Inner Landscape

[Edward Tufte’s Hogpen Hill Farm’s Sculpture Landscape Park, Woodbury, CT; October 12, 2020]

Yesterday afternoon, as it has done for the past couple of years, Friends Meeting at Cambridge held a Called Memorial Meeting for Worship for Transgender Day of Remembrance. Each in their own Zoom tile, a flickering candle nearby, volunteers slowly read off the names of all the transgender people, many of them people of color, many with Spanish or Portuguese names, who have been murdered this past year.

What struck me most this year was how many “Name Unknown”s there were! Every time I heard those desolate syllables I found myself drifting away from the present moment to create stories, scenarios, all of them tragic, horrible, all of them very real, as if I, too, were an unknown victim. Instantly I grokked how each story began, where each took place, what each person had been wearing. I grokked, too, how each story was predicated on racism, violence, sometimes domestic violence; toxic masculinity.

When we find ourselves drifting off during mediation or prayer, both Buddhist and Christian teachings encourage us to come back. To realign. And how it’s that conscious coming back, that stern, inward “No, I will focus on Here and Now—again” that actually matters.

But yesterday something very different happened—as if to drift off to create these instant stories was the only and the best way to mourn each “Name Unknown.” As if my soul yearned to fill in the blanks, these yawning, heartbreaking gaps—no matter how fictitious. So I did.

You’re Evicted!

I’ve heard lots of people talk about “the real estate in my head” lately but have had no reason to use this expression myself—until last night. After three days of euphoria that, hallelujah, the great storm is over, after three joyful, relieved days, I found myself tossing and turning at 3AM. Again. Like I’ve been doing, over and over, for the past four years. You, too?

But that trendy phrase came to me: “Why am I allowing That Man to occupy so much real estate in my head?” I wondered. “Mr. ex-President,” I announced to the dark, “you’re evicted!”

But a vague, 3AM understanding of how my brain works—something about neural pathways, maybe?—came to me in the dark, too. So although I don’t know much about brain chemistry, like most writers, I can work with a good metaphor: “Okay. That space has been vacated. So, now:Who should I invite inside? Rent-free.”

And, almost automatically, I began my new, spiritual practice of metta, also known as loving-kindness meditation:  And since 3AM anxiety also means a pounding heart, I began with myself: “May I be safe. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I live with ease.” Then, after my anxiety lessened and my heart rate improved, I moved on to all the people who’d stood in long lines to vote over the past month. “May you be safe. May you . . . ” I moved on to all who were awake. And then to those who were asleep. (Did you sense this, dear Reader?)

And gradually, as it always does if I do this long enough, my silent mediation produced waves of Love. (A neurologist would probably say that’s the dopamine kicking in.) And I went back to sleep.

 

 

Slough of Despond

Is it slew? Is it slahw-rhymes with cow? Does it matter? No. What matters, Pilgrim, is that you and I stay in this desolate place for a while. We need to spend some time here in this dark, crushing depression. We need to open our hearts to desolation, to intense sadness. We are being called to truly feel this despondency.

While here, you are allowed to wail, “How could seventy million people vote for that despicable man?!” You are allowed to cry out, “I can’t believe this!” If you dare to— this will be very painful, Pilgrim—you may even snicker at the you of last week who’d actually believed that this election would repudiate Trump. Racism. White supremacy. Greed. Blatant self-interest. So go ahead, Pilgrim. Rant and rail as much as you want. Do whatever you need to do to get ready.

Because Pilgrim? We have a problem. It’s fundamental: we Americans share a devastating history. That is an irrefutable fact.   

So when you are ready to move on, when you are ready to take a good, careful look at that history, which so much shaped this election, when you are ready to ask, “What am I called to do to help heal my broken country?” let Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson guide your first steps.

May I join you, Pilgrim? May we stumble forward together?

 

Who’s In The Frame?

Needing to do some in-person banking yesterday (where, wearing a mask, my glasses so thoroughly fogged up I could barely fill our the forms), I walked home from Davis Square along Highland Avenue—a route I haven’t walked in eight months. So maybe this wonderful mural on a Somerville Hospital wall has been there fuh-eva? It was new to me.

