“Love It All”

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

Exactly. Here’s what I am (barely functionally) struggling with: For those of us who wish to honor Lent, how can we both acknowledge this season of impending death and celebrate its fecundity, its sweetness, its abundance? How do we better celebrate Lent’s spring-ness? What ritual could better embrace this Lenten paradox? Because giving up chocolate for forty days doesn’t cut it for me any more. Nor had receiving pussy willows on Palm Sunday when I went to a Unitarian Sunday school. Nope.

In her remarkable memoir, Lost & Found: A Memoir,
Kathryn Schulz struggles with this, too. Still missing her beloved father, she marries the love of her life. And throughout her remarkable, seamless wedding day (well, okay, there had been a tornado warning), she was exquisitely aware of how she was experiencing both incredible grief and unadulterated joy. (Schulz has lots to say about and/&) 

How do we hold two disparate ideas—and then get up the next morning to do it all over again? An answer came to me recently walking past a neighborhood grocery store which did not survive the shutdown. While grieving its loss, a “small, still voice” counseled: “Love it all.”

Sounds like a plan.

“Everywhere As Blue As Mine”

Recently, as bombs continue to hit civilian targets in Ukraine, someone posted this deeply moving video.

The last time I’d sung this version of “Finlandia” had been in 2008, in Cuba. A member of a small group of American Quakers visiting that beleaguered* country, our group joined the Gibara Friends Church congregation to sing this song of peace together—first in Spanish, then in English.

And I shall never forget, as we’d all sung the Spanish words to But other hearts in other lands are beating/ With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine, how one Cuban Quaker woman and I locked eyes. And nodded. And smiled.

THIS IS MY SONG

This is my song,
O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;

But other hearts in other lands are beating
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
And sunlight beams on clover- leaf and pine.

But other lands have sunlight too and clover,
And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
Oh, hear my song, O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for their land and for mine.

To the melody of Finlandia — Lyrics by Lloyd Stone

*Beleagured much because of my country’s policies

This I What We Do Now:

Last night at a Zoom worship group we were asked, “How has this pandemic affected your world view?” Um—yikes?

In the silence as we collectively pondered, each inside our own little tile, what came to me was something like this: I calibrate differently, now. Living through this constant, relentless pile-up of disaster after disaster, my aging brain now nimbly juggles, judges, assesses, rates, ranks and re-orders the daily headlines. What’s worse now? (And where is my heart most called to hold, pray, feel most profoundly?)

Like this: I live in Somerville’s Union Square which means I live in a neighborhood where I can’t walk on its sidewalks anymore because they’re obstructed by lumber and steel and beeping trucks. A treeless, ugly, noisy, blocks-long and blocks-wide construction site which, until last week, I’d termed “A war zone.”

But: no. For the past two weeks we’ve all seen real war zones, haven’t we. My dismay at what’s happening to my beloved neighborhood has lost primacy in my mental list of Things That Suck. Forever. I’ve recalibrated. And, heartbroken, hold the people of Ukraine and all who offer shelter to its fleeing people in the Light.

Or this: Yesterday afternoon a dear friend worried aloud: “Is there another variant out there? Will we have to go back to another shut-down? What’s going to happen?”

And a mental video of the past two years unspooled. I saw her, I saw me, I saw us, all of us who have survived, just do it!  Again. First we cry, scream, up our anti-depressants; wonder if we have the strength to get through yet another Shit Show? And then, because we have no choice, because we now know that much, much worse things could happen, have happened, we shrug our collective shoulders. We put on our effing masks again.

Because that’s what we do.

 

 

 

“In My Ears”

Getting older sometimes means you think you remember things—but then again, do you, really? As in being told my beloved granddaughter would perform “Eleanor Rigby” with her fellow string players—Ruby plays the bass—at her school’s concert this week. And instantly replying, “The Beatles’ original featured strings , too!”

But did it?I wondered two seconds later. Was what was playing inside my head real?

Yes, Reader. It was.

