a very remarkable man? Am I related to the place called Jeremy Islets? In Innu, Ishkuamishkᵘ, which is similar to the word for a female beaver ishkuemishkᵘ. And how does this all relate to my life as a white woman in Maine, in Wabanaki territory? Still, it does feel like one part of my own journey of finding our way home into the earth community.

A fox near the Capisic brook, surround by trees and other greenery. (This photo was taken in 2018)

Magic Happens!

Yesterday, I wrote, concerning my search for my matrilineal ancestor Marie-Madeleine:

“Why do I write about it here? I’m putting some magic out into the universe, hoping that some kind of thunder might open the cloudy skies between me and the past, between me and the place my ancestors are from. … It has been my experience that when I reach out to my ancestors, they reach back—more so when I have actually traveled to Quebec, but since that is not possible, I hope they will reach across the border.”

And then some magic did happen!

After being stuck not finding people on the GénéalogieQuebec website, I meandered around some more, and some records of the Postes du Roi index of people, not related to my ancestors, linked to images from the actual Postes du Roi records. If I went to those images, I could move back and forth from page to page in the images of actual records. And by doing that, I found the baptism records of six of the Marie Madeleines or Madeleines, from the list I had, from 1800 to 1805, even though they were not “indexed.” Also, I was able to download all the images as I accessed them, to be able to look back as I needed. So now I am able to keep researching, a way opened up.

Some magic happened!

Sometimes it is easy to forget—in my intellectual research mode, in our rather secular world—that magic is alive, that ancestors reach out to us. Even though I have experienced it in the past, and believe in its power. So easy to forget.

And the intellectual research is part of the magic, not separate from it. It is a lot of work to attempt to decipher 200-year-old writing in funny penmanship, in French. But I am so thankful to be able to attempt it. And to learn as much as I can about the lives of all of these women. I also learned that for some of them, the Innu name is that of their father—at some point (1803?), the Innu names switched from being a descriptive personal name to function more like a surname. (Those are in parentheses)

Marie Madeleine Katshisheiskueit, b. 1795 in the woods, baptized 1796 Portneuf

Marie Madeleine (Napeteiashu), b. 1796, baptized in 1803 Îlets-Jérémie

Madeleine Peshmekueu, b. 1799 Sept-Iles, baptized 1800 Sept-Iles

Madeleine Pishikuskueue, b. 1801 Pointe-des-Monts, baptized Godbout

Marie Madeleine (Utsinitsiu), b. 1801, baptized 1805 Chicoutimi

Madeleine Moistashinagusiu, b. 1802 Rivière Godbout, baptized Godbout

Marie Madeleine (Arishinapeu), b. 1805, baptized Tadoussac

Magic happens! May I keep being open to the magic, and may you feel it opening where you need it too.

Close up of hazelnut leaves in full color.

Pond Progress

Photo: The pond on June 11

I am slowly adding stones and plants and developing the top edge of the pond, to cover up all the liner. I did a minor adjustment to the overflow channel to lower the water level by about an inch, and added some soil (underneath the liner and layers) to an edge that was a little bit lower than other parts. I’ve been using my pile of small stones for the edges, but stabilizing them behind larger stones. I decided to use the larger stones to also cover the vertical slope between the planting ledge and the top. This was in the original plan, but I didn’t think I would have enough stones to do it. And I don’t. The other day, Margy and I went to another rural road and brought home another batch of larger stones from the side of the road. But it doesn’t take long to use them up.

By the way, in the background, from left to right, you can see a ninebark shrub in bloom, a summer sweet shrub, and a little elderberry that’s barely visible. I am trying to start some hazelnut bushes from off shoots of our big ones. Also, there is a lot of goldenrod that will flower later in the season, and on the far right back, our mulberry tree–which after a couple rough starts is finally doing better this year.

Back to the stones for the pond, even though I don’t have enough of the larger stones, it seemed smart to do as complete a finish as possible, section by section. Here is a close up of the most completed section, behind the cardinal flower, where I also incorporated an old piece of a branch. I am enjoying this design process.

Photo: pond detail with stones and log

I also ordered and received some more plants–this time I got some pickerel rush (or pickerel weed), Pontederia cordata. This native plant will grow 2-4 feet tall and have blue flowers. I ordered five, but received eight little root and stem starts. So then I decided to rearrange the arrowhead plants, moving them closer to the “front” from where the photo is taken, and where we’ll sit to watch the pond. I planted the pickerel rush mostly where the arrowhead had been, on the back left, and then put a couple of the smallest ones in front of that log. Here is what it looks like right now, and this is the largest one. It takes faith and imagination to see them growing and flowering in the summer and fall.

