Riding the Bus in Madison

I gave up my driver’s license two months ago after I had a seizure on my way home from the grocery store. Since then I’ve been using my old license just for identification until getting settled in my new apartment. I moved at the beginning of the month and today I was finally able to head to the DMV to replace the no longer valid license with a new state ID card.

The exercise of getting a state ID was a good reminder of what I have to be thankful for and a great look at how class and ability impact our lives. My seizure in August meant leaving the small town where I was living to return to Madison. Madison has public transportation. It is, at least in theory, an accessible community in which to live.

My trip to the DMV today was via the bus. Taking a cab could have been an option, but it cost more than I cared to spend for a trip to just get a new ID. It began by needing to schedule my day according to when the best route options were available. Then waiting at the stop to ride the half hour on what would have been a ten minute car trip. Along the trip I read the information about how the busses are being cleaned during COVID and the rules riders need to follow and pondered how much each ride increased my risk of disease.

Thanks to being given the wrong form and a mildly confused elderly man in the line front of me, my visit to the DMV took a bit longer than expected. That meant walking out the door just as the ideal bus to take home pulled away. So, I walked about a half mile to catch another bus. My trip that would have taken probably about an hour or maybe less if I were driving took about three hours on the bus.

I don’t ride the bus often, but when I do it is clear who the busses serve. The vast majority of people I see are BIPOC, low income, homeless, students, and people with mental health issues. If my experience today is typical and it takes three times as long to complete a task via bus or even just twice as long as it does for someone using a car, I wonder how we can expect people to get ahead? How does someone win when a bus that is a few minutes late makes you late for your transfer or your job? How do you hold control in your own life when you are living by the bus schedule and others set their own times?

The busses are a place where social and environmental justice come together. There are many who care about climate change and clean water and clean air and all those things. Many who know that public transportation is environmentally more sound than private cars, but yet they don’t ride. Why not? I suspect a few things, first there is that issue of timeliness, being able to get to the places they want to go, and get tasks done and secondly there is the issue of the other riders of the bus– those who are BIPC, low income, homeless, and those with mental health issues. Could it be possible if bus service were improved and these individuals were able to begin to bridge the gap, able to access the services they need, get to work, school, and able to run their errands in a more timely way that the busses would become a more welcoming service for all while also making life just a bit better for those who need it? Sometimes we just need to draw the connections. Make it possible for folks to do the work they need to do and life gets better for us all.

Just some ponderings from today’s and a couple of other recent trips on Madison’s busses. What do others think?

What is an Activist

When I began Sustainable Life in Action back in 2013 the Grassroots Leadership College had only been closed for a year and I was trying to find enough work to keep my rent paid and figuring out how to keep doing community organizing. My dreams were of starting a new Grassroots Leadership College maybe statewide or maybe in northern Wisconsin along the shores of Lake Superior. It wasn’t too much later that I left Madison. Life didn’t take me to northern Wisconsin, but to Minnesota.

In those days, for me, being an activist still meant organizing people, coordinating trainings, taking part in protests, speaking at rallies, being a force, and fighting out loud in a non-violent yet intense way. While my work was for a better world most of my actions still landed in the realm of working against the evils. I loved my work. I loved getting to know people, making connections, supporting others in achieving their dreams, creating positive social change. We did create change. Every time we people connected and came to know each other, to see each other as valuable human beings we were creating change, not to mention all the battles won.

Despite my love for my life work I was burning out. That’s why I started Sustainable Life in Action. It was a tool to encourage my own self care as well as to support others in caring for themselves. It has been a helpful tool for me. I hope it has been for others as well.

My journey as an activist has reached a new stage. It is an interesting one for me. After seven years in Minnesota and one in Poynette, Wisconsin, I have returned to Madison where Sustainable Life in Action began. When I left this place I was deeply involved in the activist scene. My name was known for work I’d done, nine years running the Grassroots Leadership College, coordinating the non-violence trainings for the capitol take-over during the Walker administration, Green Party stuff, Labor Radio and board leadership at WORT 89.9fm, and more. Now, I am coming back in quietly to a place where there are many new leaders and much of the old guard seems to have disappeared or maybe just is quiet in these times of COVID. It is coming back to a place where I’ve never been before.

It’s good to stand and watch this new place as I too am in a new place internally. After looking for jobs in the nonprofit realm and at the university and colleges to no avail, feeling my stomach churn a bit as I considered roles in organizing again, I decided to go back to another of my earlier careers. I accepted a position as an infant/toddler teacher in a large local child care. I’ve been intrigued by the reaction of old friends who seem to believe that going into teaching early childhood is leaving the world of activism. These people tell me how I’ve “done my time” and that it’s okay for me to do something else.

