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.

 

 

 

“Feeding off the Vibe”*

Zoom has become a daily feature in my life, much-needed yet disquieting. Yes, I long for connection with others; I am cheered when I see beloved faces, each in a tiny box, fill my desktop screen. Like my daughter Melissa, I, too, have observed that although each dear F/friend or family member is contained within such a small space, my loved ones’ spirit, their energy expands far beyond those few pixels. But to state the obvious, this virtual connection has its drawbacks—especially if you’re facilitating. Or, as my daughter Christina recently discovered, are being interviewed for a job!

Recently, however, Zoom taught me something about group dynamics I hadn’t fully understood. At this past week’s Wednesday night sharing circle, because of a poor connection, I was only able to hear about a quarter of what was said. Wanting to remain in (virtual) proximity with everyone, I just looked at person’s face frozen on my screen. I held each person in the Light. I listened to their garbled, as-if-underwater messages with love. “This is what it’s like to be deaf or hard of hearing,” I told myself. “I feel so left out!” Duh.

Cut off from what was said and therefore unaware of what themes or ideas others had been building upon, speaker by speaker, when it was my turn to speak, I declined. It seemed arrogant to simply talk as if the others hadn’t. To insert my words into something, something real, something organic, something the group had collectively created. Whatever had been woven by that gathering seemed precious. I didn’t want to tear it.

And because I’d fed off another kind of vibe that night, mysterious and love-centered, my silence was the right thing to do.

How Can I Keep from Singing?

Almost home from our daily walk, just as we were walking past, we saw a neighbor we didn’t know come out of her front door, sit down on a chair on her cluttered porch, and sing. Loudly. As if in the shower. As if in her car. As if we’d been invisible. “I think we’re all going feral,” I told my husband. But feral not as a pejorative, no. But as wildly alive.

Have we ever lived here before, right here, right at the wild edge of sorrow*? Have we ever begun a new week having heard such sobering news? No.

Yes, we’ve all experienced loss and grief. But not like this. never like this. This, this moment, this is new. What are we called to do? What am I called to do?

I, too, will burst into song. I will sing. I will be grateful to be alive.

 

 

*A tip o’ my hat to Francis Weller’s The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief

Talk to the Hand

[This story centers on someone whose identity I should protect. So will be using the they pronoun.]

Yesterday on a walk, I passed an elderly white person, warmly dressed, waiting in a bus shelter in Porter Square. (And by “elderly” I mean the same age as me!) A second look and, yes, although considerably aged from when I last knew them, they had been a student I’d met years ago when a counselor at Somerville’s adult learning center. So I stopped and, keeping the required six-foot distance, called out their name.

I’ve aged considerably too, of course, so they took a moment or two to recognize me. “Oh, hi,” they said. Without much energy or warmth. Which I surmised—duh— was because they were terrified. So acknowledged the current situation.

“The virus?” they asked; their Azores accent flavoring their terse words. I nodded.

“Ya know,” they said, leaning forward and almost under their breath, giving me a we-both-know-what’s-really-going- on look. And rubbed their thumb and forefinger together, the universal sign for money.

I wasn’t having it; I was not at all interested in their conspiracy theory: “I’m not listening to this,” I told them, turning on my heels.

“God bless you,” they called after me. Which felt like a curse in disguise.

Who, exactly, did they think was making money off of this pandemic? Stewing, brooding, I walked home. The Chinese government, maybe? Big Pharma? Given the ugliness that crossed their face when they’d rubbed their fingers together, however, I’m guessing that former student might harbor long-standing hatred for those so often blamed in times of crisis. I think they may be anti-Semitic. Maybe.

But, suddenly, stomping down the sidewalk, I remembered a salient fact: They had been an ABE 1 student! (Translation: they’re totally illiterate. Cannot read. At all. Nada.) And, if I remember correctly, they’d dropped out after less than a semester. Which means that, most likely, they’re completely dependent on whatever xenophobic bullS@#* Fox News spouts as “news.”

Personally, I cannot imagine enduring this devastating situation without daily devouring multiple newspaper and magazine articles and Facebook postings from wise friends—and then stopping when I’ve had enough already, to listen to music or read a good book. Can you? You, reading these (pearls of great price) words now? It’s unimaginable, isn’t it.