Here’s what intrigues me: Decades ago, when I first listened to John’s and Paul’s lament on loneliness, I hadn’t heard the strings. I’d merely heard unexpected orchestration; something cool. But this week when recalling that music, “in my ears” I heard the strings. My remembered listening to “Eleanor Rigby” proved much richer, much deeper, much more varied than, to quote another Beatles song, “when I was younger, so much younger than today.”

Cool!

Now, where did I put my glasses?

 

 

Through the Ether

My father were be astonished. Self-labeled “a merchant of death,”during the Cold War my definitely-analog dad sold General Electric-manufactured heavy military equipment to the government. Gigantic and metal and painted battleship-grey; such armaments were how the USA would win this war, Dad believed—who’d died decades before Twitter and Tik Tok and Spotify et al. How mystified my father would be to learn how weightless, colorless, relatively inexpensive, and transmitted-through-a-network-he’d-never-comprehended* misinformation can be and is destructive, disruptive, even deadly!

Who’s winning this Cold War 2.0 which weaponizes instability and fear and distrust? My sense is they are. But how would I know?!

I do know this: I believe in another weightless and colorless and mysteriously transmitted network. When this network broadcasts it’s called prayer. When we open ourselves to Spirit; i.e. when we click on our “radio” to signal to ourselves and to the Universe that we’re listening, something grounding happens. We’re hearing Truth.

 

*After World War II but before the Cold War, Dad sold GE radio and television equipment to stations throughout the northeast. Radio waves—aka microwaves—he’d understood!

 

 

 

In Honor of Dr. King:

I haven’t posted for a while because I’ve been working on other writing projects. But today, serendipitously, as we honor the all-too-short life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I began revising this passage, about a young, Black, LA Uber driver. His SUV in the shop, he decides to do something he’s never done before but needs his grandmother’s—and Dr. King’s benevolent spirit’s—help. So thought I’d like to post it:

The Sequoia’s still not ready—but today he’s almost glad. Like what’s he’s been wondering about all weekend can happen now.

But first he needs a ride. Can’t keep using Uber.

Pulling out of the Enterprise on Washington in a white Kia Soul, the only thing left on the lot, Darrell’s gravely disappointed to be driving this shitbox. Literally. It’s a box. A small and and white and weird box, ugly as sin.

Not him.

But maybe that’s okay, he speculates at the light. Because none of this is him. But if in fact he does discover his father’s name, an address, remaining incognito is smart.

And, besides, this whole search thing isn’t real. It isn’t him searching. He’s playing a role: he’s the man who would actually drive this piece of crap.

(Like many, attractive young men in LA, Darrell’s had a handful of on-camera day jobs. He’s been an extra. He’s been a Storm Trooper.)

He’s happy to be behind the wheel, the sport of it, the block by block one-upmanship, the freeways’ ins and outs. To celebrate, he briefly reroutes and maybe for good luck or maybe to make amends or to change up the Universe, give it something different to chew over, he stops at the Whole Foods on Lincoln for a half-gallon of Newman’s Own.

And even though Ghost Town isn’t what it once was, even though the gentra-fuckers—his word not Gran’s—have driven out most of the families he’d grown up with, still, even though it doesn’t register, not even to this young man so thoroughly inhabiting his beautiful body, when he turns onto Sixth Avenue every muscle tenses: Will I be stopped, frisked, harassed? Will an LAPD squad car follow behind? Just to remind me: Hey, boy. I’m here. And I’ve chosen to give you a hard time. Because I can.

Relieved to get to Gran’s without incident; without thinking he pulls into her driveway, which lies between her shabby, faded-peach bungalow and the looming, steel and glass cube next door. His arrival sets off the never-seen neighbors’ bichon frises who howl and madly pace back and forth from behind the floor-to-ceiling third floor window facing Gran’s bougainvillea-graced house.

In two seconds, strawberry-aproned, clutching a heavy, silver candlestick, his grandmother huffs out the kitchen door. One look at her furious, lined, regal face, her haunted eyes behind her smudged, gold-framed glasses, her usually perfect ‘do all crazy-whichways, and for a second he’s Pharaoh again.

But in head-drooped despair he catches sight of his elongated, gym-sculpted shadow on the driveway; his massive shoulders. And snickers.

