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.

Nickels and Decks of Cards

Nickels and decks of cards have always made me think of my dad.   My dad, who is now 90 years old, is a sheepshead player and used to play poker too.  Sheepshead, for those not lucky enough to have grown up around the game, is a mainstay of many Wisconsin homes of middle European descent.  A quick look at the history suggests that this complicated card game may have come from the peasants of 18th century Germany, playing a game on barrel heads where the king doesn’t rank the highest.

But, history aside, I’ve never learned to play the game.  It was six year old form of protest not to sit at the table and join the family in this generations old game.  Yet, I was there.  I watched.  I listened. I laughed along.  And, I remember the pile of nickels at Dad’s side.  I remember how he’d slide nickels across the table to the winner of the hand or gather the nickels into his own pile when he won.  They never played for bigger money, just nickels.  I have the container that used to hold Dad’s nickels on his dresser sitting on my dressing table now.

Dad lives in an assisted living facility these days.  Where he once could remember more than just about anyone I know, he now grows frustrated with the holes in his memory.  Some things are hard to hold on to in his head.  He doesn’t always remember the names of the grandkids and great-grandkids.  He gets the names of us kids confused sometimes.  Sometimes I’ll ask about something that happened during my lifetime and he’ll shake his head as if trying to jar the memory loose, then just tell me he doesn’t know about that.

Still, for a man of 90 years his memory remains incredible.  I am reminded of this by the nickel and a deck of cards.  Dad now mostly plays for chips.  It’s apparently illegal in Wisconsin to play for nickels in senior living facilities.  He still plays sheepshead.  I still don’t know what it means with all it’s schmears and trumps and whatever else, but I know he knows the cards.

Back at Christmas time I was playing King’s Corners with him.  It was new game to both of us.  He struggled at first picking up on how to play this simple game, but it wasn’t long before he was pointing out my slip ups.  He knew the cards and knows how to think as a card player.  We laughed and joked and remembered his old friends together.

We laughed at my clumsy shuffling as I lamented that I should have learned from him back when I was a child and he was ready to teach me.  I admired how well he still shuffles and deals while he said he just can’t do it like he used to.

I think about all the kitchen tables he’s sat at over the years dealing out those cards with such skill, gathering nickels or poker chips, and sliding them out across the table again, laughing, joking with friends and family, swapping stories.  Then I find myself thinking of the regular card games that used to happen when I was young.  My dad and some of his friends had a poker club.  I remember when it was our turn to host.  Mom and I would clean.  I’d help out filling bowls with peanuts other snacks, run downstairs to get the poker chips, ash trays, and the ice bucket from behind the bar in the basement.  Dad would mix drinks in those special glasses we had with the wild animals on them.  I’d get a Shirley temple.

The guys would arrive and I’d get to help put away coats.  Mr. Steffen would blow smoke rings with his pipe for me.  The kitchen would eventually become a cloud of smoke between that pipe and Jerry and Kenny’s and I don’t remember who else’s cigarettes.  I’d play while the men jovially bantered over their game until it was time for me to kiss Mom and Dad goodnight and go to bed.  From there, their game went on well into the night and Mom and I would wash dishes in the morning knowing it was a good night of fun and friendship.

I think Dad is the last of the players at that table still in the game of life.  He’s dealt many hands in his life and it won’t be long until he deals his last.  I am thankful for all the memories he’s given me.  While I may never learn to play sheepshead or poker, or maybe I will, who knows, I will always know my father’s love every time I hold a nickel or a deck of cards.

 

 

500 Years of Genocide

I went to listen to the senior seminar of a student that I’ve had the good fortune to work with over the past few months today.  Quinn will be graduating with a degree in psychology and was speaking to the problem of suicide in Native American communities in the U.S. and the connection to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and inter-generational trauma.

Her presentation was excellent overall and gave me something particularly new to think about.  I’ve heard the comparison over the years between the holocaust and Native genocide. Quinn pointed out a key difference.  Many of the survivors of the holocaust were able to leave the concentration camps when the war was over.  That’s not an option in this case, at  least not for the vast majority.

I am reminded of my old friend Walt Bresette. Walt was Anishinaabe from the Red Cliff Indian Reservation on the shores of Lake Superior.  He would often go around speaking to groups about mining and other environmental issues and he would tell these largely non-Native groups– We must come to recognize this place as our home. We don’t do that.  We tend to believe that if we don’t live here we can live there.  It’s not that way for the Anishanaabe.  For the Anishanaabe this place is home.  This was where the creator led them, to this place where the food grows on water, that food we call wild rice.

So, we look at the history of Native people in the U.S. forced into small corners of their home,  these corners we call reservations, as part of the torture.  So, on the reservation is the place of torture because it is what remains of the home and off the reservation is the place of torture because it is the part of the home that was stolen.

What do we do with that?

I’m thinking about all this not only because of Quinn’s presentation, but because I lost an old friend and mentor this past week.  He was shot.  His nephew shot him.  A middle-aged Indian had his brains blown out by a somewhat younger Indian.  Why? No one really knows.  I doubt the nephew really even fully knows why he pulled that trigger.

What I do keep thinking is that while that young man pulled the trigger, a whole society, a society of which I am a part, murdered my friend.

The stealing of land, the failure to tell the truth of history, the economic, environmental, and social acts of destruction aimed toward the Indigenous people of this land for the past 500+ years, told that young man who he is.  Those actions helped him define his own view of himself and determine his response to the world.  Every action leads somewhere.  Quinn spoke today of inter-generational trauma and ACEs impact on the high levels of suicide in Native American communities.  I suspect the same is true for acts of violence and for deaths due to drug and alcohol overdoses as well.

Until we, as a society, really deeply and sincerely address those underlying causes, until we speak the truth of the history,  mourn together, and change our actions, we are still engaging in genocide every day and every moment of each day.