Had I blown a teachable moment? I pondered closer to home. Had I been so appalled, so outraged by their conspiratorial face, those rubbing fingers, that I missed an opportunity to engage?

Perhaps. But do we not show a form of Love when we interrupt hatred? At a time when the president of the United States referred to COVID-19 as “a foreign virus” or, just today, “the Chinese virus,” I think it’s okay, indeed necessary to say, “Talk to the hand!”

And maybe, just maybe, in their “God bless you,” they kinda, sorta were telling me they got that?

Nah.

 

Cover Your Mouth!

More than forty years ago, when my oldest daughter was in elementary school, we’d lived in Wethersfield, Connecticut’s historic district, its Main Street lined with carefully-restored eighteen-century homes interspersed with newer yet still elegant dutch-colonials and Victorians. (We’d lived in one of the more modest houses squeezed between some real beauties!)

One evening a neighbor, who’d recently moved in across the street, called to demand I come over. Like now. I don’t remember how she’d put it; whatever she’d said must have been compelling because I  went. To learn that her daughter, let’s call her Janice, three or four years younger than my daughter, had been in tears because my daughter and the other girls my daughter hung out with had refused to play with her.

Pre-Quaker, pre-learning how to be a loving, compassionate member of a community, I did not handle this accusation well. At all. Defensive and pissed, I’d lectured about Erickson’s “Ages and Stages,” about the developmental differences between our daughters. This lecture was not well-received. So I’d said something like, “Look, just because we bought houses on the same street doesn’t automatically mean we’ll all be best buddies.” Yup. I said that. I did not say—and was proud of myself for not blurting out, “My daughter and her friends think Janice is a whiny, spoiled brat so even though you have a swimming pool in your back yard they’d rather not spend time with her.”

Ironically, of all the ill-thought-through and nasty things I said that night, the one thing that most offended my neighbor I’d actually intended to be conciliatory: “Can’t we just be civil?”

Looking back, I can see that for Janice’s mom, that word must have been a pejorative. Like,  “Keep a civil tongue in your head!” Or something. And that for me, it meant civil/civility, both of us signing a social contract, agreeing to some bottom-line, fundamental guidelines as to how to be members of the same community.  Or something.

As this coronavirus looms, spreads, I remember this testy conversation. And about what form of civility is asked for, now, what the bottom-line social contract everyone should agree to should specify: When we sneeze or cough we’ll cover our mouths. We’ll wash our hands. A lot. if we don’t feel well, we’ll stay home. Etc.

Ironically, now a member of a loving and compassionate faith community, I have less confidence that we’re all going to agree to these simple, vitally important guidelines than I probably would have when I’d argued with Janice’s mother. Yes, I love the people in my Meeting. Yes, I have been brought to tears, welled up many times when, over time, we have struggled together to find unity among us. And did.  But because I have been gifted to be so deeply and intimately connected with so many people, I know, first-hand, how distracted and clueless and thoughtless we humans can be. (Me, too, of course.)

Yes, I believe there is that of God/Light/the Holy/the Divine in each of us. And, yes, I believe I am dependent upon others’ ability to do unto others . . . And that sometimes that’s shaky!

What I’m Taking On For Lent

I’m not giving up anything this year; I’m taking on something. Something I’ve been afraid to take on for most of my life: I’m welcoming everything that happens to me. For, as Francis Weller points out, “This is the secret to being fully alive.” (He also notes how incredibly hard this is!)

Today, Day 3 into this spiritual exercise—which might become a practice—I’m pissed off. Someone I do prison ministry alongside with—well, why go into it? Because, as I remind myself, taking a few, deep breaths, this is capital L Life, right? I am fully alive and still following the leading I began over twenty years ago. I am actually doing what Spirit asked of me! And that is a blessing.

Day 1, at a weekly meeting I attend sometimes, I listened to my community’s immigration-rights activists lament the Supreme Court’s recent, heartbreaking decision on “Public Charge.” And felt myself do what I always do: wall myself off from the pain around the table. Protect myself. “This is the life you are living,” I silently coached myself. “This is that damned Chinese curse, ‘May you live in interesting times.’ For whatever reason, you were born to experience this, now. You are alive to experience this. All of it.”