Photo: Pickerel Rush held in place in the water by stones

In other news, I have twice seen (from my window) a crow walk up to the pond and get a drink of water. Tonight I also saw a few little water bugs of some kind swimming around. Animal life is starting to arrive. The other day, when it was so hot, there was some green algae in the water, which is to be expected until the plants grow bigger–but then it disappeared again today. Time to think of another place to find some more of the larger stones. It all feels magical.

The Magic in the Pond Stones

Photo: A bulk order of small round stones of many sizes

This week has been a big adventure in stones. In my last post about my pond project, I mentioned that I needed to get a pickup truck, to go to a store that had “2 inch round stones” in bulk. Well, I did some research, and put on my big girl pants, and rented a pickup truck from Home Depot. I drove to Estabrooks, where a clerk rang me up for a half cubic yard of the stones. But then they were informed by the people in bulk orders that they didn’t carry 2 inch round stones. Despite a clerk reassuring me two days earlier that they had them. So a manager came by, and explained that the previous clerk was wrong, they didn’t carry them any more, and had no way to order that amount from a possible supplier. She was very apologetic about the mistake, and gave me a $40 gift card to compensate me for the truck rental.

So truthfully, I was proud of myself for doing something I hadn’t done before–renting the truck–and they did treat me well and took responsibility for their mistake. But I was disappointed, and back to square one for finding stones. I started looking again at the notes I had made before, and noticed that I had written down another possible source for stones–but the information online wasn’t very complete. (I think people who sell stones in bulk don’t really like to work on websites.) So I called New England Specialty Stones, left a message and got a call back a few hours later. They were happy to deliver a half yard of 1 1/2 inch round stones to my house, with a delivery charge, and the total price was $76 dollars–less than what it would cost for my earlier Estabrooks adventure. The stones arrived on Thursday, and were expertly dumped on the tarp I had placed on our patio. I felt such relief and joy to see those stones.

Some parts of the pond project have been step-by-step, like digging a hole. But other parts have required a big push on my part, with some help from others–like laying the pond liner, or getting a bulk order of stones. Now that the stones have been delivered, I am back to the step-by-step processes. The person I spoke with about these stones mentioned that they’d need to be washed, to use them for a pond. So I started doing that today.

Photo: Stone rinse #1 of 5

It took five rinses before the water was relatively clear. But I did have the idea to dump out the “dirty” water onto the beds around my fruit and nut trees. I am thinking that this stone dust is likely a very good soil amendment–like the granite dust I put around the tree beds earlier on. Once rinsed, the stones are actually quite pretty and colorful, with a great variety of sizes and shapes.

Photo: rinsed stones

Once rinsed, I take them via the wheelbarrow back to the pond area to use. Load by load. First of all I rebuilt the stone “beach” that is an incline for critters to be able to access the water, to get in and out easily. I mentioned before that after my first attempt I was worried it was too steep. So I removed those stones, lifted up the liner and underliner, and dug it out deeper–I took away a whole wheelbarrow full of soil to make a longer gentler incline. Then I positioned larger stones at the bottom inner edge, and also at the lower outer edge, to be a stronger support for the stones on the incline. Now, it feels sturdy and very usable. Once the pond is filled, the water will reach about halfway up that incline.

Photo: Rebuilt stone “beach” for critter access

The beach completed, I started bringing back stones to put on the planting ledge. I positioned a few of the larger stones I had previously found into spots along the inner edge of the ledge, and then shoveled lots of the small stones behind them. Well, I did this wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow, after five rinses of the stones each time. I think I did about 5 or 6 wheelbarrows this evening. I have seen some beautiful ponds on the Building Natural Ponds Facebook group–with large rocks covering every part of the pond liner. I don’t think that will be my pond. I don’t have access to that kind of rock. My goal is to cover the planting ledge with these small stones, and then finish filling the pond. Then I will start putting plants there, and eventually, they’ll hide the pond liner going up the side from the ledge to the top. But that might take a while. Once I’ve put plants in, I’ll use whatever stones I have left to cover the liner at ground level. Or come up with another idea. But I am excited that critters will have access, and I am happy to be back in a step-by-step process.

