Category: women

Breathing

I began a new meditation practice a bit over a month ago.  I’ve done a bit of meditating off and on over the years, but never a consistent practice.  This is my first time incorporating some form of meditating into my every day.  I’ve been following a 8 week online course that I think will give me enough tools to keep going.  I’ve chosen to take on a bit more than the course suggests and instead of meditating once a day, I do twice starting and ending my day with at least 20 minutes of yoga or mindfulness or sometimes on weekends a nice long walk in the park for a an hour or two.

I am lucky to be able to structure that much time into my day.  I am also struck by what it’s meant just in this past month.

It began with the passing of an old friend and mentor.  I couldn’t go to the funeral because driving hours just a month after having had a seizure wasn’t safe.  Breathing, just stopping and breathing paying attention to my body allowing myself to stop and mourn while hundreds of miles away from the people I wanted to be allowed me comfort and kept me from despair.

As I continued my breathing each day,  I began to feel the tingling in my body and sense the healing glow and warm energy.  It reminded me of dream I had several years ago.  In that dream my body was filled with thousands of acupuncture needles and those needles were drawing in and releasing energy from the sun.  My body was healing through the sun’s energy and warmth.   I’ve noticed in these weeks my short memory feels stronger.  There have been no seizures.  And, old memories from long ago are resurfacing as if my body is acknowledging and dealing with them now that it is ready.

Some of those memories are hard.  The last two nights I’ve done a meditation called a body scan.  I just lay in my bed and breathe.  As I breathe, I’m listening to a guide that instructs me on paying attention to my breathing and focusing on different parts of my body.  The body scan is my favorite meditation that I’ve done thus far.  I’ve done it many times in the past month.  The difference in these last few nights has been in my breathing.  I found both nights a point of fear, a point in my breath where the bottom just seemed to drop out.  I’d remind myself that I am breathing, that I can breathe, and again the bottom would drop out of my breath.

Tonight, I remembered.  I was 16 or maybe 17 and working as a dishwasher at a place called Gracie’s, an Italian restaurant maybe 6 or 8 miles from our house.  It was a slow night, most nights there were.  I wasn’t feeling well.  I hadn’t been eating, was overworking myself with school, work, and extra-curriculars.  I probably hadn’t been sleeping well either.  And, I’m guessing I’d been taking a steady diet of ibuprofen and Tylenol already by that point to feel like I was doing something to address the emotional pain I was feeling.

I lifted a pot above my head to put it away on the shelf and suddenly I couldn’t breathe.  Gasping for air, I told Alan, the head cook, that I needed to leave.  He let me go home.  I drove home that night after dark, unable to breathe and not knowing why, speeding then slowing, speeding , then slowing.

I got home to an empty house.  Dad was at some party at his girlfriend’s house.  I was in tears and afraid.  I called him and he heard the fear and my gasping breath.  He was home in just a short while and we were in the car heading to the hospital.  I clasped his hand the whole way.  By this point my whole body was tingling and I couldn’t feel anything.  I understand that I held on pretty tightly.  We were both terrified.

The emergency room personnel didn’t take long to figure out what was happening and to give me a paper bag and some saltines.  I was hyperventilating and I needed to eat something.

I carried a bag with me for a while after that and learned how to slow my breathing by putting my head between my knees too.  Eating was tough to learn.  I wonder if it was at that visit to the ER that we started to accumulate the brochures about anorexia?

By the time I was 18,  I was 5 ft 9 and 110lbs.  I just took a look at an online BMI calculator and found that actually put me below the 1st percentile!  I don’t know that I ever had anorexia. For a long time I denied the possibility.  Now, I look at it and recognize some things. I was hurting and that emotional pain centered itself in my breathing and my stomach and I simply could not swallow food.  I was feeling out of control and needed something I could handle, something that I could control.

Still, I was a good girl and didn’t want to hurt anyone, except maybe myself.  So, I tried, and eventually, over time pizza, ramen noodles and lousy cafeteria food at college saved my life until I was able to really start the journey to caring for myself.

All that in my breathing exercises, and something else– I have always been a good girl, never wanting to hurt anyone else even at the cost of myself.   When other kids came to the point of raging where they’d throw stuff and break things, I remember being so angry at the world that I went up to my room and wanted to throw things, but I didn’t want to break anything, so I threw Kleenex.  It is not the same effect.  Eventually I took to just hitting myself or scratching my wrists.  I used to have tiny bruises on my thighs in my teenage years.  I remain thankful for the things that I didn’t know back then about drugs and suicide.  That lack of knowledge probably kept me alive.