How can there be anything that is more about social justice than caring for our children? Being an activist isn’t all about holding up signs and shouting slogans. Being an activist is about how we live our lives. At this phase of my being, much of my time will be dedicated to holding the little ones and showing them love. I’ve also chosen to commit my time to being creative, telling my stories, and playing with art. All these things are important. I haven’t done my time, none of us has. We all have a duty to care for this place and for each other each day for the remainder of our time. How we do it is up to us.

Take good care of yourselves. That’s where it all begins.

Thoughts on Making Schools Safe

While sitting in the laundromat earlier today waiting for my clothes to dry, I was paging through the news on my phone. I saw an article from WPR that said Wisconsin schools are calling the police on students at nearly twice the national rate. Kids with disabilities, Latinx, Black, and Native students are the victims of most of the calls with Native kids at the top of the list closely followed by Blacks. The article made me ask again what it is that I love so much about my home state, maybe it’s my love of wanting to make things better.

While calling the cops on these kids might simply mean a referral for a child in crisis or a warning for some teenage action like yelling at teacher and aren’t by any means all arrests, it’s still hugely problematic that kids with disabilities and BIPOC youth are being referred to law enforcement at twice the rate as the overall student population and Native kids are three times as likely to be referred as white kids. It’s 2021 and we’re still operating as if it’s against the law in Wisconsin to have brown skin or to have a disability! Come on folks we can do better than this!

While I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I do think there are a few things that put together are worth considering.

  1. Take cops out of our schools. I’m not going to say that police are bad. I am saying that they have a role and that role is to uphold the law. By having them in schools that presumes that the law is not being upheld or is in danger of not being upheld. It tells kids that our expectation is that they will behave as criminals and that their space isn’t safe. Kids getting the message every day that they are criminals in an unsafe environment are more likely to act as criminals in an unsafe space.
  2. Support the support systems. A few generations ago black and brown children were stolen from their families to be sold in slavery or handed over to the boarding schools. Still, family systems remained and adjusted to care for these children. These family systems are under great stress as the dominant white culture continues to steal their children away through foster care, prison, drugs, and other tools. It’s important to recognize that families don’t look the same, nor should they, across all cultural groups. We need to see these systems and simply stop threatening them and stealing their children.
  3. Care for the educators. This is a simple one that we’ve all heard many times. Our teachers and school staff need the physical resources, time, and classroom support to do their jobs. They also need to be compensated for the work that they do. That’s it.
  4. Honor the bodies and spirits of our children. We are all impacted by what we take in. Our kids today are taking in a lot of junk. They’re fed junk on their plates in the form of processed foods filled with sugars and chemicals. They’re fed junk on the screens of their phones and computers all day long. They fed junk in stories about themselves as they’re forced to digest the history of the powerful that doesn’t represent them. All junk. How can we expect anything other than anger and frustration? Feed them goodness. Feed them good food. Feed them the stories of their own peoples. Tell them their histories of strength and courage. Feed them beauty. Give them the opportunity to run and play and explore the world or just the backyard. Feed their souls. Let them stretch their creative selves and find other ways of being beyond angry.
  5. Look at ourselves. These kids weren’t born angry or trouble makers. They were born cute and cuddly, adorable and sweet. We made them who they are. It is us who need to deal with our stuff. It is us who need to look at ourselves each day and ask ourselves how our actions are impacting the world. It is us who need to act.

Growing Friendships, Changing the World

The satisfaction, success, and joy in our lives is not defined so much by what we do, as it is by the connections that we make and the friendships and relationships that we build along the way. I was reminded of this again recently by someone I met about 15 years ago.

His name is Ben Schumaker. At the time he was dating my dear friend Abha and had started a small nonprofit called The Memory Project about a year and a half earlier. The Memory Project had been inspired by Ben’s travels while a student at UW Madison. Like many young travelers, Ben wanted to engage in the world and make an impact. He started by making friends. He asked one of those friends what he might do to help the poor and struggling. The friend told him that while many people shared food and clothes, obviously important, the children had nothing to show themselves their own value, to reflect on their own beauty. It was with that idea that The Memory Project was born.

By the time we met Ben was already attracting national attention with this incredibly simple and beautiful project in which he or others take photos of participating children in countries around the world and share those photos with art classes in high schools in the US, along with a bit of information shared by the children including things like favorite colors, life goals, and of course their names. The students in the US then take those photos and stories to create portraits of these beautiful children. The portraits are then given as gifts to the children who’d had their pictures taken months before. It’s so simple, yet so profound.