These beautiful ‘ville residents “appeared” in my life at a moment when I’m actively contemplating an intriguing concern: I know a lot about a small Virginia city’s civil rights history. I know a lot about the Wild family’s deep roots in this community. But I know next to nothing about Somerville’s civil rights history. I know almost nothing about Somerville’s racial history. And now, when so many Somerville lawn signs rightfully declare, Black Lives Matter, maybe now’s the time to find out?

Who’s in the frame? Whose story gets told? Whose story is ignored? Who’s in the frame but ignored?

I have ignored someone in the frame: In my collection of Wild family photographs is a truly bizarre, 6″ by 8″ photo taken in front of a now-razed carriage house at the corner of School Street and Oakwood Avenue. Featured are my grandfather’s sister, Isabel, maybe four or five, wearing a fur-trimmed, hooded, puffy-sleeved coat and seated on a rotund pony; my father’s “Aunt Isabel” gazes at a soft-eyed, untethered cow a few feet away.

For years, Reader, my gaze has only taken in Isabel’s cunning coat, that incongruous cow,  the beautifully-crafted, two-story carriage house in the background. (On the back of the photo my father noted in pencil: “Carved numbers above [the carriage house] door say 1890.”)

But there is another person is that picture. A dark-skinned, mustachioed man in a fedora and dark suit stands in front of the carriage house, too, about twenty feet from Isabel and eight feet from the cow. His body is blurred, he tilts slightly forward, knees bent; he’s moving.Who was he moving towards? That well-dressed little girl on a pony? Or the cow.

More important: Who was he? And why have I never wondered about him before?

 

 

 

“Opening like air, like realization”*

This year, Coming Out Day prompted me to recall the first time someone came out to me—almost fifty years ago.

It didn’t go well. To announce their truth, they’d given me their much-underlined copy of Adrianne Rich’s Diving Into the Wreck, inscribing that much-read paperback—which I still have—with a touching but enigmatic statement.

I didn’t understand. That they’d given me a dog-eared book of poetry that had moved them? This I could appreciate. That they’d wanted me to know something fundamentally central about who they were? I had no language and no experience to comprehend that by taking that book into my hand, I’d performed a precious and poignant ceremony right in my own living room that night.

For fifty years I have held onto intense, crippling shame about that evening. “How could I have been so stupid?” I’ve railed at myself. (Answer: Because that’s where I was.) But with Divine Guidance (which could also be called prayer), something new has emerged: That young person had trusted me! While no doubt fearful our conversation might go South, they’d nevertheless had enough faith in me to take the risk to tell me something they’d wanted me to understand. Yes, I hadn’t. But also, yes, in  the time we’d known each other, I’d somehow indicated to them that I saw them. Appreciated them. That despite my incomplete understanding of who they truly were, I’d somehow earned their trust. Such trust breaks my heart, now.

What if every day is the day before Coming Out Day? What if every single one of us has some truth we yearn to say out loud—and are constantly, silently assessing our risk in doing so? What would that look like? Feel like?

 

*From Rich’s poem “Waking In The Dark,” Diving Into The Wreck, p. 9.

White Rooms

Because decisions get made that reinforce white hierarchies every day, it would be good if the culture of whiteness were marked and made visible to those who can’t see it by those not invested in keeping it primary. Awareness has to happen in rooms where everybody’s white, since those rooms are already in place.

[Claudia Rankine, Just Us: An American Conversation]

On a winter day on Cape Cod a few years ago, I was sitting with my aged and ailing mother in her doctor’s waiting room. Another white woman dressed in a twin set, a plaid wool skirt, thick tights and duck boots sat opposite us. A TV had been mounted on the wall above Mom’s and my heads, its volume turned up.

A news story about Bill Cosby came on; another woman had just come forward to accuse “America’s Dad” of sexual assault. The twin-set woman caught my eye and declared: “They can’t all be lying.”

I’d smiled. I’d nodded my head.Looking back now, I think I’d felt a moment of female solidarity with an older and, possibly, more conservative woman. In her comment I thought I’d heard her recognition that so often women’s accusations of sexual assault have been denied.