You planning to throw that at me, Gran? Or just smash it on my head?

Whose car’s that?

The dogs quiet but stand, wet noses to the glass, as if waiting for his answer.

But Darrell will only ever answer every third or fourth of his grandmother’s questions— or whenever she says Darrell Marc Wiggins, that added middle name the unmistakable tip-off she’s super-pissed.

Tight-lipped, he follows her through the back door and into her kitchen. Her spotless and lonely and no-baking-smells-anymore kitchen.

As he hands her the paper sack he inventories, half-hoping he’ll discover something new yet knowing he won’t. Same, same. Same pale lime walls and glass-fronted cabinets, same chrome, black-handled electric percolator next to the strawberry cookie jar—Gran does love her strawberries—same scrawny cactuses in the same Mexican flower pots in the always-sunny window over the double, enamel sink, same strawberry trimmed valance over it, same strawberry-garnished ceramic napkin holder on the same grey-marbled formica and metal-legged table.

(He’d thought that table-top looked like clouds when he was a kid. One time he’d outlined some of those clouds with blue Magic Marker. And got swatted. Darrell remembers this. Gran does not.)

Covering that clouded relic are newspapers and a jar of Wright’s silver polish and the mate to that  briefly weaponized candelabra—which belongs to Living Waters. (Gran’s got to be doing something.)

What’s this about? she frowns when she opens the sack.

It could have been okay, he realizes. Showing up like this, unexpected but family and tolerated, the expiating lemonade; he could have eased into why he’d come. What he wants. But that driveway mistake startled her. Even though this neighborhood is no longer “Ghetto by the Sea,” she’s still got bars on the windows, double-locks on the front door. She still remembers the Bad Old Days. He’d scared her.

Because she’s his Gran and obliged to and because she’s used to him evading her questions, she offers the lemonade. When he’s turned it down and she’s put it away in the same damned, round-cornered fridge he’d snuck popsicles out of when he was six, Gran slams its mint-green door to let him know she’s still not pleased and, as if deflated, as if exhausted, as if every one of her seventy-four years weighs on her, she plops herself down on a chrome and silver kitchen chair like an old, old lady and resumes polishing.

(So she won’t be looking at him. Perfect.)

What’s this about?

He sits beside her.

I should have thought, Gran. It’s a rental ‘til my car’s out of the shop. Sorry I scared you.

Nodding, lips pursed, she sighs as if to ask, Why, why do I expect anything different from you?

He remembers why he’d come.

And the right words come. And the right tone comes, too, so she can hear those right words. And since she’s always known this day was coming, she takes a moment to be surprised and to be grateful for the contrition she hears. That’s unexpected.

I know this is hard for you, he tells her in so many words. I know you don’t want to go there. But it’s time.

Truth is, I don’t know.

But you had your suspicions.

You’re right about that.

And she heaves herself off her chair, she washes her hands at the kitchen sink and, her back to him, she opens the top drawer next to the sink and pulls out the vintage, strawberry-embroidered dishtowel he’d given her for Christmas last year. The one she’d told him was much too nice, that she’d never use. Staring out the window, Gran slowly dries her hands.

He watches her shoulder blades rise and fall, rise and fall.

So when she turns, when she looks at him, although he cannot read her imperious face, never could, he knows to keep quiet; to follow her into her drapes-shut bedroom and to so acutely anticipate what will happen next that when she gestures under her pillows-strewn double bed he’s already on his knees.

Because he’s always known this Bullocks hatbox has been under here. At ten, he’d peeked under Poppa and Gran’s bed looking for Christmas presents, but got queasy thinking about them in bed, so never opened it.

He also knows that this Uncovering must happen, not in this darkened, cramped, sweet Annie smelling bedroom. It must happen seated side by side in Gran’s living room, on Gran’s davenport, the hatbox arranged on her coffee table next to her white Bible, opened to Psalm 27, and blessed by the framed photo of Dr. King.

