Hardening

Is it becoming hardened to the world?  Is that what’s happened? Is it ok?  Is it a good thing?  Does it need to be addressed?

I went to see the movie “The Hate You Give” a couple weeks ago.  A woman I knew was there with a friend of hers and their teenage kids.  The adults were talking about how one of the kids had absolutely devoured the book and questioning how they’d respond to the movie.  The kids loved the movie. They also seemed to have the power to take it in as both normal and fiction.  I found myself questioning whether I could have done that in the same nonchalant way when I was their age.  I suspect not.  I’m guessing I would have been troubled.  Though I do kind of wonder about their power.  After all, I was busy being troubled by many things as a teenager that I had no words for, but they looked at ease. 

Then I look at myself.  My work hosted a discussion last night on the prevention of sexual violence and sex trafficking.  We had a good room full of people and excellent facilitators.  They shared some powerful research about what’s happening in Minnesota.  I found myself looking about the room at all the students and other community members and wondering “how many here have been affected?” but not really feeling. 

This isn’t new.  I’ve been doing community organizing in one form or another for nearly 30 years now.  There was a time when discussions like that of last night would have sent me off in anger to organize, to take part in a rally, to do something.  Now, sometimes I just sit and reflect and don’t feel the anger or the sadness or maybe I do, it’s just deeper where I don’t see it. 

I still do work.  It looks different.  I spend a lot of time with college students asking them how they’ve been sustaining themselves.  I measure the invitations to get involved in local efforts and choose the ones that I believe will build community while addressing issues of concern. 

You know it does frighten me that I or those teenagers can look at any form of violence and see it as part of the place and time in which we live and not be at least a bit angry, heartbroken, and fearful.  We deserve better.  

Hardening is a form of protecting self, but isn’t softening that as well? How can we be both soft and pliable and strong to face the painful realities? That’s the ongoing question.   I keep working for an answer.


Snapshots and Goodbyes

Somewhere in the stacks of photo albums and boxes of loose pictures that fill my life there is a photo of me at probably about four years old. I’m wearing a red shirt with sailboats, blue pants, and I suspect my saddle shoes though I don’t think they were visible in the picture.  My hair is a mess, but that’s been true since I was two and it started to appear on my head.  My head is tilted back and arm outstretched, reaching up to embrace my Dad who’s smiling down at me as I’m sitting on his lap at the kitchen table.  

I found myself thinking about that photo again last night after talking with my sister JoAnn.  She’d called to see if I’d talked with Dad lately.

Dad was probably about 47 in that picture, my age now.  He was living a full life.  He worked hard between his job at the power plant, farming, selling seed corn, raising a family, and just trying to live the life his beliefs told him was right and good.  He also had a lot to smile about good friends, good family, a good life all in all. 

He still has a lot of those things at 90.  Some of the family is gone, but we’ve added a lot more too.  Many of his friends have passed on, but some are still here and some of the children of others remain and still care about him. He is a lucky one to be surrounded by caring people.

So, why thinking about the photo? Well, JoAnn called to ask how Dad was doing when I talked with him.  We’ve been lucky for a long time.  Too many people these days watch their parents slip away into other worlds of dementia and Alzheimer’s.  Until recent years, Dad was both mentally and physically doing really well.  It’s probably only been in this past year that he’s begun his journey to saying goodbye. 

Physically, he’s doing well for 90.  He uses a walker, but hey he’s walking. I can only hope for that at his age.  But memory is getting hard.  It’s tough to recognize the time of the day or night sometimes he needs a reminder about coming to meals.  He still loves to visit and play cards.  It takes a little while to get back into the game and remember the things that once came almost naturally like shuffling. 

It’s little things here and there.  He has a great home with wonderful staff who watch over him, family, and friends who visit almost daily, and my sisters and their families who take care of his needs from day to day.  I guess it does take a village. 

Still, I think about that picture and ask myself, how will we say goodbye?  With the mental declines of aging it could be days or years, but it is a process of goodbyes that we have begun.  I suppose all I have is how Dad and I end each phone call with I love you and blowing each other kisses.  He hasn’t forgotten that yet.  


The New Housemate

It’s been three months now since Bella took her last walk on August 26th, 2018.  Then on September 15th, I took the leap and brought a new friend into our little household and the world changed again.

Bringing Buddy home was the best way I could find for me to heal. It’s been an adventure that’s for sure.  What else could it be going from an 11 year old relaxed  best friend dog who had the power to take people with dog phobias and gain their trust and who could see the spirits in the room that none of the rest knew were there to a ten week old bundle of chaotic energy?

I still miss Bella, I suppose I always will. She carried me through some tough times along with many good ones and traveled with me for quite a few miles living in two states and at least six different homes over our years together.  I suspect the cats miss her too sometimes, especially when young Buddy is attempting to use them as living chew toys.

Buddy is a special little guy too though and is finding his way into my heart and many others.  He’s some sort of lab mix, born on the White Earth Indian Reservation who came to me via the Humane Society of the Lakes.

