Let’s Talk About Simone Biles: Everyday Magic, Day 1043

Let’s talk Simone Biles But first, let’s talk about two gymnasts we don’t know the names of: Elena Mukhina and Julissa Gomez

Elena Mukhina, a 20-year-old Soviet gymnast, broke her neck right before the 1980 Olympics when her coach pushed her to practice her balance beam routine although her broken leg hadn’t yet healed. Doing the now-banned Thomas salto move, she landed on her chin, and she was permanently paralyzed. She died from quadriplegia complications at the age of 46.

Julissa Gomez, a 15-year-old American rising star, a few months before the 1988 Olympics, was having a shaky time on the vault lately. Her coaches insisted she work through her difficulty with a particularly hard vault routine although some of her teammates later said it was clear it wasn’t safe for her to practice that day. Her foot slipped on the springboard and she ended up paralyzed from the neck down, only to later suffer severe brain damage, which put her into a coma. Her family surrounded her with care and love until she died in 1991.

Let’s talk about what it means to be unable to speak up, or to speak up but to be bullied into doing what you know isn’t right for you at the time. Dominique Moceanu, another American gymnast, who suffered a potentially devastating injury in 1996, tweeted in response to applaud Biles’ decision that she and her teammates never felt they had any say in their health.

Let’s think about how athletes are often heroized for working through the pain, competing with broken limbs or sprained joints, pushing themselves despite the likeliness of permanent injuries (and I can’t help thinking here about all the football and soccer players with brain injuries for life).

Let’s also talk about the unimaginable pressure not just of representing a country and the Olympics in a pandemic while carrying the weight of being deemed the greatest gymnast of all time, but also what it means to be a survivor. Matthew Norlander wrote for CBS sports that Biles “….has gone on record and said, sadly, that one of her motivating factors to continue competing was her celebrity and influence on USA Gymnastics. Had she opted to retire prior to these Olympics, Biles felt like USA Gymnastics would not be, as an organization, held as accountable as it should be for its disgraces against dozens of former gymnasts who were abused by former USA Gymnastics trainer Larry Nassar. Biles is the only active gymnast in USA Gymnastics who doubles as a survivor from the Nassar era, and she carries this with her every day she practices, competes, exists as a member of Team USA.” Biles was sexually assaulted by Nassar, a doctor who was supposed to be caring for her health and not damaging it, along with 367 other young women. She wrote in social media how it continually broke her heart to have to return to the same Olympics training facility where she was abused.

Let’s talk about growing up hungry and in the foster care system after being removed from a mother who fed the cat over her four children and how those children clung to each other to survive. Then, when Biles was six, she and her sister were adopted by her grandparents, who she came to call Mom and Dad, but her other sibs went to other family in Ohio. Biles started gymnastics that year and made her world debut in 2013 at age 16.

Let’s talk about love in action for your teammates. Biles is renowned for helping other gymnasts find what they need to succeed, including Jordan Chiles, who moved to Texas to train with Biles (and didn’t give up on her Olympics dream because of Biles). As Biles made clear when she stepped down from competing this week, she believed in her team and knew it was time for them to take the spotlight. Sunisa Lee, in winning the gold medal for the all-around competition, did just that.

Let’s talk about Biles’ brave imagination in continually redefining herself, even saying, “After hearing the brave stories of my friends and other survivors, I know that this horrific experience does not define. I am much more than this.”

Most of all, let’s talk about the powerful grace of Simone Biles’ courage to say no, and to not follow the millions of harsh lights and loud yells to risk her own life and mental health. Biles not only brought to the world four extremely difficult moves named for her but a legacy for athletes, women, women of color, and survivors of sexual abuse to write their own life stories in tune with their wisdom, to listen to what’s right for them and to tell us their truths.

