Because it’s all still happening

I am both surprised and not surprised at how many white friends and acquaintances have avoided seeing the acclaimed movie, Killers of the Flower Moon.  They report some variation of— “I don’t want to watch the violence, it makes me too uncomfortable…”  And I encourage them with some variation of—“Maybe it’s our turn to be uncomfortable, to witness the real history we are standing in. Maybe we need to educate ourselves so we can have a different conversation, because it’s all still happening.”

Image from movie poster and trailer posted on-line.

Killers of the Flower Moon is a culture-shifting piece of work; like Apocalypse Now changed the view of the Vietnam War, and Schindler’s List, presented the Holocaust in one agonizing unraveling story, or Going After Private Ryan showed ordinary men rising to extraordinary sacrifice. Each of these films is violent, message-driven, ambiguous in outcome, heroic and villainous: classics.

Years ago, I went to see Shindler’s List on a Christmas Day when I had no other plans and was hanging out with Jewish friends. We had lunch at a Chinese restaurant, and then went to a late matinee. Three hours later we emerged in total silence to walk past a long line of mostly Jewish people waiting to get in. They looked in our faces and saw that we were stunned and mourning. We looked at their faces and saw their determination to endure being shown the horrors of their ancestral story. Out of the silence, people began to recite the Kaddish—prayer for the dead. As the lobby echoed with this ancient lament, I learned that we can experience one another’s difficult stories as an act of spiritual allyship.

It was in that spirit of willingness to know something I did not want to know, and to reckon with my relationship to this history, that I watched Killers of the Flower Moon. First in the total submersion of a darkened theater, and again with several friends on a large screen TV on an afternoon when we could stop and take a breath, sit outside a few minutes, talk with one another, and then go back to finish the tale.

Whidbey sunset– nature watches over us.

You may be carrying enough trauma or sorrow that seeing this movie is not appropriate. Please take care of yourself first and foremost.  I have found my dives into the interviews, now archived all over the internet, to be as interesting as the film. Lily Gladstone, who portrayed Mollie Burkhart, the Osage wife of Leo DiCaprio’s character, has beautifully centered the Native narrative and elucidated Native issues for a white audience.

Tantoo Cardinal, who plays the mother of Mollie and her sisters, said, “I grew up in Northern Alberta among the tar sands. I know what happens when the oil industry doesn’t want to be messed with. And I know the greed that has overcome this world until this land, North America, belongs basically to business. I’m delighted people are being educated about what my ancestors lived through—and we live through it now. …People think the movie is hard, but it’s gentle compared to the actual experience of colonialism and genocide and the abuse our cultures have gone through.”

Image from Native Hope website.

Interestingly, May 5th (Cinco de Mayo), also links Holocaust Remembrance Day and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s Day. Of these three, MMIW,or MMIP(oeple) is perhaps the least known, but through organizations like NativeHope.org  we can educate our-white-selves to the realities of Indigenous suffering and honor the persistent vulnerability and resilience of Indigenous communities. Murder is the #3 cause of death for Indigenous women

One story that touches close to my heart is the hit-and-run death of Mika Westwolf who was killed alongside Montana Highway 93 on the Flathead Reservation, walking home late at night on March 31, 2023. I have connection to her extended family and have been brought deeper into their story. What it takes for Indigenous families to get justice is a courageous capacity to channel their outrage, and expose their private grief to media attention.

When Popular Information ran the story, and Amy Goodman picked it up for Democracy Now, the death of this young woman and the tragedies of many Native families came to white-eyes attention. The woman who hit her has the last name White, and her little children are named Aryan and Nation. The combination of vehicular homicide, white supremacy, and hate-crime brought the FBI into the case.

It is Mika’s story that opened my heart to this issue. It is the courage of her mother, her grandmother, her extended family and the devastation of those who loved her that makes me determined to stand alongside their spiritual fierceness. Knowing is the source of acting. Caring is the source of reckoning.

Image from MikaMatters.com website

Crises of injustice tumble into each other. I see ever more clearly that when we do not address the hard work of restitution, violence rolls from one generation to the next, from one group of people to the next. If I start listing all our crises, it’s overwhelming. Desperate immigrants seeking safer places, college campuses roiling with protest and police, wars grunting on in horror. Today, I am holding the Missing and Murdered Indigenous People in my heart… because I can, because I am willing to stand alongside their pain. Today I have a candle lit for Mika, because Mika Matters.

Perhaps this is not where you are called to put your heart… but I hope you will put it somewhere in the sorrows and needs of the world. And if you are the one who is suffering, that you will reach out and ask for what you need. May we continue to grow, to look out for each other, to bear witness when we cannot fix and to fix what we can, because it’s all still happening.

Thank you for reading these words and sitting in this story with me. Thank you for letting Mika come to the edge of your heart, even for a few moments.

Please scroll down these comments–especially to the one from Kim, part of Mika’s family. Think of Mika’s mother, one week before Mother’s Day, giving two speeches about MMIW, one at the University of Montana, Missoula. There is wisdom in the circle as we listen to one another.

 

Lily Gladstone’s next movie is Fancy Dance about a family dealing with the disappearance of Lily’s character’s sister. It starts streaming on Apple+ in late June.

 

 

Making the Story as we go…

Mama Sally accompanied Sasha in those years so it became a family routine. Corgi Gracie.

