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

What the World needs now

I get up before dawn (easy to do this time of year in the North). I turn on my prayer chimes—two small speakers that electronically emit the soothing tones of singing bowls. I breathe. I recite The Seven Whispers which have centered my days for over two decades.  There is tea in a cup, one small lamp. I raise the blinds. My journal is in my lap. My laptop is on the side table. I choose muse or news. As an elder of story, I expect myself to make meaning out of life’s jumble, at least for myself, but the past few months have been overwhelming.

End of October, I got a text from my sister-in-law: “Go to Instagram and check out my adorable grandkids.” The Ap opens instead to a video of Palestinian children covered in cement dust from wherever they have been excavated. Someone with a cellphone is filming them. A little girl stares from the tunnels of pain her body has become. She gazes into the phone—and directly at me. Her hands flutter weakly.

I start to cry and cannot stop. I slide down the cabinet walls onto the kitchen floor huddled against corner drawers that hold pots and pans and my mother’s china—all intact. There is a roof overhead and windows that look over the neighborhood to salt water and mountains. I do not “deserve” this place of beauty and refuge any more than she “deserves” her place of war and destruction. The cells of my body flinch in trauma.

It is the second time in a month I have slid to the floor. The week of October 8th as stories and images of Hamas atrocities emerged, I scrolled compulsively through news sources looking into the faces of families who died together and the blood-spattered walls of bomb shelters. I bear witness to the slaughter of innocent children whose deaths were documented by their murderers’ body cameras.

I have lost count of how many times my heart has been ripped to shreds by documented acts of violence and war. This corner of the kitchen could easily become my personal bunker of hunkered despair. But the evening’s supper is scorching on the stove above me, a friend is coming by. We will light a candle, lift our plates in offering and bow our heads. “May the nourishment I take into my body also reach the world’s unnourished places.” I call this gesture “kything.”

In olde Celtic, kything meant “to make known,” and was the practice of focusing on shared connection. The word was reintroduced by Madeleine L’Engle in her novel, A Wind in the Door, as a form of telepathic communication. For me, it means offering daily moments of peace and plenty as though each gesture can in some way reach those in need. “Here, beloved strangers, is a sip of hot tea, a plate of good food, a seat by the fire, a listening heart.”

Does it do any good? I don’t know. It keeps me aware.

As we head into the holy days that culminate the calendar year, our brokenness is huge. I am trying to braid together respect for the world’s suffering, acknowledgement of our collective trauma, and moments of spiritual reflection. How do I get up off the kitchen floor and keep on?

In September, just before the world got worse, our friends Roswitha and Holger visited from Germany. They came for friendly counsel on their way to a three-week training in wilderness guiding and sacred solo times. Roswitha, a facilitation trainer of young leaders and a grandmother, arrived with sorrow dragging down her heart. How can she hold out hope to young people and children when she, herself, was in despair?

Later she tells me this story of her wilderness experience (with permission to share it). During her solo-time, mid-training in Colorado, she laid herself down in a high mountain meadow to weep and listen. “And then I heard loud and clear the voice of Mother Earth proclaiming, ‘I do not need your despair, I need your love.’

“Every day since then, Mother Earth’s message is like a stop sign in the depths of my being. All the bad news no longer reaches into the cellar of despair but is turned around and sent back with love. The practice supports me a lot – despite everything – to continue travelling with an open heart and a loving gaze.”

Thank you, Roswitha, for kything with Mother Earth.

I do not understand how such messages come through, I only know when we ask, we receive.  And I remind myself: Love is a verb. Love is taking whatever actions we can, every moment we can, every way we can, with whomever we can, as long as we can.

I get up before dawn.

I pray with my chimes.

I watch the day rise.

I get ready to live with heart.

 

 

And one thing more: there is no justification for the killing of children. Ever.

And another: the side to be on in this war is the side of peace.

Why can’t we stop reading/writing about WW2?

I have spent the past six years of my life studying the six years that preceded my life, which means I have been writing and reading about World War Two. A decade ago, with story ideas jelling in my mind, I tried to pull the narrative forward into my lived experience but the war—that war—WW2—would not let me go.