I didn’t have a bad life in those teenage years.  I had a family that loved me, good friends at school, lots of ways that I was involved in church and community.  I was smart.  I had a future.  But yet I was hurting, hurting to the point where I could have taken my own life.

Breathing tonight I started to cry,  I remembered someone, my dad’s girlfriend from those years.  Hilda was a good person, had a nice family, cared about my dad and our family wasn’t horrible or evil or anything.  But, honestly, in those days back then I didn’t want her around, I didn’t like her.  I’d never have said that to my dad or to her.  I always either treated her respectfully or tried to just stay out of the way.  I blamed my dislike on her style.  I was hippie kid of the 1990’s, scruffy and ready to save the world.  Hilda had perfectly coifed hair, manicured nails, and makeup all the time.  Appearance was important to her in how she looked and in how she acted.

There were things I didn’t see though then and I cried for them tonight.  It wasn’t Hilda’s style or the way she behaved that was at the core of why I didn’t want her there.  It was where she stood.  That hair and makeup was standing in the place where the most beautiful bald head and jaundiced skin I’d ever known had been.  I wasn’t over my mom’s death just a few years before and did not want anyone in her place.

Breathing is sometimes a process of forgiveness, acceptance, and allowing things to be.

I can now say it was ok for me to be angry and fearful.  It was ok for Hilda to be there.  It was ok for my dad to continue his life and it is ok for me to continue mine.

With all this processing in my heart and soul I just say to all of you out there who have those kids in your life who are quiet, who are well behaved, who are reserved and not stepping out of line when you know that they’ve been through hell, just walk with them, take care of them, keep them safe.  Thanks.

Mother’s Day Memories

Mother’s Day, one would think that eventually it wouldn’t matter anymore.  My mom left this world nearly 34 years ago.  On July 7th, 1984 the cancer that she’d faced most of my childhood took her.  I was 12 years old when we said our last good byes.

There are so many things that I remember.  For one I remember standing around her beside in the hospital room wanting to reach out and touch her hand.  I wanted to touch her, to feel the reality that she was dead.  My dog had died some weeks before and when I touched the dog’s dead body it was cold and stiff and I knew that her spirit had gone.  I wanted to touch my mom’s hand to know that her spirit had gone on, but instead I told myself her body wouldn’t be cold yet, it wouldn’t be stiff,  everyone would think me weird for touching a dead person.

I wish I had reached out and touched her. I wish I had snuggled up beside her one last time and felt the life leave.  But, it’s too late for that now.  Still, while her body is gone her spirit lives on.

I have an afghan that she started for me before passed on.  I remember her working on it.  She got too sick to finish it and my Aunt Coletta took it up and finished it for her.  It was my last Christmas gift from Mom, six months after she died.  When I am sad, lonely, just needing a hug from Mom I wrap myself up in it and can feel her arms around me, just like when I was a little girl.

This morning I was remembering childhood, thinking about Mom.  I can hear her laughing, such a joyous, uninhibited sound, so pure.  I can see her in the kitchen ironing and listening to Brewers game, washing dishes and singing along with Eddie Arnold, visiting with Uncle Fritz or Aunt Dorothy, or all the other family and friends who came in and out our door.  I can taste her bread, those chocolate bottomed cupcakes, Sunday breakfast.  I can see her making those silly baby faces and goofy noises, playing with my nieces and nephews.  There’s so much.

I’ll always miss her,  but I guess there are some things I’ve come to know.  I know that she’s still here, in my memory and in my heart.  And, I know that I want to laugh and sing and make goofy baby noises and spend time with family and friends and eat good food and do all the simple things in life that maybe someday someone will remember and know that my life was well lived.  She taught me well about what’s important.  I thank her and carry it on.

I love you Mom!

 

Remembering What’s Important

Image result for St. Coletta School

I remember, as a little girl, watching “Facts of Life” on television.  I always wanted to be one of those really lucky, smart kids who got to go to a boarding school.  It seemed so special, almost magical to have that kind of freedom.  It’s funny looking back at it now.  My older brother actually went to a boarding school, St. Lawrence Seminary,  and I visited him quite often as a young child.  I saw his boarding school first hand often.