Almost every spring for the past 13 years, our grandson, Jaden, and then his little sister Sasha, have come to Whidbey Island for Spring Break. These SoCal kids have trudged into the weather, rain or shine, behind their “Nature Grannies” and whatever corgi romped alongside. We have memories of driftwood forts, seal patrol, local hikes, hours of UNO and board games, planting garden peas, baking cookies, learning chores, being introduced to the Marvel universe, and circles at the dining table.

On campus: Sally, Jaden, Sasha, Ann

This spring, with Jaden studying at Sonoma State University and Sasha in 7th grade, they didn’t come to us: we went to them. When a 19-year-old freshman says he wants his family to meet his peeps and see his campus, we rented an Airbnb in Santa Rosa and happily gathered to honor his request.

That Wednesday afternoon we hiked the campus, seeing Jaden’s favorite haunts, meeting passersby, getting a sense of how he was embedded in his new routines. That evening we had dinner at “the Caf” with us (Jaden’s family) and a row of freshman (Jaden’s friends) sharing a table in the echoing dining hall. Talk swirled around us until I felt immersed in an oral texting machine with kids finishing each other’s sentences, interruptions popping like verbal emojis. Then one of them asked, “Hey Nina, I hear you’re giving a talk down in Marin.  What’s up?”

In the Caf: grandmas and “the peeps.”

Everyone stopped and waited while I shifted from being a perplexed grandmother watching their verbal badminton to being the center of attention. “It’s about the role of story as social influencer and the ways story organizes life experiences.”

I must have done okay in my five-minute condensed version because they judged it, “Way cool” and called out to Jaden, “Hey, you listening to your gram?!”

He laughed, called back, “I been listening to both of them all my life.” It was just a beat—like a rest in a bar of music—but it reverberated in my heart.

 

And since Ann and I were in the area, on Thursday we ventured south to Bolinas and a long-anticipated visit to Commonweal, a retreat and healing center along the cliffs of the Point Reyes National Seashore. I had been invited by founder/emeritus, Michael Lerner, to a conversation about story to be archived in their online interviews called The New School (TNS). To watch/listen to the interview, click here.

A small audience of family, Commonweal staff, board members, and community friends joined Michael and me in a conversation videoed and recorded. (I will post it here as soon as it’s available). The topic: “Writing as Legacy: what do we leave in the earth for the future to find?” His first question:Why have you devoted your life work to storycatching? And what does that mean?”

My reply: “Storycatching is the art of receiving and sharing narratives that promote and sustain connectivity.  Words are how we think, stories are how we link. (I love that line: it says the whole thing.) To be a storycatcher is to volunteer through listening, speaking, and writing to offer out stories that inform, inspire, and activate.

“I’ve spent my life proclaiming the power of story for myself, for students, and for readers. I keep saying: Who you are is important. Your story belongs. Stake your voice into the world. In my lifetime, the voices of millions of nobodies have become a global chorus of somebodies. Our whole cultural understanding of who has a story to tell and whose story is worth our attention has shifted. Journal writing, memoir, blogging, Substack, the Medium, social media, You Tube, Tik-Tok, are all ways people tell stories…  millions and millions of stories.

It took me back to the cafeteria table, multiplied into infinity!

It took me back almost fifty years ago to a nondescript desk-filled classroom with a dozen Minnesota poet-types sitting in rows with blank books and pens. I stood in front, hands gripping a lectern to hide my nervousness, and started talking about journal writing. A few minutes into that initial class I said, “It’s lonely up-front. I’m not an expert. I’m a student too. Let’s explore together how to put life on the page.” We made circle of chairs and I tucked in with everyone else, facilitating from the rim. My life work clicked into place.

We wrote in drugstore notebooks like school children because the industry of beautiful bound journals didn’t yet exist. (In boxes far back in my closet these ancient pages are bleeding through, words commingling into gibberish.) We wrote with ballpoints or cheap Shaefer fountain pens because they were available. (Though I have moved on to Lamy and Waterman pens, I still have my Shaefer: it still writes.) This first group was comprised of nine young writers, two schoolteachers, one antiquarian book dealer. Ten women, two men; a ratio that has remained pretty much true my whole teaching life.

We didn’t know it then, but we were pioneers. Breaking silence is hard work: like plowing a field with only a pen; the horse of necessity pulling us forward line by line. We witnessed each other reveal the stories of ourselves one page at a time. It was therapeutic, revelatory; a pre-device, pre-Internet experiment that seeded the expressive cacophony of today’s storyfield.

From the 1970s to my late-70s: and here I am sitting in a circle of chairs speaking the story journey of my life work. Some of the things I’m still saying today emerged from that first class and our explorations. I don’t know where they are now, if they are still in the story or resting in the field of the past, but they are with me. I remember their names, their faces, and some of the books they went on to write. And as I looked into the faces of those in the room in the spring of 2024, we are one tribe: we are storycatchers.

Home to the Skagit Valley. There are as many stories as there are tulips… as far as the eye can see.

 

Persisting on a Monday

It’s Monday. We are heading into another week of predictable disasters: politics, war, devastation in the natural world. A list of sorrows runs rusty as dried blood onto my journal pages and rivers into daily conversations, along with the ever-present question— “what can I/we do about any of this?”

