[Patsy Cline’s salt and pepper collection, Patsy Cline Museum, Nashville, Tennessee]
A wonderful surprise happened in 2018: I made two new, wonderful friends, both in their seventies, too. Over tea last week with one, a fellow peace activist and feminist, we discovered that although we’d grown up in very different parts of the country, our families’ respective religions differed, and she’d grown up with more siblings than I, in one respect, her parents and mine were exactly the same. She and I, who’d both grown up in the fifties and early sixties, had both taken piano lessons. And ballroom dancing!
We snickered. And agreed that learning how to waltz or foxtrot was not something young people ascribed to anymore. She quoted that famous line: “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did—only backwards and in high heels.” And I shared a story from my thirties, when my then-husband and I—probably chemically enhanced, shall we say?—had crashed a big, fancy, neighborhood party one summer night, a party held in a tent and with a live band. Boldly I’d invited a neighbor I really, really admired to dance with me. Kind of shy, not a dancer, he’d hesitated: “Don’t worry, darlin’,” I’d assured him. “I’ll make you look good.” And I did. Because from my ballroom-dance classes, I knew how to balance my weight on the balls of my feet; how to lightly rest my left hand on my partner’s shoulder in order to sense whatever direction he would go, and in a split-second, feet poised to respond, to accommodate that movement—wherever!
What a dated, horrifying story! But it begs me to wonder: Do I still do that? Do I still, in ways I don’t even realize because it’s just what I was trained to do, do I still wait, poised to move in response to someone else? Do I accommodate? Dedicate myself to making someone else look good?
I am delighted to report that the Friends Journal will publish my “Sweet Baby Jesus” on December 1st!
And that of the four choices I’d offered for the article’s accompanying illustration, they chose this mural! My favorite. Yes, it depicts sweet baby Jesus. (I love that his swaddling clothes are green. As in verdant, growing, life-giving.) And offers a visual tribute to liberation theology, referenced in my piece.
But to look at this mural, the same week asylum-seekers were tear-gassed at our border, is to be again reminded of Oscar Romero’s murder. We remember the upheavals and horrors of Central America—and our country’s role in those upheavals and horrors. We remember why people seek asylum. We remember.
I am writing to express my opposition to this proposed rule change.
[Okay, fine. That’s the standard stuff. But what should I say? “Write from your place of strength,” an immigration advocate coached a group of us letter-writers recently.
What’s mine? Do I note that because of the fear these proposed changes are causing, providers of greater-Boston health care services note a 5 to 10% drop in people coming to their clinics? So, for example, people aren’t getting flu shots? And how that makes me very nervous to get on public transportation or shop at my neighborhood supermarket? Or how I am fearful how these changes, designed to instill fear and insecurity, will adversely effect the wonderful, upbeat people, most of them from other countries, who work at my mother’s long-term care facility?
Absolutely not! Public Charge isn’t about white, privileged me or my white, privileged family! It’s about the Trump Administration rewriting Emma Lazarus‘s poem to read, “We only want you if you’re young, healthy, wealthy, and speak English.”
No, my place of strength is the same place as so many of those who these proposed changes would exclude: I am a grandmother. I know how my family needs me. I know how my family relies on me. I know how the stories I tell my grandchildren, my “These are some of the men and women who came before you; here’s what they thought was important” narratives anchor my family. I know how grandparents’ (free) childcare makes it possible for both parents to work. Grandparents cast a long shadow in ways I can speak to. Grandparents make this country work in ways few understand or acknowledge.
But I better get to work. These letters, which can be as short as 250 words, are due by December 10, 2018.]
Can we hold all of it? Can we both honor the war dead and wonder why, dear God, are we still engaged in endless war? Can we both use words like sacrifice and courage and service with conviction and sincerity and compassion while asking ourselves, are there other words I could be saying, too? Illuminating words? Game-changing words? Words that come from a deep and wise and loving place? Can we both grieve and resent that we are?
