Keep Singing

•September 10, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Des Moines River crossing, just east of Pilot Mound, IA.

The first thing I saw were the horses. Probably a dozen of them. In a pasture on the other side of the easement where today’s pipeline work was taking place. As my six-year-old son and I walked down the road towards the center of the p_mg_0797rotest, the horses were running. I can only guess what they sensed. And then they were gone before I could direct my son’s eyes towards the spot I had seen them. It was difficult to look past the giant machines between where we stood and the where the horses had been. Machines I don’t have names for. Machines that made horrible, loud noises that echoed across the river valley every time they slammed into the ground. When my son asked what that sound was, the best I could come up with was, that’s the sound of the earth being torn open.

Which was the exact feeling in my chest when I saw where we were protesting today. Torn open. The specific protest location wasn’t released until right before the gathering time. The message just said “we’ll be _mg_0697meeting at the Des Moines River crossing East of Pilot Mound at 1 pm”. That was the first time it occurred to me that this pipeline would be crossing one of Iowa’s major waterways. So focused had I been on Standing Rock’s movement to protect their lands and major water sources (which is a worthy movement to be closely following), I failed to notice what was going on right here in my own back yard. I had known the pipeline would cut diagonally through Iowa, I’d seen a general map. But this, the Des Moines River? How had I managed to miss this? The largest river flowing across the state and sustaining enormous portions of the population, including our capital for which the river was named?

On our half-hour drive out there, I saw for the first time the marks of this pipeline – large scars in the land, giant swaths of black soil turned over and cleared in the middle of corn and soybean fields. A big fat line, carved straight through. But when we came over the crest of the hill leading into the Des Moines River valley, all I could think was, no. No. No. No. No. No. Not here.

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Easement just south of Hwy 30, Boone

We walked past the machines and their noises, past where the horses had disappeared, and into the thick of the protest at the work site’s entrance. Arrests were about to begin, I could see, so I grabbed my son’s hand tightly and pressed into the crowd with my camera. The law enforcement officials were courteous. Those being arrested were as well. Both sides realizing, I imagine, they were doing a job they had to do.

 


I wondered, as I watched the many arrests, what the uniformed men thought about us, about the pipeline, about the river. Were their hearts behind their actions? And the workers, I wondered, what about them? Was the money simply too good to turn down? Had the company convinced them of the safety of this project, of its benefits? At what point do people decide to participate in and support such a project as this?

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After the first round of arrests seemed to be over and the vehicles trying to enter the work site were allowed to pass, I could see my son was overwhelmed so we took a walk up to the river overpass. Looking down at the giant waters below, with his chin on the edge of the concrete barrier, he quietly said, Mom, if the pipeline breaks in the river, it will kill all the fish and we eat the fish. Yes, I said. And it would also mean a lot of people would have no water to drink. Like where? he asked. Like Des Moines and all the other towns and cities downstream across the whole state. Des Moines? But Nolan lives in Des Moines, and then Nolan wouldn’t have any water. Yes, I said, your best friend would not have water if the pipeline broke here. And I could see through his eyes what this meant for him. Suddenly this was personal, a connection was made, and an understanding blossomed before my eyes.


Between stretches of conversation and silence on that bridge, several monarch butterflies circled around us on the currents of air in the river valley. Water, air, butterflies. I looked around and noticed a few small, yellow butterflies as well, and higher up, several vultures riding the air currents, too.

 

And then I listened. To the sound of the river running below, quiet bu_mg_0678t wide in its presence. To the chanting of the protesters from down the road, someone with a megaphone leading the chants. Someone with a drum, matching the cadence of the chants. And then a series of sudden loud crack, crack, cracks, echoing. It’s that machine again, my son said, tearing.

Another round of arrests were made when another vehicle tried to enter the work site but were blocked by the linked arms of protesters. Youth, probably between ages eight and ten, shouted from across _mg_0657the road through the megaphone, oil is not good for the environment! Oil is not good for the environment! Younger children stood with signs next to them. A man stood with his toddler asleep on his chest, water is our future, handwritten on the back of her little turquoise shirt. Two young children sat on a blanket eating apple sauce as their mom stood next to them holding a sign that read, water is life. Older people with canes made their way slowly up and down the protest lines. This is what intergenerational relationships look like, I realized. Something we are sorely lacking in the rest of our lives and culture. But here, in this place, this river valley being torn through, were three, perhaps even four generations of voices, speaking together.

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And that was something to behold. As were the many kind words exchanged between protesters, between strangers bonded by this moment.  As was the moment a protester approached a patrol officer with a bleeding hand from having slipped and fell on some roadside gravel and was responded to with compassion and care by the officer.

