We Are Not Powerless

Clarion Reminder

 

The powerful provoke the powerless

to push against one another.

Their power grows by keeping us

in all kinds of prisons.

 

Yet we are not powerless.

 

Remember the black bear

roaming Clarion County, Pennsylvania,

its head trapped a month or more

in a metal-ringed pail.

 

Remember those who chased it for hours,

grabbed it in a perilous embrace,

carefully sawed loose those tight bonds.

Imagine what they felt as the bear

ran free into the woods.

 

Imagine too, the bear.

 

Laura Grace Weldon

Originally published in Writers Resist.  Find more poems in my collection, Tending.

Accused

Witch trial Salem, Massachusetts, lithograph by George H. Walker, 1892.

Nearly 20 years ago we moved to the small Ohio township where we still live. We were taken aback to find we weren’t entirely welcome. Soon after settling in I was told by several neighbors I should remove our Halloween decorations, since that marked me as being on the side of Satan. I was also informed I should take down my sign supporting the local library levy, because the library allowed children access to that bastion of evil — the Internet.  A few weeks later, simply admitting we weren’t the correct brand of born again Christian resulted in a de facto death threat.

But we hung in there. We planted fruit and nut trees, along with raspberries, asparagus, and other perennials. We built barns and fenced pastures. We intend to live here until we’re so damn old that we can’t feed livestock or preserve our harvest or take a daily walk. If nothing else, we’re resilient.

Still, it’s not always easy.

Here’s one example. A few years ago, our regular postal carrier actually asked me if we were devil worshipers. He was apparently alarmed by a large outdoor mosaic I’d made out of broken dishes and other memorabilia left to me after my mother died. He perceived the crescent moon shape, a shape we all see every month in the sky above our lovely planet, as somehow malevolent. I was too surprised by the question to  answer him.

But, of course, I have no concept of what it’s really like to be perceived as a dangerous influence.

An ancestor of mine paid for that with her life.

My cousin Becky recently dug through all sorts of records to complete a family history. She confirmed stories we heard when we were growing up, that we were descendants of a woman convicted and executed in 1692 during the infamous Salem witch trials.

My sister and I remember being told that this woman had been exonerated after her death so that her children could again attend church. We were wrong. She wasn’t officially exonerated until 2001.

Scott was accused of ‘certaine detestable arts called witchcraft and sorceries’ that she ‘wickedly, mallitiously and felloniously hath used, practised and exercised’.

Margaret Stephenson Scott was one of the last women hung for the crime of witchcraft in this country. Unlike depictions in popular books and shows about the Salem witch trials, she wasn’t young and pretty. She was elderly. A victim of class structure. A victim of other people’s guilt. A victim of a rigid us-versus them culture. Another victim in a long history of women who were slaughtered for being different.

Margaret was born in England around 1615 and came to the colonies with her parents as a child. She grew up to marry an indentured man, Benjamin Scott, in 1642. They moved to Rowley, Massachusetts in 1651 and Benjamin was declared a freeman in 1664. Of their seven children, only three survived to adulthood. Margaret’s husband died when she was 56, leaving her nearly penniless. Still, she survived on what he left her for nearly 21 years. By the time she was 77 years old, she was reduced to begging to survive.

She asked wealthy townsman Thomas Nelson for wood in payment for a debt he owned her. He refused to pay, and claimed his cows acted strangely afterwards, with one of them perishing. He blamed Margaret. She asked another wealthy townsman, Jonathan Burbank, if she might glean corn from his field. He refused, although his wife gave Margaret some corn. Later when his oxen refused to move, Burbank accused Margaret of bewitching them.  Historians call this “refusal guilt syndrome.” When people of means refuse to help those in need, they feel guilty, and deal with their guilt by aggressively vilifying the person who caused such feelings.

A teenaged servant formally accused Margaret of sorcery after what may have been years of rumors.

Margaret was convicted on the basis of spectral evidence ( the accused person’s spirit or spectral shape appeared to a witness in a dream and maleficium evidence (misfortune to one’s property or health blamed on someone who was a nuisance in society). She fit the profile of women accused of witchcraft in New England; loss of children, low stature in the community, and poverty.