The morning I went to the Humane Society I’d actually gotten approval to adopt Buddy’s sister, but while people can submit applications and get approved they can’t reserve dogs.  I promised myself that if a family with kids was there to see the puppy I’d planned on I would let them have it without questions.  So, when I arrived to find a family with kids I looked to the other puppies.  Buddy jumped right in my lap and started to chew on me and I fell in love with the little 10lb clown.  We’re still working on the chewing though.

It’s been an exciting few months.  Buddy is a high energy dog and growing fast. He’s already put on 15lbs in our just over 2 months together.  Without enough running everything becomes a chew toy including the cats and his favorite human.  Tickle takes being a chew toy quite well and just bats him around a bit.  Tonks, not so much.  She’ll only come out from under the couch for trips to the food dish, the litter box, or when she’s feeling really brave.  The good thing is that Buddy’s been encouraging me to get in plenty of time hiking and playing out at the local natural area.

Up until very recently I thought I might have to buy stock in the pet stain remover company. Accidents were coming multiple times a day.  He had favorite spots on the living room carpet! We’re down to about one accident a week now.  I have hope.

He’s a smart little guy, other than taking a while with potty training and chewing.  I was happy to see him holding a ‘stay’ as I stepped several feet away today.  He’s also doing well with sit, come, shake, spin, and lay down.  Roll over is tough.  Sometimes it works.  Sometimes it means the human gets a puppy nip from a puppy who really wants a treat.  We keep trying.

In a few weeks, we’ll be embarking on the next step of our journey together. Buddy and I are going to puppy school.  It’s the first step of the journey for Buddy to become a therapy dog.  Bella provided therapy by nature. I’d thought of having her certified, but wasn’t aware of the option until she was old and it was past her time.  I suspect that Buddy will give a lot of good just by his spirit, but hopefully, he’ll have the certification to take him places too to help elders or kids or maybe folks facing illness.  We don’t know yet.  There are many questions to be answered.

I hope you’ll join us along this trip together.

The Gift of Mustriepen

I was reminded today of a most wonderful and valuable gift I received as a child.  I’ll call it mustriepen.  It was, and remains, the most awful stuff known to the human digestive system. My Uncle Tom is the only person I am aware of on the planet that can make any that is reasonably enjoyable.  For those not familiar with the food, mustriepen is a form of sausage ring made of pork remnants, cabbage, onion, breadcrumbs, blood, and spices.  It came with my people from Luxembourg.

So why call it a wonderful and valuable gift?  I work at university where we have a large population of Native students.  Today in talking with one of those students I got to listen to a story that isn’t uncommon.  The student told me about not getting to spend much time with relatives on the reservation growing up because the reservation was someplace not to be because poverty and addictions.  Staying away kept them safe from such things.  There’s value and truth to that.  But, it also did something else.  That student referred to themselves as white.  It’s only now as a young adult that they are starting to look at who they are in their Indigenous heritage.   We have many students who are blond haired, blued eyed Native Americans.  When they grow up in their cultures and you ask who they are they will proudly say  “I’m from Red Lake” or Leech Lake or wherever.  Many will know how to introduce themselves in their ancestral language, maybe they even speak more.  They know something of who they are.  Now a reservation is simply a place, but it is one place where culture and history stands.  It’s not the only one.  There are many ways to grow up knowing who you are.

The thing is those blond haired, blued eyed Native kids who feel some connection to who they are speak with a sense of strength and grounding that the other kids don’t have.  There are other Native kids like this one who want to know the way home and it’s a hard way to find.

I’m not Native but I grew up with mustriepen and a sense of identity that is unusual for white people today.  My people had lived in Wisconsin since the mid to late 1800’s, but still identified as Luxembourgers.  My dad and some of his generation could still speak the language.  My grandma grew up speaking it.  In the process of becoming white identity is lost.

I am thankful for that gift of mustriepen and I, once again, find myself asking– how do I support and guide these young people who want to know who they are?

WORT- A Story On What Takes To Handle Crisis in Community Organizations

As someone who’s worked many years both professionally and as a volunteer in nonprofits and leadership development, I need to give a shout out to WORT 89.9fm Community Radio in Madison, Wisconsin for really having the essentials together.

I’m not saying that WORT is perfect.  I served on the board for several years when I lived in Madison and I can assure you that they are far from it, but they’ve got the key components and that became really clear recently when they faced a major incident at the station.

WORT is a community led, listener sponsored radio station in progressive Madison that went on the air in 1975 and has been riding the waves of operating in a community oriented space ever since.  In the early morning hours of Sunday, August 5th some of the pain and fear that’s all too common in our reality today walked into the station.  Someone came into the station and fired shots.  A DJ was injured.  Thankfully, the injury wasn’t serious and they were released from the hospital within a few hours.

Here’s where I become amazed.

