January 4, 2009: Letter to the editor

Today in meeting for worship, a message came to me. What was strange about this particular message was that it came “earmarked,” so to speak. “This is a letter to The Boston Globe,” my Inner Voice whispered. So when I came home, here’s what I wrote and sent:

What is happening in Gaza reminds me of a story I was told in Sunday School. Unitarian-Universalists of a certain age may remember it:

The Wind and The Sun each proclaimed to be the most powerful. When a man wearing an overcoat walked by, they decided to put their strength to a test. Which of them could force that man to take off his coat? The Wind blew and blew; the man buttoned up his coat. The Wind doubled his efforts but the man adjusted his collar and kept on walking. No matter how how mightily The Wind blew, that man did not take off his coat. When The Sun shone powerfully on that man, he immediately shed that coat, of course.
I don’t remember if, in the original story, The Sun had any last words to The Wind so will supply my own: “You know what the definition of ‘crazy’ is?” The Sun taunts the breathless, exhausted Wind. “Crazy is doing the same thing over and over and failing every time yet  hoping for a different result the next time.”
Surely, in 2009, for either Israel or Palestine to believe that violence will achieve anything (except more violence, of course) is crazy. As The Sun so ably schooled The Wind, light trumps might.

December 30, 2008: Redemption (and the Beloved Community

Yesterday morning, after beloved grandson Dmitri and his equally beloved parents had gone home after our wonderful Christmas together, David and I were feeling pretty sad. Rather than indulge in gooey, fattening holiday leftovers, we oh-so-maturely opted for a brisk walk around Concord’s Great Meadows. A wildlife preserve beside the Concord River, Great Meadows is a perennial favorite.

One of the first things we always do at Great Meadows is to check out the  “recently sited” blackboard which hangs on the kiosk at the preserve’s entrance. After they’ve walked around the preserve, birders and small children note what they spotted. Sometimes these chalked notations are pretty fanciful—dinosaurs, sea monsters, etc.—but always worth reading.

Yesterday, however, there was nothing written on the blackboard except “Happy new year!”

“A clean slate!” I thought. “Literally!”

What would a clean slate feel like? What if my considerable “trespasses/debts”, like a messy, much-chalked-on blackboard, had been vigorously erased somehow? As we walked (Great Meadows being flooded, our walk continued around Cambridge’s Fresh Pond, instead) I contemplated myself as a clean slate. It was exhilarating!

I’m not a clean slate, of course. I have made many mistakes.  But every week, when I listen to formerly incarcerated men and women talk about how they’re turning their lives around, I am reminded that although our “chalk marks” are never completely erased, with Spirit’s help, there is Possibility, Hope; can I say Redemption? 

Maybe not. I’ll admit that maybe I’m using the word “redemption” incorrectly. (unlike my “literally” usage which was spot on!) In traditional Christianity, as I understand it, redemption means being delivered from sin and happens through sacrifice. I’m talking more about a spiritual process by which the possibility for change and growth are acknowledged, honored, and acted upon by both individuals and the larger community. A “beloved community.”

I plan to keep using the word “redemption”—as elucidated—as often as possible because such a loving and forgiving concept feels like something people of faith (that’s me!) should just be saying.

And witnessing to.

December 22, 2008: Happy Hannukkah

The problem with not writing for The Somerville Journal anymore AND taking a break from novel-writing is that everything, EVERYTHING becomes a possibility for this blog. The early morning light sparkling through the massive icicles hanging from our neighbor’s porch? The overheard comment at a Somerville Avenue gas station  today? A (probably Arabic-speaking) guy pumping gas said to an SUV owner: “You’re better off with a Toyota than that thing.” The politics of who makes way for whom when two strangers approach each other on a narrow, snowy sidewalk pathway?

But in honor of Hannukkah, I think I’ll talk about light/Light. Which, as I’m sure you’ll recall, was the theme for my Christmas stocking gifts last year. (This year’s theme: From Around the World.)

[FYI: Something like what I’m about to say was said yesterday at Meeting by dear friend/Friend Mehmet Rona:]

It’s a miracle, isn’t it? As of yesterday, the days are getting longer. Right at this moment, the sun’s starting to melt our icy sidewalk. When you REALLY contemplate the miracle of light, then it’s pretty easy to accept that, yes, it was possible that only enough oil for one day miraculously stretched and stretched, right?

