“Why Is This Okay?”

[Green Line tunnel]

Recently, driving to the Minneapolis airport for the first time, my husband and I arrived at the wrong terminal. This error turned out to be not a big deal, however, because we’re both fierce and devoted players on the Get To The Airport Super/Crazy Early Team.
Our obligatory journey from Terminal 1 to Terminal 2 involved a quick—and delightful—trip on a Twin Cities light rail. Um . . . wait! What? Public transit can be quiet?
To be fair, greater Boston’s Red Line, one branch of “the T,” is quiet, efficient; pleasant. But, as of March of this year, my Union Square neighborhood is now serviced by the T’s earliest branch: The Green Line.
Which isn’t.
Maybe because I’ve so recently been apprised of what light rail transportation could actually look like, sound like, or maybe because I am worn down by sorta-post-COVID diminishment so bearable urban woes have become less bearable, or maybe I’m becoming a cranky old lady. Whatever the reason, I am shocked, shocked to look around at my fellow passengers still scrolling their phones every time our car makes the slightest turn.”Why is this wretched screeching okay?” I long to ask them.
But here’s the thing: Before the Green Line was extended to my neighborhood, it had been funky, affordable, inhabited largely by students, artists and working class families. Now, tragically, my fellow passengers are people who can afford to live in Union Square!
So for all the wrong reasons, reasons dealing with race and class and entitlement, I have great hopes for a new and improved Green Line!
Jeez.

Comin’ Around Again

When I was young I was very young. And the world I grew up in was a younger world, a world that told me, “When you grow up, you can be a secretary, a nurse, or a teacher.” So for many reasons that seemed relevant in those long-ago times, I chose teaching. Given that those times’ imposed limitations meant that my “choice” wasn’t much of a choice, turns out I am a pretty good teacher! Turns out, interacting with children gives me enormous joy! Turns out, I got lucky.

Over the years my teaching career swerved from teaching elementary school-aged children, as I’d been trained to do in college, to teaching deaf teenagers, to, for almost 20 years, working with adult learners in housing projects, homeless shelters, and at an adult learning center. But when my first book was published in 1998, I declared myself a writer—and never looked back.

Until now. A grandmother, I am once again teaching small children at my Quaker meeting. I’m again writing lesson plans. I’m again buying art supplies. I’m again talking with parents about their children’s needs. I’m again being schooled by insightful and loving co-teachers. And scraping play-doh off a rug. (Oops.)

And while sometimes this gig feels very automatic—”You know, we’ve heard some wonderful ideas from you. Let’s see if someone else has some good ideas, okay?”—something feels absolutely new.

This choice is so, so different, isn’t it! So realized. So informed. So much about joyously reclaiming a part of myself that, yes, I’d only dimly understood over sixty years ago (GASP) when I’d chosen Teacher. So whole.

 

To Have and To Hold

When I was maybe three or four, one of my favorite “toys” had been my mother’s button box. (What was that box’s backstory? Was it made of sturdy cardboard or metal? Had it once held candy or tea? Had it been a biscuit tin? I don’t remember.) I’d loved the susurration those hundred of buttons made when I slowly trawled the box’s contents with my hand.  I’d loved the randomness; the not-knowing what I’d discover in my hand when I extracted one or two buttons. Would I hold a large, plastic, Art-Deco button from a thirties-era jacket?A tiny, opalescent mother-0f-pearl memento of my babyhood? If I dipped again, would I perhaps find a duplicate to my first haul? What I’d loved most, though, was to treasure whatever I held.

Sunday night, my sister’s vast collection of earrings, necklaces, bracelets, brooches, pendants, and rings covering my living room coffee table, I was reminded of those individualized and reverent moments. Randomly picking up an exquisite ring or a necklace, I held my fierce and brilliant sister Deborah, who died from pancreatic cancer on June 7th. With tenderness and care her grieving ex-husband and son have been slowly dispensing her things; Sunday night, thanks to my daughter’s cell phone’s texting capabilities, our extended family had the opportunity to pick and choose a piece of Deborah’s jewelry.

Because my sister had already specified she’d wanted me to have her silver charm bracelet, my brother-in-law handed it to me beforehand. What I slowly realized as I picked up and admired Deborah’s collection, one by one, was that her laden, tinkling keepsake would be enough. (Although I did chose a couple of pieces I plan to pass along to two dear friends who have held me as I grieve.) Like admiring my mother’s button box collection, I loved, loved, loved cherishing Deborah’s jewelry. And that charm bracelet is enough.

This understanding may have been made more clear for me, I think, because of my recent visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Over the past fifty years I have visited “Mrs. Jack’s” hodgepodge collection many times; this most recent visit stirred up some concern: What happens to someone’s soul when she owns so much cheek-by-jowl, impossible-to-keep-track-of beauty? How could Isabella Stewart Gardner possibly love the thousands of things she’d collected? At some point, had she become inured to her breathtaking possessions? Become deadened to such overwhelming splendor? After the crowds went home, had she ever strolled through her higglety-pigglety gallery rooms and randomly picked up something small and exquisite? Had she held it? Loved it?

I hope so.

 

 

 

This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Last summer during a fierce heat wave, discovering Shannon Beach was a godsend. Pristine, beautiful, located on Mystic Lake in nearby Winchester, the beach offered fresh water swimming, a wide, beautifully-maintained sandy beach and ample parking. Its only downside? In order to get there, I had to drive through five, five rotaries—a bit excessive for even this seasoned greater Boston driver! But to swim in fresh water or to hear children happy and splashing while reading a trashy novel was definitely worth the nightmarish drive, I decided.