I’m home alone a few hours— laundry, vacuuming, drifting in a state of dis/courage/ment. I will not stay here—but it seems a necessary emotional state to admit is in me. And perhaps it is instructive, though I find myself tongue-tied: wandering in a fog without sun breaks of insight.

I feel obligated to excavate insight. I expect myself to find words that uplift my spirits, and then communicate such possibility to you–oh beloved community of strangers, former students, writers, friends and colleagues. But this Monday my well runs dry, my tears run wet. Maybe you, too? Where shall we turn?

I turn to Nature. There is beauty outside my window. The beach/bluff is half a block away. Mountains at my back and in the far vista… and scenes of winter’s edge/spring’s determination.

I turn to poetry. I flip open familiar verses from Mary Oliver, and choose a line to start my journal page anew. How will the day be different if I take seriously her statement, “My job is loving the world.”

Or her prose: “If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often kind. And much can never be redeemed. Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happens better than all the riches or power in the world. It could be anything, but very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins….Whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.”

I turn to community. What acts of kindness, outreach, neighborliness, texting, chatting, writing can weave me back into place? Open my heart? Be of service? Like a hug: what I offer is what I receive.

I invite you. This reverie will not change the course of disaster we seem to be on: but I hope it will offer en/courage/ment to help us keep standing together in the great story we are living and to rest in the larger realities that endure and hold us.

Snowshoeing near Galena Lodge, Ketchum, ID in Feb. 2024

Reverie on Writing

A woman reaches out through a friend of a friend. She wants to write her story. She needs to talk to a writer. I am retired. I don’t teach anymore. I’ve got a manuscript in New York, a six-year project I just revised, again. It’s hot there. People wilt in the city and flee to the country. My agent says nobody cares about writing in August. Every day I choose between discouragement and belief in my work. I say yes–to myself, to her. Come to lunch. I’ll make salad. We’ll sit on the patio. I set two chairs… but three are seated: two women, and story.

I say story-building begins in catharsis and chaos, followed by glimmers of coherence and, if we persist, magic and mystery. I say we become writers by writing. She has a long career in social work, distilling other people’s stories, making reports and charting progress. This is different. A certain amount of fear is appropriate to the significance of the task. Too little fear and we are careless with the power of our words; but too much fear is paralyzing. Every writer becomes a chemist mixing risk and responsibility in the beeker of telling.  It’s your turn, I say: seize the impulse and surrender.

Long after lunch, I think about her skill, her courage. Now it is morning of the next day, and I write…. for her, for myself, for anyone beginning—

Breathe deep. Find the words at the bottom of breath. Unfurl them from the silence that has shrouded your truth. You are strong enough now. You have hefted the weight of your life and proven yourself in a million moments of working, raising, contributing, fighting, running, loving. Mostly that: loving life in the ways it has demanded.

Lift silence into your own hands. Make of it an hour a day when you refuse disruptions, notifications, the pings of incoming texts, the whoosh of outgoing mail, tiny headlines announcing your helplessness to change the course of world events. The government is disappointing. The earth is heaving, burning, flooding, winded. Turn it off. Breathe deep. Cradle your silence like a delicate nest in which the egg of an unhatched bird is warming in your hands.

Sit before a window. Choose one thing you see or hear and write. I see tall grass. Notice how it holds utterly still in morning light, how it stretches into the air above the heather. The seed heads are tiny blond ponytails waiting for wind. And isn’t this you? The child you were, hair pulled back, ready to run in play or terror depending on what track the day laid out before your tender soul? This is where the silence came from, plucking what might blurt off the truthful tongue of a child into the safety of not-saying.

Anywhere you start will lead here. The grass, the house next-door, sun coming up and going down, dogs barking, the potato-chip crunch of shoes on gravel. Words are labyrinths, crossword puzzles, tracks in the forest, skid marks on pavement: the only way to get to the true of your story is to whisper, to howl, to cry and laugh—become a holy fool hunched over journal and pen or laptop, seeking the words at the bottom of breath, and finding the hour to write whatever story is pecking out of the egg.

It’s all practice. Practice word choice, practice rambling, discover the secret delight of placing just the right word into a sentence. Practice putting life into words. We are the story-telling creatures and every story changes the world in some way. We don’t have to understand it really: just hang paragraphs on the narrative thread.

Weave meaning. We need story.  The world is falling apart. Perhaps you’ve noticed. I won’t recite the litany of disasters. Instead, I shall watch those tall grasses, stalks as slim as a line on a page, how they stand and wait. And how is it possible that a tiny thread of breeze moves one stalk among the still-life cluster—just one—waving at me across the yard. I exhale into the early morning and here is evidence that story makes its way into the world. Every voice matters. Yours.

Road Trip: Hello Again, Hello.

We are a community of readers, writers, storycatchers, and commentators on the day to day.

Welcome and thank you to the many people who signed up to receive this blog off my new www.christinabaldwin.com website. Over a hundred names have flooded in from the last posting and I am delighted that so many people, whose names (or email monikers) I don’t know, and with no idea how you “found” this blog want to join the growing list. This is a thoughtful community and I hope you will make a comment, pass along the post, and take these words into the story streams of your own lives.

