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.

 

 

 

 

Visiting Home

It was probably over twenty years ago that I had the idea of collecting stories from my father of his youth.  My plan was to write a book.

Now, two decades later the story is changing.  I never recorded those stories and the time has gone by.  My Dad turned 90 this past March.  His memories are leaving him.  I got to see him this weekend.  I made the trip home, almost 500 miles, for our family reunion and just to spend a little father-daughter time.

It’s a new time.  I remember when I was a little girl watching Dad tossing the seed corn bags over his shoulder, throwing hay bales, working on farm machines, doing all the work that needed to be done.  I remember him sitting in the recliner reading his Sunday paper, sitting in the hospital room watching Mom die, taking up his place in the kitchen after she was gone.

My Dad never graduated from high school.  He wasn’t meant for the classroom.  He’s always thought that because he struggled in school that he failed, that he was somehow dumb.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Dad’s journey started on a farm in Port Washington, Wisconsin the second of four children.  His father died when Dad was seven.  Within a few years the family had to move to town and Dad was working for neighboring farmers to make a little money and follow his passion as it became clear that school would never be the place for him.

When he grew up he joined the Navy where he served for several years before marrying my mom and starting a family.  He eventually started farming with his father-in-law and went on to continue farming for over forty years while he also worked full time at a power plant and, for many years, sold seed corn.

He knew the fields like the back of his hand.  He knew every road in the county.  This weekend he and I went out for a ride.  We went to visiting and stopped at a couple cemeteries.  We talked about the fields.  He confused the soybeans and the corn.  We drove the roads he’s ridden for nearly a century.  He told me that he didn’t recognize where we were.

But still, we traveled and we talked.  When it was time for me to leave to return to my current home, he held my hand and looked my eyes and smiled.  It was a smile I remembered.  I saw it before.  I saw it on his aunt’s face.  Sr. Christine was in her 90’s when she held my hands for the last time and smiled with such sweetness and love, that combination of wisdom and childlike beauty that age creates.

My being is divided. I would both love to see my Dad again, to hold his hands, to hug him, to take another drive, to talk some more and I am mostly ready to say goodbye.  He’s been and continues to be my hero.  That never changes.  The question remains what to do about that book?

Polo Shirts and American Flags

In honor of Memorial Day, I thought I’d take on a topic I’ve not visited in a while.

Back in college I served in the student government association at my school.  We were a committed crew.  We gathered every Thursday night for multi-hour meetings fighting for students rights, our mix of conservatives, liberals, and radicals each determined to do what we believed was right.

Every Thursday night began with the Pledge of Allegiance which I, and a few others over the years, sat out.  I still remember being taunted by my fellow student senators for choosing not to take part.  What I remember best is the night that the flag wasn’t in the room.  One of the conservatives happened to be wearing a shirt designed like an American flag.  The group began to jokingly say the pledge in his direction.  I exploded.

People who had taunted me for a political statement against war abroad and injustice at home were ready to pledge allegiance to a shirt probably made by slave labor.  The pledge of allegiance isn’t just a poem.  The flag isn’t just cloth.  They were created to mean something.  Sometimes protest is our strongest way to honor that meaning.

Just some thoughts.

 

 

 

 

Taking Care

I wonder when I became a care taker rather than someone to be taken care of and what the balance of these things is?  When did I decide that others were more valuable than myself and have I changed my mind?

My meditation of late has led me to a practice of turning toward.  I’m being encouraged to take a look at something in my life that troubles me and sit with it for a bit.  I’ve been recognizing that I am a “wonder woman.”  I’ve known it for a long time, but this practice is encouraging me to look at it and see where it comes from.  I help people.  That’s what I do.  That’s what I do for a living and that’s what I do for a life.  I don’t like being helped though.  I don’t really trust it.  I like to be the one in charge of the process or simply just to do whatever it is myself.

The last two days as I’ve done this meditation laying in my bed I could feel my body tied down and the rock in the center of my stomach as my mind took me back to childhood again.  Doesn’t it always go back to childhood?  We must have all been messed up as kids.

This time it was back to grade school.  I remember being really excited about going to school.  I loved books. I wanted to learn.  I wanted make friends and to have a nice teacher who cared about me.  It didn’t totally work out that way.  I did have nice teachers who cared about me.  I learned a lot.  I had a couple friends.  But, I went to a small school so I wasn’t only picked on by the kids in my class, but by the entire school.

It was the 1970’s and 80’s.  Grown ups didn’t step in much if at all to deal with bullying.  I was just told I needed to get over being shy without being given any tools to do that.  In some sense, it became my fault that I was being harassed.  So, day to day I struggled.  I wanted to have friends.  I wanted to be a part and to have fun at this school that I’d dreamed of.  I wanted to feel safe there.  Instead my stomach was permanently clenched and I dreaded every moment never knowing when my tormentors would get me next.  I tried to hide in plain sight.  It sounds unbelievable to me now, but I don’t think I ever, in six years, asked to use the bathroom during school hours because I didn’t want to draw attention to myself.  I just held it until I got home.

That wasn’t ok.  I needed a grownup to help me and the other kids develop our relationships.  There’s nothing to change now about what happened then and that’s ok.  It’s just good for me to acknowledge what I needed and didn’t get and now I can move on.  What happened then isn’t the determinant of what could happen in other situations if I allow myself to be helped or taken care of.  I don’t need to always protect myself by being the one who only takes care.  I can both take and accept.  We each can.

Thank you for reading my thoughts today.