I am hyperaware that were I daily experiencing non-stop pain and trauma it’s entirely possible I’d be telling a different story. I am hyperaware of my cushy, privileged life. I am hyperaware that my race and class and resultant medical care is why I get to do this soul-work/grief work; why I’m still alive at my age. I am hyperaware that were I a Woman of Color I might not be alive to tell this story.

But, Friends, I am and I can and here’s what happened: I briefly experienced that exhilaration Ray Bradbury’s short story, “Dandelion Wine” so wonderfully captured: “I am alive!” And so, openhearted, was also gifted to hear how my community plans to address this latest assault on our neighbors and friends, an ironically and unexpectedly touching outcome of living in this interesting time: I now know so much more fully how many other people are also working on social-justice issues. Oh.

Does the harsh fact that over the past year my Quaker meeting/my “village”/ my tribe has lost eight people, two of whom I counted as dear friends, focus attention on that word alive?

Yes, it does.

 

Butter-knifing

Here I am, once again, “circling Fort Knox with a butter knife trying to figure out how to get in.”* I know I want to write about loss, about sorrow, and about how, for most of my life, I’ve let anger mask sadness. I want to write about the grief of climate change. I want to write about my mother’s family, its secrets, its tragedies; about transgenerational trauma. I want to write about my moment-to-moment grief and horror to be white and affluent at a time when the ravages of income disparity and systemic racism and growing fascism are more and more real, obvious.

Yikes.

Meanwhile, as I circle, sadness, grief, loss happen. Terrifying headlines reporting another environmental disaster happen. Someone pisses me off happens—and I, self-conscious “apprentice” that I am, try to access the sadness underlying my anger. (And it’s not as hard as I thought.) Meanwhile, I feel all the heartbreaking Feels that I get to do this work at the same time the People Of Color all around me struggle. Meanwhile, I buy myself a copy of The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief  by Francis Weller so I can physically interact with his every word, every paragraph, write in the margins.

Here’s a bit I’ve already starred and underlined and <3-ed (heart-ed):

An apprenticeship with sorrow requires a hands-on encounter in which we are invited to work with the materials of grief, its leaden weight, and the particular demands of melancholy. We can feel it already, just in these few sentences, that this apprenticeship leads us below ground, into the hallway of shadows and forgotten ancestors. Here we find the scattered shards of unattended grief, the pieces of unwept loss, and the shavings of old wounds swept into the corner.

Meanwhile, like someone in recovery, I’m making amends.

 

  • Ann Patchett said this—at a writers’ conference I’d attended—about trying to figure out how to begin a novel.

It’s Complicated

Back in the day when I taught homeless women in greater Boston shelters, one of my students, young and lovely, suddenly looked up from whatever she was working on* to say, “You know something? It’s not that we don’t know because we’re stupid. It’s that we just don’t know!”

Yup.

Here are some things we know:

No one is all one thing. No one is defined by the worst or best thing they did.

We’ve all been broken/hurt people hurt people.

Sometimes, by design, we don’t know things because we’re not supposed to. For example, what happens behind prison walls.

Often, after we die, because many believe “we don’t speak ill of the dead,” only the best parts of ourselves are shared at our funerals and printed in our obituaries; found in the letters we’ve left behind—and edited**.

Here are some things we don’t know:

Anyone else’s whole story.

Our own.

Here’s what I struggle with:

How to acknowledge and even accept the worst parts of myself.

 

*Three things she might have been working on that morning, as six or seven of us sat together around a battered oak table in a Baptist-church-now-family-shelter Sunday school classroom, weak winter light coming through a stained-glass window:

How to convert a fraction to a decimal to a percent. And back again.

Her journal—in which, very likely, she wrote page after tear-stained page about her childhood sexual abuse.

What “executive,” legislative,” and “judicial” mean (There was always a three-branches-of government question on the GED).

**True Confession: Going through my father’s letters after he died, I tossed several hateful letters into the recycle bin. Because I didn’t want him remembered that way, I destroyed a painful but truthful piece of history.