Margaret was the only person from Rowley, Massachusetts to be accused of witchcraft. She maintained her innocence throughout her imprisonment and trial. She was found guilty on September 17, 1692 and hanged five days later — in the last group of people to be executed for this crime.

William Phips, newly appointed governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, overruled and disbanded the court soon after, perhaps because his own wife had been accused of consorting with the devil. He ordered that courts disregard spectral evidence, pardoned several people sentenced to die for witchcraft, and released over 100 people awaiting trial.

Gratitude Works In The ER

The practice of gratitude isn’t large enough if we’re only grateful only when things are going well.  I’ve written before about appreciating our doubts, mistakes, even our crises.  Trying to see difficulty as another blessing helps get us past the need to separate our lives into good and bad, putting us right into the seamless whole of a fully lived life.

It’s also not easy.

That concept became more evident to me when I ended up in the ER a few months ago. How I got there is a story for another time, since this tale takes place entirely in an MRI machine. Such machines are a nightmare for someone as claustrophobic as I am. Heck, I even avoid being the first person to slide in a six-person restaurant booth because two people between me and open space is too much. Unfortunately, patients experiencing any kind of neurological emergency* can’t receive medication to reduce MRI-related anxiety. The test was necessary to diagnose what was going wrong and it had to be done immediately. 

A doctor, nurse, and several other people stayed in the room with me as I was loaded into the narrow tube. I willed myself to be calm. Electronic beeping and buzzing, whirling and whacking started. It sounded quite a bit like the machine was falling apart. 

“You have to lie completely still,” I was told. I thought I was lying still.

I was cold. I was in pain. I felt trapped in that tight space, even more trapped because my head and neck were locked in a “cage” clamped to the bed. I didn’t know what was wrong with me but I’d already been told I might be having brain surgery after the MRI.

I prayed silently, but my whole body trembled. I asked my beloved deceased parents to be with me, the trembling continued. I tried affirmations, which seemed to make the trembling even worse. I was cautioned that the test might have to be repeated if I couldn’t stay entirely still. I couldn’t imagine going through it again, nor how I could do any better. 

Then I considered this might be my last day. What did I want from it? To appreciate every moment I had left. I began bringing to mind all I was grateful for, starting right there. I thought of the care I was getting and the wisdom of the people in that room. I realized how fortunate I was to be getting this help. My body started to soften into the experience. I pictured the faces of my loved ones in turn. It seemed as if they were right there too. By the time I decided to picture autumn trees, blue skies, and singing birds the cage was being unlocked from my face. 

Gratitude definitely isn’t a switch to turn on only when things go well. It’s a light that shines in darkness too.

 

*I’m going to be okay.

What the Onion Teaches

What the Onion Teaches

 

Anything, seen wholly,

teaches everything.

Take a raw onion, harsh to its core.

Unpeel, unring, and hold to the light.

It is complete as the soil, sun, and rain

of its making.

 

Sauté the rings in oil

till the onion relaxes into itself,

elevating everything added next.

 

This looking, this warmth, and trust

is how the prisoner finds Shakespeare,

the lonely child discovers trees,

the battered woman pulls away layers

ready to be seen.

Laura Grace Weldon

 

Originally published in Shot Glass Journal.  Find more poems in my collection, Tending.

The Great Turning

I’m thrilled to offer a guest post by Ellen Rowland. This essay is adapted from her recently published book, Everything I Thought I Knew: An Exploration of Living and Learning. 

I sat at the small table by the kitchen window this morning thinking about hope. The news was bad. Again. Acres of majestic trees destroyed by fire, hurricane devastation, floods and loss, missiles and political misfires. So many people in need of each other, divided by both real and imagined borders. Yet in that quiet moment as my children still slept, I felt a strong pull to lean into the beauty around me, the calm, to focus on the small acts of kindness that don’t always get talked about and believe in their power. Did I have a right to be hopeful when the world was so clearly hurting?

If you’re deep ecologist Joanna Macy, and others like her, the answer is yes. Not only do you have a right to be optimistic, but an obligation to unearth that hope, spread it around like topsoil, and help something infinitesimal or resplendent grow. I stumbled upon an article recently by Macy about the book, Stories of the Great Turning, which helped validate my stubborn penchant for hope. It celebrates the ever-growing movement of individual action through a collection of stories about grassroots activism taking place around the world.