 

June 1-15, 2023, Ann Linnea and I made our first long road trip in eight years. Our trusty 2011 RAV4, purchased to make a rite of passage camping trip when our grandson, Jaden, turned ten, is still the vehicle that carried us through the western coastal states of Washington, Oregon, and California, to Jaden’s high school graduation and back! There’s more mileage on the car, more years on the grandmas, and more to think about venturing out of our usual island routines into the ongoing story of “what is happening to/in America.”

What determined the route was the memorial in Sonoma County for our dear colleague, Deb Greene-Jacobi, the chance to visit long-time friends in the same area and end up in Culver City to support Jaden in his launch toward college, and his parents and sister reconfiguring to support Sasha through her teen years. Where there is good love, there is foundation for good life.  The lovely people stories are living in my heart. This blog is a reflection on what it meant to be on the road.

What replenished us: awe at Nature’s beauty and her resilience to keep working with/around/despite all human interference and interaction. We drove by all seven volcanoes that form the PNW link in the ring of fire. We

Sister Sequoias.

walked in Redwood groves with trees older than white presence on this land. We marveled at the massive presence of Sequoia. We walked alongside bubbling mud and melting snow in Lassen Volcanic NP. And because of the wet winter, everything was still green, blooming. Hundreds of miles of oleander growing on the median of the interstate—such generous plants to transmute exhaust fumes into blossoming beauty.

 

What we thought about: monoculture agriculture, the stress to the land of food production and our shock to find rice paddies, olive groves, almond orchards in the northern California

Rows of citrus orchard outside Fresno.

drylands. Seeing where foodstuffs I take for granted come from, and the scale of water use and production necessary to keep the grocery shelves stocked, changes how I handle everything in my kitchen.  Everything comes from something: life is chain-linked, cyclical, interconnected. All products, edible and not, represent a huge donation of resources, industry, and people laboring in the system. Workers bending over in the fields, truckers carrying boxes of goods mile after freeway mile, workers stocking stores, etc. etc. I know all this. I’m an educated person. I read books and articles. But to SEE it, to be immersed in the agricultural heart of California for days of driving, followed by the rangelands of dairy farms, cattle ranches, sheep on hillsides, and chicken barns is to be reawakened to what it takes to keep even my “simplified” modern life going.

What we noticed: America is not the same. The vibe has changed since we were last on the road. I fear this polarization in which ordinary people are manipulated into deeper and deeper divisions. To accomplish our

Bumpersticker that made me cringe.

Bumpersticker that made me think and smile.

heartful mission, we two grandmas traveled through a social field of increased aggression, intolerance, threat, and despair. There are fundamental signs that America is not okay: Gun toting in public. Drug use on street corners. Tents and tarps and people begging. Flags in which each star is a skull, each stripe an automatic weapon. Society is a fragile arrangement, and when people are in crisis, society is in crisis. The divides are more obvious—not just bumper stickers and flags, but who the system cares for and who it does not.

Now what:  We traveled 2838 miles (4567 kms).  We had incredible moments with people and nature, seeded conversations that are growing in ourselves and others. We come home even more aware of the vulnerability of all things. We come home determined to keep making a difference at any level of scale we can: how we tend our own garden, buy from local farmers, bicycle instead of drive, befriend the folks around us, stay social, engaged, grateful, humbled, determined to continue threading sense through these turbulent times. Grief and gratitude are two sides of a spinning coin. Perhaps they cannot exist without the other.

Whidbey sunset from the edge of our neighborhood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PS: I know Ann is posting a blog about the graduation: check out www.annlinnea.com to read that part in depth.

A Sense of Well-Beeing

Several years ago, as I entered this dynamic decade, I wrote a blog called, “Seventy: The Road to Somewhere.” That musing is now archived on the PeerSpirit website and I am miles down the road still aiming for “somewhere.” Hopefully not yet the final somewhere, but the legacy somewhere that comes before my personal exit from the NeverEnding Story.

At age seventy, as we transitioned out of a twenty-five year dedication to The Circle Way, and handed over our resources to next generation consultants, hosts, and participants, I faced not so much where to go, but what to do. Tagline on my email read: Writer in her own residence. So that’s what I did: I stayed home and wrote an historical novel. It’s been an amazing journey of insight, research, delight and occasional touches of despair that I look forward to sharing. I wrote some of this journey in the blog posts moved here from my former business site, and about the book itself in my post, “The Dog and the Backstory.” Besides the era, the landscape, the war, the social issues, and personal dramas that fill those pages, there are bees.

I’m thinking a lot about these industrious little wonders as spring begins to bud around my Pacific Northwest home. I have friends excited over the return of the Rufus hummingbird and poised with binoculars to spy first Goldfinches; I am watching for bees. Which means watching the temperature, the sunshine, the wind factor, and the bloom. Heather and Hellebores in the yard, Oso berry in the forest. Later this spring, when the Madrone trees blossom, the whole woods behind our property will hum. And in our little garden, there will be a feast of lavender and blueberry and raspberry flowers. The hovering bumblebees, wild bees, and honeybees are essential pollinators that ensure the flower comes to fruit.

Grandmas and “the kids” on the CA coast by Santa Cruz.