Close readers have noticed that first paragraph was written in the past tense. Why? Because in its infinite wisdom, Massachusetts’ Parks Department decided to renovate Shannon Beach, making much of its sandy beach inaccessible. When did this happen, you ask? When summer was well underway.  Huh? (These same brilliant souls’ equally inept counterparts in state government recently shut down an entire public transit branch, the Orange Line, with, so far, no good options for the thousands of people relying on the Orange Line to get to work or school. JEEZ!)

That gorgeous lake isn’t past tense, of course, so in the midst of one of this summer’s heat waves, I navigated those pesky rotaries and parked in the Beach’s parking lot. “Surely I can find a spot abutting the beach where I can swim,” I reasoned.

But what I discovered, Dear Reader, was heartbreaking. Because the large expanse of beach was no longer accessible, the pebbly “shingle” lining the lake was crowded, impossible to walk on, and, worst of all, covered with broken glass. With no shingle maintenance, climate change’s back-to-back heat waves, and so many families flocking to this “beach,” it’s no wonder that this past Sunday night a violent fight broke out at Shannon Beach resulting in one hospitalization and several arrests.

And, yes, we can be pretty sure alcohol and COVID-frayed nerves contributed to this nasty fight.

But not entirely. The brilliant souls who decided to begin work on a wildly popular swimming area just as things were heating up must shoulder some of the blame.

 

I’d Like To Think So

[Stairs, “The Boiler House,” MA MoCA]

In the early 90’s, because the adult learning center where I worked had received a federal grant, I began teaching in what we’d called homeless shelters back then. And as stipulated in that grant, every quarter, all the Massachusetts programs receiving that same grant’s personnel were required to meet. So I’d dutifully shuffle off to Worcester or Roxbury or, once, to North Adams, a hellish drive—where, we were told by a local activist, amazing and wondrous things were about to happen. A modern art museum, to be housed in one of North Adam’s long-abandoned factories, was in the planning stage. This massive and exciting undertaking, he predicted, would have an enormous, positive impact on that post-industrial city’s economics. And, therefore, he’d intimated, the struggling, unhoused people of North Adams would benefit.

Oh so long ago, did I snort at his preposterous words? Did I mutter, “Yeah, right!” I’d like to think so. But the truth is, I’d probably experienced that small, vague, subtle, uneasy stop I can only now, decades later, acknowledge; identify. It’s the same stop I now pay attention to as I reread a passage I have just “finished,” for example. “Something’s missing,” I realize. Or “Something’s not right.”

Had I experienced the horrifying gentrification happening right now in my own post-industrial, aging New England city neighborhood, my disbelief at that activist’s naive and patently wrong predictions would have been well-informed—and vocal! But I had yet to live that clarifying experience. I had yet to more fully understand that them that has, gets.

But here’s the thing: Saturday I visited MA MoCA for the first time and after taking a brief moment to acknowledge the younger me who only saw through a glass, darkly, fell in love with the museum’s rusted, industrial aesthetic, its enormous and expansive spaces. I loved all of it. But especially The Boiler House and  Kelli Rae Adams’ “Forever in Your Debt.”

Will my admission fee, what I paid for a delicious, hand-squeezed lemonade or the lovely gifts I bought in MA MoCA’s gift shop “trickle down”? No. Am I uplifted, moved, inspired from that experience? Yes. Will my experience somehow inform my ministry? I’d like to think so.

 

 

 

 

 

“Just Roll With It”

[Turner’s unfinished “Venice with the Salute”*]

Yesterday, in the collective silence of a Quaker meeting, I waited for whatever was to come to come. And was given: “You’re sad, sweetheart. Just roll with it.”

At first, feeling that acknowledged sadness weight my body, this somber, right-on message seemed enough. Full Stop. The End. But as I literally sat with that weight, sadness became A Thing, an opening, a possibility, a tool, a medium. “My palette,” I decided.  Something to work with.

So I will. I am.

 

*”Venice with the Salute, about 1840-45 (Oil on canvas)

The monumental Baroque church of the Salute, with its great dome,

dominates the entrance to Venice’s Grand Canal. Turner probably 

focused on this landmark in hopes of finding a buyer. 

He left the work unfinished, however, barely defining the buildings

on either side; water, land, and sky merge. The extraordinary,

shimmering forms evoke the paradox of dense fog on a sunny day.

[Explanatory notes, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, May 2022]

“Intensified Sky”

[Bird at the edge of the Grand Canyon}

I am currently going through an intense passage; Rilke’s poem speaks to me:

Ah, not to be cut off

Ah, not to be cut off,
not through the slightest partition
shut out from the law of the stars.
The inner—what is it?
if not intensified sky,
hurled through with birds and deep
with the winds of homecoming.

— Rainer Maria Rilke

 

“Love It All”

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

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

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

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

Sounds like a plan.

“Everywhere As Blue As Mine”

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

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

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

THIS IS MY SONG

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

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

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

To the melody of Finlandia — Lyrics by Lloyd Stone

*Beleagured much because of my country’s policies

This I What We Do Now:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because that’s what we do.

 

 

 

“In My Ears”

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

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

Yes, Reader. It was.

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

Cool!

Now, where did I put my glasses?

 

 

Through the Ether

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

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

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

 

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