What I’m Adding for Lent: Week One

Giving up something for Lent lost meaning for me years ago; this year my reluctance to take away rather than to add seems particularly appropriate as we collectively mourn the over 500,000 Americans who have died from this pandemic. Such an enormous loss!

So this lenten season I’m spending a little time every day with a remarkable little book, Prayers of the Cosmos: Reflections on the Original Meaning of Jesus’s Words by Neil Douglas-Klotz. An Aramaic scholar, Douglas-Klotz has translated the Lord’s Prayer back into the language it had been originally spoken—and, oh my. According to him, not just “something” has been lost in translation!  As my shero Joanna Macy says, “For many of us who want to peel away centuries of dualistic, patriarchal forms and recover the life-affirming beauty of our Christian roots, nothing could be more welcome than this exquisite little volume.”

In the spirit of Increase not Decrease, I will add on to this post every Wednesday until Easter.

February 24: First gleanings after Week One:

The Aramaic version of “Our father who art in heaven” reminds me of this wonderful passage from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass:

“Puhpowee, she explained, translates as “the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight.” As a biologist, I was stunned that such a word existed.
The makers of this word understood a world of being, full of unseen energies that animate everything. I’ve cherished it for many years, as a talisman, and longed for the people who gave a name to the life force of mushrooms. The language that holds Puhpowee is one that I wanted to speak. So when I learned that the word for rising, for emergence, belonged to the language of my ancestors, it became a signpost for me.”

 

 

 

 

This is Me, This is Us

Today, here’s how I’m remembering a moment at the end of the documentary, “Knock Down the House.” It’s election night and Alexandria  Ocasio-Cortez arrives at a Bronx or Queens function hall—or maybe it was a restaurant?—to join hundreds of her supporters and campaign workers as they all await the election results. But the security guy at the front door won’t let her in.

“No, no, I’m—” she argues. And the way I remember that filmed moment, the future congresswoman points to her shoulders, to herself; to her body. Because that’s who she is. She’s not an ID. She’s not her driver’s license or her signature on the rental agreement to book that space. She is not her own face on a campaign poster. She’s The Incomparable AOC; she identifies as a woman.

Today, reading her painful account of what happened when an angry mob occupied the Capitol on January 6th, I learned that like millions of others, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez is a survivor of sexual abuse. How she cinematically describes her horrifying, triggering experience that afternoon; how, although she’s received multiple death threats and misogynist slurs and knowing she’ll receive ugly blowback she nevertheless bravely declares: #Metoo; how she speaks her vulnerable truth to power in the halls of Congress? How she connects the forceful voices in Congress urging, “Let’s get over that Capitol attack. Let’s move on”  to what survivors of sexual abuse are told over and over? I am so moved. And so grateful.

Another she-ro of mine, Joanna Macy, the great eco-philosopher and visionary, speaks of “The Great Turning”: a shift from the Industrial Growth Society to a life-sustaining civilization. May AOC’s illuminating account contribute to that great, paradigm-shifting turning!

 

 

 

Not In The Wind?

Quakers often quote that passage from 1 Kings when a depressed and confused Elijah, standing on top of Mount Horeb, experiences a wind so powerful it rends mountains and shatters rocks—but subsequently hears God/Spirit/The Holy in a low murmuring sound.

“Possibly the experience of prophetic inspiration,” my Oxford Study Edition of the New English Bible posits. “Not possibly,” most Quakers would say. “Absolutely!” (My edition notes other Old Testament inbreaking moments when God, indeed, is found in “natural phenomena”: I am now coming to you in a thick cloud, so that I may speak to you in the hearing of the people, and their faith in you may never fail,” God tells Moses in Exodus 19, for example.)

