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

“From Me to We”

Yesterday during meeting for worship, I found myself remembering the first time I’d facilitated a forum* on Zoom— just days after the shutdown began. Since I am often uber-responsible for everything, even things beyond my control, that our speaker, Abraham Sussman, couldn’t turn on his camera that morning had been my fault, of course. Couple that  unfortunate technological glitch—and my “culpability”—with how non-stop terrified I’d been in those earliest days of the pandemic, I’d been one hot mess that late-March Sunday!

Much to my amazement, during the quiet of a Quaker meeting yesterday, I realized that despite my off-the-charts anxiety that morning, I actually remember Dr. Sussman’s (disembodied) talk! Entitled “Comprehensive Compassion: From Me to We: The Path of an Evolving Humanity,” the noted therapist and Dances of Universal Peace co-leader said something like, “Humans have adapted for ions. Our species will find a way to get though this pandemic.”

3,886,302 people have died so far from the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak as of June 21, 2021, 21:34 GMT, a horrifying loss neither you nor I nor Dr. Sussman could have possibly imagined in March of 2020.

Consciously or not, you, I, we live with that loss. We carry it. We feel it. This weight, this sense of ongoing loss; this, too, is how our species adapts. We can both celebrate the myriad of creative, endearing, amazing, community-building ways our species got through the past two years—and we will perpetually mourn those who did not.

 

 

*An hour long session held before meeting for worship, forums offer my faith community the opportunity to listen to speakers speak about their spiritual journeys and to reflect upon their own.

“Attention Must be Paid”

Saturday, a gorgeous spring day, I was sitting, maskless, on a Cambridge Common park bench chatting with a new friend when I stopped mid-sentence: “Oh!” I crowed happily as a bicyclist zipped past us. “He made it.”

“You know him?” my new friend asked. Politely, I think. My “he,” a dark-skinned, straight-haired older man, had flown by us so fast I doubt she’d had time to take him in.

How to explain? Because, no, I don’t know Bike Guy—although I think I may have seen him perform, years ago, in a locally-produced play. A Harvard Square regular, he might be a waiter, too. I do know that in the summer he wears the skimpiest of running shorts. Lipstick red. Sometimes, in tacit acknowledgement of our inter-connectivity, I wave as he breezes by. Sometimes he waves back.

Like the older and dark-skinned and theatrically-dressed Sombrero Woman, who weekly pushes her laden shopping cart past my house while combing my neighborhood’s recycle bins for redeemable cans and bottles, Bike Guy is my regular, too. As is Goldilocks, a heavy-set, pale-skinned older man with shoulder-length ringlets always found on a park bench outside my neighborhood’s skating rink. Bike Guy, Sombrero Woman, and Goldilocks are touchstones in my life. Their routines overlap with mine. When I don’t see them I worry. Especially these days.

I have’t seen Goldilocks for months. And maybe he’s happily settled somewhere; maybe he moved in with his grown daughter in Florida. But maybe he ended up on a Somerville Hospital ventilator. Maybe he didn’t make it. Like thousands of others this past year, maybe Goldilocks died of COVID. Alone.

How do we collectively acknowledge our missing regulars? How do we collectively mourn?

 

 

All Of A Peace?

Back in October a gifted Buddhist teacher, Sharon Salzberg, offered a “Ten-Day LovingKindness Challenge” course online—recommended by my friend, Diana Lopez, who draws upon the wisdom of multiple faith traditions. Salzberg’s accepting, compassionate voice guiding me through a series of increasingly challenging scenarios, by the tenth day, I could inwardly whisper, “May you feel safe. May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you live with ease,” to, as Salzberg prompted, “someone filled with anger, jealousy, fear, greed.” (Can you guess who I chose to be the recipient of these metta prayers, Reader? Hint: He was still in office at the time.)

“Your mind will wander,” Salzberg noted, both her words and her gentle voice assuring me that this was okay. It’s the intentionality, she explained. When we bring our consciousness back to the repetition of the four lovingkindness statements, back to the practice, back to the center, again and again and again, that matters.

