In-Dependence Day

The quiet that descends after our raucous Fourth of July is a welcome break, a chance to take a breath before the campaign season assaults us with the inevitable fireworks of slogans and slander.

We especially needed July Fourth this year as a time to come together, metaphorically if not physically. It’s our annual paradox of celebrating “independence” while acknowledging our de-pendence on community. Where I live, people are especially protective of their independence, or as my husband liked to describe it: “As independent as hogs on ice.”

Still, I relish the way my community celebrates the Fourth, particularly in this time of social distancing. There are no commercially sponsored or organized fireworks displays. Instead, folks patronize the various fireworks stands that pop up in late June, buying up individual stockpiles of noise and glitter.

fullsizeoutput_24e4East Side Park, on the Colville Indian Reservation across the river from my home, is the designated shoot-em-up area for a DIY pyrotechnics show. The spectacle begins as the sky darkens, around nine p.m., and lasts until nearly midnight. There’s plenty of space in the park, some seventy acres or so, for people to spread out and fill the sky with a thoroughly impromptu but dazzling show.

Volunteer fire crews are on hand to quickly douse the small blazes that inevitably erupt. I figured this year’s show, given pandemic and economic concerns, would be smaller than usual. The newspaper reported the crowd of 1,500 to 2,000 people was smaller. Still, the show was as extravagant as always, especially with Mother Nature contributing a display of her own.

fullsizeoutput_24eaA full moon provided an elegant backdrop to the bursts of color. Not only a full moon, but one in “penumbral eclipse.” That, explains the Farmer’s Almanac is “when the Moon crosses through the faint outer edge of Earth’s shadow (the penumbra), making part of the Moon appear ever-so-slightly darker than usual.” I could not discern any darker shades of moon, particularly when it was illuminated by fireworks.

To accommodate the inevitable litter created by the event, dozens of large metal barrels are placed throughout the park to serve as garbage receptacles. Sunday morning as my dogs and I took our daily walk, I noted the barrels were filled to overflowing and a degree of litter was spread on the ground.

Monday morning, a city crew was tackling the celebratory residue.

“Thanks for your work!” I called out to the men as the dogs and I walked past.

“You’re welcome. Thanks for paying us!” one of them responded.

“My pleasure!” I answered, and meant it. My own independence is a fantasy. I get to believe in it only because I can depend on others.

A Fourth of July moon over the Okanogan River

How Flawed a Foundation

A firm foundation––often invisible, always essential

Builders laid the foundation this week for a new home four doors down the street from my house. One of the city’s oldest residences had stood vacant for years on this prime, riverfront lot. A local businesswoman bought the property, tore down the old house before it could collapse on its own, and is building her dream home.

Though largely invisible, foundations are essential. When my husband and I moved into our vintage home thirty-six years ago, we were aware there were some foundation issues. One bedroom had a floor that sagged so badly, we couldn’t use the room. We simply shut the door and pretended the problem didn’t exist. Until.

With visitors coming for the holidays, we needed that bedroom. We tore out the floor, finding very little foundation and what appeared to be a hole to China. Or, as my husband observed, “This house is hanging from its eaves!” Nothing that truckloads of concrete and a whopping big check couldn’t fix.

Now I’m wondering if our nation isn’t hanging from its eaves. With 2020 vision, we can no longer shut the door against our foundational flaws. The “independence” that we celebrate on July Fourth was utterly dependent on an economy fueled by the slave labor of Africans. The expansion of our nation required displacement and genocide of indigenous people who’d flourished on this continent for thousands of years. Racism was and continues to be built into our foundation like so much rebar.

Throughout my lifetime, our nation has struggled to address its foundational flaws: integration of the military, Brown v. Board of Education, elimination of Jim Crow, Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, first Black man to do this, first Native American woman to be that … and yet we are a long way from being able to wipe the dirt off our hands and declare, “Well now, that’s done!”

“Interrupting the forces of racism is ongoing, lifelong work,” writes University of Washington professor Robin DiAngelo, “because the forces conditioning us into racist frameworks are always at play; our learning will never be finished.”*

What with a pandemic, its economic impacts, and massive protests, we’ve hardly had breath or time to observe another significant 2020 event: the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment, allowing women to vote––after an epic struggle. A hundred years later, women continue to be in the minority in government, a minority in earning power, and we have yet to elect a woman President.

