A Great Failure

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An Essay written in an AWA writing group

It seems that our culture says that if you are alive, you have somehow, somewhere, failed, and therefore you are not okay.

Scene: Del’ Arte, a European clown school, Blue Lake, CA circa 1980

“Here’s the assignment,” spoken with direct command, “You will get up in front of the 20 of us and deliberately fail. You will experience what it is to fall in front of other people. You will not entertain; you will fail. Carlo Matzone Clemente, the Italian director, turned Californian, announced this, and everyone was suddenly beside themselves. I mean, I could see people step outside their bodies and be next to themselves.

Carlo was talking about discomfort, the great discomfort. Failing which could not be hidden and wasn’t supposed to be. It was in front of an audience.

“Pick a prop, take it up in front of the class, and fall, fall hard.” Carlo continued.

And I continued in my silence, “Shut up, please shut up. Why did I bother coming today? It was usually challenging but also fun. Not this, definitely not this.

All that was left for me to do was to curl up into a ball and disappear. That was possible, right?
It’s hard enough figuring out what makes people laugh, but figuring out how to deliberately fail? And I was sure that to succeed at this failing, you really would die. What a conundrum! Succeed at failing. In theory, it is a great idea. In practice, for me, it was all about facing shame and humiliation. My life had been to that point, getting it right. Whatever it was, I was going to get it right.

Carlo sent us all off into our individual variety of suffering. Mine was simply pain dipped in humiliation.

I watched others get up there, do what they did, and succeed at failing. That meant in the end, people laughed or were awed and felt something. This was just too hard. But in this school, you didn’t get to, not do. You had to, whatever it was.

I stepped up there, choosing an umbrella for my prop. I am sure I was looking for something to hide behind, as I knew this would not be my experience of success at failing. It would just simply be failing.

I can still feel the humiliation in the flow of my blood. I can still feel the sadness of not getting it, of not even knowing how to fail correctly.
Just let me be the clown I had developed. The one in the huge fishing yellow overalls with suspenders, the one who didn’t speak, and drooled, and carried Harpo Marx inside. She was the one who had all the permission in the world to have the wonder of a 3-year-old, the curiosity about the smallest thing. And failing or succeeding wasn’t even a thought or consideration.

I want this story to end with how well I did. I didn’t. I was just up there wearing pain as my costume, and my character was humiliation. I didn’t know what to do, and so I didn’t.
It was 5 minutes of failure that didn’t succeed. It was 5 minutes of complete torture, a complete undoing.

Did I learn something from this? I suppose I learned that no matter what, I was still alive, still breathing. People in the class still talked to me, and there was another day, in some hours, after some minutes, and a night’s sleep.
I also learned that failing is painful, but with layers that deserve examination, deserve kindness, and sweet attention.

Days and Days and Distance – another attempt

On March 13, 2020, the momentous pandemic took over the world and

She was forced to take a distance from others.

Distance was no longer an idea to study in her therapy, along with boundaries,

It was a thing that was a necessity. 

The tools of which were face masks that just made her want to weep, hand sanitizer, and a measure of 6 feet.

It was good as a protection from some things and terrible as a way of life.


She had wanted to be the best at discerning boundaries, an expert, 

And now everyone was a student of boundaries and distance.

She tried to stay calm and flexible in the face of forced distancing, but that was so very hard to do.


She humored herself with the knowledge that her dog’s leash was the 6-foot measure she should have between herself and others. 

It was the first time she ever remembered the length of her dog’s leash, and now she would know it forever. And she would know the meaning of that distance. It would stick in her memory as a time when…

Then May 25, 2020, became a day of reckoning, and it brought a new aspect of distancing. 

She found herself among the many people who saw another person, in full view, being murdered under the knee of a person who was bound to the duty to protect. 

The grave injustice caused an excruciating ache of shame and grief that scratched at her heart and overcame her, laying her flat.


In that murder of George Floyd, she experienced a kind of angst that stirred feelings of distancing. She wanted to distance herself from humanity.

Embedded in this kind of distancing was a profound disconnection between soul, heart, and mind.  

She was pained to know how those get so profoundly disconnected,  

It caused her anguish that ripped at her gut, asking her to open to more pain, and that was something that she did not want to turn towards or let in.

The killing of George was put on full display, and she knew it to say, 

this is who we are. 

It is the way today.

Anger and hate trump all. 

In the graphic video, close up of the murder, she saw a deep belief and pretending that said you are not human.

She watched a man believe that he got to treat another like something that needs to be under his control, under his knee.