A few days later, my family and I watched the French documentary Demain (available with English subtitles as Tomorrow) by Cyril Dion and actress Mélanie Laurent. It takes us all over the world to introduce us to people who are finding creative solutions to the world’s problems and putting them into action on an individual and community level. The film shows us the positive global strides that are being made in the areas of agriculture, energy, economy, democracy, and education. The examples convey the idea that, while we cannot deny the global problems we’re facing, we can choose to focus on the change that is already in motion.

These aren’t merely messages of hope. Neither are they a call to action. Both Stories of the Great Turning and Demain are telling us something we deeply suspect but desperately need to know — that all over the world, in hidden corners and small enclaves, people from all walks of life are already creating lasting positive change.

Because these thinkers and doers of seemingly small acts are not celebrities, politicians, or industry giants; we may not hear about them in the mainstream media. In fact the gentle propagation of these tales usually gets done the old-fashioned way — by word of mouth, or as my daughter says, “on the wings of dragonflies” — which is testament itself to what Macy calls the “remarkable expansion of allegiance beyond personal or group advantage.”

In other words, we lead, or participate, or engage, or invent, or inspire without caring if we ever get recognition or reward. We do it because we feel in our very souls that it’s the right thing to do. Even if our efforts ultimately fail, the lesson lies in the attempt.

Joanna Macy writes in her introduction,

“This wider sense of identity is a moral capacity more often associated with heroes and saints; but it now manifests everywhere on a practical and workaday plane. From children restoring streams for salmon spawning, to inner-city neighbors planting community gardens, from forest defenders perched high in trees marked for illegal logging, to countless climate actions to limit greenhouse-gas emissions, an undreamt-of wave of human endeavor is under way . . . (The Great Turning’s) three main dimensions include actions to slow down the destruction wrought by our political economy and its wars against humanity and Nature; new structures and ways of doing things, from holding land to growing food to generating energy; and a shift in consciousness to new ways of knowing, a new paradigm of our relation to each other and to the sacred living body of Earth.”

All this just makes me want to run outside and whoot with joy! But for most of us it’s hard to dig our teeth into the potential collective outcome of all these scattered individual efforts. Especially when we are bombarded on a daily basis with mindless listicles on one hand and horrific world news on the other. At any moment the global bubble of doom and fear might pop right over our heads. Can we really make a difference?

Well, yes, especially when “we” becomes “WE,” which happens quite naturally when individuals come together to provide support, collaborate, share resources, and work as a unit while maintaining individuality.

The paradigm of positive change taking place isn’t just about the environment. It’s about accepting the notion that in anything in life that’s worthwhile, there exists polarity. It’s about accepting and embracing each other’s differences. It’s about mutual respect and compassion. It’s about taking risks and daring to think differently. And it’s about learning differently. I can’t help making this leap because it’s really only a small stepping stone from one to the other. How can we distinguish between the consciousness we hope to awaken on behalf of a suffering planet and the world we want to open up for our children? They are the same.

Which is why those of us who foster interest-led learning, who have lived through learning and learned through living, need to keep sharing our individual and collective tales as part of this Great Turning. And we don’t need to shout. As it is, many of these stories naturally intertwine children’s exploration with a love and respect for Nature. They demonstrate the innate consciousness that children have toward creatures and the compassion they hold for others. Many homeschooling families are already living with “our sacred living body of Earth” in mind through lifestyle choices. Sharing these tales is not about bashing the institution of school or judging parents and children who choose to attend, and it’s not about imposing or insisting on change.

If I understand it correctly, this movement, which Macy calls “the essential adventure of our time,” is about individuals inspiring change through positive action and example. And sharing our stories of gratitude and hope. The shift may come about slowly. But it’s coming. I can hear the wings beating.

 

Ellen Rowland Ellen Rowland is the author of Everything I Thought I Knew, a collection of essays about living, learning, and parenting outside the status quo.

Her writing has appeared in Life Learning Magazine, The Homeschooler Post, Otherways Magazine, The Washington Post online, More Magazine, and Natural Life Magazine.