I don’t understand how this re-direct works but its Mystery intrigues me—and tapers my disbelief. Still intrigued, I pondered this Mystery at meeting for worship yesterday. In that Zoom quiet, the phrase “The peace that passeth understanding” came to me. (At some formative stage of my life, I’d internalized King James language, apparently!)

Mystery: it’s all one thing, right? All of a piece/peace?

Peek Experience (No, that’s not a typo)

These days, I’ve noticed that when my dear friend Alex is asked how he’s doing, he’ll often respond, “Given the givens? I’m . . . ” Alex is also the first person I know to use the phrase radical acceptance. Indebted to Alex’s namings, I’ve been mulling over Three Givens that powerfully inform my spiritual life and, sigh, I have no choice but to radically accept, right!?

The first Given, of course, is Death. (There is some controversy as to who first quipped The only certainty is death and taxes. Benjamin Franklin? Mark Twain? I’m going with Anonymous—who, of course, was a woman!) I am going to die. So what is it I plan to do with my one wild and precious life ?

Radically accepting the second Given requires faith—and deep humility: contrary to Corinthians 13, even as an adult, I can only see through a glass darkly. I can only know in part. I can be as loving and compassionate as Paul counsels, I can be faithful and live up to the Light that has been given me—but there’s more; there will be deeper understandings. Always. There will always be  continuing revelations. After reading Isabel Wilkerson’s   Caste:The Order of Our Discontentsfor example, I am painfully aware that what seems the natural order of things* isn’t!

The third Given—and what most interests me right now—makes me sad but there it is. A Given. So maybe I should radically accept? And it’s about the transitory nature of transcendent moments; aka peak experiences. What can’t we instantly recreate such glorious moments; these sneak peeks at All That is Holy and Divine, huh?  Why, when I whisper All my relations before I begin eating dinner every night, do I only remember that moment when those three words encapsulated All? (Another sigh.)

Here’s the feeble light I can shine on this question for now; this light comes in the form of another question: maybe it’s my longing, my yearning to connect to All that matters?

Hmmm.

*Caste is insidious and therefore powerful because it is not hatred, it is not necessarily personal. It is the worn grooves of comforting routines and unthinking expectations, patterns of a social order that have been in place for so long that it looks like the natural order of things. 

Grounded

Urged to do so, I dutifully watched the first two episodes of the Ken Burns’ documentary on Ernest Hemingway—and, much to my surprise, look forward to the third. (Thank you, PBS, for making such wonderful programs accessible to luddites like me who do not own a television.)

Why surprised? Because although I define myself as a writer and am proud of my very modest body of work, it is a very modest body of work! So I’d anticipated that spending hours learning more about one of the most successful writers of all time would reinforce my own sense of inadequacy—which waxes and wanes but is undeniable. Delving deeper and deeper into Hemingway’s story, however, I felt solidified.  Confirmed. Grounded. “My oeuvre may be skimpy as hell—but I am glad I’m me.” Another way to put this might be: “Thank you, God, for making me a woman!”

I began to work on my craft after my first daughter was born; in those earliest days I’d copied out passages I found particularly well-written. I’d study these bits, word by word, coma by semi-colon, partly to learn from such close reading and partly, I think, in the childish hope that the genius of that particular writer might magically become my own. So, in Episode 2, when I heard the excerpt from A Farewell to Arms I’d copied long ago read aloud, it was a wonderful moment, like suddenly remembering a beloved teacher but also remembering myself as the yearning, open-hearted, grateful student. And to be reminded that every time I begin a sentence with And I know whom to credit!

Here’s the thing: leafing through the battered notebook containing that A Farewell to Arms excerpt, I found so much more to remember. For I’d copied out bits from Alice Munro, Virginia Woolf, Paula Gunn Allen, Shirley Hazzard, too. I’d written poetry; many poems had been about being a mother. A harried mother. An anxious mother. A mother in solidarity with mothers in my neighborhood. I’d written journal-like entries about my struggles to find time to write. I’d written outlines for possible stories, novels, a screenplay. (I have actually completed some of those projects, too. Some.) And pep talks, lots of pep talks/coaching!