As was the end of the protest, when everyone came to the bridge and a group of Native women began singing a song to the river, to the four directions, just as the yellow school bus with all of our arrestees passed through. Those women sang, kept singing, as people cheered for those on the bus, as the river flowed beneath us, as the workers continued with their machines, as the vultures circled, as the officers watched cautiously, as the monarchs floated.


And perhaps that is the key: to continue our songs, to continue our chants, to continue our prayers – beyond this moment and into a series of moments that create a continuum of moments, moments that gather momentum and force and sound collectively as we join with the rest of those fighting this same fight in other parts of the country. That gathered sound, that concentration of chants and prayers and songs – that will be a mighty force, is already a mighty force, and will continue to be the path towards change. Keep singing, my friends. Keep singing.

Only in the dark can we see the stars

•January 30, 2013 • 1 Comment

I’m supposed to be grading, but it’s snowing outside and I’m in Minnesota and it’s -25 and I’ve got other things on my mind besides grading.

Lately, I’ve been spiraling down into what feels like a hopeless place. Hopeless about the human race, about angry about our penchant for making poor decisions that will result in almost certain death for the Earth and everything on it (except maybe cockroaches). This sounds very fatalistic and pessimistic. I’m aware of that. But here’s where it starts for me:

Gunshot Window

Our reverend gave a thought-provoking sermon right before MLK day about social change and included the old saying, change occurs only when the pain of remaining the same is greater than the pain of changing. I’ve heard this before, just not in the context of social justice. Hmmm. Filed the quote and sermon away in the unreliable filing cabinet in my brain.

Later that week, I watched the Lorax with my two kiddos and husband. I wasn’t expecting the strong environmental message the movie contained. If you haven’t watched it, here’s a short synopsis: Futuristic world where everything is made of plastic. That’s Thneed-ville. Young man falls for a young woman who wants nothing more than to see a real tree. But there are no trees, and only the oldest generation remembers what a tree even looks like. Young boy sets out on a quest to find his love a real tree. His journey takes him out of Thneed-ville and into the barren wasteland of the rest of the world – only stumps of trees, smog, death, stillness, gray. Legend has it that a man named Mr. Once-ler is the only one who really knows what happened to the trees. Boy searches and searches and finally finds Mr. Once-ler. It takes some convincing, but Mr. Once-ler – a grumpy, ornery, reclusive old man – agrees to share the story with the boy.

Long ago, Mr. Once-ler was an enterprising young man who discovered that the troll-like tufts of hair on top of the trees made the best material for his up-and-coming invention: the Thneed (looks like a cross between a sweater and a scarf and an unhappy cat).  He began to chop down the trees, but the natural world protested. The Lorax, the guardian of the natural world, pops out of a freshly chopped tree stump and chastises Mr. Once-ler for his actions, pointing out the array of animals that make their homes in those trees. The Lorax is successful at making Mr. Once-ler see his point after a series of funny mishaps, and Mr. Once-ler agrees not to chop down any more trees. Instead, he begins to harvest a bit from this tree, a bit from that tree, and continues on with his business. But the Thneed becomes the newest fashion rage, and Mr. Once-ler is hard-pressed to keep up with the demand using his sustainable harvesting practices.

Then he pretty much turns into a greedy bastard and chops down all the trees and builds an empire with machines that pollute and barren fields all around. Eventually, he runs out of trees and goes out of business. Thneed-ville is taken over by the next greedy bastard who builds his empire selling people clean air (because of all the pollution created by Mr. Once-ler’s empire).

Back to the boy. Upon completing the telling of his story, Mr. Once-ler hands the boy the very last Truffula seed with instructions to repopulate the world with trees so that some of the damage can start being undone. Boy rushes home, shows the seed to his girl (who swoons, of course) and they begin the dangerous task of finding a place to plant the seed. It’s a happy ending. You can guess what happened.

Hoar frost

The movie really got to me. Maybe it was because I was watching it with my kids who are growing up in this kind of short-sighted, selfish world. Maybe I was just ready to hear the message. Really hear the message.

A few days later, I was reading the ISU Daily and there was an article about the effects of violence video games. Nothing about the article surprised me. Playing video games causes shorted attention spans. Yep. Playing violent video games is often followed by a period of aggressiveness. Yep. Video game companies have successfully sought protection of their content under the First Amendment. Wait. What? Their argument, and a valid one, is that parents should regulate what kinds of games their kids play and individuals should regulate their time and exposure to some of the super violent games. The industry did have to submit to the video game rating system. That was probably a good idea. Okay, so we’re supposed to regulate ourselves. Makes sense to me. But we don’t. Then we throw a fit when the government steps in and regulates stuff like this. It seems to me that we want the right to choose, but then we make poor decisions.