After spending 15 years in New York City, where she built a career in art and design and met her French-born husband, she and her family moved to Senegal, West Africa when her children were three and four years old. They built an earth house, lived off-the-grid, grew their own vegetables, and began the journey of learning through living. She and her family currently reside on a small island in Greece where they plan to restore a goat barn and call it home.

Catalysts

Sometimes in my memoir classes I ask participants to write about catalysts in their lives — small occurrences or choices that, upon reflection, we realize actually fostered a big change in our outlook or circumstances. Often I start out with a poem by Carl Dennis, who is a master at exploring parallel realities. Something like “Candles” or, if the class has been meeting a long time and can withstand it, “The God Who Loves You.”

Some catalysts exist on a large social scale, such as prejudice, rural isolation, poor schools, or economic change. They have all sorts of effects on individual lives. Like the government grant I was awarded to get my masters degree. Before I attended my first class, a newly elected conservative administration didn’t believe the country needed more social workers, so they cancelled the grants. This, coupled with a recession that made it hard for me to get a job with my freshly awarded undergrad degree, led directly to my husband and me having our first child when I was 22.

Some occurrences exist only as possibilities. For example, on a recent weekend I headed toward the highway after teaching a class for Literary Cleveland only to remember I’d left behind my new water bottle. I turned around, parked in the lot, walked back in, searched for the bottle, then realized I’d had it with me the whole time. I’d tucked it in my tote because this new one didn’t leak. I felt silly having gone through all those steps for a memory lapse, only to drive back to the highway entrance ramp where rescue vehicles were just then getting to the scene of a car accident. I have no idea if mine might have been one of those cars had I been there a few minutes earlier.

Some results stem from what seem like, at the time, poor choices. Like the time my friend Kathy and I went to Westgate Mall. We were both 14 years old. We didn’t buy soda or food, but we loved music desperately and considered spending the last of our babysitting money on records. We told ourselves we’d walk the nearly six miles home rather than take the bus. We figured it was good exercise. We were still in the record store when Kathy ran into two guys, Bruce and Mark, who were friends of her older brother. They seemed vastly older, both being 16. They offered us a ride home. I definitely wasn’t allowed to get in cars with boys my parents didn’t know. We shouldn’t have accepted, but we did. I asked to be dropped off at Kathy’s house so I could walk the rest of the way home. That way my parents wouldn’t know I’d broken a rule. I dated Mark all through school and I’m still married to him today.

In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the idea that small changes can lead to significant results. Theoretically, the flapping wings of a butterfly in Brazil can have an effect on weather patterns thousands of miles away.  Nothing we do is without effect either. That’s true in every moment, in every generation. If your grandfather hadn’t lost his job and moved to another town to take a new one, he wouldn’t have bumped into that smart girl who lived the next street over, the girl who later became your grandmother. If your mother’s high school crush hadn’t broken her heart, she never would have gone on to fall in love with your father. If these and thousands of other circumstances hadn’t unfolded exactly as they did, you wouldn’t be here now.

As my mother used to say, “Life is lived forwards, but understood backwards.”

Trace back changes in your life to some small precipitating factor — a pivotal conversation, a left instead of right turn, a friend’s comment, a lost opportunity, a new dream. Please, share the story of a catalyst. We’d love to hear it.

 

Hands Shaping the Song

Thomas Merton wrote, “The things that we love tell us what we are.” I’ve seen this idea inspire beautiful remembrances twice recently, both times when family members gave eulogies consisting entirely of what the recently departed person loved.

One funeral was for a woman who raised her own children as well as two of her great-grandchildren. Her great-granddaughter stood in front of a crowded church and listed what her granny loved. Here’s part of that list.

  • Sweet tea without ice cubes in her insulated Browns cup.
  • Fancy hats for church.
  • Calling babies “Boo Boo.”
  • Family photos she organized in shoeboxes. These were stacked in the front hall closet so they could be saved if there was a fire.
  • Her friend Rita and her friend Marlene and her friend Louanne and everyone at her senior luncheon, her Bible study, and her card club.
  • Holding her hand up like a traffic cop when she didn’t want to hear another word.
  • Saying “give Gran a little sugar” when she wanted a hug and “that’s all you got?” when the hug didn’t meet her standards.
  • Telling people what buildings and businesses used to be on different streets “back in my day” whether the listener wanted to know or not.
  • Window boxes, because they made a house look happy.
  • Turning troubles over to God.
  • Waving to whoever walked down her street and asking the names of kids she didn’t know so she could greet them by name next time they walked by.
  • Her family, every single person, every single day.