Which takes my mind to California, to a million acres of almond orchards that produce 80% of the world’s almonds, and the bee/stly industry that insures this harvest. Last year, as the orchards were coming into bloom, we were on a multigenerational road trip driving with our grandson and family from Los Angeles to Santa Cruz for him to check out universities. We cruised alongside miles and miles of orchards, irrigated in the desert of California’s Central Valley. Besides us, one half of all the bees in America, hive boxes strapped onto semi-trailer trucks, were headed to these fields to pollinate this crop. In 2022, approximately 1.3 million acres of almond groves required 2.6 million bee colonies for pollination, equaling roughly fifty billion bees hard at work throughout the orchards.

If you want to glimpse the economics and science of this enterprise read this article in The West Coast Nut, “Almond Pollination Outlook for 2023.” If you want an interesting story focused on how one beekeeper moves his hives around the continent, watch this episode of ABC’s Food Forecast with Ginger Zee.

In the family van, we are munching handfuls of mixed nuts full of almonds, and I, who have spent the last six years fictionalizing my grandfather’s alfalfa-based honey business into my novel, am shaken by the scope of what we are driving through. The three years preceding the dozen atmospheric rivers to hit California this winter season were the driest on record. Last year we also drove by miles of trees cut to ground and laid out like corpses, an Arlington Cemetery of trees. And invisibly, also of bees.

There are 50,000,000,000 tiny yellow and black female laborers working themselves to death in less than six weeks. Not only pollinating for hours of daylight, but tending a queen who is laying 1500 eggs—more than her body weight—every day while workers feed the almond blossom nectar to the larvae who emerge from a twenty-one-day gestation and fly into the task of sucking flower juice and spreading the pollen that sticks to their legs from flower to flower, tree to tree. The life of a bee.

Bees pollinate 70% of global food production. A world without bees is a world of starvation. A world without bees is death to the plant kingdom. Monoculture agriculture demands this kind of influx and production capacity, at great cost to bees. I cannot comprehend what it would take to change this in our world of needy and greedy mouths. Maybe that’s why I wrote historical fiction instead of future apocalypse, it allowed me to grapple with scale that I could wrestle into story.

I was born in the bee yards—not literally—but carried home a few days old to a farmstead coming alive in Montana springtime and the buzz of bees. My mother worked the gardens all that summer and my father worked the honey business. We all left in autumn for him to continue schooling after “the war.” I never lived in Montana again, though we returned summer by summer to bring in the honey, and my inner compass is calibrated to those grasslands, buttes, and mountain vistas. My foundational storyline is connected to the mythology accumulated around bees and their industry, their society of cooperation, and the benefits of honey.

Post war baby boom #1

When I was five years old, I remember being held in my grandfather’s arms while my uncle pried off the hive cover and lifted frames of honeycomb crawling with bees into the daylight. Like many in my family, I carry stories of practicality and hardship mixed with respect for these tiny insects. One arm around grandpa’s neck, I leaned over the frame. “Will they sting me?” I asked.

“You’re not a flower,” my grandfather said, “so not interesting.”

“You’re not a flower,” Leo Cooper says on page forty-three of my book manuscript, “so basically not interesting.” It all comes round: life, writing, honey, almonds.

Multiply this beeing by 50,000,000,000.

In the van with my grandchildren, prying their attention from phone screens to landscape, I speak about the bees, remind them of the family reunion, their visit to the place I was born, the graves, the homestead, the current beekeeper walking us through the modernized honey house. I hand them more nuts. “Everything in this world has a cost. That’s not necessarily bad, just important to know and notice. It’s not just money that brings food to our mouths, it’s a whole world of wonder. Out there”—I gesture into the flatlands—”a billion bees are making sure we have next year’s trail mix.”

They nod, smile indulgently, go back to ear pods and scrolling. I’m their Nina. I say these kind of things. We love each other. I pollinate them with my understanding of the world. I tap the window glass, “Our well-being, depends on their being well,” I say, “Bee kind, we’re all on the road to somewhere.”

The Dog & the Backstory

I don’t remember when I first met the Cooper family, central characters of the novel I just sent to my New York agent, but I remember how: their dog introduced me. The germinating moment for my ten-year novel project occurred when my corgi Glory died in 2010. I missed her constant watchfulness over me and others.

Glory & me: Oct. 2008

Glory was a public dog, often present in the circle trainings, writing classes, and wilderness work we were doing at the time. After she passed away, people wrote condolence notes that began, “You probably didn’t notice this but… Glory came round the circle… Glory slid against my leg… Glory seemed to know I was feeling vulnerable.” Yes, I noticed: she did the same for me, and I had watched her tend the social field in remarkable and intuitive ways.

Her departure raised questions about the nature of witness in our lives. Even if trauma, pain, and grief cannot be stopped, does something/someone come alongside to help us bear it? Is it up to us to notice? Is it possible, with their presence and attention, that “dog is God spelled backwards?”

As part of my grief, I began writing from a dog’s point of view… It was to be the story of a woman whose life is witnessed through all the different dogs who companion her. This woman was born in the 1940s, into a family named Cooper, who had a dog named Preacher Boy.

I took the first 50 pages to a weeklong seminar called “Writing the Breakout Novel,” led by Donald Maas and Lorin Oberweger. Their critique said, “Intriguing idea, but I don’t think the dog can carry the story. Don’t lose the dog but let loose the story.” I began several years of questioning. What is essential? What wants to be said? What am I dedicating myself to? Pages and pages of journal notes, scraps of dialogue, scene, post-it notes on my office wall, and very little creative time.