I’m trying to. And have come to realize that since the death of my mother a month ago, I’ve been practicing this spiritual balancing act. Because, yes, I mourn, yes, I miss her every day, yes, I’m sad, yes, I am grateful for all she imparted; how she’d modeled so many ways to be a strong, fulfilled woman. (Just writing fulfilled, a word she used all the time, makes me smile.) And yes, my relationship with Pat Wild was—and is— the most rich and complicated and challenging relationship I will ever have! So, yes, I am learning to hold all of it. Slowly. And sometimes failing, falling.
Meanwhile: The world just noted the one-hundredth anniversary of the end of “The Great War.” (aka “The War To End All Wars.”) Meanwhile: Veterans for Peace just reclaimed Armistice Day. Meanwhile, my mother’s unambiguous, clear, firm, posthumous message to me: be grateful.
In the process of retrieving a much-needed toy from my granddaughter’s stroller parked on my front porch, I’d stepped outside to discover a white, curly-haired, slightly chunky young man about to ring my doorbell. Grandma on a mission, I think he told me he was soliciting for WGBH— but I could be wrong. I really wasn’t listening. For sure he launched into a spirited spiel lauding NPR; he even listed several programs and, to his credit, having taken note of the stroller and the toy in my hand, made special mention of “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.”
“I know what NPR is,” I muttered.
“Then I’m sure you want to support it,” he countered.
Approaching the front door I turned to face him. “I truly believe in what NPR does but, no, I can’t.”
“May I ask why?” he demanded and, to my consternation, took on an offensive pose, widening his stance, inflating his chest. (My guess? He played football in high school.)
Ahh, dear reader, what a teachable moment! How I would have loved to explain to that young man that for aging Quakers like me and my husband, living on retirement funds, charitable giving is incredibly complicated. Babies starve in Yemen, there’s relief money desperately needed all over the world because of climate change, and, locally, the Somerville Homeless Coalition always needs money; so does the Welcome Project. Every year my husband and I receive thousands of nudges and tugs and polite requests and the occasional solicitor at our door. Yes, we believe in God’s unlimited love, yes, we believe that “There’s enough” but, sadly, yes, our ability to support every worthy cause— I’m not even getting in political contributions!—is definitely limited. (And, sadly, because of inflation and rising health care costs, especially medications, actually shrinking.) How I would have loved to tell that young man that it took my husband and me almost two years to come up with a careful, thoughtful formula for giving. So, sorry, young man but NPR didn’t make the final cut.
But his belligerence on my own front porch—his aggressive posture triggered something very primal and territorial—meant I was Done. And besides, I was still Grandma on a mission!
“Where to begin?” I asked, stepping inside. (Sorry, young man. That’s all I got.)
Saturday afternoon, I’d gone to the 70th birthday party for a dear, dear F/friend, hosted by her dear, dear husband. Reluctantly. Jet-lagged after a wonderful trip to LA, overwhelmed by my ever-growing To Do List, and, most critically, horrified by the news from Pittsburgh, I wasn’t sure I was up to spending a rainy and chilly afternoon chitchatting.
But there are some friends who are so wonderful, so amazing, you just have to show up for them, right? So I did. And was immediately glad. Her two adult children, who’d gone to First Day School (Quaker-style Sunday School) with mine had come; it was wonderful to see them, again, and to hear about their intriguing, fulfilled lives. The food was plentiful and delicious. I caught up with other good friends. It was a wonderful party. Until . . .
I’d gone into the kitchen to get something to drink and there I met—let’s call him “Bob,” a grey-haired, older man and, like the rest of us, in New England fall weather garb. A neighbor of my F/friends, I’m guessing. And, I’m also guessing, had either been drinking or, sadly, as is the case with some of us over seventy, might have had “cognitive issues”?
Because here’s our conversation went: “You a Quaker?” I nodded. “You look like a Quaker.” And without pausing: “You know what I like about Quakers? I can beat the shit out of [our host] and he wouldn’t fight back.”