We have protests and marches because––eventually––they’re effective. Notes historian Jon Meacham: “Progress in America does not usually begin at the top and among the few, but from the bottom among the many. It comes when the whispered hopes of those outside the mainstream rise in volume to reach the ears and hearts and minds of the powerful.”**

Those “whispered hopes” have risen in volume to shouts, screams, and wails of anguish that have echoed through our land for centuries. How much, I wonder, are we willing to invest to fix our foundation? How much of an economic investment? But more significant, how much humility are we willing to invest?

* DiAngelo, Robin, “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.”
** Meacham, Jon, “The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels.”

Assets of Age

We’ve experienced

what younger generations

can only read about

The older you get, the more personal your connection with history. Kids read history in books; we of a certain age have lived it.

Last week I heard a college student say that he’s too young to remember 9/11. But that was so recent, I inwardly objected. Even though I can’t remember what I ate for lunch yesterday, I remember every moment of Sept. 11, 2001; my husband and I watched, galvanized, as the story unfolded on our television screen.

A while back a younger friend observed with incredulity that her mother could still remember exactly where she was and what she’d been doing the day President Kennedy was assassinated. November 22, 1963. Anyone born in the 1950s or earlier could remember that day with clarity. As a college student, I was on my way to a music theory class when I learned of the shooting. Stunned and confused, we students clustered in the classroom. The professor arrived, canceled class, and invited us to his office, where we huddled around his radio.

Because of radio and TV, and now internet, you don’t have to be at the location for an event to seize your soul and never let go. I remember watching Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, delivered Aug. 28, 1963, on the National Mall.

I’d visited Washington, D.C., the previous summer, and attended an open-air production of a Shakespeare play on the mall. As I watched TV coverage of the massive crowd that had gathered, I felt an odd sense of connection. I’d been there. I could imagine being part of the crowd. Yet I was on the other side of the country, in the family room of my parents’ home, ironing. I’d occasionally look up from the ironing board at a tiny black and white TV screen as speakers spoke, singers sang, and preachers prayed.  And then MLK. I put the iron down. To this day, my heart churns when I see replays of that speech.

Before his assassination, King had expanded his efforts beyond civil rights to the intertwined, deeply rooted issue of poverty. He was organizing and promoting the upcoming Poor People’s March on Washington when he was assassinated. The Poor People’s Campaign persisted, setting up a 3,000-person protest camp on the Washington Mall, staying for six weeks in the spring of 1968. Some of you may remember that. Most Americans now are too young. Reading about it in a history book is not the same.

_poster_werisetogetherWhich is why an event coming up Saturday, June 20, is so vital. More than fifty years later, we have a new version of the Poor People’s Campaign. There won’t be a massive march and encampment on the National Mall, but as these times would have it, a “digital justice gathering” nationwide. It’s a “moral march” on Washington, say organizers, who hope to attract tens of thousands of people online. Details are at

Cynics might say, “Why bother? Nothing has changed.” I’m old enough to argue that plenty has changed––just not enough, especially in the area of wealth distribution. We march because we can; we protest because we must. We’ll continue (a) until we don’t need to any longer, or (b) because we can’t.

I prefer option (a).

Inherently Privileged

It has taken me a lifetime to recognize, much less reckon with, my white privilege. It’s not that I’ve been oblivious to racism. I met Jim Crow head-on while traveling through the South in 1962. I was eighteen years old, appalled by racism but clueless about my own white privilege.

Infant Mary
Yup. It’s me, inherently privileged.

White privilege begins, obviously, at birth. Through no effort on my part, I was born to parents of European descent. Their forebears emigrated here because they wanted to, not because they were captured and sold into slavery.

In my experience, white privilege is childhood in a two-parent home; parents not rich by any means, but they didn’t have to struggle to feed us and put a roof over our heads.

White privilege is attending generally all-white schools. Well-funded schools where we learned what the state wanted us to learn: little or nothing about the evils of Manifest Destiny or the recognition that this nation’s economy was built on the backs of slaves.