She heard the murder speak volumes in the justification that if you are not like me, or I don’t like what you have to say, what you look like, or how you live. I don’t value you as a living, blood-filled, breathing human being.

I can kill you

And I will.

This was a world she was not made for.

She now found that Distancing had taken on so much more in potency than distance.

Distance in 3 Attacks

Distance Attack 1

If I took distance, it was for a reason.
Please don’t judge me.

My distance is not about you.
I circle out onto the street to keep a distance as you pass by.
And, this is all about me.

I didn’t take distance because you are a different color than I.
I didn’t take distance because you are a stranger.
And I didn’t take distance because you could harm me.

My distance is, as said, all about me.
I don’t want to harm you.
I don’t want to get you sick. 

I don’t want to get sick.

Really, I hope that through my mask, you can hear me say hello and see my eyes smile.

Distance Attack 2

Distance is a measure taken to be safe, to have space, to be apart from.
Distance is now a commonly used word. Social distance now has collective meaning.

Now it carries the weight of the world.

Understood all over the world,

In every corner of the world.
It is a shared experience that this planet has never had. 

It is a concept that must be explained to small children.

It is a concept, said differently, when commonly used in a therapy session, but uncommonly used in other places.
It could be used as a way to set boundaries with someone causing you trouble.
Now it is used to keep people safe, free from contagion.

Distance Attack 3

She always thought distance was a bad thing.
It disconnected her heart from her head.
She was still learning how to discern a reasonable distance from others.
Her therapist was helping her with this as she explained what boundaries were in a relationship.

And then in a matter of days, March 13, 2020,  the momentous pandemic took over. 

She was forced to take a distance from others.
It was no longer an idea to study,
it was a thing that was a necessity.

It was good as a protection from some things and terrible as a way of life.
She wanted to be the best at discerning boundaries, an expert, and now everyone was a student of boundaries and distance.

She tried to stay calm and flexible in the face of forced distancing, but that was so very hard to do.
She humored herself with the knowledge that her dog’s leash was the 6-foot measure she should have between herself and others.
It was the first time she ever remembered the length of her dog’s leash, and now she would know it forever. And she would know the meaning of that distance. It would stick in her memory as a time when…

Dear Mom,

A belated mother’s day offering, and thank you.


Dear Mom,

It has been 10 years since you died.

There are times that I cry with grief that you are not here with me, with us now. My tears well up, sometimes I cry out loud, sometimes, quietly. No matter, the pain is the same, an ache in my chest that feels like it wants to rip its way out.

The girls and I miss you so very much. I know others do as well. We keep you alive with tins that seem like something you would have had and talk about how you would have liked this or that. I arrange flowers, always wondering what you would say, offer, and critique.



It is said that grief is love with nowhere to go. That seems right. There is a hole in our lives where you were. And, now with the pandemic, I mean, who would have thought that this would be in our lifetime? Who would have thought that you and I and the girls would not have been altogether to get through this?

Well, it brings to mind the stories you told about being so poor that the depression wasn’t even felt by you, your sister, mom, and dad. And the stories about other life-altering circumstances like Diptheria at 2, Scarlet fever at 7, with no antibiotics, only use of the Cook County hospital and the home quarantined for both. Your mother nursed you to health each time. I never heard about your sister’s experience of it all. I do know she grew into a full-fledge hypochondriac, something I never understood, and now I can see why she did. You talked of your mother holding warm compresses to your abscessed ear with the fever. You spoke of the new antibiotic penicillin, which you were allergic to. You talked about the apartments you lived in and how bags of hand-me-downs sat at the front door, waiting for you to remodel and how the wolf was at each door. So, you moved often.

I search your words and stories for wisdom when I feel afraid and lack trust. What would you say now? I think I know. I want to believe I know. I am so grateful, which is a word I don’t use lightly.I am grateful that your words are in my head.

You would say, “This is the shits.” and shake your head with profound disgust. But somehow, your creativity would rise to the surface, and you would find a way through. Maybe something like the kids and I are doing now. Being resourceful, forging on, keeping your chin up, and telling me to do that as well.

Though you wouldn’t have chosen it and didn’t feel like it, we were warriors together, you and I. I love you for giving me that.





Ode to Corona April 2020

4/23/2020 Update

Dear Corona

We get it! 

You are the teacher of not knowing

Of uncertainty,

People are discovering these concepts, even unaware they were ever concepts.

They were ideas never thought of by some.  

They were ideas that were never of interest to others.