Hold on, this sounds a lot like God’s arrangement with us. Free will. Hmm… back to that later.

Then, I start looking around at the people I know. I see people with blood pressure and cholesterol problems who won’t lay off the coffee and McDonald’s. I see people with regular migraines who won’t drink water and won’t lay off sodas. I see people with weight issues who won’t exercise. I see myself, and I’m no exception. I have problems with memory and mental clarity, but I won’t lay off the chocolate and sweet treats. I avoid exercising with a mountain of excuses.

Are we just a stupid species?

All of these decisions will lead us to shorter lifespans and inevitable grief for our families. I see it first hand when someone in my family has a sudden serious injury or illness. The panic and fear in the rest of us. The sadness and eventual relief when tests come back negative and recovery is underway. That was a close one, we say.

Perhaps we are just really shortsighted.

Lone Tree

And then I think about the corporations who I feel justified in calling evil for the ways they place profit over people. The corporation is evil. The people running it are probably decent people. I’m sure if you sat down over dinner with the CEO of any corporation, most likely he/she would turn out to be a pretty normal, caring person. So what the hell happens when all of these decent people come together under a corporation? Morals generally go out the window. Why? It seems like there is something systemically wrong here. I’m sure if you asked the CEO – do you want to be screwing people over and irreparably damaging the planet? – they’d be shocked at such a suggestion. Of course not, they’d say.

It occurs to me that we live as if we are our own little islands, imagining that what we do on our island is on such a small scale that it doesn’t affect anything or anybody else. What’s wrong with chopping down a couple of trees or tossing a little bit of used oil from my boat into the ocean?

Yet, I look at my own life and feel that, while I generally think I make good decisions about this kind of stuff, I’m a part of this cycle, too. It seems like it takes so much energy to make the right decisions sometimes. In Ames, the city doesn’t do recycling because they burn all the trash and turn it into energy. We do have private recycling services that you can pay for, and they will come by on a bicycle to pick up your recyclables on a regular basis. We tried that for a while, but it became one more thing to deal with. Another bill to keep track of, another thing to remember to do. So we stopped. And I tell myself it’s probably fine because the city uses the trash for energy. I don’t know if this is actually true, but I tell myself this anyway because I don’t want to deal with the hassle of going back to a recycling service. How lame is that?

So, I’ve been on a winding path towards hopeless and despair these last few weeks. I don’t have any answers. I am angry. I want to shake my loved ones who are slowly killing themselves with their choice of lifestyles, don’t you know how your choices affect me, affect the family? I look at my own life and feel like my efforts towards social change and positive lifestyle choices are inadequate. I am in the dark with a broken heart.Icicle, Icicle, where are you going?

But through the dark surfaces something MLK said in his mountaintop speech. Only in the darkness can you see the stars.

Is that why I’ve been led to this point? Perhaps I am at that turning point, where the pain of remaining the same is greater than the pain of changing. Is my heart being prepared for something greater?

I still don’t have any answers. Just an ache in my chest, and a sense now that I should be lifting my gaze towards the heavens. I suppose it’s time to go out and buy a star map.

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Photo-a-Day (what you’re reading + something you made)

•May 18, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Wednesday’s prompt, what you’re reading, was a total no-brainer. We’re vacationing on the Big Island of Hawaii at the end of the month, and all I want to do in my spare time right now is read up on all of the awesome beaches and hidden snorkeling coves that await us. Seriously, I think about 75% of my psyche has been launched to Hawaii-land. I’m already mostly there. It’s what I think about while doing the dishes, it’s what I think about while I’m grocery shopping (oh, we need more sunscreen! and a first aid kit for that lava-chasing hike! and that would be an awesome sun hat for Will!), it’s what I dream about most nights, too. So, the obvious choice for this prompt was a photo of the Lonely Planet guidebook I’ve been perusing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As fate would have it, though, I couldn’t get around to taking that photo until the end of the day. Which left me thinking about the prompt for a good chunk of the morning and the afternoon. And I realized reading could be applied to almost anything – you could be reading someone’s face, you could be reading the sky for weather indications, you could be reading a landscape for pockets of beauty. And it just so happened that I took a walk at the beautiful Ada Hayden park in north Ames in the morning and caught myself reading the trail for interesting flowers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today’s prompt, something you made, also invoked a pretty quick response from my photo brain. Maybe I’m in a groove. My first thought was to photograph Fionn. I made him. Well, not entirely by myself, but he came out of my body so I’m claiming most of that credit as mine. But then – how to photograph Fionn as something I made? A regular portrait seemed dull and just not the answer to this assignment. But the little parts of his body, the ones that spent months and months developing while he was inside of me, the ones I read about week by week in the What to Expect When You’re Expecting book (this week, your baby is the size of a [insert fruit or vegetable] and he’s working hard on developing his [insert body part or organ]), those spoke to me more. I would have loved to photograph his fingers but he was quite uninterested in sitting still for any length of time today. So I went for the toes. Slightly easier.