White privilege is being able to live wherever I choose to live, though I seem to choose places that are pretty much white like me, where amenities like clean water are taken for granted.

White privilege is access to critical medical care if needed and lifelong preventive health care.

White privilege is seeing police on the street, in my neighborhood, and feeling safe, not afraid.

White privilege is registering to vote with no stumbling blocks and then voting without threats or chicanery.

White privilege is freedom. Freedom from and freedom to. Freedom from stereotypical judgments, harassment, disdain, dismissal. Freedom to move about, to live pretty much as I want––within the constraints of society, the system.

When we talk about “systemic” racism, we’re recognizing that racism has been consciously built into our systems: educational, health care, economic, criminal justice, even religious systems. Just as racist policies are intricately interwoven into those systems, so is white privilege. The systems are gamed.

White privilege doesn’t mean all whites have it easy. Eight percent of white Americans (that’s 15.7 million people) live below the poverty line. White people struggle too, observes black journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. It’s like we’re all swimming in a stream, but whites are swimming with the current and blacks are swimming against it. The system is designed to move whites forward and designed to push blacks back. That’s just one morsel among many in Oprah Winfrey’s provocative, two-hour documentary, “Where Do We Go From Here?” , available for viewing on YouTube.

I’ve never thought of myself as privileged. Blessed, yes. Richly blessed. Now as I look back on my seventy-six years, the privilege that moved me along life’s current is as glaring as neon signs on the Las Vegas Strip. I’ve been complicit in a system whose inequities are being laid bare by Covid-19 deaths, disproportionately high among people of color; inequities laid bare by videos of racist brutality.

That’s a harsh word: complicit. Yet acknowledging white privilege doesn’t require taking on a heap of guilty despair.  I won’t be defeated by my lack of color any more than I want to see others defeated by their color. So where do we go from here? To the streets? Maybe. To social media? Possibly. To the voting booth? For sure. To a place of deeper understanding, a place of compassion? Let’s hope.

Truth Laid Bare: No Looking Away

Minneapolis—city of my birth, launchpad toward my independence—you’re breaking my heart.

On a Friday morning in May 1944, my dad pulled up to Swedish Hospital just in time for my mother to deliver me, their third child. Only ten days earlier my family had moved to a small, lakeside town, twenty-five miles from Minneapolis.

By the time I was eleven, I was making that twenty-five-mile journey every Saturday morning, boarding the Greyhound bus—alone, getting off downtown for my piano lesson at the Minneapolis College of Music. In the back of my assignment notebook, Mother had drawn a map, detailing where to get off the bus, what direction to walk to the college, and from there what direction to walk to the bus depot, where I would catch the bus back home.

Dayton's 2The piano lessons were of secondary importance to that walk back to the bus depot. My route took me through Dayton’s Department Store, where I was dazzled by elegant goods. I’d drop into Woolworth’s to munch on a slice of pizza while watching demonstrations of the latest gadgetry. Various little shops along the way specialized in trinkets or roasted nuts. Nobody at home worried whether I caught the 2:40 bus or the 3:30—just so I made it home for dinner by six.

Can you imagine in this day and age letting a pre-teen child travel solo to any metropolitan downtown, allowing her the freedom to explore on her own? It’s not that my parents were careless. They’d coached me on all the rules about not talking with strangers, etc. They also fostered independence.

Thus it was in downtown Minneapolis that I first became aware of black people—in those days, “colored.” The town where my family lived was all white. I would eventually realize as an adult having lived in both Minnesota and Washington state, that the North was as segregated as the South, just more subtly so.

The ten-year-old me was mystified by black people. I remember wondering about a trim, attractive woman, a clerk at Dayton’s. What was it like to be different? Over the years, as I read black writers (Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, James Baldwin and others), I came to understand that it’s not about being different, it’s about being hated because your skin color is different.

Just a few years after my idyllic Saturdays in downtown Minneapolis, James Baldwin wrote that blacks don’t particularly care about being “accepted” by whites. “White people in this country,” he wrote in 1962, “will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”

Covid-19 has laid bare long-standing inequities that result from our failure to love. It has forced us to see that if you are black, brown, or Native American, you are more vulnerable, more likely to get sick, more likely to die. Videos on social media have forced us to see that if you are a black American, you are twice as likely to be killed by police as white Americans.