And, yet, here you are teaching us about living with not knowing, and uncertainty:

Considerable uncertainty on so many levels, our health, our finances, our safety, our general well being, our sanity.

Corona, you have provided us the experience of living with a crisis.  

Our actions say CRISIS, hoarding food, toilet paper, even guns is a thing. Hoarding freedoms, demanding freedoms at the risk of losing lives, at the risk of great suffering.  

It is so hard to find our compass when in crisis, but you keep providing direction and in spite of your guidance, we must keep finding our own true North. We must keep looking for who we are, finding where we turn in this crisis? Learning, again, about who we are.

Fear is a significant element in a crisis, and you, Corona, have provided an excellent stage for that.

A stage we step on, and when we can, we step off.  

When we can, we remember to turn our view from fear, to who we are deep to our core, we remember that we grieve, that we yearn, that our hearts want to be touched, that our hearts are touched. 

We remember we are strong, not from baring weapons, but from a strength deep within, a resilience that says, I can take one more day, and tomorrow I will take another. 

And, I will take the next and then the next until all are safe, and well, and sane.  

That is our strength, 

That is our courage.

That is our pride.

You are reminding us what we do share, we are common together. We can come together because we all breathe, we all bleed the same, our hearts all pound with life, and we are all in this, and we are all figuring it out.

I have to believe “we were made for these times”. (Clarissa Pinkola Estes)  Otherwise, there is little sense to be made.

I am supposed to say thank you Corona, but I can’t exactly.  I can say I will have you as my teacher, I can say I have hope that you will be the teacher of others.  I can say thank you for that.



Is this the time we get to cry?

Is this the time we get to cry?

Cry from self-righteous anger,

Cry from righteous indignation?

Cry from our wounded souls whose hearts have been stabbed and burned too many times with lies?

And lies

And more lies.


Do we cry from sadness?

Do we cry from grief?

Do we cry from the ache inside that says I feel too weak, too beaten?

I am done,

But, I am not.

I am not.


I have now learned the body’s feeling of being disheartened.

I keep learning it.

It is the cracking inside my soul, deep in my chest.

It is the crying of the small child inside me that says, nothing is right,

Nothing will be right.

It is disappointment after disappointment.

And it catches my throat, tugs at my heart.

Will it ever get better?


It is almost time to face 

It is almost time to face

Our sadness

Our grief,

Our fear,

Our loss.


not quite.


Don’t turn there too soon.

Don’t turn there too quickly.

We will have enough time to

Journey into this territory of the dark.

All of us are being called to turn and look there.

Some ignore the call.

And, I say I will not, I can not.

I won’t.


If we can look just there, there into the dark,

If we can say, I see you.

I see you.

We can heal.

We will heal.

And everything,

Everything will be different.

The Earth, the Universe, all living creatures are calling us to step forward, see our humanity.

Calling on us to rise to this momentous occasion.

Calling for our authentic selves to come to

To wake and truly see.

Times like these,

Times like these happen,



“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.  “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring


Ellen and Henry April 2020


To be continued…



Please, if you find this something that you would like to share, please do.

Thank you, Ellen

“We Must Listen to the Earth”

We Must Listen to the Earth

Online features, Web Exclusive | March 30, 2020By Michael Waasegiizhig Price

Now is the time to reflect on our spiritual and cultural connections to the Earth. COVID-19 is a direct communication from the natural world, and we must listen and ask, “Why are you here?” Instead, many are afraid and failing to learn the lessons this disease can teach us.

Traditionally, Anishinaabe people depended on those plants and animals found in our environment: fish, deer, elk, wild rice, and herbal medicines. Our cultural traditions have taught us humility; that we must ask permission before we take anything from the natural world. Our traditions also tell us to offer asemaa (tobacco) to the spirits whenever we harvest or kill anything for our own sustenance and well-being. This tradition of gifting the spirits of the natural world allows us to take what we need in a good way and without negative repercussions. These traditions also contribute to an ethical and mindful existence, making us aware of how we are impacting the Earth and all her inhabitants. These long-held traditions—Indigenous ways of knowing—ensure sustainability between us as human beings and the natural world, which we are completely dependent upon. In our Anishinaabe traditions, it is believed that if we act in a humble and spiritual way the animals will continue to give themselves to us for our nourishment and well-being. If we violate this belief or take without asking, those animals or plants may abandon us or bring negative repercussions upon us.

