Climate Change–Everyone is a long story

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David Kanigan’s Sunday Morning introduced me to Niall Williams’s words and a photograph of architecture from Berlin. “We are our stories. We tell them to stay alive or keep alive those who only live now in the telling. In Faha, County Clare, everyone is a long story….” — Niall Williams, History of the Rain.

HEARING AND TELLING STORIES

Pondering Williams’ short sentence reminded me of Frederick Buechner’s Telling Secrets. We don’t just have stories. We ARE our stories. And our stories contain secrets.

I’m imagining a scene that will not happen in real time. There is a large room. Folding wooden chairs have been arranged in a huge circle. Members of Congress and their staff members are sitting there. There is no assigned seating. Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi are there.

Adam Schiff and Doug Collins are there. Scattered among the tailored suits and silk ties are members of the Capitol cleaning and custodial staff, the barbers and stylists, the shoe shiners, the cooks, kitchen assistants, table waiters, and dishwashers are all there. The mailroom clerks, the Capitol Guard, and Secret Service are there. No chair is different than another. Shaker-like oak chairs, every one the same. There is no dais. No microphone. No television cameras. All cell phones are off. There are no distractions. The room is quiet.

All eyes are fixed on the Ojibwa dancer sitting alone in the empty space created by the circle formation. All ears are listening to the story the Ojibwa Elder is telling through his flute. Everyone hears the story and his prayers to the Great Spirit offered without words through his drumming. Then he begins to sing toward the four directions. They watch his body turn to the West, and follow his lead, all turning as he turns.

Look towards the West
Your Grandfather is looking this way
Pray to Him, pray to Him!
He is sitting there looking this way!
Look towards the North
Your Grandfather is looking this way
Pray to Him, pray to Him!
He is sitting there looking this way!
Look towards the East
Your Grandfather is looking this way
Pray to Him, pray to Him!
He is sitting there looking this way!
Look towards the South
Your Grandfather is looking this way
Pray to Him, pray to Him!
He is sitting there looking this way!
Look up above (upwards)
God (“Great Spirit”) sits above us
Pray to Him, pray to Him!
He is sitting there looking this way!
Look towards the Earth
Your Grandmother lies beneath us
Pray to Her, pray to Her!
She is laying there listening (to your Prayers).

Everyone is both curious and caught up in the moment. The OIjibwa is on bended knee. He kisses the Earth. He lifts his eyes upwards. With his right hand he cups his left ear, listening for the voice of the ancestors who looked toward the four directions. The people in the circle begin to hear what he is hearing. The Ojibwa, like Moses parting the waters, is creating a path into the center of the circle, as the sounds draw closer. The Ojibwa shaman open to the doors for the Gathering of Nations, dancing and singing because they know what the people in the wood chairs do not: No one owns land. No one can own a Grandmother.

We are our stories. We tell them, including the secrets we’ve dared not tell, to stay alive or keep alive those who only live now in the telling. Humankind is a long story.

“You must unite behind the science. You must take action. You must do the impossible. Because giving up can never ever be an option.”

Greta Thunberg, US Congress, Washington DC, September 17, 2019.
  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, December 28, 2019.

A Visit with Mary

Mary with Maggie

Mary with my dog Maggie

Visiting with a 91-year-old friend with terminal cancer, the discussion turns to her final wishes.  Mary is a child psychologist by profession, a retired professor whose pioneering work with children at the University of Minnesota and Minneapolis’ Children’s Hospital is a legacy that will remain long after she is gone.

Raised in a strict Calvinist Christian tradition in Michigan, her soul long ago had come to drink from gentler wells – the quiet gatherings of the “Quakers,” the naturalist spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi and of American indigenous spiritualities that saw the sacred in the cirrus clouds, the fluttering of a leaf, a chickadee at the bird-feeder on the deck, or the circling of an eagle overhead.

When her husband died three years before, the family gathered privately to inter Doug’s ashes in a small opening in the woods on their farm near Wabasha. Doug, like Mary, is legendary in Minnesota…in a different sort of way…the street lawyer with the pony tail who started and led the Legal Rights Center with leaders of the American Indian Movement (AIM), the chosen intermediary between the federal troops and the AIM members at the Wounded Knee occupation in 1973 – Dennis and Russell Means, Clyde Bellecourt, Leonard Peltier, et. al..

The family marked the spot with four stones pointing North, East, South and West – the “four directions of the four corners of the earth.”  Early the next morning, the day of the public celebration of Doug’s life, one of Doug and Mary’s daughters had walked out to that tiny clearing in the woods. A bald eagle was sitting very still in the center of the four stones above Doug’s ashes.

I asked Mary at the time what she made of that.  With great respect, she paused…and said she didn’t know, and something to the effect that native peoples seem to be in touch with mysteries that elude the rest of us.  er statement struck me at the time because in our talks about death and dying, she had always indicated that she believed that life is lived between the boundaries of birth and death.  The eagle sitting on Doug’s ashes in that tiny opening in the woods didn’t seem to convince her of something beyond the grave, but she held a kind of sacred openness to the possibility, a respectful not-knowing about human destiny, the universe, and our place in it.

Now, three years after Doug’s death, we sit together, as we often have, over a lunch of shrimp, salad and fresh bread at the table that looks out at the bird feeders in the old converted mill on the farm up the hill from Wabasha.  Three of her five children are there.

Missy asks Mary whether she has told me her plans for her service when the end comes. There is a long silence as she goes away to some far off inner place – some wooded glen where no one else can go.  Her eyes are distant, dream-like, looking off to some far off place, sorting through her long spiritual journey to fetch the right words out of the forest of 91 years of memory.

Finally she speaks… softly.  Quietly.  Deliberately. “I want you to do the prayer and I want the benediction.”  “What kind of prayer?” I ask.  She looks at me quizzically, as if I should know.  “Something classical with the gravitas of tradition?”  “Yes,” she says.  “And what kind of benediction?” I ask.  “Blessed are the peacemakers,” she says.  “And music. What about music?”  “Oh, yes” she says, “Bach, Mozart, Beethoven…and ‘Let there be peace on Earth’”… and she wanders off again into that most personal space where no one else can go.

Ninety-one years summed up in four-words “Blessed are the peacemakers” from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

She is growing weary now. It’s time for her afternoon nap.  We say good-bye. I leave this sacred place of Mary’s world, get behind the wheel to drive home, turn on the radio, listen to news that is so far removed from Mary’s world and Jesus’ with all the saber-rattling and the name-calling, and I wish we all could have lunch with Mary or take a walk to the wooded glen where the eagle sat still above Doug’s grave at the center of the four corners of the earth.

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For eight years Doug and Mary Hall’s farm was a second home. Mary’s pensive spirit and Doug’s activism made them natural parents of the state-wide movement for restorative justice in Minnesota and the Minnesota Restorative Justice Campaign.

Blessed are the peacemakers. RIP.