But after reading Just Us, I’m realizing that in that woman’s blanket—and illogical— condemnation, I was hearing a horrifying reminder of the centuries of white women who have wrongly accused black men of sexual assault. I was hearing her declare Cosby guilty before being proven guilty. (Don’t get me wrong. Pretty sure “Cliff Huxtable” had been guilty.) I believe what I’d heard was her willingness to believe the worst about Bill Cosby because he’s black.

What would have happened in that white space if, instead of smiling and nodding, I’d said something like: “You know? Maybe you’re right. Maybe every single woman who has come forward is telling the truth. Which is pretty outrageous, right? That’s horrible! But let’s not forget that too many black men have been lynched in this country because too many white women weren’t telling the truth. So let’s hope our criminal justice system, which is notoriously unfair to black men, is indeed just.”

What would have happened?

 

Excerpt 3: Strands

On a propitiously spectacular early-summer Sunday, maybe fifty of us, maybe a hundred, most of us White, most of us over sixty, stood at six-foot intervals on either side of Massachusetts Avenue. We waved Black Lives Matter signs, other signs. Passersby waved and honked. It was lovely and peaceful and Spirit-filled. And Pentecost.

I was filled by that same fiery moment that Pentecost commemorates, seven Sundays after Easter when, according to Acts 2, the Apostles were gathered in one place when suddenly there came from the sky a noise like that of a strong driving wind, which filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues like flames of fire dispersed among them and resting on each one. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to talk in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them power of utterance.

 (As I transcribe this Bible passage, I can see Reverend Owen Cardwell, Jr., on a Sunday morning in Richmond, Virginia. Dressed in his white vestments he stands at the New Canaan International Church’s pulpit. “Help me, Holy Ghost!I hear him beseech.)

Had the stand-out’s organizers picked this particular, foundational Sunday in the Christian calendar to stage that demonstration? Probably not. Holding my sign, holding George Floyd, Breanna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbury in the Light, this Quaker felt that Sunday morning’s synchronicity; its power. I recognized Spirit in the sign-bearing people lining Mass Ave and in the proclaiming car horns.

In Peter’s interpretation of that fiery, language-barrier-crossing moment, I hear the same paradigm-shifting message of early Friends: that Spirit is here, now, transformative, available to all, accessible to all. Christ is come to teach his people himself. That Pentecost morning I sensed I was hearing that prophetic voice, too, in the nationwide conversation on policing and reapportioning resources towards affordable housing and mental health services.

More about that synchronicity: Peter, the voice of the dispossessed and the marginalized, explains why the bewildered crowd can suddenly speak of the great things God has done—even though they spoke different tongues. The former fisherman reminds the gathering that this startling, inclusive moment had been prophesized; he quotes from Joel 2: 28: Therefore the day shall come when I will pour out my spirit on all mankind; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams and your young men see visions; I will pour out my spirit in those days even upon slaves and slave-girls.

     Even upon slaves. While I, hearing that prophetic voice in 2020, cherish Joel and Peter’s promise of how widespread God will pour out his spirit, I have a fiery reaction to that dismissive even. It reminds of  two challenging interactions I’d had with correctional officers at MCI Cedar Junction. The first happened as a CO escorted me to his workplace’s solitary confinement unit, the Department Disciplinary Unit. (Our prison system certainly loves euphemisms!) On our quarter-mile walk from the Visitors Center to the DDU, past silent cell blocks and empty, weedy, exercise cages, he’d quizzed me as to why I there. I mumbled something about being a Quaker and prison ministry. My actual answer would have taken much longer than our walk: I would have had to tell him about my leading to find Owen and Lynda, about Owen’s trying to keep Black men out of jail, about how my Quaker meeting had gotten involved with returning citizens, offering a weekly meal and sharing circle for ex-offenders; how I’d written to several prisoners over the years but, supported and guided by those weekly circles, had finally found the courage to actually step foot inside one—and how I was therefore there to visit one of my pen-pals.