The other day, I was talking to a group of friends, and articulated why this work is so important to me. With all of the pain of our world, the injustices past and present, the dangers of environmental degradation and climate change, why do I work in the garden, why do I make a pond? For me, to make relationship with this little piece of land, to love and care for this land, is a spiritual practice. I am only one small person, but I hope by learning to love this small piece of land I can make a prayer, make magic, for humankind to learn to love the earth. I pray that we can stop exploiting the earth and find a different sort of relationship to the earth. A relationship built on respect and mutuality and humility. A relationship in which we understand the sacredness of the earth. A relationship of gratitude, for water, for soil, for stones, for plants. That is the magic that lives in each stone.

Photo: Pond tonight, after putting some stones on the planting ledges

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?

Magic in the midst of illness

Woke up to a misty morning on this new moon day, and started reading my journal from the last new moon until today. It is a ceremony I honor each new moon, and it is a way for my life to teach me.

I was struck by some passages from the time of Halloween/Samhain, that special time of connections to the ancestors. Because of chronic illness and its deep fatigue, I haven’t felt very spiritually focused lately, not much energy for deep ritual. Plus in COVID times, we don’t have our seasonal gatherings either. But it seems like the ancestors and spirits are reaching out to me nonetheless.

I did manage to cook salmon and potatoes for dinner on Samhain to honor some of Margy’s and my various ancestors. I listened to Quebecois music while doing dishes, and drank East Frisian tea. During the night of the full moon/blue moon I suddenly woke at 4 a.m. and saw the moon shining brightly outside my window. The next day, I saw a cardinal–my healing messenger bird–at the bird-feeder–the only time I’ve seen one there all this season. I was watching TV a couple days later and stumbled upon the movie Coco, which (despite its flaws) got me into the mood of Dia de los Muertos.

Marigolds growing self-seeded in our garden strip near the road.

I was looking for things to watch on our Roku and stumbled upon a series on Canadian Rivers. The best episode was on the Moisie River, or Mishtashipu in the Innu language. I had first learned about this river from Innu people who were fighting to protect it from a hydrodam planned by Hydroquebec. They won that fight, partly because there were also rich white people trying to protect their own salmon fishing. It was beautiful to see the river, and to listen to the Innu people who call it home. (And by the way, the word-segment “ship” in Mishtashipu is a cognate to “sip” in Passamaquoddy, which means river. I feel happy to know that.)

All these little threads meandering unexpected through my days, pulled from me this prayer: “Ancestors, are you reaching out to me from the other side of the veil? Even though I have so little spiritual concentration or focus right now? I open my heart to your presence.” I remembered magical moments of other times when I felt the presence of spirit close by. When my Innu ancient-grandmother, Nukum, first appeared, holding a bowl full of the universe. When I was able, despite all odds, to find the grave of my great-grandmother Claudia in Ottawa. When I was sitting right next to my dad as he took his final breath on this earth.

At the tiny headstone of my great-grandmother Claudia.

During those Samhain days, I was also working on a testimony about my family’s role in colonization. I was feeling the weight of the ancestors–the migrations, the wars, so much. I was feeling overwhelmed by that weight, I was feeling that I could not carry that weight, or imagine ways to find healing for this aspect of my heritage. I feel weary even from the weight of my many living relatives who seem trapped in a cult of lies, there is much estrangement between us. And so once again I reach back to spirit kin.

Finally, I hear: “You don’t have to carry the weight. Let go. Remember trust. I am here even when you cannot hear me, in this dark night of the mind and body. You are already in my hands. It was never a question of guilt or innocence. It was always about love. It is okay to trust my love. Breathe in love.”

And so, today, day of the new moon–this new moon which is also considered part of the time of closeness to the ancestors and spirits–I let myself hear those words again. There is room for magic to intervene, even in the midst of illness and fatigue, even when I cannot dance or sing or build a fire. And I am filled with gratitude.

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

At Home

Picture by Arla Patch, James Francis

With these last few quiet days at home, Margy and I were finally (after almost four years) able to take down from the attic all of our wall pictures, and decide how we wanted to decorate the walls of our living room and kitchen. It was especially wonderful to place over our fireplace hearth this print, Stewardship of the Earth, by James E. Francis and Arla Patch. We had purchased it several years ago in a fundraiser for Maine Wabanaki REACH.  Here is more information about it from an article in the Friends Journal.