I never had the honor of meeting my friend’s grandmother, but felt I’d gotten a better glimpse of her than any platitudes could have revealed, simply through what she loved.

The same week I read a remarkable book, The Wet Engine by Brian Doyle (thanks to a recommendation by my wise friend Kim Langley).  In wonder-stretched words, Doyle writes about the human heart as something functional, yet transcendent. The whole book is marvelous, but having just attended a funeral, his passage about a eulogy he’d given for an 80-year-old friend lingered in my mind.

At the funeral I said a prayer in Gaelic, so that the language of his parents would wash over his body one last time, and then I held up my hands and talked about the way his huge strong bony gaunt gentle hands had cradled a football and hammered his brothers and tickled his sister and cupped his mother’s face and clapped his father on the shoulder and wielded a shovel and pumped saws through firs and cedars and skimmed over the supple sweet skin of his wife and cupped his children and worked concrete and stone and wood and plaster and paint and were plunged in sand and sliced through the ocean and cleaned and washed and folded and dried and cooked and prayed, and weren’t his hands the story of the man? Weren’t his hands always shaping the song of his heart?

Both eulogies remind me of Annie Dillard’s wise words, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

Although the world around us is constantly awe-inspiring,  many of us learn from our earliest days to look at ourselves with judgment, to measure ourselves by where we’ve fallen short.

Maybe meaning is far more simple. Maybe it lies in what we do and what we love. Maybe we can let those two things be the same thing.

Candlelight Vigil

Last night I located old taper candles and my husband cut circles of cardboard with star-shaped openings to be used as drip sleeves. I was leaving for a candlelight peace vigil in Oberlin, a response to what happened in Charlottesville, and didn’t want to go without bringing candles extras to share.

Before I left my husband told me to be careful. “What worries me,” he said, “is you believe everyone is a good person.”

That’s true. I just believe the core of humanity is a great deal harder to find in some people.

I don’t know anyone who isn’t worried about what’s going on in the U.S. The weekend’s mayhem was a microcosm of the whole. While white nationalists and neo-Nazis wreaked havoc in a beautifully diverse southern city, state troopers and police watched but did not intervene.   Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe said the majority of white supremacists were carrying semiautomatic weapons, so officers couldn’t engage without escalating the situation. Although dozens of people were badly injured and 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed, the governor commented on the success of police inaction, saying, “And yet not a shot was fired, zero property damage.”

As I headed from our little township to Oberlin, I drove through a rural community even smaller than ours. And there in an open field I saw several pickup trucks parked nose to nose, sporting large Confederate flags upright in the beds. Men were outside the trucks talking.

This was a shocking sight.

It’s sometimes hard for a quiet progressive like me to live in an area that voted resoundingly for Mr. Trump, but it’s also a see-both-sides gift because I have many conservative friends and neighbors who are caring, dedicated people. I have literally not heard a bigoted attitude expressed by people in my township for well over a decade.  (Perhaps the peace flags on my porch are the magic charm.)

I slowed down. My first impulse was to pull over and talk to these men. I wanted to establish some kind of rapport, a few moments of innocuous conversation, then ask in a confused way, “So what’s up with the flags?” I’ve found asking an innocent question in an innocent way can spark a moment of genuine discussion. And I was honestly curious about what they’d say. After all, it’s not as if northerners can claim any historic fondness for such a flag. These guys were standing in a field less than 20 miles away from our country’s northern border of Lake Erie. Our area is rich with Underground Railroad sites and abolitionist history.

I thought, maybe my excuse to stop could be asking for directions. Or maybe where the nearest gas station might be. I had an initial presumption that I’d be protected by my white skin and nonthreatening middle aged-lady self.  But then I remembered my husband’s concern. And I remembered a report that the neo-Nazi site Daily Stormer posted a crude celebration of Heather Heyer’s death, writing that she “deserved” to die. So I drove on.

