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.

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.

Writing on

My father died.

Leo Baldwin was good at living, amazing at aging, determined to continue contributing up to his last days. He remained cheerful and present even while suffering the pain, indignities, and procedures of his final trip through the medical system. He was 98 years old and had never had an illness that he didn’t fully recover from with a little Tylenol and determination. It took him (and me, and us, and his community) a month to admit that his body wasn’t going to carry him any farther: he’d come to the end of his road.  And when he let go, he let go fully and was gone in 28 hours.

I am happy he was able to finish as himself. I am swept into waves of missing him. He was a much loved and respected central figure in our island lives. Ann and I move through a community that misses him as well. We pause and tell each other stories of his influence and friendship.

“A man and his butte,” photo by Becky Dougherty.

His local memorial service was teary and celebratory and the hall was packed with his wide range of friends. His descendants and extended family will gather in Montana next summer to bury some of his ashes in the soil that birthed him and to lift some of his ashes to the prevailing winds around those buttes and valleys.

And when my father died, my editor died.

I am writing a novel based on a fictionalized version of the town where my father grew up in west central Montana. The story takes place during the early years of WWII, when the first generation of homesteaders is ready for their sons to take over—but many of those sons are called into the war. The central story revolves around the Cooper family: an older beekeeper/Methodist minister named Leo and his relationship with his sons and their wives and the community at large.

My father, Leo, was the age of the young men in this story, and the lineage of the Baldwin family—the bees, the homespun ethics of Protestantism and citizenship, and the social justice issues that lay on this land—are a blend of family heritage and fiction. My ability to capture this time before I was born has been greatly enhanced by the spidery handwritten commentary my father added to my first drafts, and by the hours and hours of conversation at his dining table as we went through the story page by page. He found the typos, tweaked the dialogue, and dived into exploring the themes that activate the subtext of the story. He drummed into me his knowledge of bees and beekeeping.

This process was the most powerful experience of transmission I have ever received from another person. Novelist Barbara Kingsolver, in speaking of writing and rewriting said, “It is thrilling to take an ending and pull it backward like a shiny thread through the whole fabric of a manuscript.” We were pulling threads. I was writing my way forward, forging the story as the characters worded themselves into being. I was working the loom of the first draft. He was reflecting his way backward, seeing his life transformed and woven through the voices of the Coopers. It was a mystical interaction we each surrendered to in different ways.

All this past year I noticed him wearing down and wrote as fast as I could. He asked me once, “Does Leo Cooper need to die in this story? Does the father need to step aside to make room for the next generation to fully become themselves?” We talked about it as a literary device. We talked about it in terms of the emotional maturation of the story’s characters.

“I don’t want Leo to die,” I told him. “I love him…”

Blue eyes looking deep into brown eyes, he assured me “I know you have the courage to write what needs to be written.” I wept all the way home, the eleven miles between his house and mine. That was July: we had two more months before he would turn his attention to letting himself depart.

In the story, it is June 1943. The fight against fascism is not won. People don’t know the outcome; don’t know who will live or die, or what will ultimately be asked of them. They may be far from the battlefields, but their lives are fraught with the tension and chaos of a world in shift. A young war bride and her baby are making a place in the valley. Her faraway husband has just been injured in battle. The angry brother is trying to make peace in himself, his family, and the community. Under the hot Montana sun, Leo Cooper has a stroke in his bee-yards.

In my life, it is November 2018. The fight against fascism is not won. We don’t know the outcome; don’t know who will live or die, or what will ultimately be asked of us. The battlefield is everywhere. Our lives are fraught with the tension and chaos of a world in shift.

I rally my writing skills to reach back to then and to them; I reach my imagination into the brokenness and openness of the Coopers to discover the story map that can help me live honorably in our world of dire consequences in which the lives of ordinary people may shine.

Dad and I were on Chapter 42.

I am on Chapter 43.