When we were young, my mother threated to wash our mouths out with soap if we said anything disrespectful or harmful to another person. Of her six children, I am the one who tasted the bar of soap, a memory that still causes my mouth to recoil some six decades later.
The punishment taught me at a very young age that words matter.
At a time when we are divided as a country, what we say and how we say it will shape the dialogue needed to solve matters of grave importance—like COVID-19 and climate change. In an interview with Lana Pollack, former President of the Michigan Environmental Council, state senator for Michigan, U.S. Chair of the International Joint Commission, and wife, mother, and grandmother, she shares concerns about four words commonly used by us all. And often misused.
Where is that bar of soap? Needed now more than ever. On multiple levels.
How many times have I struggled to find self, particularly during times of transition? Gone to Lake Michigan to gain clarity? How many times have I made mistakes on that journey? Fallen? Gotten back up with the help of others?
It is why The Lake Michigan Mermaid: A Tale in Poems is prominently placed on my sacred book shelf. In many ways, the young girl’s story mirrors my own. Interviewing poets Linda Nemec Foster, Anne-Marie Oomen, and illustrator Meridith Ridl, creators of this Michigan Notable Book Award winner, was inspiring. And fun! They made me laugh as they described the challenges of braiding their three voices as well as that of the publisher.
It was a reminder. Harmony provides the richness and color needed to create a masterpiece. Needed to create community.
When you listen to the poets read “Contrapuntal: Two Voices of the Lake,” listen carefully. Contrapuntal is a musical term that means two or more melodic lines. When the voices of the mermaid and the young girl are intertwined, I believe one can hear the voice of the lake.
It is a voice that needs to be heard from the shores of Lake Michigan to the hills of Pennsylvania. And beyond.
Over the last three months, women across faiths and traditions extended hands to help me shape a weekend retreat designed to inspire, inform and engage other women in caring for this sacred gift of water.
I am humbled by the wisdom of their words, inspired by their relationship with God or Allāh, their commitment to enlightenment, their willingness to honor the traditions of their Christian, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Anishinabek heritage. Many use water as a symbol of purification, protection, healing, prayer, gratitude, or inclusion in their spiritual community.
Women of the Anishinabek Nation travelled several hours to take part in the Water for Life retreat with the women of the First Presbyterian Church of Holland. They spoke of the gratitude, respect and love they have for water, the role of women in caring for it. They conducted a traditional water ceremony before leading the group to Lake Michigan to give thanks.
Other women, without hesitation, offered to share their personal and spiritual stories on video so that they, too, might participate in the retreat. All were willing to be part of a weekend designed to make our water cleaner, safer, more accessible and available for ourselves and future generations.
It is a reminder. Water connects us all. It has the potential to unite.
It was an honor to facilitate the retreat and spend the weekend with the women of the First Presbyterian Church. With energy and exuberance that rivaled that of the often-told-story of the Quincy fourth graders, the women of the church voted to tackle the 22 million pounds of plastic flowing into the Great Lakes every year, the majority into Lake Michigan.
Presbyterians Oppose Plastics (POP) is the slogan.
Please consider joining the campaign.
“This isn’t supposed to be happening to us in America,” cries a Flint resident in the newly-released documentary Flint: The Poisoning of an American City.
But it did. And it will happen again if we don’t learn from the mistakes that resulted in a city of over 100,000 people drinking water that was up to three times as dangerous as drinking hazardous waste. That is why this documentary is a must-see for everyone in the country. It personalizes the headlines. And it poses questions all of us should be asking, to include who provides oversight to the utility tasked with treating our water.
Wednesday evening, I attended a Laketown Township Planning Commission public hearing because our water treatment facility, the Holland Board of Public Works (BPW), needed a special permit to install 45’ fiberglass poles in our neighborhood. Ours, and other neighborhoods, have covenants that provide easement for underground utilities, not poles. It was BPW’s intent to not only ignore those covenants, but to install the poles alongside private roads.
What I learned at the meeting is that the decision to install this technology was made without any input from our township, a township now requiring all new neighborhoods to invest in underground utilities. This decision, and others—to include what types of investments are being made to keep our water safe, clean and accessible—are being made without input from the people we elect to represent us.
It sounds an awful lot like Flint.