The shooting happened in the early hours of Sunday morning, a time when the station would just have volunteers in the building and probably no paid staff.

  • The volunteers on air were able to respond to the shooter in a way that minimized harm.
  • Volunteers knew how to reach the board chair.  He was contacted and spoke effectively on behalf of the station with police and media.
  • The news department had a message out the WORT community telling them what had happened within a few hours and cutting off the main flow of the rumor mill.
  • WORT volunteers and listeners immediately stepped up with messages of support, offers of help, and donations.

I was thinking about this yesterday because of another board that I serve on.  It’s a struggling organization and I agreed to serve on the board because I believe they can be better.  Right now if there was an incident like the one WORT faced, I’m not sure what would happen.

We all hope none of our organizations ever have to face such moments of terror, but there is a lot to learn from WORT even for our every day operations.

  • Do your volunteers know who the person or people are who speak on behalf of the organization and how to reach them?
  • Do they know what to do in case of emergency?
  • Do you have a communications plan?
  • Do your volunteers and supporters feel that sense of connection to your organization that they’ll step up in a time of need?

WORT has had many ups and downs over its more than 40 years of operation.  It’s taken a lot of work to get to the point that they could get stronger from disaster rather than weaker.  Now is the time to work on these issues in your organization.  Don’t wait for the emergency to happen.

An All White Town

I grew up in rural Wisconsin in the 1970’s and 80’s in an all white town, except that it wasn’t, all white that is.

I don’t know exactly when I realized that little bit of information. I just know that even today I hear about rural communities being “all white” and I wonder.  I know that was the story of the area that I grew up.  That’s how we, at least we who identified as white, spoke.  “Those people” whoever “those people” were lived somewhere else, maybe in Chicago or Milwaukee or up north on the reservations, but certainly not in our area.

While I was busy living in that White Town fantasy world, some of my friends were living the reality of being bi-racial, Latino, or Asian in a community that didn’t, and probably still doesn’t really recognize them for who they are.  Instead, it asks that they pretend to be White or better yet, just be invisible or don’t be.

Well, these days I hang my hat in west central Minnesota.  I’m still in a small town and I work with small towns around the state.  Our rural communities are changing.  The White population is slowly shrinking and the population of people of Color is growing.  It’s going to continue that way into the foreseeable future.  It wasn’t ok for us to expect people of Color to pretend to be White or to try to be invisible or to just not be thirty years ago.  It’s absolutely unacceptable today.

Do we want rural communities to survive?  If we do, then we need to take a look at ourselves and ask some questions.

  • Am I seeing everyone who lives here for who they are or am I asking them to reflect me?
  • What am I doing to honor the experience and gifts that People of Color bring to the table?
  • How am I perpetuating racist systems and how am I tearing them down in my every day?
  • Who do I welcome and how?
  • What do I want my community to look like in twenty years? What will it take to get there?

I am sure there are many more questions to consider, but these give us a starting point.  The key thing is that the fantasy White Town has always been a nightmare for some and is becoming a nightmare for all.  If we want the nightmare to end, we need to look racism in the eye and tell it no more.

Who Am I?

My friend Walt used to tell a story.  He’d tell people of an Anishanaabe elder who spoke of the fire at the beginning of the world, “No” he’d say ,”before the beginning.”  All the people sat together around that fire with the creator.  One by one we went off to populate the world.  The Anishanaabe were the last to leave.  They liked it there by that fire, telling stories, swapping jokes, and just having a good time with the creator.  Finally, the creator had to chase them away.  That time by the fire has left a memory, a connection that others have forgotten.

The elder in Walt’s story was approached by people from all over world; African, Asian, Latino, Caucasian all asking for their stories.  The elder always responded the same.  “I don’t your story.  I can only tell my own. But, if it’s true that we all come from around the same fire, our stories must be similar.”

I think about that often.  It’s told me who I am.

I grew up a Catholic, white, farm girl in southeastern Wisconsin.  I always wanted to see the homeland of my ancestors.  A little over a month ago that dream came true.  Some of my family and I went on a tour of Luxembourg.  That’s where my understanding of who I am got a reworking.

It turns out that it’s likely my ancestors were Jewish.  Quite a thing to find out during a week of touring WWII museums and cemeteries!

I am left now to wonder who they were.  Jews were first recorded in Luxembourg in the 13th century.  They were largely wiped out and returned several times over the upcoming centuries.  By the time my family left in the mid-1800’s there were several hundred in the country.

What happened?  What made this group so persecuted so consistently throughout the centuries? What pushed my family to deciding to leave behind their identity and claim something new when others didn’t?  What does that identity mean for me?

These are all questions that have just begun to float in my mind.  I don’t know yet what to do with them or where to seek answers.  It is probably enough for now to simply name the questions.

It is my walk back to that fire to find out who I am.  That is where we find ourselves, in the journey back to the fire, in that time to sit and visit and come to know each other, ourselves, the created, and the creator.