Amazing Gracie, who was here for the most of it.

Ann Linnea and I were depositing our life work of The Circle Way into a next generation of practitioners and teachers. We traveled. We worked with an emergent board and new identity that took shape and handed off decades of work and resources. I continued teaching memoir and autobiography seminars, and we still offered a wilderness fast, the Cascadia Quest, until 2021. Occasionally the novel surfaced in my priorities. I made character lists, studied novel development, plot design, the eight beats of a screenplay (which ruined the movies for me for a few years!), the hero’s journey, how to outline your story, create conflict, etc.

2016: I turned seventy. I committed to the book. Tagline on my personal email: Writer in her own residence. Writing a novel is a collaboration between what the writer has in mind and what the characters have in mind. They surprise me, these Coopers; they announce their own backstories and tell me things that change the plot. We make our way together. I write.

The 1940s remains the timeframe: but this is about the homefront during World War II, not the battlefront. My father, born in 1920, lived nearby and we began hours of conversation about the realities of life in the years before I was born. I become more and more intrigued about what was going on with ordinary people, far from the drama of battle, at a time when the requirement for change was unavoidable: then, as now.

I borrow my birthplace and family lineage as a stage set: west-central Montana, the valley where I was born, 3rd generation settler on the lands of the Blackfeet Confederacy.

The novel features the Cooper family: Leo, the patriarch, is a widowed Methodist preacher and beekeeper who wishes people would behave as orderly as bees behave. He and the country doctor are a team that tries to hold the valley together. Leo’s son, Franklin, enlists to prove himself in the eye of history. He sends home his pregnant immigrant wife. Leo’s other son, Jesse, who ran away as an angry teen, comes of age on the Blackfeet reservation. Carrying a secret of his origins, Jesse returns to challenge the white farmers to work together with the Indians for the war effort.

There are Native characters, and I am a white woman. I spent three years seeking a Blackfeet Cultural Advisor. Our relationship is a journey of profound learning that goes way beyond the book (see my blog: “What shall I do with my old white skin?” as one indicator). I hope I have learned enough to educate white readers and honor Indigenous experience.

The Beekeeper’s Question is a love story, a war story, a family story in which ordinary people find their moments of triumph and truth amid chaos and sacrifice. Preacher Boy remains, but he doesn’t tell the story: he’s a good dog, like my dogs, who have sat patiently under the desk all these years and insisted on walks and adventures beyond the page.

And there are bees.

To be continued.

Vivi, who approved all the dog scenes in the final manuscript.

 

What shall I do with my old white skin?

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Rumi, BIPOC

“If you are trying to transform a brutalized society into one where people can live in dignity and hope, you begin with the empowering of the most powerless. You build from the ground up. You begin by stopping the torture and killing of the unprotected, by feeding the hungry so that they have the energy to think about what they want beyond food.

Adrienne Rich, LGBTQ+

 

Squinting into the world with newborn eyes, I didn’t ask to be born “white” any more than someone else asked to be born brown. I always thought white skin was basically boring, like bread dough. Having brown eyes in a blue-eyed family was my only distinguishing characteristic. My mother (source of those brown eyes) had almond shaped eyes, a Eurasian look descending from her father’s father’s father, a “black Swede.” Years later I wonder about Sami blood. And shall I get a DNA test to prove that I am (somewhere in the shroud of my history) not the oppressor?

And then what do I do with this white skin of mine? I have benefitted from it all my life, much of that time ignorant of the privilege whiteness conferred. In recent decades of humbling awareness, I continue to benefit without asking for that privilege or being able to return it to the historical storehouse from whence it came.

In 1950s America, we lived in white world. My grandfather lent my struggling parents money to buy a falling down house that sat on a corner lot big enough for chickens and a garden at the edge of Indianapolis. We were poor folks, growing our own food, my father driving milk truck and taxicab. But still: white. And he, a conscientious objector in the War, had gotten a master’s degree that after every veteran had been given first choice at jobs, he would finally parlay into a middle-class life for his wife and children. Because: white.

Nora School, 1952, the first wave of boomer babies enters first grade: thirty-five faces, none of them any color other than the “flesh” crayon in our little green and yellow boxes. White skin is all I see. Dick, Jane, and Sally—learning to read in a white child world. The school sits on Lenapé land, but there is no mention that whiteness is not first on the playground in the state of Indian/a. No one mentions the 1818 Treaty of St. Mary’s, or teaches me about the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Mrs. Able, hair in a tight black bun, teaches us to sing, “One little, two little, three little Indians…” That November I appear on the still-new invention of television dressed as a pilgrim with a black paper collar and white hanky costume while other classmates sport construction paper feathers—all of us white. None of us knows what myth we are perpetuating: what this story omits or reveals. Local kids posing on an afternoon clown show: white.

We move north. My mother’s family immigrated from Sweden and Norway in the late 1800’s and settled into Minnesota after the Dakota War of 1862, an armed conflict between the United States and several bands of treaty-betrayed Sioux. The battles ended with the surrender of 400 Dakota, and eventually 1600 Sioux captives, including women, children and elderly. Abraham Lincoln, far away in the nation’s capital, in the middle of signing the Emancipation Proclamation, also signed orders for execution by hanging of 38 Dakota men on the day after Christmas in 1862, the largest one-day mass execution in US history. The rest of the captured Indians were herded onto an island in the Mississippi River where disease and neglect took hundreds of them before survivors were banished into western territories. This is a complex story, with rage on both sides, and the desperation of genocidal wrong-doing.