“Why would you want to beat the shit out of him?”
“Don’t analyze it!” he scolded.
“Why not?” I retorted. Sharply. “You tell me you want to beat the shit out of someone, I want to know why!”
But apparently Bob, besotted by his presumed freedom to beat the shit out of someone without resistance, wasn’t interested in engaging in meaningful dialogue! At least not with a woman he’d just met and who’d just challenged him. (And, yes, Dear Reader, it did briefly occur to me that Bob may very well be another aging, cis, white male perpetually bewildered and threatened by women like me who, you know, want to smash the patriarchy!) Shrugging, I filled my glass and left.
Here’s the thing: I may look like a Quaker, Dear Reader, but that doesn’t mean that in the moment I’m automatically able to do or say The Right Thing. I may want to “Be Peace” as my license plate holder enjoins. But, sometimes I don’t know how.
What might I have said, instead? A couple of ideas came to me the next day, during silent worship, as we collectively mourned the eleven elderly Jews murdered while they had been in worship.
How about “[Your host] is your friend, yes? What else do you like about him?”
How about: “There is so much violence and hatred in the world. Like what just happened this morning in Pittsburgh. I think lots of people, not just Quakers, are looking for ways to not keep adding to it. Don’t you?”
How about “Been drinking, Bob? Off your meds, maybe?” (Okay, so sometimes snarky things come to me, too.)
Here’s the other thing: While I am chagrined I couldn’t be peace, I couldn’t find a way to move the conversation into something enlightened and transformative and nice, I’m not going to feel bad about what I said, either. Because this patriarchy isn’t going to smash itself!
But, yesterday, in Boston’s Museum of Science’s butterfly garden, surrounded by fluttering, beautiful creatures, I felt my mother. I felt a powerful—how to describe it? An energy exchange? Her presence? Her essence? Her soul?
Recently my heroine, Elizabeth Warren, declared that we would “use our pain to make power.”
Transformation happens. And change is incremental. Week 1, post Kavanaugh’s confirmation, may I share my first, baby step towards empowerment?
Here’s something I’m beginning to understand: Cruelty is a blunt, crude tool being used to demoralize and weaken those of us who believe that Love is Love is Love, or that Black Lives Matter, or The Golden Rule, or When In Doubt, Choose Kindness, or that climate change is real and, ohmygod, we don’t have much time!
I have discovered this week that when I recognize this fundamental, cruelly- brilliant strategy when, for example, learning more about the proposed changes to “Public Charge,” or when reading despicable tweets or online comments, my experience feels different! Feels as though I’ve laid down my self-righteousness and strapped on armor. Feels as if I can let those hateful, nasty words go—or, to put it another way, feels as though I don’t get caught up in mentally arguing about these hateful words, one by one, but see them for what they are. A strategy.
Something Else (and still a little foggy): I think Cruelty is unsustainable. I think its practitioners shrink as they wield their blunt, crude tool. They get small. And, like the public outrage when the truth of caged children became known, cruelty is not invincible.
Something Else I AM Sure Of: Love is love is love. And renewable. Sustainable. Invincible.
But, then,The prologue to John says much the same thing, doesn’t it! The Light shines on in the dark, and the darkness has never mastered it.
Circling, circling Nick Cave’s soundsuits, I marveled how this African-American artist had transformed his rage, his fears, his searing pain into fabric and sequins, into cast-asides made sculpture, into crocheted body suits; into beauty. Horrified by Rodney King’s brutal assault by Los Angeles police in 1991, Cave created armor, costumes, disguises, performance pieces, each wearable sculpture inviting us to try on what it means for a man of color to walk down an American sidewalk. Back home, still awed by what I’d seen in Nashville, I considered Cave’s pain-to-transcendence process. How does such breathtaking transformation happen? On meditative walks on the icy, snowy sidewalks of Somerville and Cambridge (MA), at meeting for worship, and noodling in my journal, I’ve wondered what I, a Quaker writer, might learn about my own process by reflecting on Cave’s astonishing work?