I was conceived in August 1945 in the days between Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the formal surrender of Japan while the staggering horrors in Europe and Asia were being uncovered and documented. Nine months later I was born into my father’s family homestead in Montana, a brown-eyed child in a blue-eyed family. They call my mother a gypsy, though her dark hair and eyes are Sami/Swede. It is spring 1946, and 500 colonies of bees are making Baldwin & Sons Beeline Honey. I am laid out on the greening lawn, baptized by my grandfather, a Methodist parson as well as beekeeper. That autumn I am carried East for my father to start graduate school. We enter the myth that the war is cleanly over. The Marshall Plan has kicked in. The United Nations is chartered. America is the most benevolent “victor” in the history of the world.

In the early 1950s, LIFE magazine published a Pictorial History of World War II. It weighs over five pounds, is fourteen inches along the spine: a coffee table book left on our coffee table. As though reading by brail, my small fingers brush over photographs of death camps, emaciated populations, exhausted soldiers. I study these scenes and the faces of those standing in them. Questions wake in me that accompany me all my days: How did this happen? What in human nature allowed such horrors?

And these very days, while I type in the safety of my island home watching autumn leaves drift off my neighbor’s maple tree, similar horrors are being repeated in Ukraine, Israel, and Gaza, in more African countries than I know to list, and in uncountable pockets of violence. I still ask: How does this happen? What in human nature allows such horrors?

At its essence, story is how we make meaning of life. Story is how we link one human experience to another and weave our narrative threads. Story is how we learn vicariously. Story illuminates human circumstances and allows us to imagine what we would do. Writers and readers know that imagination increases empathy, resilience and capacity to act in real life. Story matters, and what stories we tend to matters.

In the middle of writing my novel, taking place 1941-1943, I asked several friends why they keep reading about this time period. One said, “The nature of good and evil seems so much clearer. These stories inspire me to see how ordinary people can become extraordinary in the cruelest situations.” Another said, “My father died without telling me his story of the war, so I extrapolate it from books. Through reading, I can grieve for him.”

And why did I write about WW2?

Because I believe that they/then have something to teach us/now about the getting through chaotic times. I focused on the Homefront because most of us live away from actual battlefields but are compelled to pay attention to images of suffering and raw story unspooling in real time. In this immediacy, we (or at least I) experience vicarious trauma without story’s meaning-making perspective. In the early 1940s, the US was madly shifting from Depression era isolationism to global leadership and fighting force. The outcome of the war was uncertain.  It was, in the living of it, a far more volatile, strenuous, and tenuous transition than myths have made it. In life, and in my story–

  • People are fighting fascism with the belief it can be eradicated from the world.
  • The community faces real issues of injustice simmering under settlement of the West.
  • The war’s pressures, realities, and suffering intrude on their personal lives.
  • They must decide how to work together despite all differences.
  • They deal with eruptions of violence, evil, murder and secrecy.
  • They are wounded and healing. They make love and babies.
  • They leave their unsung courage like seeds in the ground for us to harvest.

So maybe I read and write about WW2 because the story is so huge, encompassing so much human and inhumane experience that we haven’t been able to make meaning of it. And maybe because “the war” isn’t over but has splintered into the conflicts that surround us today casting its shadow of horror and the light of human spirit.

New York city is home to the largest Jewish community of any city in the world—larger than the combined populations of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Mid-October 2023, my book, The Beekeeper’s Question, is sitting in the inboxes of fifteen NY publishing house editors. I can imagine their paralysis to face everyday work: I feel that paralysis in myself. We are in global crisis. We cannot foretell what happens from one day to the next. We are caught in narratives with no idea of the climax, or how the situation will resolve. Yet, story is a map and the story that gets one person through helps to get the next person through. I hope the tale of the beekeeper’s family may find its publishing home and take up its task to help us map pathways through the immediacy of life in the now.

 

“The dark around us, come,

Let us meet together here,

Members one of another,

Here is our holy room.”

Wendell Berry

 

 

 

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.