I’ve been able to help out with the Memory Project more closely since January, working mostly on preparing portraits to be sent to their owners, but also a bit on outreach to classrooms in the US, and other projects. It’s been a powerful experience sorting through the artwork, looking at the faces of the young children from India, Cameroon, and Afghanistan.

Given the events of the past few months including the withdrawal of American troops and the actions of the Taliban, I am most struck right now by those pictures of the children from Afghanistan and the simple reality of it all. Feeling those drawings and paintings passing through my hands has made those kids so much more real to me. They are no longer just a news story. They are little ones to be held and sung to.

That brings me back to the creation of the Memory Project. It began with conversation and the development of friendships. Over 17 years it seems that has never changed. Ben and the Memory Project have worked with people in Afghanistan for several years now and he built friendships. When it became clear that friends were in danger because of the situation in their country this little group stepped up to help them escape. The story is told more deeply in this New York Times Article. You can be a part of supporting this ongoing work by clicking here to support the Memory Project’s work to help the people struggling both within Afghanistan and the refugees today. Thank you!

Back from the Break- More Thoughts Today

I was visiting my family last weekend and stopped at the Farmers Market in West Bend, a town in Wisconsin not far from where I grew up. It’s changed a lot since my youth. It’s good to see. First of all, there’s a farmers market. Secondly, there were people there who didn’t look like me, not a lot, but some. That was good to see. Our small towns are so much more when they aren’t those white bread places, soft and squishy without much to them.

I stopped at a little gift shop in hopes of finding a new journal for myself. It’s been a while since I’ve written my blog or my daily journal for myself. A nice journal that welcomes me helps. I found one with flowers and a bicycle on the cover, nice shades of blue and green. I haven’t been writing every day, but I am starting to open it and free write again.

It always amazes me what thoughts start to percolate when I write. This morning I was out at Indian Lake with my dog, Buddy. I was sitting with my journal while he explored the field and did a little wading in the water. I found myself thinking about where we’re at today. Here we are in this time of pandemic, drought, racial/social/economic unrest, huge wildfires, and all the rest. I can’t help but wonder if we are coming to the time of the seventh fire. Are we coming to the end of this chapter of life or is this simply just another round of challenges the same as faced by generations before us that only seem larger than life because we’re the generation facing them?

What power do we have, if any, to determine our direction? I have to believe that there is some power, that we can make choices that will mold the society for the time to come. I was thinking today too of the world I grew up in and the stories that I was told. I grew up in a home where the bible was much more than a table decoration. I remember sitting in bible studies that my mom hosted in our living room. I recall when Sr. Patricia used to bring communion to our house when Mom was too sick to go to church. I’ll admit much of my beliefs have evolved and I haven’t attended mass for years, but I still like that Jesus guy that we talked about back then.

No, I’m not going to encourage anyone to follow Jesus. Follow whoever you want or just go your own way. What I’m wondering about, what my writing and thinking is drawing out of me as I think about this time of so many challenges that we’ve been going through is the disparity between that man of love and caring and who the stories said gave all of himself that we might live and the followers who’ve chosen themselves over all the gifts he shared and have refused to care enough to do such simple small things like masks and vaccination or a list of other little things of showing care and love for their fellow beings. I simply don’t understand. It seems to me like what I once knew as sin and now might just call sadness.

Not Done Yet

It was four years ago now that I contacted an old friend from high school and asked her for some help. I was struggling with seizures, depression, fatigue, and just general poor health. I was also at my highest weight of my life, tipping the scales at 217lbs. I was tired of my epilepsy medication which seemed to be causing more damage through side effects than helping and I was just tired. I needed some support. I needed a guide to help me reassess my approach to food. Kelly had studied nursing after high school and become a nurse practitioner working in wholistic medicine. She seemed my best chance. I sent her a note and set up an appointment.

It took a great deal of commitment just to make that appointment. Like many wholistic healthcare providers, the company that Kelly was working with at the time didn’t work with my health insurance and cost was significant for my small income. But, as it is with so many illnesses and addictions, there comes a time when we hit bottom and have no other choices. I had to do something and this was it.

After some allergy testing we removed a few foods from my diet and my life began to change. The foods removed for me were avocado, kidney beans, green pepper, black pepper, potato, pineapple, cane sugar, buckwheat, and olives. None were major allergies. All were irritants to my system.