We are “infected by a pandemic of hatred,” said Yale law professor and black writer Stephen Carter. This pandemic is more frightening than Covid-19, which we expect will be resolved eventually with a vaccine. The pandemic of hatred has been with us for decades, for generations.

The push is on to “re-open.” We’ve gotta do better than that. We have to just plain open––open our health care system to all, open our economic system to all, open our justice system to all. We are seeing truth laid bare; we need to open the eyes of our hearts to all.

At Sixes and Sevens

Why do you suppose “Music Man” Meredith Wilson chose seventy-six trombones to lead his big parade? I understand that the composer/lyricist of one of my favorite musicals needed the three-syllable word “sev-en-ty.” They fit the triplet rhythm leading to the downbeat on “six.” But why six? Why not seventy-nine or seventy-two?

watercolour-1755721_1920This inconsequential question floats through my mind as I approach my seventy-sixth birthday amidst a pandemic. Spiritual writer Richard Rohr describes this time of global crisis as “liminal space.”

“It is where we are betwixt and between, having left one room or stage of life but not yet entered the next,” he explains. That’s how I feel about moving into my late seventies. Neither here nor there; once “mature,” now hurtling toward downright “old.”

Because I don’t know how I feel or what I think about this birthday, I decided to turn to my mother for advice. Hah! she’d say. You never asked my advice when I was alive. True, but I always knew what her advice would be, and I didn’t want to hear it. It seems that I’m catching up with my mother. It took her most of a lifetime to reach seventy-six. It’s taken me no time at all.

I consulted Mother’s diary from 1992. It seems that I’m catching up with her. It took Mother most of a lifetime to reach seventy-six. It’s taken me no time at all. She kept sporadic diaries from the time she was in college. Primarily she recorded daily events, only rarely confiding her feelings. The day before her seventy-sixth birthday she wrote that her granddaughter, with husband and child in tow, had arrived at 10 p.m. for an overnight birthday visit. Mother’s bedtime diary entry, after getting her guests settled for the night: “So this is my last half-hour of being seventy-five. Lucky me.” Her version of dry humor.

On her birthday, she noted that the celebration was nothing like her seventy-fifth, which had entailed a grandiose family gathering. But there were enough family members on-hand and calls from the others to make this day, in her word, “complete.” Her conclusion: “Very thankful for seventy-six years, for health, fine family, mostly for God’s blessing and love.”

Well, me too. Still, the number seventy-six seems boring, inconsequential. Google reminds me that there is the “Spirit of ’76,” the patriotic sentiment related to the American Revolution. Richard Nixon had “The Spirit of ’76” emblazoned on the nose of Air Force One. Other Google findings:

    • the 76 gas station chain was so-named because of the gasoline’s octane rating,
    • if I were a gamer I’d be into “Fallout 76,”
    • Denny’s restaurant sales were down 76 percent in April,
    • and finally, there’s Psalm 76. Not a lot of comfort in the psalmist’s remarks to God: “What terror you inspire! who can stand before you when you are angry?”

Googled-out, I found a list of notable people who were born the same year as I. No surprise that I didn’t make the list. Frank Sinatra Jr. did. Sadly though, he didn’t make it to seventy-six. Mother was right. I’m “very thankful.”

Illustration by Pawny from Pixabay

Confessions of a Tree Hugger

blue-4585856_1920It was a heady time. Fifty years ago, at age twenty-five, while living on an idyllic island in Puget Sound, I participated in the first-ever “Earth Day.”  According to news reports, I was one of twenty million Americans who “took to the streets” to demand a clean, healthy environment.

In my case, it was more of a stroll down a tree-lined, country road with a flock of Vashon Island high school students and staff. The mood was benignly hopeful, unlike other demonstrations of that era. If nothing else, my generation was good at showing up. Memories also include marching shoulder-to-shoulder with thousands of Vietnam war protestors through downtown Seattle as the unified chant, “Peace Now!” reverberated amongst sky scrapers and through our souls.

