There is a beautiful trail in the County Open Space just five minutes from our house. Roberto and I walk it regularly. It is beautiful in all seasons, wildflowers in May, cactus blooms in July, Juniper berries in September, a dusting of snow in December. And always rock formations around the next bend, voluminous clouds and views of far-off peaks as we ascend.
The other day we stopped at the map posted at the trailhead showing the different trails, wondering how many miles we walked. The legend showing the actual distance represented by an inch was hard to read. As we leaned over the map, pointing and talking, two middle-aged men arrived, outfitted with hiking poles, hats, water bottles, and great enthusiasm.
“Do you need some help?” asked one, smiling at us. “We’ve hiked here –”
I think he was probably going to say they had hiked the trails before and could tell us which ones were easier, which more challenging, or something like that. But I had interrupted with an urgent message. “Oh, we hike here all the time, for years, we know it well!” I was so eager to straighten him out, clarify that we belonged here, that I’m not even sure I said “thank you anyway,” or “have a nice hike.”
Maybe you remember family car trips with the periodic chorus from the backseat “Are we there yet?” The answer was always “Almost,” and somehow you knew that wasn’t true. And yes, you squirmed and asked many more times before the car pulled into the motel, your aunt’s house, a state park, whatever the destination of this trip.
This chorus has been running through my head for the past few weeks as the major project I have been working on draws to a close. On November 1 the final report from the Not Invisible Act Commission was submitted to congress and the Departments of the Interior and Justice. The report addressed the crisis of murdered, missing and trafficked Indigenous people and offered dozens of recommendations to the executive and legislative branches of government.
“So, Lucy,” I tell myself, “the answer is yes, we are there. Your work is done, your contract complete, the final deliverable delivered.” As facilitator I have reached the destination, but the question “are we there yet?” still hangs over me.
The problem is that the report is only one step on a long journey and the real destination is taking action, implementing those recommendations, making significant change that will reduce dramatically the numbers of suffering Indigenous people and families who are impacted by this epidemic of murdered, kidnapped and trafficked Indigenous people. Until that happens I don’t think we’re there yet.
I’ve had this worry before in my decades of mediating and facilitating all kinds of disputes. I’m hired to do a discrete task – hold a listening session, mediate a negotiation, bring adversaries together to draft a plan for moving forward. The outcome may be good, citizens’ voices heard, an agreement reached, relationships built for future work together. But these are just beginnings; they are not the destination. The problem, the need that brought them to the table is still there. Without a monitor, someone responsible for seeing that the agreements become reality, the parties may be left with little or no progress. And in the case of Indigenous and other groups they may simply chalk this up as another broken promise, eroding whatever trust might have been built.
I would like to see the mediator/facilitator be able to take on a follow-through function. With authority to monitor the implementation of the agreement, they could check on progress and help get past obstacles. They could communicate regularly with the parties, reminding them of where they’ve been and where they’re heading, maybe even bring them back together to review, or modify, or celebrate. It’s possible that some participants don’t want to be reminded, are overwhelmed by the newest crisis, or have moved on in another direction. That’s understandable but the work they put in on these processes deserves a careful and caring follow-up. Someone needs to check the road map and ask “Are we there yet?”
I come from a long line of worriers of many worthy worries. My grandpa Nels, who was born in 1866 and died in 1968 at 102 probably logged the most worries in our lineage. He worried mostly about suffering, close to home and far away. I remember a moment at the dinner table when he said he was worried about the crisis in Africa which was in the news. What crisis, asked someone. “The children are starving! Oh, those poor children” he wailed and began to cry. My father asked someone to please pass the chicken and the conversation moved on. Nels also worried that I would die. He had been a “sickly” child, and in the middle of winter after several weeks of being “confined to bed” a neighbor in their dirt-poor community in northern Minnesota, came to visit. “Oh dear,” she said to his father, “little Nels won’t last to see that tree in bloom.” He remembered how at 9 years old he looked out the window at the bare-limbed apple tree and at that moment felt the weight of the prediction. So, in spite of my obvious robust good health as a child, he worried that every time he saw me might be the last.
My mother, his daughter, was a champion worrier, specializing in the short-term future. Would the plumber really come tomorrow? Would she find a parking spot downtown? She fixated about food. If an egg had protein but also cholesterol, should she eat it? She never ate another grape in her life after Cesar Chavez told her not to. She worried about politics, despairing that all her worrying had no impact on the outcome of an election. In her later years she became so anxious that her doctor prescribed an anti-anxiety pill which she could take as needed. She chose to take it every afternoon at 1:00… and yes, she worried incessantly that she might forget to take it.
For the last several months my priority has been Secretary Haaland’s Not Invisible Act Commission, designed to address the epidemic of Missing Murdered and Trafficked Indigenous People (MMTIP). I am honored to be part of the facilitation team and have given the effort everything I’ve got… perhaps a bit too much. After facilitating public hearings around the country where victims, survivors and family member told horrific stories of loss, abuse and pain, I began to carry their grief with me. The accumulation of traumatic stories, broken people, anger, desperation and despair became unbearable. I was numb, depressed, and hopeless. I felt broken myself.