We place our water in the hands of our elected officials—to hold that water in trust. At a time when we are seeing increasing contaminants in our source water, Lake Michigan, we need our elected officials involved in the complex but critical investment decisions about our water. And while I appreciate that, according to BPW’s representative, the focus is on keeping our water costs low (half that of Grand Rapids, we were told), that again, sounds like Flint.
On the BPW website, General Manager Dave Koster states the company is “always looking for new ways to collaborate with our customers.” I suggest proactively involving the local governments representing the people in BPW’s service area in all major investment decisions. No one wants to repeat the mistakes that created the water crisis in Flint.
On Thursday, January 23, 2020, President Trump signed a new rule that allows pesticides, fertilizers and other pollutants to be released into smaller headwaters, seasonal streams, streams that run temporarily underground, and wetlands that are not adjacent to large bodies of water. In addition, developers will be allowed to destroy or fill those wetlands for construction projects. This rule, the Navigable Protections Rule, not only rolls back the 2015 rule that guaranteed protections under the 1972 Clean Water Act, it eliminates protections to smaller headwaters that have been in place since 1972.
In addition, under President Trump, cities have been allowed to delay or change federally imposed upgrades to antiquated sewage systems—increasing the amount of untreated waste flowing directly into our water during heavy rains.
We can live without a lot of things, clean, safe water is not one of them. Ask the families of Toledo, Flint, and Parchment.
Neither is life. That’s why we need artists.
It has always been easy for me to feel overwhelmed by the roles and responsibilities I choose to shoulder. My choice. But even knowing that, there are times the weight of my world is crushing.
That was the case twelve years ago, when I prayed to the angels for guidance. They whispered “go camping.” I did.
It was a two-month solo retreat up the coast of West Michigan that changed my life. That is the power of stepping away from routine, for welcoming solitude and silence, for being willing to experience the unfamiliar in order to grow.
As I hiked the state and national parks along the eastern shores of Lake Michigan, I discovered pitching a tent is not for sissies, that starter logs do not generate heat, that electricity at a campsite can be used to run a heater as well as recharge a computer, and that April in Michigan can be downright Arctic.
I also learned the power of artists, the unique ability they have—through their work—to unlock what I call the “heart-center,” that place from which we gain strength and find the ability to balance the demanding and often-competing priorities of life. Artists inspire, influence, and delight. Two, in particular, were ideal fireside companions that spring of 2008.
“Sometimes it feels to me that my mind is in one place, my emotions are in another, my body is running along trying frantically to catch up, and my spirit is out to lunch,” BettyClare Moffatt wrote in Soulwork: Clearing the Mind, Opening the Heart, Replenishing the Spirit.
That’s me. My mind chatters incessantly—usually chastising myself for some past blunder or worrying about some impending doom. My heart bleeds easily from wounds inflicted, boundaries needed for survival nonexistent. My performance expectations for my body are the same as a decade ago, maybe two. And my spirit is often drowned out by the noise and confusion of the other three.
The gift from Moffatt was an integration meditation summoning all four to a meeting. “Ask them to come forth in a room inside your heart that you have set up for them,” she instructs her readers. “Ask them what they need from you, from each other.” She assures me that in asking, I will not be disappointed.
And I never am. For when I can get my body, mind, heart, and spirit balanced and working together, I can carry the world of my choosing a little easier. Even more so when I add prayer.
But what is prayer? I had never given the subject much thought—beyond the frantic cries for help during crises—until Sophy Burnham joined me at the campfire. In her book, The Path of Prayer, she wrote, “How we pray, and when, reveals everything about what we think of God. Which is to say, what we think of the meaning of life.”
I pulled both books off my sacred bookshelf this week—as I prepare for the retreat I am facilitating on water. In addition to delving into the universal meaning of prayer and its practice across faiths and tradition, she included the following poem by an anonymous poet.
As children bring their broken toys
With tears for us to mend,
I brought my broken dreams to God.
But then instead of leaving him,
Because he was my friend,
In peace to work alone,
I hung around and tried to help
With ways that were my own.
At last I snatched them back and cried,
“How can you be so slow?’
“My child,” he said, “What could I do?
You never did let go.”
I go to Lake Michigan every morning to pray. There is something healing about being in the presence of water, something intangible that draws me closer to God.
