Can We Hold All Of It?

Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, San Diego, CA; November, 2015

Can we hold all of it? Can we both honor the war dead and wonder why, dear God, are we still engaged in endless war? Can we both use words like sacrifice and courage and service with conviction and sincerity and compassion while asking ourselves, are there other words I could be saying, too? Illuminating words? Game-changing words? Words that come from a deep and wise and loving place? Can we both grieve and resent that we are?

I’m trying to. And have come to realize that since the death of my mother a month ago, I’ve been practicing this spiritual balancing act. Because, yes, I mourn, yes, I miss her every day, yes, I’m sad, yes, I am grateful for all she imparted; how she’d modeled so many ways to be a strong, fulfilled woman. (Just writing fulfilled, a word she used all the time, makes me smile.) And yes, my relationship with Pat Wild was—and is— the most rich and complicated and challenging relationship I will ever have! So, yes, I am learning to hold all of it. Slowly. And sometimes failing, falling.

Meanwhile: The world just noted the one-hundredth anniversary of the end of “The Great War.” (aka “The War To End All Wars.”) Meanwhile: Veterans for Peace just reclaimed Armistice Day. Meanwhile, my mother’s unambiguous, clear, firm, posthumous message to me: be grateful.

 

“Where To Begin?”

A Katrina Leftover, New Orleans, 2017

In the process of retrieving a much-needed toy from my granddaughter’s stroller parked on my front porch, I’d stepped outside to discover a white, curly-haired, slightly chunky young man about to ring my doorbell. Grandma on a mission, I think he told me he was soliciting for WGBH— but I could be wrong. I really wasn’t listening. For sure he launched into a spirited spiel lauding NPR; he even listed several programs and, to his credit, having taken note of the stroller and the toy in my hand, made special mention of  “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.”

“I know what NPR is,” I muttered.

“Then I’m sure you want to support it,” he countered.

Approaching the front door I turned to face him. “I truly believe in what NPR does but, no, I can’t.”

“May I ask why?” he demanded and, to my consternation, took on an offensive pose, widening his stance, inflating his chest. (My guess? He played football in high school.)

Ahh, dear reader, what a teachable moment! How I would have loved to explain to that young man that for aging Quakers like me and my husband, living on retirement funds, charitable giving is incredibly complicated. Babies starve in Yemen, there’s relief money desperately needed all over the world because of climate change, and, locally, the Somerville Homeless Coalition always needs money; so does the Welcome Project. Every year my husband and I receive thousands of nudges and tugs and polite requests and the occasional solicitor at our door. Yes, we believe in God’s unlimited love, yes, we believe that “There’s enough” but, sadly, yes, our ability to support every worthy cause— I’m not even getting in political contributions!—is definitely limited. (And, sadly, because of inflation and rising health care costs, especially medications, actually shrinking.) How I would have loved to tell that young man that it took my husband and me almost two years to come up with a careful, thoughtful formula for giving. So, sorry, young man but NPR didn’t make the final cut.

But his belligerence on my own front porch—his aggressive posture triggered something very primal and territorial—meant I was Done. And besides, I was still Grandma on a mission!

“Where to begin?” I asked, stepping inside. (Sorry, young man. That’s all I got.)

And firmly shut the door.

 

Be Peace

Saturday afternoon, I’d gone to the 70th birthday party for a dear, dear F/friend, hosted by her dear, dear husband. Reluctantly. Jet-lagged after a wonderful trip to LA, overwhelmed by my ever-growing To Do List, and, most critically, horrified by the news from Pittsburgh, I wasn’t sure I was up to spending a rainy and chilly afternoon chitchatting.

But there are some friends who are so wonderful, so amazing, you just have to show up for them, right? So I did. And was immediately glad. Her two adult children, who’d gone to First Day School (Quaker-style Sunday School) with mine had come; it was wonderful to see them, again, and to hear about their intriguing, fulfilled lives. The food was plentiful and delicious. I caught up with other good friends. It was a wonderful party. Until . . .