A Medal for Bravery Finally Delivered After 77 Years: Everyday Magic, Day 1042

Jarek with his Cross of the Brave medal

Saturday I got to watch historic justice: Jarek Piekalkiewicz finally being presented with the Cross of the Brave, known as Krzyz Walecznych in Poland, for his immense courage and heart in fighting for his country in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. The second-highest honor given by the Polish government finally made its way to Jarek 77 years after it was to be awarded. He was also celebrating his 95th birthday with family and friends.

It turns out that although the Polish government, in exile in London in 1944 when Jarek was to be awarded, couldn’t follow through in a timely manner (to say the least). Once WWII ended, the new Polish columnist government refused to recognize and decorate people like Jarek. Looking at this history, this isn’t so surprising. In my book Needle in the Bone: How a Holocaust Survivor and Polish Resistance Fighter Beat the Odds and Found Each Other — based on oral histories with Jarek and his late beloved friend, Lou Frydman — I wrote about what I learned from Jarek and other scholars.

Jarek surrounded by his children, Ellen and Andrew, and (to left) Robert Rusiecki and (to right) Major Gen. Cezary Wisniewski

The Warsaw Uprising of 1944, which could have defeated the Nazis, was disastrous because of the Soviet Union, which, by this time in the war, was on the side of the Allies (having switched from fighting with the Axis powers). At the cusp of the uprising in the summer of 1944, the Soviet soldiers were on one side of Warsaw’s Vistula River, the Nazi army on the other side, and the Polish Resistance qwew prepared to fight the Germans with the understanding that Soviets would join in and help them finish the job. As many of you know, the Soviets cooled their heels for the close-to-two-months of fighting, letting the Nazis kill, injure, and eventually imprison resistance fighters like Jarek. As Jarek explained to me when we were doing the book, this turned out to be an easy way for the Soviets to have “all the troublemakers,” the people most prone to advocate for an independent Poland, wiped out or forced out of the country, which is exactly what happened.

After the war, Jarek couldn’t return to Poland because he would have likely been killed or imprisoned by the new government. Sharing the same last name of his uncle Jan Piekalkiewicz, one of the main leaders of the home army until Jan was captured, tortured, and killed, Jarek wouldn’t have had any way to blend in. So he ended up, after the Sagan POW March and the Sagan POW camp, joining a Polish regiment of the British army. He went first to Italy, then to Glasgow, and then to England until he was able to go to Trinity College in Ireland. Along the way, he met and fell in love with Maura (from Ireland) and ended up, amazingly enough, in Lawrence, Kansas to teach in the Political Science department (after doing his graduate work at the University of Illinois and beforehand, living a bit in New York City).

Jarek is still active in advocating for justice and helping educate people on the Warsaw Uprising and the Polish Resistance. His new book — yes new! — is Dance with Death: A Holocaust View of Saving Polish Jews During the Holocaust. The book examines the vast capacity of so many Poles to save and hide Jews during the Holocaust, and the book, when still in manuscript form, helped me immensely in writing Needle in the Bone. When I did a reading from my book at Ellen Piekalkiewicz’s home (Jarek’s daughter), I was surrounded by many Poles from the area, all of whom had stories of their parents or grandparents hiding Jews during the war. “And that’s the story of Poland,” one Polish woman told me at the time.

A bunch of those smart and beautiful young people are Jarek’s grandkids

At the ceremony, Robert Rusiecki of the Polish consulate, came from Houston as well as Polish Air Force Major Gen. Cezary Wisniewski from Washington, D.C. to present Jarek with the medal and to honor Jarek’s brave and passionate defense of his home country. Watching the ceremony in Jarek’s living room, I remembered what Jarek had told me when we were writing the book: he lived four lives. The first was in Poland before the war, the second during the war and its aftermath when he was fighting for his life without any sense of a real home, the third in Ireland when he came back to his roots of education and service, and the fourth when he came to America, a country he chose because he felt our multicultural (“give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free) embrace would work for him….and it did.

It’s a joy beyond joys to see him properly recognized by his home country in his adopted country. And it’s about time!

