Never Stop Learning  


Assiniboine Nakoda woman

It takes guts to examine your failures, but that’s just what we need to do in order to learn and grow.

The take-away in a brief news item in today’s New York Times notes that taking time to consider why something went awry makes us better.

The writer, Oset Babür, draws quotes from researchers armed with evidence that talking helps guide us through analyzing our mistakes and helps us in the next encounter.

Makes sense.

I realized how I find the mantra, “Never Stop Learning,” so fundamental when I shared a meal recently with friends and relatives.

One of the guests at our table complained about figuring out his cell-phone, saying, “I’m glad I don’t need to learn anymore.”


It really does take guts to make yourself vulnerable to failure when you learn something new: especially about yourself.

The payback is huge: you gain confidence to confront your next calamity and you get better with each calorie spent on practice.

A new language? A new hobby? A new book?

When I feel overcome by fear of failure—which happens often—I remember the warrior culture of my ancestors, and think, OK:

Bring it on.


18 August 2018

Image of an Assiniboine warrior woman (link to website)









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When Words Harm



Photo from the Dallas Morning News

And Actions Matter

 In my profession (writing and researching words, and thinking about their meanings) we argue: words mean.

Exactly what they mean and how is worthy of conversation, especially because humans create the meanings we attach to words.

From a Buddhist perspective, we can get trapped in what we think words mean.

One story our Buddhist teacher relates is about words, and the lack of words.

And thus I’ve heard (our teacher begins), “A prince gave a priest a handsome sum to build a Buddhist temple.”

As the temple was being built, the prince became more and more vexed because he felt he hadn’t been thanked properly.

The prince finally confronted the priest about his vexation.

The priest explains the reward lies in the giving of the gift, and of the building of the temple: not in the spoken or unspoken words of thanks.

Actions speak loudly.

In this case, the actions resulted in the building of a temple, a symbol of gratitude far greater than words themselves.

That words—or their lack—carry meaning is vexing in itself.

Perhaps the prince thought the priest was disrespectful.

Perhaps the prince wanted something more for his cash.

For the priest, the gift was the moment of giving, rather than in the acknowledgment.

Clearly one’s intentions and desires don’t always square with the receiver.

Here’s a contemporary example.

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Kondo as a Verb

(We discovered a spoon with the Rous insignia)

No one enjoys moving, do they?

I am in awe that my mother moved us—sometimes once a year—when my step-father worked overseas on construction projects with oil companies.

We moved every year we lived in England because my parents had little advance warning when and where the next job would land us.

But the most memorable move was the first one, in the early 1960s, when we moved to Iran from the United States.

Before we departed my mum took all four of us girls to the store, outfitting us with saddle-shoes in a dozen sizes because she was told you couldn’t find decent shoes in Teheran.

She shipped only the essentials—boxes of shoes and her sewing machine—which took six months to arrive in the Middle East.

Before leaving the US, she put furniture and photographs in storage (reclaimed nearly three decades later) and gave away everything else, including toys and clothing.

I am awestruck because we seldom helped.

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Threading the Needle


Buddhist Rakusu

Closing the Osage-Buddhist Circle

We spent the last weeks—months—on a sewing project, creating a Rakusu: a garment worn when you become a practicing Buddhist.

The Rakusu has a rich tradition.

The garment is a rectangular cloth with straps that you wear over your neck, and you are responsible for sewing it yourself.

The cloth includes pieces of fabric you stitch together to resemble the topography of a rice field.

So: when you look at a Rakusu and see little rectangles pieced together, imagine a bird’s eye view of a rice field.

Legend says a prince asked his Buddhist mentor to wear a garment so the prince could recognize friend from foe at a distance.

The Rakusu signals to the visitor the wearer is a Buddhist.

Homemade Rakusu

In the Osage tradition, women sew open hands—palms open—onto their clothing.

The open-palm symbolizes that the wearer bears no weapons.

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Dependence within Independence

I wonder about the meanings of dependence on the day that celebrates independence (and my birthday): July 4.

Thoughts about independence are buried deep within our nation’s stories, including myths that our Indian ancestors roamed free and wild and independent, and that the settlers sought independence from restrictive nation-states.

Stories about independence weigh us down: we see ourselves through a mirage of ersatz independence.

Truth is, we are all, at our core, dependent.

I read that a leaf may fall from a tree, but the leaf is “still the whole tree.”

The leaf is inextricably tied to the tree: and to the ground for nourishment, to the clouds for rain, and to the sun for sustenance.

The writer continues with a metaphor of the ocean: “The wave is full of water, but it is empty of a separate self.”

Rather than congratulating myself over 65 years of independence, today I embrace the idea of dependence.