His rage as impetus? This genesis I understand. Often my writing projects have originated from the white-hot anger felt during meeting for worship! Held, sustained in deep, collective silence, I have dared to truly examine what lies heavy on my heart. When, for example, my homeless students, women I’d taught in greater Boston family shelters, shared with me their stories of childhood sexual abuse, I brought my horror and fury into worship. What am I asked to do? I prayed. Over many months, my novel, Swimming In It, was born. Yes, I know how negative emotions can inspire!
But those soundsuits’ not-to-be-ignored sequins, their thousands of hand-sewn buttons, those bolts of gaudy fabric and tin instruments! Surely such voluminous, undeniable stuff could teach me something about transformation? Cave, himself, answered my question during an April, 2013, interview with Artspace.com’s editor-in-chief, Andrew Goldstein:
“So the first soundsuit was constructed entirely out of twigs. I was making a sculpture first—I didn’t even think I could physically put this on—but once it was developed I physically put it on and moved around in it, and it made sound. And when I made that sound, it moved me into a role of protest. In order to be heard you have to speak louder. So that was something that was of interest to me, and it kept unfolding and really becoming much more versatile in that sense, and it made me think more, again, about my role and civic responsibility as an artist.”
In my ears, Cave’s ownership of his artistic agency is a variation of What am I asked to do? But that serendipitous moment when those twigs asserted their twigginess and Cave’s process shifted? This unfolding intrigues me— and invites me to look at my own “twigs.”
What are my twigs? Not words or my thumb-worn thesaurus, certainly, not pen to paper nor a blank computer screen; these are implements, tools like Cave’s needle and thread. What asserts its essence, its Truth, its possibility to me? Against what do my inchoate thoughts interact with, bump up against? What shapes my ideas? What is mutable—yet instructive?
It’s November 23, 1960; Opening Night of my first high school play: For three months the (all-white) cast of that musty favorite, “Seventeen,” has rehearsed in our Lynchburg, Virginia high school’s chilly, cavernous auditorium, its fifteen-hundred seats empty save Miss Virginia Wiley, doyenne of E.C. Glass’s English Department and our fierce director, seated in the middle seat of the third row. Now, nervously waiting backstage, I hear muffled—and welcomed—laughter from many rows, I hear rustling, coughing; crossing stage right, the auditorium’s warmth so startles me I almost trip. So balmy, so charged, so pulsing, so expectant has the auditorium air become, I long to stare past the footlights to catch a glimpse of that multi-headed, breathing organism out there. Instead I say my first line.
It’s September, 1966: After we graduated in June, my college roommate joined the Peace Corps; I’m teaching fourth grade in Brooklyn. I send her a letter complaining about the city’s pollution, a major topic among my new, Big Apple friends, Park Slope neighbors, P. S. 120 colleagues. “Air?” she writes back from El Salvador. “You’re writing about air?”
It’s 2005: I’m writing a book about the two African-American students who desegregated E.C. Glass High School in 1962 and, today, every word is a struggle. You’re getting cobwebs!” I inwardly hear my mother shout from the kitchen, just like she did when I was eight and made the same stupid mistake over and over while practicing the piano. “Go outside and get some fresh air!” I’ve spent so long inhabiting Lynchburg’s civil rights history today that, walking along Somerville Avenue, when a gritty March wind stings my face, I need to remind myself of where I am. What year this is. And why I was led to write this book. Exposed to traffic-fetid air, my inchoate ideas shift. And way opens.