P.S. Special changes to Andrew and Ellen Piekalkiewicz, Jarek’s children, for all they did to make this day so special.

The Inner and Outer Wildness That Brings Us Home: Everyday Magic, Day 1041

Stephanie Mills and my son Daniel at a Kansas Area Watershed Council gathering

Here’s a post about my new podcast, “Tell Me Your Truest Story.” Please listen to the podcast here.

For me, it’s always been the trees and sky, sun wavering on the surface of water, wind making its invisible presence known through the curving of prairie grass, the darkening night sky and the stars that emerge. It’s always been the bluebird on the edge of the field, the katy-did and katy-didn’t call of the katydids, the smell of cedar when I rub a small piece between my thumb and forefinger.

No wonder that when I discovered bioregionalism — a calling to learn how to live from where we actually live — I felt metaphorically and literally home. This movement that came of age in the early 1980s (in concert with my own young adulthood) focuses on how to be “…..lifelong students of how to live in balance with our eco-communities. We recognize that we are part of the web of the life, and that all justice, freedom and peace must be grounded in this recognition” (from a bioregional primer I put together with others some years back).

I found not just a name for what I know in my bones but kindred spirits, many of my closest friends to this day, including my husband. The bioregional congresses or gatherings we trekked to in Maine or Texas, British Columbia or Morelos, Mexico, deepened our connection to the places we left behind so that we could return more informed, inspired, and committed to keep community and make change. My bioregional pals have gone on to start land trusts, restore rivers, protect old-growth forests, manage community garden projects, and make no end of art, music, dance, and poetry that helps us breathe into where we live.

Hanging with David at his home in Santa Fe

Which is a long-winded way of saying how I met Stephanie Mills and David Abram and conceptualized the focus of my new podcast, Tell Me Your Truest Story. I first spied Stephanie in a big circle of 200 or so people at the first bioregional congress in Missouri in 1984 when, as a way to introduce herself, she said, “I want to learn about my inner wildness as well as the outer wildness.” Me too! I set out to get to know her, a very good move given that she’s an embodiment of wisdom, inquiry, and big vision into the harder and also more sublime edges of what it means to live in eco-community.

In 1988, at the bioregional gathering in Squamish, British Columbia, I met David, who not only did sleight of hand magic, but talked with expansive eloquence about how written language distances us from plants, animals, weather and earth, which also have their own language. I shivered in recognition, and when he moved to Lawrence to work on a post-doc at K.U., I made it a point to befriend him. He was sick at the time, so I would leave containers of soup at his doorstep, an offering of food to draw someone deeply connected to the wild out of his cave. It worked.

In the years since, both David and Stephanie have published the kinds of books that change lives, especially mine. David’s Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World, which he finished while in Lawrence, illuminate who we are in relation with the living earth. He writes,

0ur bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth – our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese. To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn those other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence. We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.

Stephanie’s books, especially her Epicurian Simplicity, still tilts me toward being more where I am by growing my real-time awareness of leaves and insects, skies and ground. She writes, In Service to the Wild: Restoring and Reinhabiting Damaged Land,

In the land we may find solace for our wounds, privacy for a developing intimacy with a natural surround, an occasion for acting out healing processes that effect inner healing as well; or we may remain unconscious of and oblivious to the living community of the land. Numbed and paralyzed by the degree of damage that has been inflicted on the land, we may be domineering and exploitive toward it, or even blindly destructive. Our behavior toward the land is an eloquent and detailed expression of our character, and the land is not incapable of reflecting these statements back. We are perfectly bespoken by our surroundings.

My first episode, “The World is Made of Story” (taking its title from something David said during our interview), is about starting at the starting ground, right now and right here. What Stephanie and David have to say helps us listen to the stories that dissolve some of the boundaries between the inner and outer, which Rainer Maria Rilke speaks to in this poem:

Ah, not to be cut off,

not through the slightest partition

shut out from the law of the stars.