And so, as the conscientious White woman that I am, I sought help from a psychiatrist who has been there for me in times of need for many years. I was suffering from trauma, he said, not as a victim, but as a witness to the trauma of others. Having treated veterans and victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse and human trafficking, he said: “Retelling the traumatic story will not lead to healing. To heal, to live with the trauma in a healthy way, that requires something else, something beyond words.” I saw many witnesses at the hearings testify in tears and struggle through their stories. Clearly the retelling can re-traumatize. But many take that risk in order to educate and advocate for solutions and system reforms to address the epidemic. And many of them have non-verbal resources – ceremonies, songs, prayers, dances, drums, medicinal herbs, healers — within their cultural traditions to help them heal.
I heard a program on the radio as I was driving back from Albuquerque today. It was about “Awe.” What is it? Where does it come from? What does it mean? How does it make you feel? It was interesting to hear the wide range of awe-inspiring things that people all over the world identify as giving them that spine-tingling, teary, jaw-dropping, out-of-body feeling that we call awe. Here are a few of the categories that I remember:
Nature: rainbows, clouds, mountain peaks, ocean waves, hurricanes, a mother doe and fawn
Art and music: a Michelangelo, Mozart, an elegant building, dance, choral singing
Huge life moments: being present at a birth, or a death, feeling the enormity and fragility of the miracle of life
A greater power: the sense that there is something bigger than ourselves, something that is guiding us, something that binds us all together
I can’t argue with any of the above. I can imagine being awestruck by any of those experiences. But interestingly, the moments that came to mind were small, very small.
It was a wintry March in Santa Fe, snowflakes swirling in a bitter wind as I hurried from the house to the car. I looked down and saw a tiny flower, the tiniest daisy imaginable, the size of my pinky finger nail. There it was, alive, brave, determined to offer the world a speck of beauty. It was peeking up, all alone, next to a rock at the edge of the driveway. I was stunned. I stooped down and spoke: “Who are you?” A strange question, but I meant it. I felt I was meeting a remarkable fellow inhabitant of the planet. I spent time getting to know my little comrade, crouching, staring, watching the snow flakes land on its tiny face. It is amazing how vivid this is, decades later. Surely that was awe.
And just yesterday, another moment. It is unbearably hot here in Santa Fe. No matter we are at 7,200 feet, it is in the 90s day after day, we even reached 100 last week. For whatever reason, along with the heat came a huge squadron of flies, inside the house, buzzing at the windows, landing on the counter, driving us crazy. The sticky flycatcher caught one, by accident I’m sure. So we resorted to old-fashioned fly swatters. I had trouble with the first one, even muttered an apology before smashing it on the wall. After that it was easy and I swatted dozens of them every morning with no remorse. Roberto followed me with a hand-held vacuum sucking up the corpses. Then yesterday afternoon I saw one that he missed…and it was moving along the tiled floor! How could this be? I knelt down and saw an ant – much smaller than the fly — carting its treasure across the floor to some unknown destination.
I was filled with awe. Again, a fellow inhabitant of this planet was at work, carrying out a mission, the details of which I couldn’t understand, but the commitment, the determination, the belief that was the best use of its short life — that I could definitely relate to. I talked to the little laborer, as I did the flower, expressing admiration, and asked permission to take his (or her) picture.
I know I will remember that exchange for a long time, as I have the conversation with the flower. Small moments, tiny creatures, insignificant by many measures, can be just as awesome as the big, flashy ones. It just takes a sharp eye and the willingness to think small. And come to think of it, connecting on an intimate level with another species so far from our own feels…huge.
I had stopped for gas, and she was walking past on the other side of the street. It was only 10:00 in the morning, but already hot. She wore skimpy shorts and a skimpy top and had what looked like a big beach towel draped around her shoulders. My first thought was that she was on her way to a pool somewhere for a morning swim, but the neighborhood was semi-industrial and urban. Would there be a pool within walking distance, I mused? And her gait was a little off for a young woman on her way for morning exercise. Each step was slightly tentative. Maybe it was the flip flops she was wearing, I thought. Or she could be a little hung over, and I imagined a night of partying. Her expression was serious, preoccupied as if she were imagining herself somewhere else. The gas nozzle clicked off and I turned my attention to finishing the transaction and getting back on the road.
I was on my way to facilitate one of seven public hearings for the Not Invisible Act Commission, this one in Albuquerque, just down the road from Santa Fe. For three days the commissioners and staff heard from those who wanted to share their stories, highlight injustices and gaps in services, plead their cases, and make suggestions for how the system could work better to address the epidemic of murdered, missing and human trafficked Indigenous people (MMHTIP). There were boxes of Kleenex on every table. The walls were lined with home made placards and posters. Family members and survivors wore red to symbolize the blood shed in this slaughter. The testimony was unbelievably powerful, heart- and gut-wrenching, and often shocking. These witnesses were courageous. They told very personal and painful stories in order to bring attention to the wrongs happening every day in Indian country. Most of the stories reflect the hopelessness and helplessness victims and family members experience when a loved one is lost or murdered.