I’d gone into the kitchen to get something to drink and there I met—let’s call him “Bob,” a grey-haired, older man and, like the rest of us, in New England fall weather garb. A neighbor of my F/friends, I’m guessing. And, I’m also guessing, had either been drinking or, sadly, as is the case with some of us over seventy, might have had “cognitive issues”?

Because here’s our conversation went: “You a Quaker?” I nodded. “You look like a Quaker.” And without pausing: “You know what I like about Quakers? I can beat the shit out of [our host] and he wouldn’t fight back.”

“Why would you want to beat the shit out of him?”

“Don’t analyze it!” he scolded.

“Why not?” I retorted. Sharply. “You tell me you want to beat the shit out of someone, I want to know why!”

But apparently Bob, besotted by his presumed freedom to beat the shit out of someone without resistance, wasn’t interested in engaging in meaningful dialogue! At least not with a woman he’d just met and who’d just challenged him. (And, yes, Dear Reader, it did briefly occur to me that Bob may very well be another aging, cis, white male perpetually bewildered and threatened by women like me who, you know, want to smash the patriarchy!) Shrugging, I filled my glass and left.

Here’s the thing: I may look like a Quaker, Dear Reader, but that doesn’t mean that in the moment I’m automatically able to do or say The Right Thing. I may want to “Be Peace” as my license plate holder enjoins. But, sometimes I don’t know how.

What might I have said, instead? A couple of ideas came to me the next day, during silent worship, as we collectively mourned the eleven elderly Jews murdered while they had been in worship.

How about “[Your host] is your friend, yes? What else do you like about him?”

How about: “There is so much violence and hatred in the world. Like what just happened this morning in Pittsburgh. I think lots of people, not just Quakers, are looking for ways to not keep adding to it. Don’t you?”

How about “Been drinking, Bob? Off your meds, maybe?” (Okay, so sometimes snarky things come to me, too.)

Here’s the other thing: While I am chagrined I couldn’t be peace, I couldn’t find a way to move the conversation into something enlightened and transformative and nice, I’m not going to feel bad about what I said, either. Because this patriarchy isn’t going to smash itself!

 

 

Was it The Light?

My mother died a week ago.

So many, many things I could and want to say about her; I am moved, this morning, however, to tell this story:

About a week before she died, in terrible pain, she’d said, “I feel as though parts of me are flying away.” Which, as a dear friend no stranger to grief pointed out, is a lot like a wonderful song.

For the past week, much to my sorrow, unlike the sense of my father’s loving and abiding presence after he’d died, I have felt A Huge Void. As so poignantly described by Kathryn Schultz in her New Yorker essay about her father’s death. 

But, yesterday, in Boston’s Museum of Science’s butterfly garden, surrounded by fluttering, beautiful creatures, I felt my mother. I felt a powerful—how to describe it? An energy exchange? Her presence? Her essence? Her soul?

Was it the light? Or The Light?

Why ask.

Living Into What’s Next

Recently my heroine, Elizabeth Warren, declared that we would “use our pain to make power.”

Transformation happens. And change is incremental. Week 1, post Kavanaugh’s confirmation, may I share my first, baby step towards empowerment?

Here’s something I’m beginning to understand: Cruelty is a blunt, crude tool being used to demoralize and weaken those of us who believe that Love is Love is Love, or that Black Lives Matter, or The Golden Rule, or When In Doubt, Choose Kindness, or that climate change is real and, ohmygod, we don’t have much time!

I have discovered this week that when I recognize this fundamental, cruelly- brilliant strategy when, for example, learning more about the proposed changes to “Public Charge,” or when reading despicable tweets or online comments, my experience feels different! Feels as though I’ve laid down my self-righteousness and strapped on armor. Feels as if I can let those hateful, nasty words go—or, to put it another way, feels as though I don’t get caught up in mentally arguing about these hateful words, one by one, but see them for what they are.  A strategy.

Something Else (and still a little foggy): I think Cruelty is unsustainable. I think its practitioners shrink as they wield their blunt, crude tool. They get small. And, like the public outrage when the truth of caged children became known, cruelty is not invincible.