The Great Seal of the State of Minnesota, commemorates this turning point, showing an “Indian brave” riding by a field where a settler is plowing his land with his musket and powder resting on a tree stump. I know this seal well, because in 1958, when I was twelve and Minnesota statehood was one hundred, I spent hours on my hands and knees on the gymnasium stage of Beacon Heights Elementary School carefully applying tempera paint to a five foot replica of this drawing that would hang (no pun intended) behind the all-white student body as we made pageantry out of our families’ pioneering arrivals onto the lands of the Dakota and Anishinaabe. Because: white.

My father’s family arrived in “the New World” before the American Revolution, founding a town in Connecticut in 1739 on the land of the Narragansett, Mohegans, Wampanoag, Nipmuck, Pocumtuck, Abenaki and Pequot. A man of his time, Nathaniel Baldwin was surely a white supremacist whose breath was a pestilence worse than a musket. He and his wife Abigail exhaled diseases capable of decimating whole tribes. Empowered by the Doctrine of Discovery of 1493, signed in Europe among kings and popes, they believed any land not occupied by Christians to be available for colonization. Because: white.

There was a time in my earlier adulthood when I perused my genealogy and not finding slaveholders or Cavalry relaxed into the fantasy of being among “the good white people.” There is no relaxing. Because: white.

In 1908, Nathaniel’s descendant, Leo Baldwin, a newly ordained Methodist clergy, homesteaded with his wife Mary, in western Montana on territory of the Amskapi Piikani, in Nitsitapii, the Blackfeet Confederacy. He was charged to start churches and to teach at the Fort Shaw Indian Industrial School. The conditions at the school challenged his theology and sense of justice. He helped to close it in 1910, because he could, because: white.

My father was born into this valley in 1920, raised there, and though he lived his adult life in other states, he returned to the family homestead time and again, and his ashes rest in that soil. I was born there in 1946, the great-great-great-great-granddaughter of genocide, perpetrator of marginalization, singer of the missing “ten little Indian boys.” No matter how conscientiously I try to live, I live on land stolen by my ancestors. And I live within an ongoing theft that has never been rectified.

It’s like this: imagine a diamond ring comes down the family line: it belonged to my mother, a gift from her mother, who got it from her father who got it from his uncle who bought it from another uncle who fought in the Civil War, who stole it off the dead finger of Confederate soldier who had a letter from his wife in his pocket… so it could have been returned, but it wasn’t. For generations the ring has been passed along as an heirloom, but none of that makes it not stolen.

So “we” can’t just move on, and “they” can’t just get over it because WHITE has always been the lie and DIVERSITY has always been the truth. And here we are: living in the time of Black Lives Matter, and BIPOC and LBGTQ+ reckoning. Finally. Systems of supremacy and consequent oppression in all forms—racial, ethnic, economic, religious, gender, even human-centric–must now be justly accounted for and reconciled if people of any color are to survive within the matrix of creation.

So, here is the question I am standing in: How can seven generations of guilt intersect with seven generations of trauma in healing ways?

I do not have an answer. But I am willing to bring my lineage of prejudice, and privilege to the  the fire; to that holy space “out beyond notions of wrong-doing and right-doing.” I am committed with the rest of my days to “empower the most powerless and build from the ground up.”

 

To be continued…

The Fifth Grade American Songbook

It is 1956-57, and I am in fifth grade at Beacon Heights Elementary, a blond brick school building poised over highway 55 at the edge of Minneapolis, Minnesota. The playground runs alongside and out back. We have already learned that in case the Russians drop an atomic bomb we are not to look down this highway toward the Foshay Tower, which at 32 floors is the tallest building between Chicago and Seattle. We are so proud. Little kids, all of us a cohort born in the first year of the postwar baby boom. Little white kids, unconscious of our whiteness, our privilege, or of the embedded injustices of our country. We won the War. Everything is okay now. We are so proud.

Mrs. Thompson’s 5th grade class. I can still name most of these children. I was engaged at the time to both the Elliot twins.

The bell rings, we stand by our desks. “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

At age ten, I do not know how demanding these words actually are, or what a commitment they need to require of me my whole life. I am still learning.

Fifth grade is the year I learned to sing. The district hired a music teacher and as soon as Miss Purdy arrived at our door we put aside other work and whipped out our song books. When I Google this to jog my memory, there it is: The American Singer, a hard-cover red book compiled in 1944. I can feel the heft of it in my now aged hands. Songs to stir hearts and minds of little children, songs that roam my mind still today: an entire repertoire of folksy. innocuous, patriotic, supremacist, Judeo-Christian tunes, designed to create a country of white children who share common harmonies.

Illustration inside the front flap.

This presumption was everywhere around me and I want to examine its influence–then and now. I have ordered a copy so that beyond the few pages I could capture with screenshots, I can explore what was planted into my mind about whiteness, American-ness, and the races and ethnicities that created “one nation, under God, indivisible” so that I can continue to work toward “liberty and justice for all.”

Page introducing Indian songs. Underlined words were on the spelling test.