As if they were nothing, she rummages through her capable daughter’s elementary school artwork, Shayla’s awards and citations, her spelling bee trophies, her hand-written essays with oversized, exultant As on top; with her long, knowing fingers Gran delves through all these treasures to clasp a Venice High School, 1991 Yearbook at the very bottom of the box.

Darrell, who got his GED in juvie, wants to read every name, study every picture; every extravagantly-penned, i-hearted inscription, but Gran impatiently thumbs through the thick, glossy pages like she’d always had a hunch but today, buttressed by him and Dr. King and Psalm 27 and that gift of lemonade, is acting on it.

And there, unmistakably, in the Faculty section, there he is, about the same age as Darrell is now. Even with most of his Roland Gift-look-alike face obliterated by his “Best Wishes, Shayla,” Darrell recognizes himself.

And for a moment, he thinks, This is it. Here’s the end of the line. This is all I need. His face. His name. I’m done.

But he’d made a plan. So no, no sudden U Turns, now.

Mark Braithwaite, he reads aloud, silently marveling at that Mark; at his spelling-bee winner mom’s little joke. That name mean anything to you?

But it’s her turn to ignore a question. I need to lie down.

 

 

 

 

“Land Acknowledgement Day”?

This year at my house, Thanksgiving Day will look pretty normal. Our menu will feature indigenous entrees like cranberries, corn, squash, maybe even turkey. (Some years we’ve served chicken with figs to rave reviews.) There will be several pies, yes, and family, yes, and between the main course and all those pies, we’ll go around the table and each of us will say what we’re thankful for. Like I said: normal.

But in my heart, ahh, this year will be radically different. This year, silently, I will celebrate this tiny patch of Somerville real estate I call “mine.” I will celebrate the land beneath me. As I savor my made-once-a-year cranberry sauce or baked squash, I will celebrate the fruits of The Land. I will remember the Massachusetts people who’d once trod upon this land. I will hold them in the Light, a prayer without ceasing.

Perhaps you will, too?

 

Lean Back, (Lean In)

Who shows up for a climate justice demonstration in Boston’s Back Bay on a Friday afternoon? Its organizers,* students, and old people—like the elderly protestor whose excellent sign said it all: “A fossil for a fossil free future.”

In a critically important time when aging White activists like me are being reminded, again and again, to listen, heed, support, and get out of the way of Indigenous, People of Color and White young people, Friday’s demonstration showed me what “Lean Back”** actually looks like. (Spoiler alert: pretty damned amazing!) A day of action nationally, Boston’s demonstration targeted two financial institutions, Liberty Mutual and JPMorgan Chase. For, as Fossil Free Future, who’d organized these nationwide demonstrations declares: “Climate finance is climate justice.”

Taking the T downtown, a trip I hadn’t taken in almost two years, required “beginner’s mind” and proved an excellent spiritual practice for leaning back.  To discover that, Wait! What? Lechmere’s tracks are gone? To walk past the desolate, empty storefronts on once-thriving Boylston Street? To march past Wait! What? skyscapers that have mushroomed throughout downtown Boston seemingly overnight? I experienced my hometown as if for the first time.

The demonstration began in front of Liberty Mutual and then became a march; organizers, BIPOC, young people go first. Shepherded and protected by much-appreciated marshalls, we fossils chanted and sang and chatted as we all walked from Back Bay through the Theater District to our final destination, Downtown Crossing.

It was here, in front of a Chase branch, when I was eldered by an organizer young enough to be my granddaughter. Two middle-aged White women standing next to me suddenly threw themselves onto the ground; “Join us,” they invited me. Oh, I thought. We play dead at demonstrations, now? Okay. And so I joined them on the pavement.

“Get up!” I was immediately commanded. “You’re part of a large group! Why are you drawing attention to just yourselves? I don’t think so,” the organizer declared before stomping off.

Lean back, Patricia.

*This event was organized by a coalition of Indigenous, youth, and climate groups, including the Native American Indian Center of Boston, United American Indians of New England, Indigenous Environmental Network, MA Youth Climate Coalition, Boston Latin School YouthCAN, XR Youth Boston, Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, Sunrise Boston, Climate Finance Action, 350 Massachusetts, Climate Courage, Massachusetts Teachers Association Climate Action Network, Our Climate, Future Coalition, Tufts Climate Action, Rainforest Action Network and more.