In honor of this miracle, today at Cambridge Naturals, I bought Sunbeam Candles, 100% beeswax, as stocking gifts.

“Wait a sec,” you say. “Light was last year’s stocking theme.”

Oh. Did I fail to mention that these candles were “Created with Solar Power”? How People’s Republic of Cambridge can you get?!

December 18, 2008: Allison’s “competition”

Judging from the frenzied activity at my bird feeders, tomorrow’s snow storm will be a doozy: lots of cheeky, fat sparrows and late this morning, a female goldfinch at the niger seed feeder. Usually skittish and/or really fast eaters, goldfinches, at least the ones who visit MY feeder, stay briefly and then flitter away. But this particular gal ate and ate and ate. That she lingered so long just feet away from where I watched her gave me a much-needed opportunity to reflect:

Before the goldfinch’s arrival, I’d been missing Allison a little bit (she’s spending Christmas with boyfriend Dustin’s family this year.) But the goldfinch reminded me, as goldfinches always do, of Michael Merkin, who, when I’d visited him at a Hospice in Queens, had assured me that, yes, he was dying, but he’d be back. One summer afternoon, a couple of months after he’d died, I was sitting on the deck writing in my journal about Michael and his deathbed promise. Just then a male goldfinch flew to the feeder. “Is that you, Michael?”

A few years before that visitation, however, Allison had been mock-jealous that I lavished so much attention to the feeders. She especially resented that I babytalked and cooed when goldfinches showed up. (Who could blame her, really?!) “They’re our competition,” she told her twin, pointing to a pair of goldfinches. “Now that we’ve gone to college, Mom’s replaced us with THEM!”

No golden bird, not even a reincarnated Michael Merkin, could ever replace my precious daughters. That a very hungry goldfinch lingered for a deliciously long time this morning enabled me to remember Michael, Allison’s wiseass quip, AND to experience the unmitigated joy I always feel when a goldfinch comes to feed. (I feel only slightly less euphoric about chickadees.)

December 17, 2008: “Christmas happens.”

Yesterday, at Porter Square Books, I ran into Wendy Jehlen. In her mid-thirties, daughter of good friends Alain and Pat Jehlen, mother of two beautiful daughters, Wendy is a gifted dancer who’s also an interpreter for the deaf. Seconds before she’d entered the bookstore, apparently, Wendy had learned that the mother of one of her daughter’s friends had just died. “She was my age,” Wendy said tearfully.

The grim faces of the people I’d passed on the way to  Porter Square very much on my mind (people, I’m guessing, suffering from what’s happening to the economy), Wendy’s sad news, and knowing how many of my own friends and family are presently going through hard times, I commented on what a challenging Christmas this was going to be.

Wendy’s face brightened: “There’s a wonderful piece written right after Pearl Harbor,” she informed me. “I’ll try to send it to you. But basically it’s saying ‘Christmas happens even in the midst of hard times.’ ”

Ah ha! We’d talked about exactly this same concept in yoga class last week. Annie Hoffman, our amazing teacher, had read us something about how we’re essentially and fundamentally joyous beings. Sounds like the Quaker construct of Inner Light, doesn’t it?  Put in another way: Within each of us is Joy, Light, That of God, Love, or as this shiny, hopeful, loving and generous whatever-it-is thing is sometimes called at this time of year, Christmas Spirit. (Since we’re talking constructs, here, I can be a little sloppy with language, right? YOU try writing about the Unexplainable!)

That’s the thing about essential and fundamental: Like the sun, it’s always there. Even at night. A New Yorker short story about a deeply unhappy family on a ski trip who, to their surprise, were touched by the spirit of the season, ended: “Christmas happens.”

December 16, 2008: Do I Need A Blog-off? Naw!

Yikes. What sort of a blog is this when I post so rarely? Answer: A blog that can’t quite take itself seriously, apparently. Dustin, daughter Allison’s boyfriend, and (daughter) Hope have challenged each other to a blog-off, i.e. a contest to see who can be first to post. The slowpoke then has to write on the same theme the early bird dictates. Pretty impressive when you consider the East Coast/West Coast time difference. Should I consider joining?