What I did not know until I began doing research for my role as facilitator of a three-day retreat for the women of the First Presbyterian Church of Holland, is that I am not alone. Water has been the centerpiece of spiritual symbolism and religious rituals for thousands of years.
Ancient Jewish tradition calls for people on special occasions to cleanse their bodies spiritually by immersion in a “mikveh” bath. For Muslims, ablution with water (wudu) is an obligatory preparation for daily prayer. The Hindu people take pilgrimages to one of seven sacred rivers to wash away spiritual impurities and become closer to the sacred source of life.
Baptism, a ritual used by most Christian faiths, requires the sprinkling of water on a person’s forehead or, in some cases, full immersion. While regarded differently by the various Christian denominations, Baptism is generally considered a declaration of a person’s belief and faith in Christ and is an initiation into the church.
Roman Catholic Christians dip the fingertips of their right hand into water that has been blessed, making a Sign of the Cross as they enter the church as a form of purification. When they leave, they repeat the practice, a sign of God’s protection. The Eastern Orthodox Christians drink a small amount of blessed water when saying morning prayers or put a little holy water in their food as they cook their meals, both a symbol of God’s protection.
While there are many examples of symbols and rituals involving water across cultures and faiths, that is not my primary interest. I am not an expert in religious studies. I am a person whose pathway to God includes nature, specifically, water. And I am interested in understanding how this gift from God, the first thing mentioned in the story of creation in the Jewish Torah, Christian Bible, and Qur’an, can be at risk across the planet.
What should the role of religion and spirituality be in the care of this life-giving source?
In 1854, when Chief Seattle gave up his tribal lands in the Pacific Northwest, he made an impassioned plea for us to be good stewards of the land, to honor the sacredness of life because “all things are interconnected. What befalls the earth befalls the sons and daughters of the earth. We did not weave the web of life but are merely a strand in it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.”
Bombarded by 24/7 news, weather, sports, and static, I fear we will lose sight of what’s important, what we cannot live without, that strand called “water” that connects us regardless of faith or culture.
Earlier this year, I wrote a poem titled Gratitude. I am reposting the poem as we enter the seasons of Christmas and Hanukah. I believe there is a spiritual component of gratitude that includes responsibility for caring for creation, for ensuring all people have access to this essential life source. Think about it the next time you attend a religious service . . . or the next time you sip a glass of clean, safe water.
May God be with you this holiday season. And always.
Before we know what gratitude really is,
the coins we counted and saved must go
so we know how desperate
and helpless the landscape can be
between the bastions of wealth.
We must see that what we took for granted,
assumed safe, available, a right,
now flows like a foul-smelling, rust-colored soup
into the cup of an outstretched hand.
Before we learn the uplifting song of gratitude,
we must taste the salt of your tears
as you cradle your poisoned child.
We must see how this could be us,
and know you, too, were a person of dreams.
Before we know gratitude for the simplest of things,
we must feel the cruelty of denial
for the most essential.
We must wake with sorrow and sham
and speak to gratitude only after
our voices catch on the thread of responsibility
and we see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only responsibility that makes sense anymore.
And gratitude becomes the hushed hymn
we sing as we tie our shoes and go out into the day,
resolved to raise our heads in a crowded world
and bring you a cup of clear, safe water.
Influenced by Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, “Kindness,” as I reflect on the tragic and inexcusable poisoning of the citizens of Flint, MI.
It was the courageous testimony of Marie Yovanovitch, former ambassador to Ukraine with thirty-three years experience in the Foreign Service Department, who got me thinking about the people behind the scenes, government employees working to keep us safe, individuals who must stay focused while the pendulum of politics shifts about them.
Her testimony made me realize how rarely I think about, or express gratitude to, others like her. It got me thinking about the Environmental Protection Agency, an organization charged with protecting human health AND the environment. It is not an easy task when climate change threatens to unravel decades of success addressing issues like polluted runoff and invasive species. Nor can it be easy when a new administration pulls threads from the fabric of legislation used to balance human life with the health of our water, air, and land.