** Advice sometimes given to groups: “If you’ve been speaking a lot, consider leaning back. If you’ve been quiet a lot, consider leaning in.”

Light A Candle

[Mom’s 95th birthday party, Neville Center, Cambridge, MA,  2018]

This has been a week of anniversaries: my mother died three years ago this week, my father died eleven years ago this week, and yesterday my Quaker meeting held its twelfth anniversary, all-meeting silent worship in front of Raytheon Technology Corporation. [“Raytheon wins $2B contract for new nuclear cruise missile,” July 6, 2021] Seated on folding chairs and holding signs declaring “Quakers praying for peace,” about twenty of us sat on Cambridge’s Concord Avenue’s sidewalk; an equal number sat across the street—in front of the long-term-care facility, Neville Center, where my mother had died. Alone.

For several years every third Sunday of the month, rain or shine, members of my meeting have been faithfully worshipping in front of Raytheon (and before that, in front of Textron, maker of cluster bombs.) But since my mother died, I had not felt able to show up on Concord Avenue. Until yesterday.

Sitting in delicious, warming, October sunshine and gazing at the three-story Neville Center across the street, I prayed for peace and held my mother in the Light. Is there something, I wondered, besides this little patch of Cambridge real estate, that connects my disparate prayers?

And what came to me is this: I am not alone. Seated here, my prayers for peace entwine with others’. But for many reasons, most not of her own making, rarely did my mother experience this delicious interconnectivity I feel right now.

Such sadness to realize this and yet such gratitude for my faith community; a community I might add, I sometimes struggle with.

So today, as this anniversary week ends, feeling all the feels, I light a memorial candle.

 

 

Serendipity

[An excerpt from Strands: An Apprenticeship with Grief and Loss, to be published by Barclay Press, 2022.]

In January of 2020, the same day Beijing reported its first coronavirus death, out-of-the-blue I decided to rescue family photos in moldy photo albums or crammed into shoeboxes under my bed. After buying a nifty storage box, I began to sort and organize. That same week, Ancestry.com informed me that my ancestors had been English, Scottish, Norwegian, and German. (I’d hoped to learn something startling!) A local historian contacted me, again out of the blue, to learn more about my great-grandmother, Amy, who had been a Faulkner before marrying Benjamin Franklin Wild.  (He’d preferred “Frank.”)

That synchronistic week continued: StoryCorps notified me that a family-history story set in Somerville, which I’d recorded a few years earlier, was now accessible at the Library of Congress. I reconnected with my beloved second cousin, Peter Wild. And that Saturday, I’d been invited to visit a recently-opened and beautifully organized food pantry in the roomy basement of the Mission Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ on Highland Avenue—just a few blocks from my house. From 1894 until 1975, Mission Church had been “First Unitarian Somerville,” and located next door to Amy and Frank’s mansion, now razed, where three generations of Wilds, including my father and my Aunt Amy, once worshipped.

That Sunday, still able to worship in person in the Friends Meeting at Cambridge’s meetinghouse, I reflected on that week.What does all this family stuff in one week mean? I wondered. Seated with a hundred or so fellow worshippers, we’d sat in deep quiet for over a half hour before someone stood to break the silence. And in that long and delicious time to deepen and reflect, something came to me: You call these random, all-the-same-week incidents family. Yet most of these happenstances have been about Wilds. Most of the photos in your nifty storage box are Wilds. You know next to nothing of your mother’s history.

This accurate observation had been followed by A Nudge: And isn’t about time for you to find out? Or, as I would come to view this Spirit-sourced prompt: Here is the first exercise of your apprenticeship. Go!