The inner – what is it?

if not intensified sky,

hurled through with birds and deep

with the winds of homecoming.

Please listen to the podcast here.

For the Love of the Song & the Singer: Remembering Martin Swinger: Everyday Magic, Day 1040

Martin singing to us at my kitchen table (Deb in purple)

Martin Swinger, a virtuoso singer and songwriter, died suddenly in early July, leaving behind his husband (and partner of 35 years) Brian and many broken hearts in his Asbury Park, N.J. home community, and prior to that, central Maine, where he was a mainstay of the music scene for years. But when I think of Martin, I see him at my kitchen table, serenading the then-coordinator of the TLAN, Deb Hensley, volunteers Nancy Hubble and Laura Ramberg, and me as we stuffed folders for the 2014 Power of Words conference.

He was like this: always bringing joy, humor, and the power of music to wherever he landed. He was gifted at helping in multiple other ways too: for the conference, he coordinator participant transportation, helped Deb with many pieces of the conference coordination, and generally brought a sense of peace and homecoming to all of us.

Then again, Martin knew how vital hospitality and art are to this world. He grew up gay in the South, falling in love with music and books of all kinds. In recent years, he went on to be quite decorated as a songwriter, winning many notable big-time contests and performing across the country, even to the delight of the late Pete Seeger and very-much alive Vance Gilbert and John Waters. His seven CDs won lots of well-deserved awards, including from American Song Competition, SolarFest, Rosegarden Coffeehouse and more. Audiences have adored him for decades for his warm and vibrant voice and eclectic blend of Americana, swing and jazz, traditional music, show tune, Klezmer music, and improvisation. Deb and Martin sang together like angels from an enchanted land, including in the group Brio.

Deb says of Martin: “Martin was a true prince of friend to me and to so many others who knew and loved him. He had a heart the size of Mars and talent to match. Frost says, “Nothing gold can stay.” But Martin’s songs will stay. Oh yes they will. And so will his love.”

Martin getting a standing ovation for his spectacular last-minute keynote concert

His generosity extended in other ways: when one of our keynote performers for the conference didn’t show up, Martin graciously volunteered to perform on the spot and for free (although we did extend to him a small stipend anyway). When he performed, he lifted a full house of conference goers, who had been waiting a while for the keynote, to their feet with original songs such as “Betty Boop and Buddha,” “Consider the Oyster,” and my favorite, “Little Plastic Part.” That song, about how breaking a tiny part of a vacuum that “makes the whole thing work” speaks to having a little part of our heart broken so that it doesn’t work anymore.

I can’t help thinking about how Martin himself was a little vital part with a big impact himself.

Find more about Martin here, and you can see him perform live on Youtube here. This post was published on the Transformative Language Arts blog.

A Moment of Respite: Everyday Magic, Day 1020

Shay and I sit on the porch, exhaling. It has been a week, a year, and a close-to-four year thing. There’s still so much wrong with our country, Covid cases are rising daily to proportions of great anguish, millions of people voted for someone who denies reality (the pandemic, climate change, etc.) and the rights and dignity of so many humans, and untold beings suffer.

So much is too much or not enough, especially over this week when I’ve been hitting the GABA (to help me calm the $%#% down), the Pepto Bismal, and the pillow only to wake up anxious or excited at irregular intervals. I’ve done more math, including all sorts of contortions with percentages and adding very big numbers, in the past three days than I have in the last decade. There have been many hopeful or freaking out phone calls punctuated by big bouts of googling various angles of the same question. Yet in the end it seems certain a good outcome (mostly) will prevail.

Life, as Ken often reminds me, comes point-blank at us, often overfilling our imagined capacity. Then there are pauses, like right now. I sit with my tired brain and finally calm digestive tract, surrounded by the sunlight-filled leaves of the hackberry tree, the loving eyes of our old dog who struggles to walk, and the balmy air of a sweet autumnal day. Once again, I’m so happy and grateful to be here in every possible way.