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.

Fallow

[Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, California, after a fire.]

When I was working on WellingUp.net, I told its web developers: “You know? This is probably my last book.”

“Nah,” Byron Hinebaugh replied. “You’re just getting started.”

Turns out Byron was right. Turns out I just finished a new one I’m very excited about, Missing Reels, currently looking for a happy home. Turns out I’ve already begun research on another one. Turns out, Spirit is generous. As in generative. Replenishing. And, like grace, unexpected.

But, although excited about another project, I am not yet ready to, you know, write. Which means more time to catch up with family, spend time with a new friend going through a medical challenge, mull, ponder, noodle. More time to inhabit that place of uncertainty and confusion out of which comes Something. Something that needs time and thought and energy to come to life. More time to think more deeply about how, so often for me, anger is the genesis for a new project—but to actively wonder what might come forth should I delve more deeply into what sadness might produce?

I’m just getting started.

 

Do I Matter?

[This 2007 photograph of an El Salvadoran mural taken by Alison McKeller.]

This week I heard a story, a story I’d heard before, told by a friend held in solitary confinement. His tiny cell’s overhead light broken, for months he literally lived in darkness; only a beam of light the size of a quarter shone in. His food, shoved in through a slot in a steel door so thick it blocked all outside sounds, was barely enough.  Fearful for his mental health, over time he learned how to tie threads—harvested from his underwear—to cockroaches’ torsos and hitch them to an empty milk container,  those creatures’ progress, their struggles as entertaining as a 3-D movie. “Does anyone know what I am going through?” he wondered, alone, hungry, in the dark, and completely cut off from all human contact.

Listening to this horrific story again, I heard his plaintive, poignant question anew—and,  serendipitously, connected his question to a lament I’ve heard lately. “People need to know,” an immigration-rights activist I know says. Over and over. Until I heard my returning-citizen friend’s story again this week, I’d always heard my Salvadoran friend’s statement as a plea for more information-sharing on today’s immigration issues. (Do you know, for example, what’s going on for TPS holders right now? You’re welcome.)

But what I believe both are asking is: If no one knows what I am going through, what will change? Does my struggle matter? I feel alone; am I alone? Must I always live with my overwhelming sense that most people have no idea what my life has been about? Does my life have meaning? Do I matter?

 

 

The Marmee Dilemma

Much is being written or vlogged about Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women.” May I join in?

Seated in perfect seats in the Somerville Theater on a rainy Saturday afternoon, a beloved, grown daughter by my side, I was already prepared to adore this latest iteration of a beloved novel-turned-film classic, released on Christmas Day of 2019. (Remember back then?) And I wasn’t disappointed.

Geraldine Brooks’ 2005 Pulizer-prize winning novel, March much on my mind, which features a  hot-tempered Marmee, I was eager, over dinner, to discuss this latest film version of that fictional mother, played by Laura Dern, with my insightful daughter. Who is painfully aware of both my own struggles with anger —and my mother’s. And so my daughter was moved, as was I, when Dern’s Marmee admits to her daughter Jo, “I’m angry nearly every day of my life.”

My mother used to tell me that one of the things I did that infuriated her was that I gave my father a free pass but was highly critical of her. Her anger. “Double standard,” she’d hiss when she perceived yet another transgression. For years I’d dismiss her hissings as indicative of a far more hurtful truth: my dad was so much more lovable. He deserved a free pass. (Ouch.)

Older now, I see much truth in my mother’s accusation; a Truth inexorably bound up in powerful and cultural expectations of the Good Mother, aka “The Angel of the House.”  (Another highly successful nineteenth-century writer, Charles Dickens, deserves lots of blame here.) An avid reader of Dickens and Louisa May Alcott, as a child and adolescent I both expected my mother to be another Marmee and gave little thought as to why she wasn’t. Marlee’s saintly and unselfish actions? Like when Dern’s character, exhausted, destitute, nevertheless wraps her own scarf into a bundle she hands over to a struggling father who’d lost two sons in the Civil War? That’s what a Good Mother looks like. Yikes.

So, right here, right now, a shout-out to another novelist, Sue Miller, for her 2002 The Good Mother, to Donald Winnicott, who’d coined the phrase, “the good enough mother,” and to feminists everywhere.

Good enough mothers like mine, like me, often confuse anger* with sadness. (Which is a whole other subject.) More to the point: Like Marmee, whose idealistic husband gives away all the family’s money before abandoning his wife and four daughters to go off to war, we, too, are plagued by present-day outrages and injustices and cruelties. So, yeah, we’re endlessly pissed, too. Of course we are! There’s plenty to be angry about. So we lose it. All the time.

And then many us are then overcome by shame. Because we can’t be like Marmee.

Sigh.