The next day when I googled for clues, I discovered that I hadn’t known how to spell my maternal grandmother’s maiden name—it’s Cogill—and that I’d been spelling my maternal grandfather’s first and last names wrong, too! My ignorance humbled me; to immediately realize how little I knew seemed a gift, an opening,* an invitation to apply what Buddhists call “Beginner’s Mind ” to this apprenticeship; to be curious, openhearted, eager. A Bonus: Stumbling upon the actual spelling of my grandfather’s name had been “serendipitous,” to use a word my mother often employed (sometimes wrong), and a reminder that, indeed, way opens.*

My maternal grandparents divorced when my mother had been a toddler; her father was never a part of her life. In 1966, when she and my father vacationed in Palm Beach, Florida, her father reentered her life: “You know, Al,” she’d mused one night at dinner. “I think my father lives here.” Low lights, flowers, a delicious, expensive, seafood dinner and a bourbon or two probably contributed to Mom’s pensive mood. Encouraged by Dad— “There’s two sides to every story, Pat,” he reminded her—she called her father. Who, I want to believe, immediately jumped in a cab to meet his daughter.

Did my grandfather stand for a few moments at the entrance to the dining room scanning the tables for Mom? Did his face light up when spotted her—the stunning, middle-aged, well-dressed woman craning her elegant neck to scrutinize every man entering the room? When he’d approached my parents’ table, had all three shook hands? Hugged? What were the first things my mother and her father said to each other? Had their initial conversation been stiff? Awkward? Warm? I don’t know. As already noted, my mother wasn’t much of a storyteller. I do know that sometime during this reunion, Mom announced that I would be getting married that July.

“I’m coming,” her father declared. (In that declarative moment, did my mother remember all the times in her childhood when she’d longed for a proverbial Dad?) The dapper, elderly stranger who’d showed up—in spats—to my first wedding had been Munro not Monroe. And his last name was Horre. Not, as my mother, her sister Kay and her mother spelled it, Horrie.

I’d known—but forgotten—that Horre to Horrie spelling-change story, too; its broad outline, at least. When I’d been maybe ten or eleven Mom explained, “My mother went to court. She added the I. You’d think that with a name like Horre, she might have added a few more letters!” Too young and too cosseted to understand her quip, I didn’t get it. Twice-divorced, I can now also appreciate how my grandmother, who wanted to be called Lil and not “Grandma,” had inserted an i into her ex-husband’s last name. I love how Lil inserted her personhood, her selfhood. I.

I remember that inserted-i story. But do I also remember a veiled look, how my lovely mother might have looked away, twirled a lock of her wavy brown hair or stared at her wedding ring when she’d finished telling it? Had she “cleaned her molars” with her tongue, as my sister and brothers called this Mom-tell which signaled, “I’m done! And angry. No more. Stop!”

The serendipitous story (And it really is):  Seven months and two days before the Wall Street Crash of 1929, Munro Horre and Muriel Kershaw applied for a marriage license and earned a tiny notice in The Palm Beach Post. I only discovered my grandfather’s name misspelling because someone researching Kemp family history had apparently clipped a two-paragraph, alphabetized snippet—which had also included Munro and Muriel’s announcement. And because of “a little thing I like to call ‘The Internet,’ ” as my daughter, Hope, says, there that snippet was, waiting for me to find.

Although newspapers misspell names all the time, seeing my grandfather’s name in print felt solid. Felt real. Important. I liked looking at this little scrap of information. So I took a screen shot of this small memento of the grandfather I met once but never knew and sent it to my four daughters and my sister.

Horre. Munro Horre. Who, during my mid-sixties-hippie-style-wedding-in-a-park reception, having just met his other daughter, my Aunt Kay, sidled up to my mother and whispered, “I like you more than her!” Munro Horre.

(Spell-check keeps asking if I actually mean Horror. And maybe I do.)

Thanks to the Internet I located a Cogill family lineage tracing back to the mid-eighteen hundreds, too. I printed it out. I hole-punched it and reverently placed those family names and dates, as dry and as dusty as the begats of the Bible, in a three-ring binder. Thanks to the Internet, I learned that Lillian Cogill Horrie died in 1961 at the horrifyingly young age of fifty-nine. (No wonder she hadn’t wanted to be called “Grandma”!)

Possessing a Cogill family lineage or doing simple arithmetic to learn that Lil had been forty-two when I’d been born didn’t speak to my condition, however. * This “exercise” had not been about right-brain, three-ring binders or pouring over census records. I was not supposed to research my mother’s family’s history.