Rapid-fire stringing together keywords from Isaiah and Matthew, the guard offered me a Biblical word salad: proclaim-liberty-to-captives-and-release-to-those-in-prison-when-in-prison-you-visited-me-as-you-did-for-the-least of-these, ending by raising his voice as if to ask a question; as if to make sure he’d gotten it right.

Startled to hear a couple of my favorite biblical passages spoken by a CO and, as always when inside a prison, struggling to stay grounded and centered, initially I’d been touched he’d understood me. But later I realized his references had nothing to do with me or my prison ministry as much as what he was telling me about his job: Get it? I think he’d actually said. Even the Bible says prisoners are a special category—they’re the lowest of the low. They’re the least of these. They’re scum. You come here once a month. That’s nice and all. But I have to deal with these low-lifes 24/7. It’s my job. This is how I feed my family.

      Even upon slave girls. On a subsequent trip to Walpole, a female CO escorted me to the DDU. Short, compact, buxom, White, she’d set a brisk pace for our walk. I quickly found out why. Those tomb-like units suddenly came to life. Catcalls, hoots, insinuating comments, it seemed like every man, unseen but easily heard through the open windows, had something to say. “I know you know who this voice is,” one man called, his voice husky and seductive. As if she had every reason to recognize his voice. As if she and he had a relationship; something special going on. And I realized that, just like the world outside these prison walls, an attractive woman can be treated like property. As if even less than least.

That’s a Good One

She’d been badass once. Had you’d ambled through the New Hampshire woods when oak tree leaves were the size of a mouse’s ear and stumbled upon her as she foraged for morrells, you’d have known that immediately. (But that would never happen. She would have heard you a mile away.) Ballsy. Brash. Maybe even beautiful. Instantly you would have seen that beneath her filth and rags, her witchy, twitchy carapace, baglady hair and scorched, patrician nose, here was someone who’d had it going on. Once.

Had you dared to look deep into her furious eyes—blue-green, they are and, yes, beautiful—you would have seen brilliance and, less obvious but undeniable, amusement. As if chuckling over some cosmic joke. (But you wouldn’t have dared to stare; no one does.) Perhaps she’d snickered at the carelessness, the sloppiness of time, how things move on, willy nilly, and what once mattered just doesn’t anymore. Like that Japanese soldier who’d needlessly hidden on a tropical island for years and years after World War II ended.

That’s a good one.

Sometimes she foraged; mostly she stole. Over and over she broke into summer cottages, some more than others, the pattern never clear—even in July, even in August while people slept. Canned goods, books, stacks of old New Yorkers, winter gear, booze; she took whatever she wanted, read people’s mail, messed with their stuff; their minds. More than one family moved away after finding the contents of their kitchen drawers and cabinets emptied on the floor. More than one family wept after she’d stolen their heirloom quilts. (She had a thing for handmade quilts.) More than one family would arrive on Memorial Day weekend to discover she’d somehow evaded their locks and their state-of-the-art security devices to get inside, built herself a fireplace fire, sipped their scotch, played their CDs. (She had a thing for Miles Davis, too.)

Brazen. Creepy.

Witchy.

Egret

[This is an excerpt from my new meta novel, Missing Reels, currently looking for a home:]

Egret, she starts to write on a new blank page.

(Lozen knows the basics: red-tailed hawk, swallowtail, sagebrush, cottonwood, eucalyptus. Sometimes, hidden and sheltered under her favorite willow, she will say these words aloud. She will practice speaking.)

But as she crosses that T her hand—she’s left handed—cramps. Again. Why? And she’d so much wanted to write about that wading, elegant, snowy creature today!

That’s not quite it. What she’d wanted to write about is how she’s noticed she only writes about the Reserve flora and fauna she knows the names of.

(And she sees herself—Lenore back then—at ten, at twelve, in khaki shorts and a madras, short-sleeved shirt and white sneakers, a New England field guide and jacknife in her pocket, roaming the woods and shoreline of Walden Pond. Alone. Content.)

But, most important, she’d wanted to write about how this name-knowing confuses her. About how she would much prefer to watch and listen and be patient and curious and reverent and when she sees something, she will name it. Based on her observations. White, stalking-fish bird.