Three weeks after a furious mob rended and shattered our Capitol, I find myself wondering if I can find prophetic inspiration in both that low, murmuring voice, aka a still small voice, and that terrifying, powerful and roaring wind on Mount Horeb?  Raised in a binary, Yes/No, War/Peace/, Here/ There world—and definitely aware of my own, raging, vengeful “seeds of war” whenever I think about what happened on January 6th—can I discover something beyond, something greater than, something different from my heretofore Murmuring/Roaring cosmology? I don’t know.

I just know my Inner Teacher asks me to wonder.

 

 

 

 

 

The Light Returns

I distinctly remember how I’d felt, years ago, probably in a Philosophy 101 class, when I realized that light becomes darkness and darkness becomes light. I remember how it felt when I realized that what I’d always understood as binary, light versus dark, wasn’t! I remember how the hairs on the back of my head prickled;  how I’d felt encompassed in fuzzy warmth as I contemplated a radically-different way to look at the world around me. I didn’t have language, then or now; something about wholeness? Something about transformation? Something about how, at the flick of a switch, 180s can happen? Something about how darkness contains light and vice versa?Something about needing to always remember how quickly that On to Off, Off to On can happen?

Today, the day after the Inauguration, that metaphorical light switch robustly On, it seems important to note how, on January 6th, that switch had definitely been Off. I don’t want to ever forget that. I want to be mindful that my searing memory of that devastating, horrific attack is folded into the joy and hope I feel this morning.

How grateful I am that on the morning after that attack, despair for the world  heavy in my heart, like Wendell Berry,* I could come into the presence of still water. Walking through the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge, I’d stood at the edge of Taylor Brook. In utter quiet I’d stared at a beaver lodge—fuzzily visible and framed by two trees in this picture—as long as I needed. As long as my soul needed. I stood there as long as it took for me to feel ready to return to my peopled, urban life.

The (complicated/nuanced/layered/storied/. . . ) light returns.

 

 

*When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

An Audience of One

[Snarky Puppy, House of Blues, Boston, May 12, 2019]

Every year between Christmas and New Year’s, I read my journal from the previous year. This year, lying on my couch under a down quilt, the Christmas trees lights on, my belly rounded from a week of rich, delicious holiday treats, this yearly ritual has proved especially poignant.

Because the ate-too-much me on the couch knows how this story-told-in-daily-installments will unfold, right? But the me who’d been earnestly writing every morning in her journal did not. So I feel so tender, so protective of naive, confused me, the me who’d slowly realized, OMG, we’re dealing with a global pandemic!

But a little exasperated, too: “Will I even get to read what I’m writing here?” she’d written in late March, terrified, I guess, that being over seventy-five probably meant she’d die from Covid. How astonishing and gobsmacking humbling it is to now see, in stark black and white, how little I’d understood my own privilege!

As I move into this new year, may I not forget this; all of it: my gratitude to be alive and my deep, painful, never-to-be-denied realization of why.

 

 

Call Me Fred

Hoping to see the once-in-a-lifetime sighting of Jupiter and Saturn last night, I’d traipsed all over my neighborhood trying to spot this wondrous sight. (Densely-populated and sorely lacking in open space, Somerville is not ideal for star/planet-gazing.) Stubborn clouds at the horizon, too-tall buildings blocking what I believed was my view—although I was not exactly sure where to look—cold and hungry and discouraged, I’d started walking home when the moon, a crescent moon, appeared high in the sky.

And I remembered the Gospel of John’s prologue and the Light which the darkness has never mastered. I rejoiced to walk beneath the soft, gentle, opalescent light of a partially illuminated moon.

“You’re outside on ‘a cold winter’s night’,” I reminded myself. “You never do that! You’re experiencing this silvered moonlight. You’re seeking.  Like Balthazar, Melchior, and, um — Fred? That’s enough.”

Close to home, I was walking down L-shaped Preston Road and just at its elbow when I looked up and lo, perfectly positioned between two houses and just above the branches of a nearby Norway maple, Jupiter and Saturn, bright, distinct, and miraculously unlike anything else in the night sky.

Joy to the world!

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?