Something Else I AM Sure Of: Love is love is love. And renewable. Sustainable. Invincible.

But, then,The prologue to John says much the same thing, doesn’t it! The Light shines on in the dark, and the darkness has never mastered it.

 

 

Like Water for Fish

Soundsuits, Nick Cave; Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, TN, January, 2018

Circling, circling Nick Cave’s soundsuits, I marveled how this African-American artist had transformed his rage, his fears, his searing pain into fabric and sequins, into cast-asides made sculpture, into crocheted body suits; into beauty. Horrified by Rodney King’s brutal assault by Los Angeles police in 1991, Cave created armor, costumes, disguises, performance pieces, each wearable sculpture inviting us to try on what it means for a man of color to walk down an American sidewalk. Back home, still awed by what I’d seen in Nashville, I considered Cave’s pain-to-transcendence process. How does such breathtaking transformation happen? On meditative walks on the icy, snowy sidewalks of Somerville and Cambridge (MA), at meeting for worship, and noodling in my journal, I’ve wondered what I, a Quaker writer, might learn about my own process by reflecting on Cave’s astonishing work?

His rage as impetus? This genesis I understand. Often my writing projects have originated from the white-hot anger felt during meeting for worship! Held, sustained in deep, collective silence, I have dared to truly examine what lies heavy on my heart. When, for example, my homeless students, women I’d taught in greater Boston family shelters, shared with me their stories of childhood sexual abuse, I brought my horror and fury into worship. What am I asked to do? I prayed. Over many months, my novel, Swimming In It, was born. Yes, I know how negative emotions can inspire!

But those soundsuits’ not-to-be-ignored sequins, their thousands of hand-sewn buttons, those bolts of gaudy fabric and tin instruments! Surely such voluminous, undeniable stuff could teach me something about transformation? Cave, himself, answered my question during an April, 2013, interview with Artspace.com’s editor-in-chief, Andrew Goldstein:

“So the first soundsuit was constructed entirely out of twigs. I was making a sculpture first—I didn’t even think I could physically put this on—but once it was developed I physically put it on and moved around in it, and it made sound. And when I made that sound, it moved me into a role of protest. In order to be heard you have to speak louder. So that was something that was of interest to me, and it kept unfolding and really becoming much more versatile in that sense, and it made me think more, again, about my role and civic responsibility as an artist.”

In my ears, Cave’s ownership of his artistic agency is a variation of What am I asked to do? But that serendipitous moment when those twigs asserted their twigginess and Cave’s process shifted? This unfolding intrigues me— and invites me to look at my own “twigs.”

What are my twigs? Not words or my thumb-worn thesaurus, certainly, not pen to paper nor a blank computer screen; these are implements, tools like Cave’s needle and thread. What asserts its essence, its Truth, its possibility to me? Against what do my inchoate thoughts interact with, bump up against? What shapes my ideas? What is mutable—yet instructive?

It’s November 23, 1960; Opening Night of my first high school play: For three months the (all-white) cast of that musty favorite, “Seventeen,” has rehearsed in our Lynchburg, Virginia high school’s chilly, cavernous auditorium, its fifteen-hundred seats empty save Miss Virginia Wiley, doyenne of E.C. Glass’s English Department and our fierce director, seated in the middle seat of the third row. Now, nervously waiting backstage, I hear muffled—and welcomed—laughter from many rows, I hear rustling, coughing; crossing stage right, the auditorium’s warmth so startles me I almost trip. So balmy, so charged, so pulsing, so expectant has the auditorium air become, I long to stare past the footlights to catch a glimpse of that multi-headed, breathing organism out there. Instead I say my first line.

It’s September, 1966: After we graduated in June, my college roommate joined the Peace Corps; I’m teaching fourth grade in Brooklyn. I send her a letter complaining about the city’s pollution, a major topic among my new, Big Apple friends, Park Slope neighbors, P. S. 120 colleagues. “Air?” she writes back from El Salvador. “You’re writing about air?”