Two reasons why not:

First: An old story I’ve heard a couple of times at Friends Meeting at Cambridge illustrates how I presently view this blog: An eighteenth-century Quaker, the story goes, was led to travel to a lumber camp outside Philadelphia in order to share God’s love with the hard-working and, presumably, hard-drinking men working there. But when the Quaker (imagine the Quaker Oats guy) arrived, the camp was deserted. Disappointed, the grey-clad gentleman nevertheless entered a large, empty room—maybe the dining hall?—and  spoke. Years later, still looking like the Quaker Oats guy, he was in London when, suddenly, a total stranger came up to him, very excited, and introduced himself. “I was there that day you preached at the lumber camp. I was hiding under a bench. What you said really moved me. Thank you.”

So maybe someone’s reading this?

Second: Yesterday morning, after a ten-year stint, I submitted my last column for The Somerville Journal—for reasons not necessary to go into here. Last night, when I reported this development to my “Creativity Circle,” i.e. Wendy Sanford and Susan Lloyd McGarry, Wendy wondered how and where my making-meaning-of-the-world impulse, which had informed so much of what I’d written for the Journal, would find a satisfying outlet.

“Maybe, now, people will start reading her blog,” Susan Lloyd suggested.

So I guess I should provide these as-yet-unknown folks something to read, huh?

November 15, 2008: Twin (Mind) Set

Was reminded the other night of the dramatic, charged moments right after Allison and Christina had been born (25 years ago this month): There was “Roth baby # 1,” aka Allison, who’d scored a perfect score on the Apgar and was therefore an instant star in that operating room (It was a high-risk birth and there were lots of medical people milling around in case something went wrong). And there was scrawny Christina, “Roth baby # 2,” instantly delivered to Intensive Care. And there was me, feeling such pride and such fear simultaneously!

Maybe that intense moment on November 2, 1983 was teaching me to think about and to feel two very different things at the same time. Certainly this past week I have been both elated that Obama won and constantly wondering how KT’s faring in jail (At least KT got to vote for Obama before being sentenced). Come to think of it, this mindset’s very much informing this week’s column for the Somerville Journal.

Another example: Last night, Lynn threw a very sweet birthday party for Nesto (Nesto: told you I’d mention you in my blog. So there!) Many of the guests were young people affiliated with the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute which, tragically, may close because of state cutbacks. These young people were so delightfully playful, so comfortable with their elders, so FUN, obviously, in part, because they’ve been doing such important work and have received some excellent training. So I laughed and teased and tossed rubbery anemone-like tossables back and forth with these 16-29 year olds, all the while feeling so sad that the Institute may have to shut it doors. (I’m linking the Institute’s website if you want more info.)

November 8, 2008: “It’s a whole new world.”

What a week! What a rollercoaster ride! Tuesday night, at a bar with other aging Somerville progressives (and their kids), after Obama had won Ohio,  I danced. Such joy! Thursday, I tearfully said goodbye to a dear friend who’d been sentenced to 90 days for, essentially, Napping While Black. (His extensive CORI was part of the proceedings, too. Apparently there ain’t no such thing as redemption in the criminal justice system)

My friend’s lawyer, as cynical as they come (who wouldn’t be, given the insane world he navigates daily) was confident that NWB Guy would be out by Christmas. “It’s a whole new world,” Cynical Guy noted.

November 3, 2008: “Cook on a Slave Ship”

As noted when I guest-blogged for Hope, last Wednesday’s meals-and-sharing dinner conversation got a little heated (I’ll link what I wrote when Hope posts it.) At one point I tried (foolishly) to persuade “An Angry Black Man” to treat me like the person he’d known for 2 years instead of lumping me with the rest of the “White Devils” he was railing against. Kevin, another man at the table, decided to come to my defense. “Patricia’s like the cook on the slave ship who’s really nice to you and gives you extra food,” he said.

What? (Or, as I read on Hope’s blog that someone else’s mother said: WTF?)

