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.

 

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.

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.