I’ll end with this one:

Hold the image in your mind

Make it clear and true

Then all you do

Follows naturally.

 

 

 

 

What I’m Adding for Lent: Week Six

Week Six:

“And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”

So the Aramaic word, waahboqlan, can mean “forgive” but it also can mean “embrace with emptiness.” Which instantly recalls my yoga teacher, Annie Hoffman, talking about learning how to let go of attachment/old hurts/holding on to negativity, etc. “It’s like the command people give to their dogs when the dog comes upon something tasty but maybe disgusting on the ground: ‘Leave it!’ ”

I’ve heard dog owners give this command a couple of different ways; both are useful as I struggle with my own embracing with emptiness:

The first version gives those two syllables equal weight. they’re firm, stern, no-nonsense. (During menopause, when I sometimes struggled with anxious thoughts, telling that panicky inner voice to “Shut up, shut, shut up!” was ridiculously efficacious!)

The second version is almost a question. “Leave it?” my voice rising as if to acknowledge, “Yup, darlin’. I get it. This is hard. You’ve held on to this hurt for a long time. And, let’s be frank. You’ve enjoyed being pissed, right? But just do this.” It’s a coaxing voice. Forgiving.

And isn’t that the woman’s voice I most need to hear?

Week Five:

Give us this day our daily bread.”

So lachma can be both “bread” and “understanding.” And the verb, here, has several variations; my favorite is “animate with fruit”! But hold up. It seems as though the last Aramaic word in this sentence, yeomana, hasn’t been translated?  Hmm.

So what to do? Maybe I’ll just do what I’ve been doing since Ash Wednesday: let women suggest possible interpretations and meaning and metaphors for this prayer. “This day” + lachma =  Caroline Fox’s famous quote, right?  Especially its last bit: Live Up to the Light that thou hast and more will be granted thee.  You’ll receive more understanding, more light tomorrow. Next week. The same Source that animates with fruit will offer you further enlightenment—if you’re listening to your Inner Guide.

Week Four:

. . .on earth as it is in heaven:

“In the fourth and most central line of the prayer, heaven meet earth in acts of compassion,” Douglas-Klotz writes.

The Aramaic scholar’s words immediately conjure up for me one of my favorite places is the world, Crete, and standing on the beach, the  blue-green Mediterranean behind me, looking up at Mt. Ida, the birthplace of Zeus. There, at its snow-capped peak, where clouds obscure the delineation between earth and sky,  is where early Cretans believed earth met heaven.

If I can connect with how joyful, how grateful, how filled with love I’d felt standing there on a perfect day in March of 2003, can I remember to let go of whatever keeps me from acknowledging—without ceasing—Spirit’s abiding Love?

Week Three:

“Thy will be done . . . ” The word will tripped me up this week; “tzevanach” in Aramaic. Which translates as “desire” but bears an ancient, layered meaning of “harmony and generation.”  Which might mean, again, a verb, a motion towards, an inexorable, cosmic, supreme force ever-striving, yearning for balance, harmony, Love?

I don’t know for sure; I suspect others don’t either. But I certainly relish the idea of praying to, acknowledging that inexorable, cosmic, supreme force!

 

Week Two:

I found “Thy kingdom come . . . ” very confusing. Something in the original Aramaic hinted at a nuptial chamber? Other ancient words implied co-creation—and possibility, too? I couldn’t wrap my brain around it.

But on Sunday, at meeting for worship, someone read that lovely quote, “Live up to the light that thou hast and more will be granted thee.” And I saw a deep and powerful connections  between those Aramaic-to-English keywords and the message of early Friends: that the kingdom of God is here and now and  accessible. That when we live up to the light we are in right relationship with Spirit. We’re co-creating the beloved community. And we’re promised  updates. Continuing revelation. We’re in this together.

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!