The vigil in Oberlin was quiet and respectful. We walked, we sang, we listened to speakers like Peace Community Church pastor Mary Hammond who said “We need to offer a public response to what has happened, not just the last few days but the last few centuries. It is on us…” and to professor A.G. Miller who said, “The forces of evil have been unleashed. We have to stand strong with love and tenacity and courage, and we have to push back.”

I know the practice of nonviolence asks us to get involved and to do so using time-honored tactics.  Nonviolence asks us to recognize and deal with hate speech before it escalates.  It asks us to look for ways to find the humanity in people like those men with their Confederate flags before acts of hate happen. Open dialogue with the very people she condemned is what inspired Megan Phelps-Roper to renounce her membership in the extremist Westboro Baptist Church.  It’s what led neo-Nazi skinhead Christian Picciolini to stop spreading hate and work to lead others away from such ideologies. It’s how Daryl Davis, as an African American, befriends Ku Klux Klan members in hopes they will have a change of heart.

Yes, I realize it was best that I didn’t stop for a chat with strangers displaying Confederate flags. Not the right moment for a lone woman driving a rusty Honda with a Bernie sticker.

But I know we have to look for ways to speak up and when we do, to speak up for all of us. That means people who don’t look like us, pray like us, think like us, live like us, or vote like us. After all, that’s what allegiance to “liberty and justice for all” really means.

I encourage you to read and share this Southern Poverty Law Center information:  “Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Response Guide.”

 

Stop, Reboot

Bad Start

to the day, what with finding

feathers, then bodies

of two hens killed by hawks.

And power out, so I can’t

work despite glaring deadlines.

 

Picking tomatoes and chard

for breakfast, I step on a bee

whose final act is to heave

her brave sword in my sole.

Startled, I skid on dew-wet grass,

fall sharply, my face whirling

a breath’s distance from roses

prickled with scarifying thorns,

 

and laugh.

 

I’d been soggy

cereal in the bowl,

mail dropped in a ditch,

a garden wizened by blight,

 

but now,

foot in lap, I pinch

out the stinger,

stabbed by gratitude

for an insect’s

venomous antidote.

Now all I see is a shining

curtain of light pulled open

to the third act of a comedy

performed as it

is lived.

Laura Grace Weldon

Originally published in Gyroscope Review  Find more poems in my collection, Tending.

Permission Slip

I’ve carried this piece of paper in my wallet for 7 years.  My father, an inveterate list maker, wrote it for me a few months before he died. On it, he suggested ways I might take care of myself, spend money on myself, and enjoy myself.

He’d spent his entire life denying himself and pushing himself to do more, but it troubled him to think his daughter might be doing the same thing. Late in life he gave in to new “extravagances,” mostly things he’d read about in health articles. This included grocery purchases more upscale than his usual canned vegetables and oatmeal, things like nuts, pomegranate juice, fish, berries, and fresh vegetables. These ideas topped his list of suggestions for me.

He’d always straightened nails to re-use and made do with worn out tools. He stapled scrap paper together to make daily planners for himself. But his list encouraged me to buy these things brand new. Even to buy myself an exercise bike!

He wore old clothes, even wore shoes he’d owned since college. He never bought new books. He skipped social engagements (whenever he could) in order to get more work done around the house or yard. He considered electronic gadgets unnecessary, although he was intrigued by new technology. Yet he wanted me to spend more time with friends, go to restaurants, buy books, invest in gadgets.

I’ve never been as starkly frugal or deeply self-critical as my father, but I understand what his list was trying to say —- to himself as much as to me. When we chronically push ourselves, judge ourselves harshly, or deny ourselves we are often unaware that we serve as examples to our children (as well as to our partners, co-workers, and friends).  We reinforce a social template that makes it normal to treat ourselves this way. Too late we realize we need treat ourselves as we’d like our loved ones to treat themselves.

Last Saturday would have been my dad’s birthday.  After a lovely stroll through the farmer’s market with my daughter where we bought grassfed cheeses, perfect tree-ripened peaches, and other delights I spent a few glorious hours listening to podcasts while cooking to prepare for our usual Sunday family get-together. Then, after a walk and some writing time, I sat on the porch with a book. It was another wonderful day in a life full of wonderful days. Thanks for the reminder, Dad.