Also had to throw in photo of a jar from a gigantic batch of strawberry jam I made recently. Hy-Vee had strawberries on sale, 2 lbs for $1.88. Huzzah! I bought 16 lbs. And was making jam for like a week. But it came out darn good and the jars of jam are like ruby red jewels sparkling in the corner of our kitchen (until I find them a more permanent home anyway).

Photo-a-Day (playing catch up)

•May 15, 2012 • 1 Comment

No, the prompt is not ‘playing catch up’. I just have some catching up to do, so I’m smashing everything into one post. It’s been a rough week. The prompts have all been rattling around in the back of my mind, but trying to keep myself together emotionally seemed to take up the majority of my brain-space and will power. Sucks the creative life right out of everything.

Today is a better day, though. Maybe it was the heart-talk I had with my brother last night, hearing things I needed to hear but couldn’t have heard from anyone but him. Maybe it was the permission I finally gave myself yesterday to do nothing. Maybe my hormones or body chemistry or whatever got itself straightened out. Maybe it was that square of dark, dark chocolate.

In any case, I finally had a spark back today. That one that comes in the form of creative eyes. You know, where you can look at a boring white bowl and see a way to photograph it that would make that bowl look like the one everyone wants to eat off of? Yeah, those eyes.

Here we go:

May 11th: Kitchen. My first thought: the persistent pile of dishes in the sink. And then I got mad thinking about how I’m the only one in our house of four who takes care of the dishes on a regular basis. So, I tried to get away from that and photographed a bunch of other stuff in our kitchen. The bucket of spatulas and tongs (and a really sexy potato masher). The cork board with bits of this and bits of that pinned up. The pantry door knob. All very nice images, but none of them evoked any kind of deeper response for me. So, I went back to the dishes and our countertop and the one thing that drives me the craziest: sippy cups. No matter when the dishwasher was last run, there always seems to be a moment in the day where Fionn is having a meltdown over getting some milk and we’re frantically digging through the cupboards to find a clean sippy cup only to come up empty handed. Moms, I know you feel me on this one.  A while ago, I tried to solve this problem by buying a bunch more sippy cups. Still, we end up having to hand wash a sippy cup at least once or twice a day. Is there a secret place where the sippy cups go? Is it like socks in the dryer?

May 12th: Something that makes you happy. May 12th was not a particularly happy day. But today, within my photographic reach was a little thing – one of Fionn’s riding toys – that makes me smile every time he gets it out. When you press the lion’s nose, the lion gives a friendly “roar” and a song plays – something sort of like calypso. It was a toy that belonged to his first day-care provider, Carey, and when she moved away last fall she gave it to Fionn to keep. The seat props up so that you can push it, and I remember when Fionn was just starting to walk and seeing him push that lion up and down the sidewalk. And then he got the hang of sitting on it and scooting along. He’s probably too big for the thing now, but who cares. It’s an awesome lion.

May 13th: Mum. Skipped this one, sadly. Would like to come back to it some time when I can photograph my gorgeous mother. It always pains me that we live so far apart, but especially so on this day.

May 14th: Grass. Who knew the grass in our front yard could look so lovely!

May 15th: Love. My heart strings were a little too raw to go very deep with this one. But as I was passing these roses on the way back from the park with Fionn, something about their color seemed to say love. I decided to let it go at that.

Photo-a-Day (something you do everyday)

•May 9, 2012 • Leave a Comment

I was tempted to go literal with this one. Brushing teeth. Eating breakfast. Even thought of something to do with the toilet but quickly decided against that idea. I sort of followed myself around with a second set of eyes and just didn’t find anything worth photographing. Which is not to say that there really wasn’t, my eyes just weren’t seeing it.