My body is part of the tobacco plant in my garden.

My blood is part of the fluid that waters the tomatoes.

I am connected to the souls who live in the houses surrounding my gardens.

How odd that settler stories of Native Americans are seared with independence when indigenous tribal knowledges and meanings stem from relationships with all beings.

The Osages, the Lakota, the Iroquois, the Dine—we all understand our interconnectedness.

In this spirit, today I celebrate relationships that give us life–whether we know it or not.


4 July 2018



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Broad of Beam

And Heavy Afore the Mast

My father-in-law died at home over the weekend and it feels like the passing of a certain style of talking, thinking, behaving and being.

Just shy of his 97th birthday when he breathed his last, Walter had a knack for expressions—the sort you rarely hear.

My favorite is his description of a relative.

Walter related a silhouette of his relative to my husband, Scott, who needed to pick her out of a crowd.

Because Scott had never laid eyes on her, Walter said, “you’ll know her” by the figure she cuts.

“She’s built broad of beam, and heavy afore the mast.”

Walter was simply stating a fact.

He didn’t have a mean bone in his tiny frame—which earned him the nickname of “Pee-Wee” in high school.

Short but fast, he held his high school’s record for the fastest mile run during his tenure.

Although diminutive, he cut quite the figure in his navy-blue Coast Guard uniform, but, alas, his fashion sense was tragic.

Walter could ply plaid on plaid with carefree abandon. For him, madras and seersucker made a fashion statement.

He traded his World War II uniform for the Wall Street attire of neckties and suits, and put his degree in economics to work in banking and investing, his lifelong career.

His observations were wicked-smart, like the pronouncement that a full-bellied man exhibited a “large corporation.”

Or that a stylish woman was “well-upholstered.”

When his wife was lagging behind, she was “dragging anchor.”

Walter’s endearments of his wife of 72 years, Violet, were sweet indeed.

When Walter talked about Violet to his son, he identified her as, “Your Mother.”

Walter would say, “Your mother is in a mood.”

Or, if Violet were taking a nap, he’d say, “Your mother’s corked off.”

Sometimes–when Walter was mildly annoyed—he would call Violet by her pet name: Henry.

More than once I’ve heard him say, “No, no, no, no, Henry. That’s not right.”

And while Walter was setting the record straight, Henry would shake her head as if to say, no, no, no, no.

They would sit side-by-side on the couch, Walter talking, with Violet shaking her head and rolling her eyes.

Sometimes she would vigorously disagree with her husband, and, if Walter couldn’t sway Violet, he would simply shrug his shoulders.

He didn’t hold a grudge and was one of those rare muggles who gave other people the benefit of the doubt no matter what.

As his vigor faded in his 90s, Walter recited statements he called mantras.

I captured one of them:

“We have a long and happy life together.

That’s the new mantra.

We do the best that we can as long as we can and then we fade away like everything else.

We’re out of here.

We’re out of here.

We’re out of here.”


For Walter Leonard Emery

23 June 1921-25 May 2018

Photo of Walter and Violet Emery by C Coleman Emery

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Buckshot for Brains

To test for intelligence in the 1800s, scientists would scoop out the brains from a skull, and then fill the cavity with buckshot.

The more the buckshot, the more the brains.

Native Americans fared far worse than other racial types, which scientists classified as Caucasian, Malayan, Ethiopian, Oriental and American.

Americans–lumped together as natives of North and South America–were judged inferior to their global brethren.

Phrenologists studied the skulls of Indians, thanks to grave-robbers who could earn cash for sending crania to eager scientists.

Scientists declared the skulls demonstrated their inhabitants as warlike and aggressive.

But we were also characterized as lacking the ability to be civilized.

No written language and no religion–popular lies–provided the evidence that native people were incapable of civilization.

Armed with this “science,” politicians, railroad builders, business-folk and the military seized the opportunity to wrest lands from the first inhabitants, declaring that our minds lacked the skills to manage our own destinies.

Today’s brain researchers decry phrenological interpretations of race, mind and brain.

And yet, the entailments of phrenology stick even today.

Here are some concrete examples:

1. Humans are still classified as racial types, despite agreement in scientific circles that we all belong to the same race

2. More variation occurs within “racial” types than across “racial” types, which means there is more variety among Indigenous people and more similarity between, say, natives of the British Isles and the Shoshone

3. We still judge people by the way they look, letting our stereotypes get in the way of critical thinking

4. American Indian bodies, bones and skulls continue to be stolen and studied, despite laws that protect remains and artifacts

My thanks to the Northwest Native American Research Center for Health for inviting me to share my work on science and culture this week.

Wey wee nah


14 June 2018

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