The EPA was created in 1970 because people in the country were alarmed at the deteriorating condition of the environment and the potential health risks to themselves and their families. Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, outlined the dangers associated with DDT, pesticides, and other synthetic chemicals. Smog emitted from automobile emissions and industries choked large cities like New York and Los Angeles. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were found in mothers’ breast milk. Poisons were leaking from rusty drums into backyards. A man-made chemical used for testing nuclear weapons was discovered in crops growing near or in contaminated soil. Factories dumping chemical pollutants, human waste from city sewers, phosphorous and pesticides from agriculture killed a plethora of fish along Lake Erie’s shoreline. And, according to a report published by the Science History Institute, the country was throwing out 100 million automobile tires and 30 billion glass bottles per year. Most of the trash was piled “in mountainous open dumps.”
According to Meir Rindle, author of the Science History Institute report, President Richard Nixon created the EPA and proposed an ambitious pollution agenda not because he was “a nature lover,” but because he was politically astute enough to realize the political power of an environmental movement that was sweeping the country.
Shortly after taking office in 1969, public outrage over two events forced his hand. In January, oil leaking from an offshore rig off the coast of Santa Barbara covered twelve miles of beaches in southern California, killing birds and other marine life. Months later, Time magazine published a front cover photograph of Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River engulfed in flames, its surface polluted from decades of industrial waste. And while the photo was from a 1952 fire, not the smaller 1969 fire, the photo brought to the forefront the condition of our sources of drinking water.
In 1970, President Nixon, a Republican, presented the Democrat-controlled Congress with a 37-point message on the environment. The result was bipartisan legislation like the Reformation Plan of 1970—which gave birth to the EPA in December 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and several amendments to the Clean Air Act of 1963.
In the 1970s, the environment was neither a Republican nor Democrat issue. It was an issue of life and health. It still is.
However, as reported in September in The New York Times, under the Trump administration—with Republican support—eighty-five environmental rules affecting issues such as air pollution and emissions, drilling, animal protection, toxic substances, and water pollution are being rolled back.
On a local level, Since President Trump took office, the number of inspections of factories and other industrial plants by the EPA’s Midwestern office has dropped 60%. According to a November 25th editorial in the Chicago Sun Times, there are 150 fewer scientists, technicians and other employees covering six of the Great Lakes states, including Michigan. And it appears many of their recommendations are being ignored or overruled.
Quoting a report by the Better Government Association, the editorial points to examples such as a decision to no longer require a waste incineration plant in Sauget, Ill to monitor smokestacks despite a decade’s worth of evidence of arsenic, lead, mercury, and other metals polluting the air. Tests for cancer-causing gases at three Chicago suburban plants have been curtailed. A copper and nickel mine in Minnesota was allowed to discharge wastewater that could contaminate the St. Louis River and Lake Superior. An electronics plant near Racine, WI was granted an exemption from required air filters.
It feels as if we are slipping back into the environmentally toxic days of the sixties. What will it take for us to say, “enough?”
Everything I love about living in West Michigan is affected by climate change. More rain events exceeding 6 inches. More damaging winds. More crop failures. More volatility in lake levels. More ticks and Lyme disease.
While most of us can point to examples of all five scenarios at various times in our lives, the evidence of the increasing regularity of these events is overwhelming. And sobering. The consequences of a warming atmosphere that holds more water and energy is wreaking havoc in the quality of our lives.
More frequent and intense rain events cause flooding, property damage, sewage overflows, an increase in waterborne pathogens that transmit disease, an increase in algal blooms, and polluted runoff. Coupled with damaging windstorms they also place great stress on infrastructure—like water treatment facilities, roads, and bridges. And while scientists predict the warmer temperatures will result in less ice coverage and, therefore, lower water levels by the turn of the century, the storm events create volatility in the levels of the Great Lakes. Such volatility damages our shoreline and increases the cost of maintaining marinas and navigable waterways. It puts tourism, one of the key economic drivers for the region, at risk. It also affects the productivity of our farms, another economic driver, with soybean and maze crops expected to decline 10-30% by mid-century.
Warmer temperatures mean an increase in the number of parasites and ticks, including the black-legged ticks known to transmit Lyme disease. This disease, when not detected or treated, can lead to joint pain, arthritis, neurological problems, heart palpitations, inflammation of the brain and spinal cord, numbness or tingling in the hands or feet. This is serious stuff. In addition to the increase in ticks, the warmer temperatures are spurring the migration of the white-footed mouse, a known carrier of Lyme, into southern Michigan.
But there are things we can do to slow down the consequences of climate change. And that gives me hope. The David Suzuki Foundation has created a top ten list.
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