I also saw St. Coletta’s.  I was thinking of it today, remembering how I loved to visit St. Coletta’s, how I was really kind of jealous of the people that I met there, how I wanted to live there in that wonderland.  I had no idea, as a young child, that the people who I met at St. Coletta’s had severe developmental disabilities.  I just thought they were happy and having fun.  Maybe they were.

St. Coletta’s is a special place in my memory because of a special woman who left the world this morning.  Sr. Phillip was my aunt.  She did laundry and care giving for residents of the school.

There are many of us in the world who hold that title “I grew up Catholic.”  It seems a lot of us hold an anger about that experience especially about the nuns and priests in our lives.  I don’t.  I don’t hold the same beliefs I did when I was younger, but I look back at some of the believers who’ve taught and guided me and I am inspired.

Sr. Phillip was one of those.  I remember her hands, scarred from years of work.  Her smile and twinkling eyes, her walk that really was just like a penguin.  Her hips and legs had to have caused her great pain.  For the last several years she depended on an oxygen tank.  But, she never complained.  She was truly happy.  So often we’re running from here to there acquiring stuff, seeking accomplishments, trying so hard to be greater than we are and falling short, disappointing ourselves and just being lost.

Sr. Phillip just smiled and laughed and enjoyed the people she was with.  She lived over 90 years.  I knew her half that time.  I don’t remember ever seeing her angry for more than a moment.  I think back now and know that she spent decades of her life working and living with individuals facing huge challenges in their lives.  She lived with a vow of poverty.  She also lived within a loving community, with a faith that meant a great deal to her, as a part of a family that she loved.  She had it all.

I thank her for reminding me what’s important.

The Red Dress

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Miigwetch to David Manuel or whoever took this photo.

 

I’ll start this by being clear.  My ancestors are from Luxembourg and surrounding countries.  Sometimes when I advocate that the people of the over 500 different tribal nations in the place now referred to as North America get treated with basic respect and dignity I am asked if I am Native. I’m not.  I was just raised to care for and respect my neighbor.  And, I’ve had the good fortune to count some great Indians among my dearest friends.

I saw the photo of the red dress this morning.  It made me think.  I have long believed that racism is an act of fear more than power.  Somewhere in our being white folks recognize that we’ve done wrong for these many generations and we’re afraid of retribution.  We’re afraid of what could happen if everyone else had homes, jobs, money, education, and a safe place to be, at the same level that we do.

I’m not talking about individual fear.  Some people individually have moved past it.  But, as a group, we’re afraid.

We women, we have to address that fear.  It’s our to address because we are strong.  I remember as a young activist standing on the steps of the Wisconsin State Capitol, listening to Frannie Van Zile from the Mole Lake Nation.  She was talking about the proposed Crandon mine.  She said “You women, you women out there, you are the keepers of the water.”  Those words changed my life.  In many Indigenous cultures women are respected and honored. They are recognized to carry an important power, that they are keepers of the water, bearers of life.

That red dress reminds me that Native women, in fact all women of color, are in great danger because fear attacks where power resides.  It also reminds me that, as a woman, I have a responsibility to my sisters to care for them, to mourn their loss, and to do what I am able to keep them safe.

 

Musings After Fergusen

November 25th, 2014
We’ve all been listening to the stories about Ferguson. There are many conversations out there about what happened, what’s happening now, how we’ve gotten to this place, and why.  In my owner corner of the world I’m fairly insulated personally from the protests directly given that I now live in a rural area of northern Minnesota, but not from the realities of racism or from the conversation.  And, my heart still travels with all my friends who hit the streets in cities around the country with the message; Black lives matter.

I was looking at Facebook today, skimming messages, seeing a lot of sadness from my politically liberal, progressive, and radical friends about the decision in the case and more broadly around how it has been considered a reflection of how Blacks are demonized in the U.S. Then I saw a message that troubled me more.  It was from someone who I care about deeply and who generally doesn’t share my politically ideologies.  It was a picture of an African American police office (I think it was an actor, but I couldn’t remember the show) with the message “Instead of saying ‘fuck the police’ How about you stop breaking the fucking law.”

It troubled me more because I know this woman to be a loving mom with beautiful, smart kids, a caring person who is very involved in her community and church.  She’s someone who is thoughtful, politically engaged, and wants the best for the little ones that she is raising as well as herself and her husband, friends, and family.   Politically a conservative yes, but not so different from me or anyone else I know in her underlying human needs and wants, and someone who I love as family.