It’s January 21, 2017 and everyone I know is at a Women’s March somewhere. Not me. I’m in a recording studio in Union Square’s Somerville Media Center, headphones on, podcasts’ script in hand. My script. I wrote these words. I honed them for years, since 1999, draft after draft. And now, sometimes tentatively, with a southern accent, as if a thirty-five-year old Lynchburg-born woman only just now figuring it out, sometimes rasping and growling and dropping my Rs as if a working-class old man from Somerville, sometimes myself, the author, I speak my words into a microphone, Stuart, my sound engineer, at my side. And although I can imagine Miss Virginia Wiley’s multiple charm bracelets jangling as she furiously scribbles a note lambasting my performance, nevertheless, I persist. I love emergent Jewell, I love crippled Rocco, I love their love story, an agape love story. I love this self-made opportunity to praise Unconditional Love—on a website! I’m loving these in-the-moment openings as I revise, improve my script as I say my lines. My love comes through in my voice; I hear it in my headphones. When, three years before, I’d first conceived of creating WellingUp.net to share my Quaker-based novel, Welling Up online, podcasts had seemed another techie bell or whistle at my disposal. Now, surrounded by recording equipment, hearing what’s coming through my voice, I acknowledge and celebrate my airtime. For I remember, pre-television, the four, five-year-old me, alone, transported, legs-crossed seated on the rug in front of my family’s radio console as I listened—and trusted—Don McNeill’s gentle, flat, Midwestern voice. Which, at the speed of light, beamed from downtown Chicago to our fusty, upstate New York living room every morning from nine to ten. “Each in his own words, each in his own way, for a world united in peace, bow your heads and pray,” he’d suggest every morning. And I did.
It’s First Day. Perhaps there’s a fireplace fire; a heavy log shifts, thuds. Perhaps a restless branch pops. Perhaps there’s been another school massacre; another horror each of us carried with us into Friends Meeting at Cambridge’s spacious meetinghouse this morning. Whatever has happened, it is here. It is present. We hundred or so worshippers swim in it. Our shoulders droop under its collective weight. I listen to my breathing. My heart races. What am I asked to do? Should I stand to name our shared outrage? For I have experienced—and written about—how such naming can sometimes be a balm. What am I asked to do? Should I break the silence? As if wetting my index finger and lifting it into the wind, I test the air. It is agitated, hornets-nest stirred up. You can’t fix this, always-responsible-oldest-sister, I counsel myself. And remain seated.
It’s First Day. Slowly, an older woman rises to speak: “It seems to me,” she begins, “that meeting for worship is like a radio? When we come into worship, when we sit quietly and wait, it’s like we’re turning the radio on. We’re saying we’re ready to listen. To what is all around us.” In us, too, I silently amend.
Inspired, literally, by this exploration of Cave’s pain-to-transformation process, an important question still remains: what of Beauty? Nick Cave’s glorious process began in sorrow and ends in glorious, wondrous, transcendent beauty. What is my writerly final destination? And am reminded of a poem quoted at meeting for worship years ago and, apparently, still guiding me: The Poet Speaks of Praising by Rainer Maria Rilke
Oh speak, poet, what do you do? I praise.
But the monstrosities and the murderous days, how do you endure them, how do you take them? I praise.
But the anonymous, the nameless grays, how, poet, do you still invoke them? I praise.
What right have you, in all displays, in very mask, to be genuine? I praise.
And that the stillness and the turbulent sprays know you like star and storm? because I praise.
(from Rilke on Love and Other Difficulties, ed. and trans. by John J. L. Mood, Norton, 1975)
Having a loved one receiving “comfort care” is like being stoned—minus the munchies. Sometimes I forget and become absorbed or distracted or caught up in mindless routine but, mostly, my life glows, now, as if backlit. Ever aware that someone I love approaches death has imbued everything around me with such wonder, such preciousness, such gratitude!
Which, not for the first time, brings me to that wonderful moment at the end of “Our Town”:
“EMILY: “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?”
STAGE MANAGER: “No. Saints and poets maybe…they do some.”
― Thornton Wilder, Our Town
Saints and poets, maybe—and those whose loved ones approach death.
As I write this, the day after another September 11th anniversary, a truly terrifying hurricane inexorably approaches the Carolinas. And like those painful days following the Twin Towers attack had felt, this morning I sense a collective pause as millions of us hold our breath. We wait. And, yes, as hackneyed and ill-used as that phrase has become, we pray.