It’s 2005: I’m writing a book about the two African-American students who desegregated E.C. Glass High School in 1962 and, today, every word is a struggle. You’re getting cobwebs!” I inwardly hear my mother shout from the kitchen, just like she did when I was eight and made the same stupid mistake over and over while practicing the piano. “Go outside and get some fresh air!” I’ve spent so long inhabiting Lynchburg’s civil rights history today that, walking along Somerville Avenue, when a gritty March wind stings my face, I need to remind myself of where I am. What year this is. And why I was led to write this book. Exposed to traffic-fetid air, my inchoate ideas shift. And way opens.

It’s January 21, 2017 and everyone I know is at a Women’s March somewhere. Not me. I’m in a recording studio in Union Square’s Somerville Media Center, headphones on, podcasts’ script in hand. My script. I wrote these words. I honed them for years, since 1999, draft after draft. And now, sometimes tentatively, with a southern accent, as if a thirty-five-year old Lynchburg-born woman only just now figuring it out, sometimes rasping and growling and dropping my Rs as if a working-class old man from Somerville, sometimes myself, the author, I speak my words into a microphone, Stuart, my sound engineer, at my side. And although I can imagine Miss Virginia Wiley’s multiple charm bracelets jangling as she furiously scribbles a note lambasting my performance, nevertheless, I persist. I love emergent Jewell, I love crippled Rocco, I love their love story, an agape love story. I love this self-made opportunity to praise Unconditional Love—on a website! I’m loving these in-the-moment openings as I revise, improve my script as I say my lines. My love comes through in my voice; I hear it in my headphones. When, three years before, I’d first conceived of creating WellingUp.net to share my Quaker-based novel, Welling Up online, podcasts had seemed another techie bell or whistle at my disposal. Now, surrounded by recording equipment, hearing what’s coming through my voice, I acknowledge and celebrate my airtime. For I remember, pre-television, the four, five-year-old me, alone, transported, legs-crossed seated on the rug in front of my family’s radio console as I listened—and trusted—Don McNeill’s gentle, flat, Midwestern voice. Which, at the speed of light, beamed from downtown Chicago to our fusty, upstate New York living room every morning from nine to ten. “Each in his own words, each in his own way, for a world united in peace, bow your heads and pray,” he’d suggest every morning. And I did.

It’s First Day. Perhaps there’s a fireplace fire; a heavy log shifts, thuds. Perhaps a restless branch pops. Perhaps there’s been another school massacre; another horror each of us carried with us into Friends Meeting at Cambridge’s spacious meetinghouse this morning. Whatever has happened, it is here. It is present. We hundred or so worshippers swim in it. Our shoulders droop under its collective weight. I listen to my breathing. My heart races. What am I asked to do? Should I stand to name our shared outrage? For I have experienced—and written about—how such naming can sometimes be a balm. What am I asked to do? Should I break the silence? As if wetting my index finger and lifting it into the wind, I test the air. It is agitated, hornets-nest stirred up. You can’t fix this, always-responsible-oldest-sister, I counsel myself. And remain seated.

It’s First Day. Slowly, an older woman rises to speak: “It seems to me,” she begins, “that meeting for worship is like a radio? When we come into worship, when we sit quietly and wait, it’s like we’re turning the radio on. We’re saying we’re ready to listen. To what is all around us.” In us, too, I silently amend.

Inspired, literally, by this exploration of Cave’s pain-to-transformation process, an important question still remains: what of Beauty? Nick Cave’s glorious process began in sorrow and ends in glorious, wondrous, transcendent beauty. What is my writerly final destination? And am reminded of a poem quoted at meeting for worship years ago and, apparently, still guiding me: The Poet Speaks of Praising by Rainer Maria Rilke

Oh speak, poet, what do you do? I praise.

But the monstrosities and the murderous days, how do you endure them, how do you take them? I praise.

But the anonymous, the nameless grays, how, poet, do you still invoke them? I praise.

What right have you, in all displays, in very mask, to be genuine? I praise.

And that the stillness and the turbulent sprays know you like star and storm? because I praise.

(from Rilke on Love and Other Difficulties, ed. and trans. by John J. L. Mood, Norton, 1975)

Hallelujah!