But also about how insulting language like that is like the cowboys-and-Indians movies she’d grown up with; Tonto and the rest of them, those Hollywood versions of indigenous peoples, how they spoke the same pidgin language she might employ for a creature she’s noticed but can’t name: Tiny bird never alone.

(It’s called a bushtit. Psaltriparus minimus. Had Lozen known where to look, she might have also added something like . . and builds a nest that looks like a sock.)

She wonders if naming something is asserting dominion over it. She wonders if knowing the name of something gives her power over it; that naming might be simply another version of oppression. And why then, perhaps, she doesn’t just go ahead and steal a California field guide from the library; learn the damned names?

But even in the heat, this dry, dry LA heat, her hand refuses to uncoil. So, drowsy and, yes, content, she watches how that egret lifts one leg, then the other; how it wades. How it fishes. How it survives.

Excerpt 2: Strands

[Here is an excerpt from a memoir I’m working on—Strands.]

Grief does not appear solely through tears; it is also expressed through our anger and outrage. *

Maybe twenty years ago, Kevin, a friend of color, said to me, “Patricia? You know what you’re like? You’re like a cook on a slave ship.”

And I had been furious! Wasn’t I an ardent anti-racist? Weren’t my woke credentials impeccable? Wasn’t I steadfastly showing up at Boston-area trials highlighting racial profiling? Didn’t I blog, again and again, about my privilege, my cluelessness, how hard I was working on issues about race and class? Hadn’t I, just a few years before Kevin had said these devastating words, sung “We Shall Overcome?” with Jerry Falwell in a Lynchburg church built by ex-slaves? (True story.) Hadn’t I written Way Opens about all of this?

But Kevin had been right. It has taken a global pandemic and George Floyd’s murder for me to take in the horrifying truth of what my friend wanted me to understand. Embedded in this black slave and white cook narrative, despite my yearning to move past Us/Them, despite my bone-deep belief that we are all equals at the table, lies a binary I must acknowledge.

Briefly, very briefly, when working on Way Opens, I’d sensed an opening on this essential and undeniable binary which I failed to truly look at, absorb, take in. So am only telling this story now.

While doing research for my book, I’d talked with Lynchburg resident Chauncey Spencer, former Tuskegee Airman and son of Anne Spencer, Harlem Renaissance poet. Back in Jim Crow days, Anne Spencer and her husband, Edward, hosted many notable people of color when they’d traveled to segregated Lynchburg; their house guests included Mary McLeod Bethune, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thurgood Marshall. The Spencers’ lovely Piece Street home and garden is now a museum located across the street from Dr. Robert “Whirlwind” Johnson’s home—and tennis court. On that court, now gone, the Lynchburg doctor, who’d earned his nickname on collegiate football fields, instructed the young Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe—and many others.

More about history from Way Opens:

On one trip, on a steamy summer day, I visited Harlem Renaissance poet Anne Spencer’s charming garden not far from the little house where she wrote. Although I had once lived a few miles from her home on Pierce Street, I had never heard of the Lynchburg poet, passionate gardener, and friend of Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson.

I understood, of course, that in the years I’d lived in segregated Lynchburg, our paths would have been prohibited from crossing. And I understood that even had Lynchburg not been a segregated community at that time, the elderly Anne Spencer might not have chosen to spend time with an adolescent Yankee transplant who liked to write. Still, sitting in her lovely garden, I cried as I contemplated how racism, this “hidden wound,” diminishes my life.

When doing my homework for this leading, what I was learning often made me angry. Like Audre Lorde, furious when she discovered how limited her supposedly excellent education had been, I’d become incensed “about the history I had learned” or hadn’t been taught. Other accounts, other history lessons were simply heartbreaking: narratives related by slaves who had lived in Lynchburg and told in Negro in Virginia, or a description of the dangerous working conditions for Lynchburg’s tobacco-processing hands, to name but two. But like that moment in Anne Spencer’s garden, there were times when the depth of my ignorance made me weep. Often, like that moment, I was discovering something about Lynchburg’s history, something I’d been denied learning, something that had happened just a few miles from where I had once lived or gone to school.