Hard as it is to admit this, there is a painful truth in Kevin’s metaphor. (Simile, actually) When it comes to today’s systemic racism, I am complicit. Actually, the painful truth gets more horrific: I could have quit my cook job. But how do I get off this present-day ship?


My trip to Lynchburg: October 7 – 11, 2008

How’s this for a writing prompt: It’s October 9, 2008; you’re 63 years old. You have been given the opportunity to address the students of the segregated high school you graduated from in 1962. What would you say?

Can you imagine what a thrill it was to look out into E.C. Glass’s capacious auditorium last week, to see an almost 50-50, racially-mixed audience, to sit on the stage listening to the stories that Lynda and Owen told, to hear 1,500 students say “AHHH,” when I told them that Owen sat alone in the school cafeteria his first day, and to see those students give the 3 of us —and fellow speaker Patrick Lumbumba from Kenya—a standing ovation?

Check out the link page for more info.


September 29, 2008: “Guest Book”?

Back in the spring, when Nathan Gwirtz, the incomparable creator of this website (Thanks again, Nathan!) asked if I wanted to allow people to add comments, I said “No way!” Hard as it is to admit, my skin’s a little more thin and tender than I’d prefer. The bruising comments left on The Somerville Journal‘s answering machine re my columns, for example, then printed in the paper’s “Speakout” section, upset me. And at the Women, Action, Media conference I attended a few months ago, I heard far too many scary stories of mean-spirited, nasty comments left on other women’s blogs. So: No.

A few things are encouraging me to rethink that decision.

1. A couple of weeks ago I went to a panel discussion on the media and civil liberties sponsored by, who else, the ACLU. One of the panelists raved, almost starry-eyed, about the media revolution and how blogs, UTube, Twitter et al fundamentally change how all of us can access information (Indeed, a young man with a camcorder was documenting the evening for his blog. He happened to be a September 11th conspiracy-theory advocate: everybody’s got a shtick.) Do I want commentary re Way Opens and this site to be a part of that new way to access info?

2. After a fun-filled but exhausting trip to Kentucky, I got sick last week. Really sick. But clicking on sites about the Palin-Couric interview—and the comments about that interview—or David Letterman’s rants when stood up by John McCain—ditto—or reading the hundreds of comments from people all over the country after Friday night’s presidential debate takes almost no effort at all. Click. Scroll. Click. Encouraged by the ACLU panelists to move out of my comfort zone, i.e. to read comments from people who don’t espouse my personal beliefs, I did. And, yes, sometimes it almost hurt to read some of the garbage I read. But, and here’s what was far more, ahem, telling: There’s some really thoughtful people out there whose opinions, I found, are helping to shape my own. Hmm.

3. Yesterday I heard an artist talk about her current exhibit of elaborate, intricate pen drawings which are now on exhibit at the Boston Public Library. Like most artists, she’d left a guest book at the library for exhibit viewers to write in; so far, these comments have filled 8 books! The public has lots to say about her work,she explained excitedly, from little drawings and one-sentence comments, to, as she said, “theses!” A “guest book,” I thought. Would calling a newly added section something vaguely old-fashioned like “guest book” encourage civility? Thoughtful discourse?


Walk Cheerfully: Posted August 11, 2008

“Walk cheerfully over the earth,” George Fox advised,”answering that of God in everyone.” A couple of weeks ago, I took an illuminating walk  while on a vacation in the NW: One foggy, misty afternoon, my husband, my step-daughter, and I walked for almost an hour through the dunes of Oregon in bare feet! It’s probably been fifty years since I’ve walked that long and that far without wearing shoes.  Call me crazy but it seemed as if my feet were a little surprised to be unsheathed and unprotected but also, as happens in yoga class, pretty excited to be asked to do what nature intended for them to do. My toes reaching into the sand with every step, the muscles in my calves doing new work, aware with every step how I planted now this foot, now the other, I mused how I complain that I never hear Quakers talk about Fox’s “cheerfully” yet I, an inveterate walker, never consider how I walk! In yoga, in preparation for any standing pose, we’re often instructed to give attention to the four corners of our feet, the placement of our toes, etc. etc. Needless to say, I now consider the word “grounded” in a new, toe-tingly way!