Today was the first breath of freedom after the final grading crunch. I woke up and wandered around the house aimlessly for most of the morning. One part lack of stress + one part exhaustion from the last week of gigs and grading = some serious fog in the brain. I’ve been putting so many things off until I was done with grading, I had no idea where to start. And the fact that nothing was urgent or really pressing made my mind turn to mush. How to prioritize? What to do with this new free time? Well, I managed to spend some of the day relaxing and NOT doing much, but fear not – my inner Virgo put a stop to that pretty quickly.

Maybe that’s why it took me until around six o’clock tonight to realize what my photo should be today. Without fail, each day, I find some way to elicit a smile from Fionn. Most of the time I eat breakfast, and only once in a blue moon do I have to skip brushing my teeth, but every day – no matter what’s going on or how hard the day has been – there is at least one moment where Fionn and I connect and have a good laugh over something. My regular little dose of happy.

 

Photo-A-Day (a smell you adore)

•May 8, 2012 • Leave a Comment

How to translate smell into an image? Another good challenge. It took me awhile of sorting through the various smells I come across regularly (some of which, I’d rather not) to realize that one of my favorite smells is Fionn’s skin. Particularly the little patch of super soft skin on his neck, right below his ear. I’m still not sure why I love that spot so much, even after thinking about this for a good chunk of today. Because it’s one of his tickle spots, where, when I bury my nose into it, he scrunches up his shoulders and giggles in the way that only he can giggle (which, I’ve always thought sounds like jelly beans dropping into a glass jar… not literally the sound but, I don’t know, the feeling of the candy dropping combined with the sound)? Maybe. Because it’s one of the most tender spots on the human body, where the pulse is visible? Perhaps. Because it’s the least dirty area on a two-year-old’s body? Likely!

I doubt there is one reason. Is there ever really only one reason for anything? I suppose there’s a whole collection of reasons, some tangible and logical and some beyond explanation or description. The smell that lingers on that part of his body is just so… him. If you’re a parent, I’m pretty sure you know what I’m talking about. The essence of your baby. Right there.

 

Photo-A-Day (bird + you)

•May 6, 2012 • 1 Comment

What a weekend. Five shows in three days. Whose idea was this?

This is the first moment to myself I’ve had this weekend. Seriously. Well, except for time on the toilet, which is no longer guaranteed to be “alone time” now that Fionn has figured out how to turn door handles. That’s for another blog, though…

Tried to do a little catching up today. Yesterday’s prompt was “bird”, but try as I could, there were no birds to be found. The only thing I could find that resembled a bird was the silver mockingjay on the cover of the third installment of the Hunger Games. But that wasn’t doing it for me, so I let it go. I even mused over the idea of a woman as a bird, as in look at that bird over there, what a hottie. But I decided I didn’t like that terminology. It felt, I don’t know, shallow and something that would only come out of the mouth of a cigar-smoking-Rat-Pack kind of a guy. Decided to let that one go, too.

Today was a different day, though. Although I’ve moved through much of this day emotionally drained and raw from all the wonderful ways music has been sung and heard and poured out these last few days, I felt more awake today and able to take in the sights.

The first order of business was to get that bird photo. I lucked out and found a whole zip-line of birds. We happened to be performing at McFarland Park for their bi-annual festival, and there was a booth set up by the local Audubon chapter where the kid-friendly activity was to send these little laminated birds flying down a zip-line. They were all pictures of Iowa birds, so I got to learn a little about our resident feathered friends as I shot these photos and talked with the lovely woman running the both. Finally found out the name of this little bird I see all the time during the warmer months. It’s quite plain looking; little and black. But as it takes off to fly you can catch flashes of cherry-red on its wings. It’s name: red-wing! Imagine that.

Then it was time to get down to today’s prompt: you. What to do with this one? You, as in me? As in someone sitting across the table from me? As in that’s so you?

I took stock of myself and all I saw was exhaustion. Now there’s a familiar portrait.

So I kept thinking. Did some laundry, tried to de-clutter at least enough to see the kitchen table, fed the cats, thought about songwriting then quickly remembered the state of my poor fingers after this weekend.

Nothing earth-shattering came to me. But I finally settled on this image as being good enough. Tonight is a collection of good enough moments. The kitchen is still a mess, but the table is clear and there are clean dishes in the dish washer. Good enough. Two weeks of laundry are piled up in the basement with stray socks emerging from what seems like every nook and cranny of our house. But I’ve got one load in the wash. Good enough. The front entry landing still looks like a bomb went off, but I corralled all the shoes into a basket so that we can at least walk through without tripping over them. Good enough. I’m meeting this night where it’s at, and that’s got to be good enough for me, good enough for now.