This work of art is a collaboration between James E. Francis, Penobscot artist and director of cultural and historic preservation for the Penobscot Nation, and Arla Patch, artist, teacher, and [at that time] member of the communications subcommittee of the Wabanaki Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

It was made for a western Maine community celebration of the native woman Molly Ockett (c. 1740–1816, Abenaki nation, Pequawket band). The theme of 2013’s MollyOckett Days Festival was “Stewardship of the Earth.” James created the central image of the tree that becomes the earth. Arla created the context based on the European American tradition of quilts. James provided the symbols, which represent the four remaining tribes in the Wabanaki Confederacy: the Penobscot, the Passamaquoddy, the Maliseet, and the Micmac.

A theme of the four directions, which comes from both Native American spirituality and ancient Celtic tradition, is depicted as the night sky for the north; the sun rising over “second island” next to the Passamaquoddy land of Sipayik; the midday sky for the south; and the sun setting over the White Mountains for the west. “Agiocochook” (home of the Great Spirit), also known as Mt. Washington, is included in the western sky.

Blueberries are included for the role they have played in sustaining Maine native peoples historically and to this day. Maple leaves are in the upper corners to honor the development of maple syrup by the Wabanaki.

When we put this picture on the wall, along with a few others around the room, I found myself feeling rooted and joyful, at home in a deeper way than before. It was as if some mysterious magic had created a circle around us, and we were aligning into harmony and beauty.

May that beauty bring us hope and strength as we enter a new decade, a decade that will be pivotal in our collective stewardship of the Earth. May we human beings find a way to live in harmony with all of our relatives on this planet that is our home.

The Power of Memory

Presumpscott River

I just finished reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Water Dancer, a powerful novel set in the days of slavery and the underground railroad, told through the voice of one young man who is among “the tasked.” There is so much I could say about this story.  Starting with this word, “tasked.” Coates never has his characters who are in bondage call themselves “slaves,” but rather, “the tasked.” And this subtle shift of language helps to transport us beyond the familiar words (of the masters) that have been written as history, into the direct perspective of those who were counted as property.

Even though I learned about slavery from my early days in school, it was easy to discount (even by benign repetition) the pervasive way this institution shaped the whole of our nation from its beginnings, it was easy to mask its reach and extent and corruption.  I grew up in the north, and it was easy to think of it as something far away, other.  But in recounting exploits of folks in the underground railroad, Coates makes clear that people in the north weren’t safe from slavery, or immune to its power. Any person of African descent could be captured off the streets of Philadelphia and transported away into bondage. A person of European descent who devoted themselves to ending slavery risked being murdered.  It was everywhere in this country.

It is not that the novel opened my eyes to some new knowledge, but that it helped me remember what I have already known, and bring it alive in a vivid way.  The whole practice and institution of slavery makes a lie of any notion of “greatest country” or “good old days” or “American dream.”  From the earliest settler invasions in 1619, through the creation of the “United States,” through the Civil War, up to 1865–246 years–the country was bound up in these practices of forced labor, torture, separation of families, sexual abuse. We are part of a horrible legacy that still shapes everything about our country, even though there are strong incentives for us to “forget.”

In The Water Dancer, the central character, Hiram Walker, has a magical gift that is tied to the power of memory.  He was a precocious child with a photographic memory of everything, except for the memory of his mother, who was sold away from him when he was only a young boy.  That trauma erased all memories of her from his consciousness. But later, crossing a bridge over the river Goose, the bridge where so many people had been lost into the deeper south, he sees a vision of his mother dancing with a water jar on her head.

The story begins here.  On the first page he says,

“knowing now the awesome power of memory, how it can open a blue door from one world to another, how it can move us from mountains to meadows, from green woods to fields caked in snow, knowing now that memory can fold the land like cloth, and knowing, too, how I had pushed my memory of her into the “down there” of my mind, how I forgot, but did not forget, I know now that this story, this Conduction, had to begin there on that fantastic bridge between the land of the living and the land of the lost.”

He doesn’t come into the power of his own magical gifts until he can awaken the full memory of all that he has lost, and the painfulness of that loss. And perhaps we too will never find healing for all that we face in our world today, until we open our minds to the painfulness of what we call the “past,” (because it is never “past”), until we are willing to face it as it lives within the “down there” of this land we call home.

The Water Dancer creates that kind of magic, conjures the power of memory to transform all that we are.