Over the next six months I would lose nearly 50lbs regain energy and start a new adventure in my life that would both cause me great pain and give me some tools to keep healing. That adventure was leaving my work at Toxic Taters (a small nonprofit fighting pesticide abuse in Minnesota) for the University of Minnesota Morris and the Center for Small Towns.

The Center for Small Towns (CST) was a lonely place for me. I loved my students. They were great. There were some wonderful faculty and staff on campus and in the community who I’ll always count as friends. But, it was clear from the beginning that I didn’t fit in on campus. The prairie wasn’t wasn’t my home and neither was my workplace and it hurt.

Thankfully, Kelly’s guidance had given me a foundation to stand on during my three years in Morris. I didn’t stay 100% true to the dietary advice, but I’d made the big changes that I needed. I could now tell the difference when I ate well or I didn’t.

It’s easy to sink into bad habits and over the past four years between the struggles of having spent three years in a place that I didn’t belong, dealing with broken bones, surgeries, getting laid off in the middle of a pandemic, switching jobs, and moving among other things, I have sometimes resorted to my old frenemy junk food. I’ve gained back about 22 of those 50lbs that I lost. But, I’m not done and I’m getting back on track once again. I am happy to be back in my home state of Wisconsin. I’ve recommitted myself to eating what’s good for me and exercising in ways that I enjoy to build my health.

Right now that means that I’ve just restarted running, not fast or far, but my dog and I are running just a bit to start our morning walk. I’m also spending 15 or 20 minutes a day to workout with my resistance bands and later in the day 20 minutes or so doing yoga. Each day I’m watching what I eat, making sure that it’s mostly fruits and vegetables and that I’m avoiding processed foods and cane sugar. I’m just starting to see my weight go back down. I am confident that I’ll reach my goal weight, probably in the next six months or so. More importantly I will continue to meet my goal of maintaining my health and happiness for the long term.

I am thankful to Kelly for helping me out four years ago and hopeful that my experiences can provide something for others moving forward. It’s an up and down road, but we are all moving forward.

New Life

The pandemic has provided its challenges and gifts. A lot of people seem to be looking at this past year as having been all about struggle and loss. A year that we’ll look back on with horror or at least deep sadness. I’m not so sure, at least not for myself.

Sure, there has been sadness. My Dad died last July. He was 92 years old. I miss him. I’ll always miss him. But, sadness at the passing of someone who is elderly and in the grips of dementia is always mixed. I will miss him, but I am also joyful that he could let go, move on, and no longer be held by the pain and fear that had become his life. Yeah, I got laid off. But, I got laid off from a job in Minnesota at a really unhealthy workplace where rumors, put downs, lying, and just generally disrespectful behaviors were the norm and wound up through a series of events finding myself working for a good friend on an incredible creative project and back home in Wisconsin.

It’s been a year for being open to possibilities. Last January a severe allergic reaction to a new medication for my epilepsy led to my doctor and I pursuing options beyond medications. In July I found myself at Mayo in the epilepsy monitoring unit. I started my visit on the anniversary of my Mom’s passing. I ended it a week later just after my Dad died by making the decision to honor them both by getting a vagus nerve stimulator implanted. I came back a week later and had the little device that is changing my life implanted close to my heart, reminding me of them. Now, it sends a stimulus through my vagus nerve every three minutes and, along with my medication, is controlling my seizures and making life normal again. My energy is back. It’s been months since I’ve woken up in the morning to a headache and sore tongue, and best of all my doctors and the state of Wisconsin agree that it’s safe for me to drive and live with the independence that a car provides when one lives in a small town.

A lot of people have gone on about boredom and loneliness because of the pandemic and I confess that I’ve had some moments of wanting to get out too, but mostly I have to admit I’ve appreciated this time alone. I’ve been reminded of the joy in slowness and the importance of creative space. I took guitar lesson for awhile, long enough to give me some basics to work with and to continue to teach myself. I’ve started to work on becoming an author of children’s books. Now that it’s spring I just started doing a little volunteering at Taliesin. I’ve been reading a lot more, continuing to write here, doing a little drawing too. How could I be bored or seeking something else when I am given the opportunity to find the creative space? The world runs us too fast and I am thankful that we’ve slowed down for the moment. It is sad that it took a pandemic to slow us, but I can only hope that we find some lessons about caring for our creative selves from this experience.

It’s not been all bad. It’s been a year for staying home and eating home cooking, a year for being creative, a year for relaxing and getting to know ourselves, a year for embarking on a new stage of life in so many ways. What lessons have we learned? What will we carry forth? What possibilities have we opened ourselves to? What is this new life that we are embarking on as this pandemic, hopefully, begins to draw to a close?