…But, it’s fresh on my mind, and maybe some – or even many – of you can relate.
About two weeks ago I underwent oral surgery. Just those two words together make you clench your mouth shut, don’t they? I had an exostosis, a benign growth on a bone. A bone spur is an exostosis. For better or worse mine was growing straight out from my lower left jaw. If this is too much information and you’d like to click the “enough already” button, I will understand, and I hope to see you next month, when I promise a more palatable post.
I reached in the mailbox the other day and pulled out “Resilience,” a beautiful, slick publication from the Quivira Coalition, a nonprofit based in Santa Fe that I have followed and supported since its beginning. I have a fondness for the coalition because 20 years ago I was lucky enough to be at the birth of this gutsy, crazy, doomed-to-fail initiative. The midwives were two conservationists and a renegade rancher who believed that his ranch could support both his family and a healthy ecosystem, a proposition that was radical in those days when environmentalists and ranchers were sworn enemies. The three got to know each other, gradually over several years, and then in 2003 they convened a group of 20 ranchers, environmentalists and scientists to see if they could sell their collaborative dream to “take back the American West from the decades of divisiveness and acrimony that now truly jeopardizes much of what we all love and value” and “restore ecological, social and political health to a landscape that deserves it and so desperately needs it.” [from their website]
They adopted the name Quivira which comes from the term on old Spanish maps to signify uncharted territory. And indeed, they were in uncharted territory. The suggestion that a coalition of farmers, ranchers and environmentalists could succeed was laughed at by some, spat on by others, but a critical number held on, and the result today is a vibrant organization, committed to fostering ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration.
He could have been 75. Or he could have been 95. He wore a blindingly white shirt, tucked into Levis that were creased, both ironed by his wife, or maybe his daughter, I thought. He made a slow beeline for us, pad and pencil in hand.
“Welcome, folks, welcome. We will give you the best breakfast you’ve ever had. I promise. You’ll see.” He chuckled and smiled. He was typical of certain older Hispanic men in northern New Mexico, living treasures, who have deep roots in the land and the culture, who can tell endless stories, and whose hardworking ethic isn’t diminished by the aging process.
We were in Las Vegas, New Mexico, for the weekend. It’s a wonderful town, an hour east of Santa Fe, that offers a great escape from the pressures of work and the routine of home. I’m not complaining about Santa Fe – we are incredibly lucky to be here – but Las Vegas offers a more down home, relaxed, humble experience. At the Plaza Hotel on the town plaza they serve special cocktails with cute names. The Santa Fe is described as “slightly pretentious,” which really made me laugh. Las Vegas is far from pretentious, although it has the same complex history, rich cultural mix and great shopping as its famous neighbor just down the road.
Sometimes an invitation comes along that you can’t refuse. About a year ago I was asked to join a team of facilitators, writers and administrative staff to support the newly formed commission to address the crisis of missing, murdered and trafficked Indigenous people (MMTIP). Very grateful for the chance to be part of the effort, I accepted and for the past year have been working to help bring the Not Invisible Act Commission into being. I am careful not to talk publicly about my current cases. The work is often delicate and it is crucial to maintain confidentiality for the participants. But, last Tuesday Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, co-chair of the commission with Attorney General Merrick Garland, issued a press release reporting on the first in-person meeting of the commission in Washington DC. And so I take that as permission to share with you what has been consuming most of my professional life in the past several months. At the end of this post are the link to the press release which will give you an overview of the commission, and a glorious photo of some of the commissioners and staff with Secretary Haaland and Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco.
Most federal commissions are small (10-20) and include experts in the field from government, academia and related organizations. They typically meet in DC and then hold public hearings around the country, taking testimony that will enrich and round out their understanding of the issues. This commission is unique in its size (45 members) and its makeup. A significant number of the commissioners are family members and survivors of this epidemic of abuse sweeping much of Indian country. They are working side-by-side with a broad range of representatives from law enforcement, data management agencies, non-profits serving these victims and families, and many others who have knowledge and insights that can inform the commission’s recommendations.
The presence of these family members and survivors has been critical in keeping the commission focused on what really matters. Their stories and life experience remind us all of the very real impact of this epidemic and the desperate need for attention. There is no way that their fellow commissioners who are professionals from the Departments of Justice and Interior, the FBI, BIA, CDC, Homeland Security, and state and local law enforcement agencies around the country can forget why they are there and the urgency of their work. It is not easy for family members and survivors to educate, to relive their horrific experiences, to grieve again for a lost one. I admire their courage and commitment to this effort. They are choosing to work with the federal government, hoping that this time it will be worth it and that the results will be good for Indian Country. I am honored to be working with commissioners and staff, and I know that for all of us this is much more than just a job.