*Not talking about rage, although God knows my daughters know and I know what that looks like on the face of a furious mother. That’s terrifying! Rage should be squashed. Controlled. Redirected. Might Marmee’s scarf-giving have been a symbolic handing-over of her rage at War? Might she have been, in that instant, creating her own ritual?

 

 

 

 

Muscle Memory

 

One Sunday morning every December, my Quaker meeting shortens its morning worship to put on a fifteen-minute Christmas pageant. Directed and performed by the children of our community, some First Day School students chose speaking parts, others opt to dress up as angels or sheep or shepherds or to perform in our once-a-year orchestra. Rightfully, every year the star of the show is a live baby, traditionally the most recent arrival to our community. (The rest of the Holy Family varies. Three years ago, the baby’s single mother was “Mary”; “Joseph” was played by a stalwart, beloved member of our community.)

This past Sunday as the hundred or so of us in the meetinghouse transitioned from silent worshippers to live theater-goers and the pageant’s young, excited actors bunched together in the meetinghouse foyer to wait for their cue, the meetinghouse door opened and “Joseph,” father of this year’s “Baby Jesus,” approached me as I sat, close to where the pageant would be performed . “Here,” he said, handing me his son. “Why don’t you hold him until things get settled.” Then turned to quickly rejoin his fellow actors in the foyer.

What Christmas story am I suddenly performing, I wondered as I held up my arms to receive this exalted child? Am I Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s mother? Mary’s mother, Saint Anne? No, my arms told me. You are playing the role of another ancient tale. You are Old Woman, The Crone, a mother and grandmother. Your crepey arms once held your own children and grandchildren. Your muscles remember how to hold a newborn. Just as you now sometimes remember so much of the wisdom imparted to you—by Life, by Spirit, by other wise souls. And why you were entrusted with this great honor.

Rejoice!

 

 

Two Toucans Touching

Sometimes I exchange books with a dear friend. Sometimes I’ll notice intriguing titles or descriptives in a box of give-aways on the sidewalk and grab a book or two. Sometimes my grandchildren tell me I should read the YA they’ve just finished. However randomly books show up in my reading queue, it is not random that I’ve just read two post-apocalyptic novels* back to back. Sadly, given the dire time we live in, such subject matter makes perfect sense.

Towards the end of one of those recent reads—no, I won’t say which one—a grandchild asks his grandmother, “Did you ever see an elephant?” That child’s wistful question much on my mind and in my heart, on Black Friday I visited the San Diego Zoo.

I saw elephants. I spent considerable time in the Reptile House—which I’d always avoided. Like a pilgrim I walked from habitat to habitat—as zoos go, San Diego’s is pretty spectacular—giving thanks for all creatures great and small.

And, dear Reader, I was not alone. For there were times, in one of the aviaries, for example, where the (probably endangered) birds from distant countries were so close, so accessible, so magnificent that zoo-visitors were noticeably hushed. Reverent. Grateful. Grieving.

How do we live into such grief and loss? That question, dear Reader, haunts me.

*The Bone Clocks and The Fifth Wave

The Big Picture (Or As Much of It That’s Currently Available)

What I’m about to write may seem ridiculously obvious. And political—not spiritual. And yet this Ah Hah feels Spirit-given:

Yesterday at a meeting on immigration justice, we were bemoaning the current administration’s latest attack: drastically raising the fees to apply for citizenship.

“It’s all about the money,” a member of our group bemoaned. And I found myself pushing back.

“With all due respect, this isn’t about money,” I countered. “This is about the Republican Party knowing it can’t win if people of color vote. So it’s doing whatever it can to disenfranchise brown and black-skinned people. We see this in Georgia around voter registration. We see this around ex-offenders not being able to vote. And, of course, we see this in our current immigration policies.” And, I might have added, “. . . scripted by a white nationalist.”

Where is Spirit in this? To see this Big Picture, however imperfectly I am able to grasp this, is mysteriously empowering. (Not yet clear why.)

I do know this though: There is Enough.

Just The Facts, Folks

In order to be very, very careful, I must leave out most of the salient details that would make this post come alive. Pop. For the safety of the person I want to write about, I’m leaving out most of this story. Their story.

The facts are these: Every day for the past couple of months, I have been made aware of one of my neighbors. Who has no clue that their existence has become a regular—and deeply moving—part of my life. Every day I hold that person, who I suspect is undocumented, in the Light. (That’s Quakerese for pray. Close to it, anyway) Every day, as I do so, I feel the disparity between their life and my own. And more recently, every day, I think about how this situation is exactly like the extraordinary movie, Parasite—only in reverse. I, the privileged one, know one or two important things about them. I know they exist. Close by. They know nothing about me. I don’t exist.

But we both know that something fundamentally wrong is going on. That this person lives in the shadows. And I don’t.