I had to decide what to do.  Should I ignore this post that bugged me and keep tension out of the family or do my job as an anti-racist activist and say something.  There was no choice there never is.  I made a comment.  I started it with letting her know that I love and respect her then went into just acknowledging that my experience and the first hand accounts I’ve heard in my years of work tell me that the systems (police, schools, healthcare, etc) treat People of Color whether they be African American, Latino, Native American, or any other group differently than they treat White folks and that there are no “bad guys” unless society pushes people into that behavior.  I opted not to get into how behaviors are looked at differently depending on who you are.  It was just a brief facebook post and I thought that would get too confusing for a first naming.  I did, however, suggest reading Howard Zinn’s  People’s History of the United States.  I don’t know, maybe she will.  She is a person who likes to learn and think.

As for me,  I continue to think about what brought me to this place.

Thinking about the stereotypes associated too often with African Americans; criminals, uneducated, low income, addicts, unwed moms, etc. reminded me of when my eyes were first being pried open as a student at UW-Stevens Point.  I think it was during the time that I was SOURCE director and working to ensure that the Black Student Union get a fair trial with the Student Government Association regarding some small issues with a member of the BSU who had been accused of taking some money at an event.  I understood that race was a huge factor in this case and that it would be difficult for the all Black group to get a fair hearing from nearly all white government.  I went to several mentors for advice.  It was somewhere in here that I learned about the struggles that Dr. Andrea Turner had finding housing when she’d first moved to town in the 1990’s.  The Affirmative Action Director for the University was having to deal with racist landlords!  What the heck!  She left Stevens Point after only a few years.

Another Point story for me was a diorama in Andy Gokee’s office.  Andy works in the Native American Center there.  The diorama was one he made with his daughter when she was in elementary school.  Her teacher was teaching the kids something about Native Americans and was having the kids make Indian teepees.  The Gokee family has a long and proud history in what is now Wisconsin and their tribe, the Anishanabe didn’t live in teepees.  Andy took his anger and funneled it into teaching and made a beautiful piece of work with his daughter that shows more accurately how her ancestors lived.

From there I go to the road,  I keep coming back to that Protect the Earth Walk from Red Cliff to Madison.  We walked to draw attention to the seventh generation amendment, the environment, social justice, and to ask people what they wanted for the seventh generation.  I still see it.  Walking down the road, Frank, Walt, and I and there’s an older man, a white man across the road looking at us.  We cross to go talk with him.  Frank who is white and middle aged starts up the conversation.  Walt who is unmistakably Native is standing next to him and I’m a step or two off to the side.  Frank explains what we’re doing and asks him his thoughts.  The older man responds as if Walt and I aren’t even there with a tirade about those “goddamn Indians and those goddamn Indian casinos.”  I realize he has the ability to choose not to see us.

There it is.  There’s privilege.  Those of us with privilege get to decide what to see, who to see, what to do with what we see.  Those without privilege had better see everything or they will be beaten and killed by whatever they miss in that one moment that they miss it.

I was hoping that I would come out of this free writing exercise with some great insight on moving forward.  I’m not sure that I have.  I only know that the toughest folks to confront are the ones you love and those are the ones you must confront. Do so lovingly.  And, that a whole lot of stuff has brought me here,  I am honored to have been given the gifts of these experiences though many have made me sad.  I am and continue to be amazed by the strength of those I have grown to know.

Keep on keeping on.

The Community Table

August 29th, 2013

I get to work often with groups who want to bring others to the table, wherever that table might be and whatever the people around that table might be doing. Usually the folks they want at the table are different from them in some notable way. They’re often younger. Maybe they have a smaller income. Many times the people with the table have pale skin and the people they’d like at the table have some shade of brown skin.

Increasingly, I’m challenged by that idea of bringing people to the table. I see a couple problems with it. First, it presumes that the people being invited don’t already have their own table that is just as good that you’ve just never seen. Secondly, it keeps the host in the host role. There’s no marriage of equals here. One person/group owns the table. The other is a guest.

We live in a world filled with unhealthy power dynamics around class, race and ethnicity, age, gender, and the list goes on. If we want our organizations and our organizing to not be a reflection of the sickness of the world, we have to do something different.

Step away from the table. Meet the people that you want to work with on shared turf. What are your shared needs and concerns? Know that you may be turned away for a myriad of reasons. Some of those reasons will have to do with your personal actions and some with all the stories of histories of oppression. Show respect. Show a willingness to learn. Show a willingness to fall and get back up again. Know that it will take a long time, maybe forever to build a trust.