Dazed to be in his presence, where Chauncey Spencer and I met remains a blur. I do remember a cool, shades-drawn, old-fashioned parlor where we’d talked. And how, as the son of a famous mother and dashing, history-making airman, he’d obviously been interviewed many times. Almost by rote this former World War II pilot told me how he’s always wanted to fly; methodically he’d schooled me on the history of segregation and told how, in part because of his military service and subsequent, impromptu conversation he’d had with Harry Truman on Capitol Hill, in 1948 Truman enacted Executive Order No. 9981, stipulating equality of treatment and opportunity in all of the United States Armed Forces.

As out interview began to wind down, something prompted me to say something I had not expected to say. Maybe he’d used the word colorblind and I’d heard that word with fresh ears. Maybe this had been a graced, inbreaking moment. Whatever it was, I heard myself say something like, “I think it’s important, though, to acknowledge your experiences as a Black man growing up and living in racist America and how that has shaped you. Aren’t you, in many ways, who you are because of Jim Crow?”

He’d grinned: “I never heard anyone say that before.”

  • From The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief by Francis Weller

Excerpt 1: Strands

[Since I am both proud of what I am currently working on and, apparently, unable to do more than one thing at a time, here is an excerpt from a new book I’m working on: Strands]

Sometimes Nature lies beyond my backyard but still close to home. On my masked walks through Somerville these days, hungry for a glimpse of Turtle Island green, I’ve begun to notice inexplicably tall pine trees towering over the two or three-story frame houses beside them, their needled branches filling what little remains of an eighth-of-an-acre city plot. They’re all over the city!

Why weren’t these giants cut down years ago? How have these magnificent trees survived in, until very recently, a working-class city where landscaping often meant a postage-stamp-sized concrete yard dotted by one or two joint-compound buckets filled with plastic flowers? (To be fair, when the city was still called Slummerville, some ‘ville residents, many of them Italian or Portuguese, tended grape arbors and compact gardens, often terraced to make best use of their small size; some residents scrupulously cared for two or three fruit trees. And if not priced out of the homes where they’d raised their children and grown these crops, some still do.)

Had these pine trees survived because they look like giant Christmas trees and were therefore considered holy? Are they still here because they don’t require leaf-raking or the yearly ritual of unclogging the gutters? Do they remain because, for generations, the human occupants of those tiny plots have loved to fall asleep, windows open, and listen to the sound of wind soughing through their branches? Just as humans have loved hearing that soothing sound since Skywoman fell out of the sky and Jesus walked this precious Earth?

“Fewer birds sing just a loud,” Veronica, a young woman from my Meeting offered at a recent, Zoom meeting for worship as she’d sat outside, in her own tiny backyard. In her message, sparrows and crows, maybe a pigeon or two audible in the background, I heard so much: I heard her pain at nature’s diminishment. I heard her joy to be in worship in citified nature. I heard her celebrate robust Aliveness; I heard her radical acceptance of what is here, available, now. As is.

 

 

 

Making Do

Six stamps left. Loathe to step inside our tiny, neighborhood post office and wanting to support the currently-endangered USPS, we’d both ordered stamps, lots of stamps—but because so many others have done the same thing, our orders were slow in coming. What to do meanwhile?

In the time it takes to press a Forever stamp onto a envelope we’d figured it out. Two for bills, the remaining four to mail a time-sensitive IRS form. And the condolence card to a dear friend whose mother has just died? It’ll have to be an email. “Just for now,” as my yoga teacher often says.

And, no, it wasn’t our solution that was remarkable—it’s how automatic, how seamless, how born-to-solve-this supply issue our thinking process has become.

Raised by parents who’d grown up during the Depression, born during World War II and its attendant rationing, victory gardens, et al, from the time we were born we’d known this same kind of shortage; the same kind of “Is This Trip Necessary?” decision-making that families always make during challenging times. (And let’s face it, we’re not living in a Yemen refugee camp are we! Or Chelsea.)

So in the midst of my horror, my rage, my heart-racing fear, my deep, deep sadness, the pain of  knowing how devastated many are while I am so unfairly untouched by this pandemic; in the midst of all I am feeling? Such love! Such gratitude for my mother and father.