I believe this is a journey of un-enculturation that white Americans need to undertake. It is shocking, in terms of today’s sensitivity to diversity and inclusion, to see the happy illustrations of all white children. Everyone looks like “me” and the portrayal of “them” is distant and faraway. (Indians, for example, are spoken of in the past tense and Mrs. Thompson never informs us we live on traditional Ojibwe territory, or that there are 11 tribal nations in the state.)

Democracy is a process of continual updating. When this country was founded, it appropriated democratic ideas from the Iroquois Nation, held slave-holding signers to the Declaration of Independence and early Presidents in high regard, forbid women and minorities from voting. We have been updating our understanding of America from 1776 to now—and we need to continue. Updating democracy is necessary to civility and civilization. We cannot réestablish outmoded models of whiteness and should not try to preserve supremacist privilege, but find the courage to open our hearts to the transformation that is now upon us and take up this essential task of revisioning America.

Kate Smith and movie orchestra

Beyoncé and friends and estimated 1.2 million citizens, the largest public event ever held in DC.

I offer renditions of two of our most revered ballads. The first is Kate Smith in 1943 singing the new song “God Bless America,” written and released in World War II, and the second is Beyoncé singing “America the Beautiful” at President Obama’s inauguration in January 2009. One represents America then, and the other America now. Kate Smith’s America wasn’t horrible, it was just totally white. Not everyone was white then: and certainly not now. I pray we can claim the beauty of who we are as a nation of myriad people.

We are all choosing right now: choose carefully. Democracy is trying to update itself. There is fear and backlash, as there has always been. Our essential task is to go forward anyway until we discover an inclusive harmony that makes America beautiful for everyone.

Let’s lift every voice and sing! VOTE!

Bones to the Ground

July 15-23, 2019: Ann and I took a 2200-mile road trip around western Montana that held so many layers of significance it is taking weeks to let the heart and soul of our experiences weave into meaning-making. There are moments in this trip I am not ready to share; moments I will probably never have words for, moments that will be transformed into later stories that can only emerge from the perspective of long time. Here is one moment around which my heart swirls:

On the way east, we drove with a small, stainless steel canister containing my father’s ashes riding in the backseat. We were meandering toward the family homestead in Fort Shaw, and the family grave plot at the community cemetery in Sun River, Montana. This grave has been an informal pilgrimage site ever since my grandmother was buried there in 1960, followed by my grandfather in 1970. The headstone is engraved simply: Baldwin.

Dad/Leo Jr. at his parents’ grave: 2011

Over the years the ashes of my Uncle Kenny and Aunt Florence, my Aunt Grace, and now my father, Leo Jr.,  have been set over the coffins of Leo and Mary. Down the row is my Aunt Dorothy, Uncle Reese, and their son, my cousin Richard. With my father’s death at age 98 last October, and his sister Francie’s death at 103 this past February, all the eight first generation Montanans are now laid to ground. In our family’s sense of collective lineage, this marks the end of something. So seventy-five descendants came to acknowledge this cycle, to walk this valley one more time, to pose in front of the Square Butte that looms over the bee-yards and church steeple that defined us, to tour the honey house now operated by Treasure State Honey, evolving our grandfather’s standards of “pure, raw, unfiltered.”

75 descendants at the West Side Methodist Church in Great Falls where Grandpa B. was minister in the 1930s.

Sunday morning, July 14, in the midst of our reunion weekend, we all arrive at the cemetery. A new, flat stone marker is set in place. There is a small urn sized hole in the ground. It is sunny, windy, and we are all milling around in a large clump.

My cousin, Bill, calls us together playing the violin that my father gave him as a boy, his first learner instrument. His granddaughters hold the music pages balanced on the tombstone; his six-year-old grand-nephew comes running over, “That’s amazing sound,” Rhys says, “Can I learn to play that?”

“Yes, you can,” he says to the boy. “And so it goes,” he says to me.

I read a Wendell Berry poem. My brother Eric reads some words of his own, and words of our father’s. We sing Kipp Lennon’s song, “Family Tree,” and cry through the lyrics. And then it is time to lay the shiny canister into earth. I set down the old man’s bones. I invite anyone  who wishes to step forward and put some dirt in the hole. Who comes first are the children: Leo’s fourth generation of great-grandchildren, great-grandnieces and nephews, little hands solemnly spreading summer-dried soil over their ancestor.

Ashes to ashes, they understand the heartfulness of this ceremony.

 

We send silent prayers on the wind. We give thanks.

My niece Colleen with Leo4

 

After folks have drifted off to the brunch awaiting us at the local Methodist church, I sit for a last time with my dad, holding the story I am writing onward, honoring my lineage of Leos, asking forgiveness from the Blackfeet people whose horrific displacement made our placement possible.  Morning glory flowers creep through the grass. Bees buzz. There is both blood and bounty on this land. The wind is still blowing. I pray that all may come to healing; that we may cherish what is good, true, and beautiful; that we may find peace in the wildness of things; that we may learn to better love all our relations and the world.

Butte and bees–what remains the same

After a few moments I rise and walk into the arms of my grandchildren—where my responsibility lives now. They look thoughtfully into my teary eyes, “You okay, Nina?”

I look thoughtfully into their clear gazes. “I’m okay…” and inside I’m thinking to myself: stay healthy, stay fierce, stay strong, stay one whom they can lean upon.

Parents gone, we siblings stand on the ground of bones.