Get a new table, one that isn’t yours or theirs, but instead that you fashioned together out of shared dreams. Know that this table will look different than your old one. Maybe it will be stronger and maybe it will be a little off balance. Who knows? It will be larger and have many carvings of great stories hard and beautiful.

How do you step away from your table? Here’s just a couple quick pointers that I’ve found helpful over the years:
1. Diversity of whatever sort isn’t a side issue. It is THE ISSUE. Being welcoming, supportive, and representative of all people that you want to be together at the table has to be central to everything you do.
2. Look at whatever you are working on from many angles. Why might others care about this same thing? Why do you care about it? What do you share with others?
3. Keep looking at yourself and your own actions. We are all products of history. We all need to hold ourselves accountable to act in ways the future can be proud of
4. We are all learners, teachers, and leaders. Allow yourself to be each of these with everyone.
5. Be there. When you are called to be supportive to those you want to work with and who are struggling in whatever way do so in whatever way you are able.

That’s a short clip, no where near the whole story. But, maybe there’s something there to consider. Mull it over and share. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

organizing as a learning tool– thinking about the anti mine fight in the 90’s and today.

 July 10, 2013
As I considered creating this blog as a means of moving toward developing a community organizing school,  I asked friends what I should write about and what they’d like to read.  One suggested to me writing about the anti-mining movement in Wisconsin in the 1990’s and that movement here today.  I was intrigued by that idea.  Today I’d like to take on just a little piece of it from my own perspective.

I’ve been thinking some about not just organizing training, but organizing as a means of education.  In the early 1990’s when I became involved in the anti-mining movement in Wisconsin,  I was a young and naive college student.   My understanding of the world was largely limited to my life growing up in rural southeastern Wisconsin.

When I got to college I started getting involved in environmental organizing as well as in some student rights issues.  I started to connect with other students and activists around the state and began going to meetings, events and rallies around the state.  Getting involved in statewide work and especially in the work around the Crandon mine started opening my mind and heart to the different experiences and lives of folks around the state.  Most notably I started to understand that Native peoples in Wisconsin weren’t just a story in my history book.  They were and are quite alive and some have much to share about understanding this place in which we live and who we all are.

I was at a rally against the mine one time on the capitol steps in Madison.  There was an Anishanabe woman,  Frannie VanZile I think her name was, speaking that day.  She stood up on those steps surrounded by girls and young women and her voice rang through the bullhorn.  “You women, you women out there.  You are the keepers of the water.”  Twenty some years later I can still hear her echoing in my ears.  Those words defined my course in life.  She taught me a central piece of who I am.

Somewhere along the way between then and now I went from being that young and naive college student to being the middle aged woman who gets to tell the tales of “back in the day” and I ask myself; “How do we teach?  How do we inspire? How do we hold the hands of young activists who will carry the fight for decades to come?”

Today Wisconsin is fighting to protect the water as we were back then.  This time the proposed mine is in the Penokee Hills in the northern part of the state.  A few weeks ago some young activists got in a bit of tangle with some folks on the mine site.   From all I’ve heard it doesn’t sound like any bigger of an action than one that my friends and I would have engaged in during the 90’s.  The response was different though.  A young woman, Katie, is facing a felony charge and Gogebic Taconite, the mining company, has hired mercenaries from Arizona to guard the site.

Two things float in my mind now about this incident.

The first is about violence and nonviolence.  I’ve been a proclaimed pacifist all of my adult life.  Yet the other day when I was reading Myles Horton’s autobiography I came across the idea that the question is not really about violence or nonviolence, but about what is the lesser violence?  Katie and her friends engaged in a direct action that some might have called violent.  In fact, the company is using that as their excuse to hire these guards.  My understanding is she threw a soda can and tried to take a cell phone away from someone who was filming.  Maybe that is violence, but armed guards to protect the company that will destroy the land and water,  bankrupt the economy, and devastate the cultures of the area is that not the greater violence?  How do we decide what is warranted?

The other is  how do we hold Katie’s hand and that of her friends as they grow as activists and leaders who will take this fight on for the decades to come?  When I started out in the 90’s there were a few of us young folks involved in more “radical” direct action organizations.  Our insights were largely welcomed.  We were pulled into the larger fight.  We got to stand with the elders who had fought for years before us and learn.  Some of us were sort of golden children, loved and cared for by some very wise people who knew we’d fight more effectively if we were stronger and that they could give us that strength.   I’m not always sure that’s happening today and I wonder how we make it happen.