COVID-19 and other zoonotic viruses, such as those which cause swine flu and bird flu, originate in the systemized suffering of animals, carried out to produce food and revenue. Industrialized nations charged with the responsibility to provide food for millions of people have placed profits and efficiency ahead of the dignity and respect for animals slaughtered to feed us. Cruel practices have been made commonplace, such as keeping animals in cages too small for them to move, separating the young from their mothers, and preventing caged animals from engaging in activities necessary for their growth and development. As Anishinaabe, we have long understood that ignoring natural law can have serious consequences. Traditionally harvested foods are favored for our ceremonies to convey respect for natural law and because foods borne of pain detract from our goal of connecting spiritually.

In 2016, many Indigenous youths from across the nation gathered near the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota to protect the water and prevent the construction of an oil pipeline that crosses the Missouri River. The pipeline presented a clear threat to the integrity of water quality, which would affect not only the tribal citizens of Standing Rock, but also 19 million people living downstream from the pipeline crossing. The gathering of water protectors to safeguard the river from this pipeline was seen by people around the world and it nurtured the creation of a new consciousness. The protection of water originated from the ancient Indigenous teachings about the Earth and the protection of all her inhabitants.

Anishinaabe people, as well as all other Indigenous nations around the world, have a knowledge base that is thousands of years old and is constantly evolving, unlike Western science which, comparably, is still in its infancy. Indigenous knowledge and languages have been attacked throughout colonial history, but the essential nature of those teachings continues to re-emerge in the thoughts and dreams of Indigenous-minded peoples. Now is the time to reflect on our spiritual and cultural connections to the Earth. Instead of asking, “How can we kill this virus?” We could ask, “How do we re-orient our lives to be gentler with the Earth and everyone on it.”

Today, we must listen to our scientists, epidemiologists, and healthcare providers. They are our front-line defense against the spread of COVID-19. It is my hope that industrialized society may realize what Indigenous peoples have been saying all along about respect for the Earth and all of her inhabitants. This mindset will ensure the sustainability of our existence on this planet.

Michael Waasegiizhig Price (Anishinaabe) is a traditional ecological knowledge specialist at the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, a longtime tribal college educator—serving at Leech Lake Tribal College and White Earth Tribal and Community College—and the founding president of Red Lake Nation College.

Source URL: https://tribalcollegejournal.org/we-must-listen-to-the-earth/

In Search of Belief


There is a tenderness just there, just under my bones, in the place of heart and meaning,

layered with pain,


and tears.

Can you tell?

There is a yearning for understanding.

For deep understanding.


I want to believe in a god,

In The God,

in any god.

I don’t.  


I don’t.

I don’t believe in Moses, or Jesus, or Buddha, or Mohamad or god or goddesses of any name.

They offer me history and no more.

No comfort, no spiritualism, no beliefs that are believable.

None of it.

None of it.


Look to nature for solace and wisdom, people instruct.

I turn my gaze to grass that is spiked in variegated greens,

The rocks smoothed, pitted and roughed in tones of gray,

The Iris in its blue, and blues and purples, and more,

The sky in patchworks of bellowing white and grays and hues.


I know these beautiful parts of nature 

are supposed to speak to me.

Nature is supposed to say something to me.

Speak words of wisdom.

But I don’t hear it.

I don’t see it there.


There is another place for turning, 

Another place for turning.

And turning.


I seem to know the place but forget and ignore it,

Even when I need it.

Even when I need it.

Even when it is exactly what I need.


The place is down,

laying in my gut, 

The dwelling of the other place.

Not a great god outside, not an image of a stranger

Who is supposed to speak to me, 

Say something to me.

Know better than me.

No, not something greater than me.


Not something greater than me.

The place is in the depths of me.

The depths of me.


The place is in my nature and I am in that same nature.

This speaks to me.

Deep inside.

The truth, I am nature.


Feet on the earth,  toes curled into soil, listening for its breath.

Hands stretched, open palms, extended as taut as can be,

up to the sky, embracing its air.

Ear to the tree that stands sturdy and yearns for a hug.

Yearns to be talked to.

and I am eager to hug it.

I am eager to talk to it.


Heart opened because the wisdom of the earth comes through my feet,

into my soul.

The cry of the tree is spoken in my heart.

The freedom of the sky is in my every inhale and exhale.


And now I breathe.

Now, I breathe.


Now I know what I know.

Gut deep inside, the deepest part of me, 

The bottom of my soul.

I know.

I know.


It is a solo journey, no followers, no gods to lead.

No temples made by man.

No congregation,

Those who would congregate, don’t know there are others like them.

They don’t know.

They don’t know.


Others seeking the deep knowing 

Know alone.

Not with

Not for.


Not for.

They just know.