At some point in my life, I was made aware that all over the world were people, many of them women, who spent their lives in constant prayer. Yes. Always. What a joy to discover this!
This past summer I had the good fortune to meet one, Sister Virginia, who lives—and prays—in a convent in France, and is the (biological) sister of my husband’s ex-wife. For me, meeting this aging, slight nun, who radiated Love, who hugged me when introduced as if we were old, close friends, was like meeting a rock star!
Saturday, exploring the Italian section of Gloucester (MA), my husband and I discovered its magnificently decorated Mother of Grace Club. The club, I later learned from Google, had begun during World War II by Gloucester mothers who prayed for their sons serving in the military to return. And they did. (I also learned that Saturday was The Blessed Mother’s birthday. Which explains those amazing decorations!)
But walking past before googling about it, I’d already intuited what that club was about. Sitting on a folding chair just inside its garlanded, ruffled, opened doorway sat an older woman. Praying. And having sat, alone, in my completely empty meetinghouse when, during the week after September 11th, my Quaker meeting has opened its space to anyone who wished to come—although nobody came while I was there—there was something about her body language that spoke to me. Reminded me what it had felt like to pray without ceasing. To be like Sister Virginia and her spiritual sisters and brothers all over the world. To truly and whole-heartedly embrace the power of prayer.
My mother isn’t doing well. Despite pain meds and massages and ice packs and the tender, loving care she receives from her long-term-care facility’s excellent staff, she suffers. She weeps. She’s horribly confused. Sometimes she’ll tell me about her conversations with my father (he died in 2010); sometimes she perseverates, “Who’s taking care of him? He’s over a hundred, you know.”!
For most of my life I’ve had a complicated, fraught relationship with my beautiful and brilliant and, until late in her life, unrealized mother. “You know,” she told me years ago; she might have been drinking.”You should have been my mother.” Over time I came to understand why this crazy-weird impossibility was so tragically true. Therapy helped. Al-Anon helped. Having four daughters of my own helped. Getting older—both of us—helped. And for the past three years, being able to drive fifteen minutes to visit her in her private, sunny room surrounded by her own paintings and photographs and books helps. That she receives meds to ease her lifelong anxiety and depression helps. (She pays a pretty penny for this care; an obscenely huge amount. Which she can afford. Until she won’t.)
Yet even on the best of visits, when we’ve “walked” along wheelchair accessible pathways to see how the community gardens’ tomatoes fare, or strolled down to a lovely, little pond to watch turtles and fish and, sometimes, a blue heron; even then, I’d come home and take a nap!
So, last night, worried about her and wiped out by another too-hot, terrifyingly unseasonal day, I lay on my bed, AC valiantly chugging along, and, headphones on, listened to music. I didn’t curate my selections; I just listened to what I love. (Or so I thought.) Like Maria Callas’s “Casta Diva.” Or Faure’s “Requiem” which, the first time I heard it, on my car radio on the way to work, triggered a peak religious experience. Yes, triggered. For having just experienced The Whole, That Which Is Beyond Words, Spirit’s Transcendent Love, all I could think of was “Well, this is highly inconvenient! Right here on Mass Av in Porter Square? Couldn’t I have been in a forest?”
Oh, right, I realized, listening to Faure’s gorgeous mass. Requiem! Ummm, as in death? As in my mother’s tears of pain, certainly, but also her tears of shame and sadness that she’s so helpless and weak; as in her dim understanding of what, possibly, is happening to her? As in, perhaps, that the veil between the living and the dead begins to thin for her; she’s catching glimpses of what I cannot see? Like my father? As in that I am in mourning for my beautiful and brilliant and realized mother; I am in mourning for a Mother Earth who is much too hot, now. (Jeez.)
And that, again, mysteriously, an Unidentified Artist some call Spirit loved me, guided me.