What had I been gently nudged to do? To spend some time wandering through that metaphorical hallway of shadows and forgotten ancestors; that’s what this exercise had been about. To inhabit that mournful word, forgotten, but supply my own adjectives as well. Like lost. Unacknowledged. Denied. Stricken from the records. Missing. Never named. Gone. To walk past artists’ renderings of my English, Scottish, Norwegian, and German ancestors in that hallway of shadows and forgotten ancestors, to study the more recent portraits and photographs of the New Englanders listed in my three-ring binder and, at last, to discover that where Munro Horre’s portrait ought to be is an empty frame. To stand in front of that empty frame, its brass nameplate correctly spelled, to feel the sadness of his not-there-ness. To connect with my mother’s sadness. And to begin to connect with my mother differently.

This too: to connect my own and my mother’s sense of loss with humanity’s collective loss; our shared grief. All our lost, missing, gone ancestors! All their lost wisdom. All the revelatory stories we will never hear. When an old person dies a library burns down, an African proverb reminds us. What enormous loss we all carry!

My sense of loss was to become enlarged, more painful, more focused, soon after that weirdly synchronistic week. Thanks to Ancestry.com, I learned that an eighth cousin—nine generations back she and I share a common ancestor—is a young Woman of Color. More than likely our common ancestor had been male and White. More than likely our shared DNA means rape, coercion, a violent sexual assault.

Horrified, devastated, I sought guidance from family and friends—and my apprenticeship handbook.

 And found this: The cumulative grief of the world is overwhelming, Weller notes. 1 And he counsels us to literally hold this enormity in our hands, to cup our hands as if holding water in order to offer ourselves a bottom, a limit; to perform this ritual in order to contain all these powerful feelings.

Unaccustomed to ritual yet appreciative of how Weller’s suggestion both acknowledged and honored what I was feeling while offering those feelings a safety net, I held that galactic grief. I embodied it. I honored it by lovingly cupping it in my hands. I grieved my own forgotten ancestors—and humanity’s. I held in the Light my eighth cousin’s forgotten ancestors, brought to this country in chains, whose real names and those of their descendants have been lost, forgotten, erased. I grieved those unnamed men and women and children who’d once walked on this tiny patch of Somerville real estate I call “mine.” I grieved for my fatherless mother.

I held that. For a few terrifying moments, I allowed myself to experience momentous grief. But then my right brain kicked in: You can never adequately cup water in your hands. You can never hold it all. And I spread my fingers wide.

Creation Story 2.0

[Fresh water tank, Great Lakes Aquarium, Duluth, MN, July, 2021]

On a recent visit to Duluth and unable to visit the delightful Tweed Museum of Art, shut down for renovations, I discovered Duluth’s American Indian Community Housing Organization (AICHO). Closed because of COVID, AICHO’s website offered what I was hungry to see: an online gallery of art created by Indigenous people of the Great Lakes. (At a previous visit, I’d become a huge fan of Rabbet before Horses Strickland.)

And lo, what did I discover? Another version of the “Skywoman” creation story which begins Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass—a retelling which speaks to me. For in Karen Savage Blue‘s lyrical depiction, Skywoman reaches down; down into icy, creature-rich waters. Skywoman rescues Muskrat! Don’t you love it?

I do. So much so that I am now in the process of buying a giclee of Savage Blue’s watery, female-superstar, Love-infused depiction. (In deference to AICHO, I am not reproducing “Creation Story” here because I do not have permission to do so.)

I love that a creation story can shift. Change. Evolve. I love being reminded that creation continues. That our universe is a work-in-progress. And so are we. I love being reminded that “inbreaking” happens: “If, as I believe, the soul has its root in God, it should not be strange or amazing that fresh installments of life break in from beyond us and refresh us,” the Quaker mystic, Rufus Jones, tell us. And, yes, I’ll admit it: I love how Savage Blue has turned Michaelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” upside down and sideways!