Somehow in the midst of that chaotic time, our nation found the political will to pass stunning legislation: Clean Water Act, Occupational Health and Safety Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, Endangered Species Act, Safe Drinking Water Act,  and many more, including fuel economy standards for cars. All of it helped, but not enough, not in the face of climate crisis.

Where is our political will now? As I reflect on these fifty years in my own life, I’m contrite to admit: I’ve not made a single, personal sacrifice on behalf of Mother Earth. Oh, yeah. I’ve done my share of recycling. I’ve reported on various environmental issues, tried to be a conscientious consumer, considered fuel mileage when purchasing vehicles, cut back on meat in my diet. But by no stretch of the imagination could I describe any of that as sacrificial. Nothing like the sacrifices our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be forced to make.

I approach this fiftieth anniversary with nostalgia and remorse. And yet, the hope and determination of my twenty-five-year-old self lingers. I dare to be hopeful because the solution to climate crisis is not dependent on my solitary actions, but on our communal actions. All of us as a people. If I’m the weakest link in the chain, hey! I think I’m at least strong enough to hold it together. So are you.

Not now, you might answer. Not while we have a corona virus, shut-downs and economic disruption to contend with. Yes, exactly now, when many of us have been given time away from our normal activities and stresses. Now we have time to consider. Now we have time to be inspired, to renew hope.

Take just five minutes to hear how a young cellist combined science and music to illustrate a century-long pattern of climate warming. Take an hour for a multi-faith Earth Day worship service involving world religions from indigenous to Buddhist, and even a few Episcopalians. Take the whole day, April 22, to tune into Earth Day Live, a global event that could spread faster than any pandemic––if we’re willing. If we’ll give it our time, our consideration.

This, too, is a heady time.

Image by Prettysleepy from Pixabay

Time to Talk

Just in case: I intend to reduce the increasing demand for hospital ventilators by one—my own. For a couple of years now, I’ve had a lime-green card hanging on my refrigerator, signed by myself and my primary care provider, stating clearly: “Do not use intubation or mechanical ventilation.” My PCP emphasized my wishes, printing above her signature: “No intubation if needed.”

The lime-green POLST is clearly visible, even on my crowded refrigerator

The lime-green card is Washington state’s “POLST,” Physician’s Orders for Life Sustaining Treatments. It summarizes my wishes for end-of-life medical treatment. EMTs, when answering an emergency call to a home, are trained to look on the fridge for the POLST, which is highly visible on most refrigerators amidst photos of grandchildren, pets, and favorite vacation spots. It’s generally used in conjunction with a longer, more detailed advance directive. I have one of those, too. The format I used is called “Five Wishes,” and three of my family members have a copy.

I am not against Covid-19 patients or anyone else going on ventilators. I’m suggesting that during this extra time we have at home, this time of too much TV and other distractions, we could/should be thinking, praying, and talking with family about end-of-life choices. The Conversation Project offers these eye-opening numbers: 97 percent of people say it’s important to put their wishes in writing, but only 37 percent have actually done it; 92 percent of people say talking to loved ones about end-of-life wishes is important, but only 32 percent have actually done so.

My reasons for rejecting intubation for myself are deeply personal. I have a healthy fear of dying and a  Christian’s “mustard seed” of faith, which I’m told is adequate. I’ve never been on a ventilator but close enough. My late husband was intubated and successfully weaned from a ventilator twice. The first time was the day of the stroke that paralyzed him. I was not present but anxiously driving the hundred miles to the hospital, where John had been transported by ambulance. Because he had no advance directive, no DNR (do not resuscitate) orders, the default treatment was intubation. Several days later, he could breathe on his own, which was about all he could do.

The second time, a few years later, I was at his side in the emergency room. Still John had no DNR. His doctor assured me that without intubation, “John will most surely die.” I gave the go-ahead and watched as the ER doctor tried and failed to force the tube down John’s throat, tried and failed again, quickly stepped aside and motioned to the respiratory therapist, who successfully intubated on the third try. To my inexperienced eyes, the procedure was nothing less than violent.

