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.

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.

 

 

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!

 

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.

The Times They Are A Changin

I was reminded this morning in a Facebook post by my friend, long time activist David Newby, that 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the height of the protests against the Vietnam War. He was noting how 50 years ago it was college aged people leading the way and today it’s even younger people taking the lead.  He found great hope in that.

I find hope in that as well.  I find hope there because of the David Newby’s of the world.  When I was young activist/ organizer in the 1990’s, learning the trade in Wisconsin in places like Stevens Point and Madison, I was meeting people like David, Jim Missey, Betsy Lawrence and many others who had begun their political engagement in the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements.  Those formative experiences made it impossible for them to turn away, though I am sure there are many time that they would have loved to have tossed their marching boots and gone home.  They couldn’t.  They’d grown to know and love and recognize themselves among those hurt by the injustices inflicted by governments that don’t represent the people and corporations that pull the strings.

My generation’s additions to the crew of social change makers were small but determined.  Like our predecessors, many of us have found we can’t just go home and forget.  Sure, most of us have regular jobs and families. But we also keep speaking out in one way or another.  And, some of us, have chosen to follow social justice as our career path as well.

It seems to me that there is something to the idea of “starting them young.”  Those who find their way to challenging the forces of oppression as teens and young adults find their passion and themselves in the struggle.  There is community.  There is a reason for being.  There is a sense of love and hope.  There is a multi-generational space where people care for each other.   There are the things that we’re looking for in developing a strong community and democracy.   Those young people may not all stay active every day of their lives, but many will keep coming back.  Those connections will be made.

In the early 1960’s as the Anti-War Movement was starting protests in some of our larger cities had crowds in the hundreds. By 1967, over 100,000 gathered at the Lincoln Memorial.  In 1968, brought thousands to Chicago for the Democratic National Convention.

More than 200,000 took part in the March for Our Lives in Washington D.C. according to Digital Design & Imaging Service.  Thousands of others gathered in cities and small towns around the world.  Youth led these gatherings.  These teens and young adults are leaders who will find their community, their hope, their possibilities and their understanding of the political system in this struggle, alongside those of previous generations who never hung up their marching boots.  The difference here is that the crowd has grown.

The movement is growing.  It is getting stronger.  These teenagers don’t have a complete political and social analysis.  Thank goodness!  Their minds are still young, agile, and developing new ideas.  I say thank you!

To the young people I say, listen to the stories.  There are many elders still among you with important stories to share and others who’ve done this stuff for a while too.  Listen, learn, and do what feels right.  You’ve got this and we’re with you.

The Boarding Schools Continue

I was a foster parent for a bit over a year before I moved to Morris.  It gave me an opportunity to learn quite a bit about the foster care system in Minnesota as well as to care pretty deeply about some profoundly hurt children.

The foster care system in Minnesota is a lot like that in other states.  It needs systemic change.  Wonderful, caring people work within the system.  They are overworked, under prepared for their roles, often lacking cultural competence for working with the groups that they interact with, and eventually just burned out.

There’s a piece though that troubles me most deeply about how the system works.  Here in Minnesota that piece goes back to 1871 with the opening of the White Earth Indian School.   The White Earth Indian School was one of sixteen boarding schools in Minnesota, the largest of which was on the campus where I now work.  The Morris Industrial School for Indians which was begun by the Catholic Sisters of Mercy and later run by the Federal Government had over 2000 students during its 22 year history from 1887 to 1909.  These schools were where Minnesota lived out that idea made famous by Capt. Richard H. Pratt, who founded the Carlisle School in Pennsylvania, “Kill the Indian. Save the man.”

Native children were kidnapped. Their hair was cut. They were denied their traditional diets and forced to speak only English.  They could no longer practice their own spiritual beliefs or learn from their elders.  Entire generations began to lose a sense of who they were.  We know now that this loss has fed into many of the challenges that our Native communities face today.  We understand that the destruction of the Native diet has led to diabetes, heart disease, depression, and other illnesses. We know that people need a sense of family and self to stay clean of drugs and to succeed economically and emotionally.  We know that many of the elders who lived through the boarding schools still carry the trauma and that those experiences are handed down one way or another.

Why does that matter?  Well, here in Minnesota 2% of the population is Native. Yet, over 20% of the children in foster care are Native.  In 1871, maybe the Federal government didn’t understand the culture of the Native people and how the community raised children.  Maybe they really thought they were doing something good.  I don’t know.  What I do know is that today we know better.  Today we know that it’s wrong to simply kidnap those children, cut their hair, take away their language and their beliefs, and feed them poison.  Yet we continue.

The system needs to change.  Stop putting Native kids in foster care at record rates.  Instead, feed them good food, bring back their languages, let them learn their history and their values, honor their communities.

Mammogram Memories

Tomorrow is the big day.   As a child years a measured by birthdays.  As a woman over 40, years are measured by mammograms.

I am one of those whose family history leaves me wondering every year– Is this my year?  Thankfully, so far though the radiologists have been challenged and I’ve been called back, every year the tests have come out clear.

I’ve talked with other women who’ve also lost their mothers to breast cancer at young ages.  We share the common fear of the mammogram.  Some are so frightened that they’ve actually passed out in the exam room!  The women that I know recognize the mammogram as their weapon against their greater fear, cancer.  So, we buckle down and force ourselves in for the annual boob squish and pray.

I am reminded though how lucky I am at this time of year.  My mom got sick when I was about six or seven.  She died when I was twelve.  I have few memories of her being sick over those six years.  I remember her wigs, her prosthesis, and the scarves she wore when she didn’t want to wear a wig.

I had the good fortune to learn about beauty and strength from a woman who left one of her breasts on the nightstand and was usually bald around the house.  I remember, as a little girl, playing in my parents bedroom.  The prosthesis held a certain fascination.  The other thing that I loved was her perfume.  I still have that old bottle.  It’s empty now.  It’s been that way for years. But I can just twist the cap a little and still smell the woman she turned into every Sunday morning.

I sometimes wish I had that prosthesis, a sort of reminder of the woman she was all the rest of the time, the one who taught me to be strong, to recognize the internal nature of beauty, to care for myself, and to care for those around me as well.  Ah well, the perfume bottle will do and remind me to be thankful for time with her and because of her.