 

 

Circles Happen

[I have been single-mindedly working on a book manuscript, Strands, to be published by Barclay Press next year, so have woefully neglected this blog. Here’s an excerpt I just finished—maybe?]

Almost every Wednesday night for the past thirteen years, Friends Meeting at Cambridge has hosted a meal and a sharing circle for “the formerly incarcerated and those who care about them.”* Our circle the outgrowth of another sharing circle begun years ago in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, our circle has replicated the JP circle’s thoughtful rituals. We, too, eat dinner together first, our shared meal in the commodious Friends Room—a gourmet meal lovingly and bounteously prepared by my husband. (Cooking is his ministry; he also helps to prepare FMC’s Sunday lunch.) After cleanup, we, too, set up chairs around a cluster of flickering candles but, because our sage-cleansing ceremony has set off FMC’s smoke detectors once too often, summoning an embarrassing convoy of Cambridge Fire Department equipment to Longfellow Park, rain or shine or freezing temperatures, we troupe outside to ritually cleanse ourselves. The lights turned off in the Friends Room, we sit in a circle around the flickering candles. We review the circle’s guidelines and values. An ornately-carved walking stick is passed clock-wise; only the person holding the talking piece may speak. Like the JP circle, our time together ends with the Serenity Prayer.

These days, Zoom offers another, pared down, and far-less-satisfying version: no meal, no sage, no physical circle, no candles, no talking piece, no closeness or breathing in harmony with one another, and when we say the Serenity Prayer? It’s pretty raggedy. Sadly, several central members of our circle have decided they “don’t do Zoom” and have opted out.

Like so many mixed outcomes because of this pandemic, not being able to perform the sage ceremony has been both a loss yet an unplanned but welcomed opportunity to reflect on this sometimes-questioned ritual. Over the years, some have rightly pointed out that this practice comes from a Native tradition—and is therefore an appropriation. I respect that. Other circle members do, too.

When we can all safely meet again in person, however, I will share a recent opening which has allowed me to consider this aromatic ritual in a new but still flickering light.

The backstory to this opening: Inspired by a wonderful poem by Judith Offer, “On Studying Sacred Texts,” during Covid Summer at our pre-meeting for worship forums, various members of the FMC community took turns reflecting on various writings, like Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” or Arundhati Roy’s “The Pandemic is a Portal.

One sacred text we studied, “Skywoman Falling,” comes from the oral tradition. Although this creation story from the Shenandoah and George people begins Robin Wall Kimmerer’s seminal book, Braiding Sweetgrass, “Skywoman Falling” is a story shared, told, passed down from generation to generation, as people sat around a fire. Like, ah, a sharing circle?

Had the JP sharing-circle originator, Father Brian Murdock, understood humans’ shared circle history? Had he and others intuitively replicated rituals our ancestors had performed? Had he remembered that all humans once sat around fires? When we’d first visited the JP circle, for example, we Quakers were told that prison lighting so harsh and obtrusive, returning citizens would relish a sharing circle’s dim, gentle, soothing lighting. But don’t all of us, returning citizens or not, prompted by the lingering smell of burning sage and the flickering candles in the middle of a circle, remember when we’d sat around a fire and told the stories of our village or shared our own truths? Given how dangerous making eye contact had been behind bars, the JP organizers had also explained that each person ritualistically make eye contact before speaking to be a necessary trust-building exercise. But when we deeply look into another eyes aren’t we, in fact, reinforcing what a nomadic community 0r a village or an extended family does? We see each another. Literally. We value, we honor each person. We acknowledge our shared space. Like the signs in my neighbors’ windows these days, we affirm, “We’re all in this together.”

After hearing how the “Skywoman Falling” story resonated with our forum speaker, I was moved to ask that “circle” of Zoom tiles, “Who are you in this story?” And, like our speaker, several people shared wonderfully open and honest answers.

My answer would have been, “I am the old woman, the crone, seated near the fire to warm her old bones. I am the one telling this story. Again. Like my grandmother, I embellish here and there, add a little something someone in the circle may need to hear that night. My voice rises and falls but when I talk about Muskrat, it becomes husky with love and gratitude.”

*from the circle’s flyer