After John was successfully weaned a second time, we were warned that if he were ever intubated again, he would be on a ventilator permanently. I was grateful for every day John lived after his stroke, but I told him forthrightly, I could not make the decision again. This had to be his choice. In conference with his doctor and me, he gave instructions for filling out the POLST. No more extraordinary life-saving measures. Years later, he died in my arms at home. His willingness to make his own choice was the greatest gift he could have given me. He allowed me to continue living without guilt.

It’s too early in this pandemic to know how much help ventilators will be. A very, very early study based on the first hundred patients in China hints that Covid-19 patients on ventilators may have a higher mortality rate than other ventilator patients. Initial studies from Seattle indicated Covid-19 patients require longer stays on a ventilator.

Here’s what I do know: Most people will not get Covid-19 and of those who do, most will not die. We are distancing ourselves from each other not so much to protect ourselves but because we care for each other. We are limiting the pathways through which this potentially lethal virus can travel. And if worse comes to worse, one more thing I know for sure: it’s far easier for families if a patient makes her wishes known in advance, saving them the burden of withdrawing intervention when it’s time to let go.

For readers wishing authoritative information about intubation process and possible aftermaths, the New York Times published this piece April 4 by a doctor of internal medicine, who also advocates for advanced planning: What you should know before you need a ventilator.

Home is Where You Hang Out (updated April 8)

Our government says “stay at home.” I can do that, happily. Just the other evening, I was savoring my view of the Okanogan River in its ceaseless, silent flow past my home, when I became aware of a raucous party in Pioneer Park. The small park is about a quarter-mile downstream, where the river bends south, giving me a clear view of  activity there. A dozen-or-so people were clustered around the gazebo, definitely not social-distancing.

The park was built some forty years ago, the vision of the late Loretta Nansen. She conquered U.S. Army Corps of Engineers resistance to putting a park on top of their flood dike.  Her persuasive abilities convinced Phil Cleveland, M.D., whose hobby was carpentry, to build the gazebo. The park was thoughtfully landscaped with trees, benches, and native vegetation along the engineered riverbank. Just one block off Main Street, Pioneer Park was destined to be downtown’s beauty spot, a place for respite and refreshment.

Army Corps at work in Pioneer Park last summer. The gazebo (visible above the cloud of dust) survived.

Things did not turn out as Loretta envisioned. Many years later, the city removed the maturing trees to make the park less inviting to the homeless. I was still scratching my head over that one when the Army Corps thundered in last summer with heavy equipment, shoring up the dike with massive boulders. The native vegetation (aka wildlife habitat) disappeared. A botanist with the Corps promised me that willows will come up amidst the boulders. I have yet to see any sign of them. Much of the grass, where people walked or stretched out to catch the sun, was destroyed, too.

Still, people hang out there. Stay at home? I’m guessing most at the gazebo that evening were homeless. After volunteering at the Okanogan Community Homeless Shelter over the winter, I no longer use “homeless” as a generic label. Now I know names and faces: Mac and Abby and Regina and George. I know some of their stories, some of their ambitions. What I don’t know is where they are now. The shelter closed at the end of February as the weather warmed and volunteer energy had diminished to barely burning embers. I didn’t spot anyone I recognized among the party-goers.

I admit that if the shelter had kept operating, I would not have been able to continue. My task was to sit in a tiny office, knee-to-knee with the guests, recording their background information and spending an hour in chit-chat to make sure everyone was “dry and sober.” Not a safe environment for this 75-year-old in the midst of a pandemic.

The $2 trillion CARES Act contains $4 billion for homeless assistance, about a third of what advocates say is needed. An analysis by the National Alliance to End Homelessness predicts that “homeless individuals infected by COVID-19 will be twice as likely to be hospitalized, two to four times as likely to require critical care, and two to three times as likely to die than the general population.” Consider that cost.

I don’t have the magic solution for homelessness. I acknowledge activities by some homeless individuals are a headache for city officials. The answer is not in making a park so unwelcoming that only the homeless are willing to gather there. That $4 billion is certainly part but not all of the answer. It’s only when we look at homeless individuals with compassion instead of judgment, only when we wrap empathy around charity, then maybe we’ll be getting somewhere.