September 29, 2009: “Fences”

Fact: The Huntington Theater production of August Wilson’s “Fences” is the best theater I’ve ever seen. (And I’ve been a theater-goer for over fifty-five years.) A strong, strong cast, a just-right set, and, of course, Wilson’s beautifully crafted characters whose individual, deepest desire is so exquisitely thwarted, make for an astonishing evening.

Thanks to a dear friend, who’d been able to get Huntington tickets from her work, I’d sat with three other women friends. At different times, something profoundly touched each of us; we took turns sobbing.

Here’s what made me grab my handkerchief—more than once: The painfully charged moments when I was compelled to wonder, as African Americans daily wonder: Is what’s happening here because of racism? Is the racist, 1957 world on the other side of the fence what’s really going on, here? Because Wilson has created situations where you simply don’t know. His characters, particularly the main character (whose resemblance to their fathers made two of my theater companions weep) is so beautifully written, moment to moment it’s often impossible to ascertain if the unfolding conflict, screw-up, action is because of the guy’s all-too human choices and foibles or because he’s a black man oppressed by a racist world.

To absolutely take in that moment-to-moment confusion, a confusion lived out by every person of color in this country, was horrible, terribly unsettling—and profound.

September 15, 2009: Beyond Words

On my couch are lovely, artisan pillows from Armenia, Greece and, now, Turkey, souvenirs from countries with centuries of hatred towards one another. In Istanbul last week, walking a few paces behind my sixteen-month old (step) grand-daughter, seeing the soft, “ahhh” eyes of Turkish men melting at the sight of this adorable, determined toddler, I remembered the many horror stories told by Greeks and Armenians of “those horrible Turks.”

How do we relate to one another from that gentle, loving, “ahhh” place, I wondered in worship on Sunday. Good question, huh?

On my way to Meeting on Sunday, I had walked past St. Anthony’s just as the congregation was singing a hymn I’d fallen in love with in Cuba. Hand on my heart, I stood on the sidewalk and listened. I don’t remember the words to that hymn either in Spanish or English (I vaguely recall something about Jesus and boats). Because, somehow, the hymn’s words don’t matter. It’s the melody which directly and profoundly speaks to my gentle, loving, “ahhh” core.

When we put language to that-greater-than-ourselves, that’s when it gets dicey. Love, Light, Peace, God, Christ, Allah, “There is a Spirit that delights to do no evil;” whatever word(s) represent our gentle, loving, “ahh” core, may we speak from that place to one another.

August 25, 2009: This will be a little longer

Within minutes of posting the last, brief acknowledgment of  discouragement, my doorbell rang. My neighbor and her sister wanted copies of my book. They also urged me to contact Oprah! Now, we all know what a long shot that would be. But these two women’s encouragement and enthusiasm came at just the right time. Their visit made me cry.

And yesterday, I met with my amazing godson who gave me excellent feedback re some downloadable discussion questions I plan to add to this website. (Apparently I have some more work to do!)

So I leave tomorrow for a two-week adventure in Turkey, “renewed and refreshed.” Thank you, Spirit.

One of the things I will be doing in Turkey is making a (brief) pilgrimage to Konya where the poet Rumi  is buried. Since my spiritual journey lately seems to be about embracing Mystery (how else to describe a doorbell ringing JUST when needed?), I’ll close with an appropriate poem by the “Mevlana” (Our master):

The Mystery of the Moment

by Rumi

To the mind there is such a thing as news,/ whereas to the inner knowing, it is all/in the middle of its happening./ To doubters, this is pain./To believers, it’s gospel./To the lover and the visionary,/it is life as it’s being lived.

August 3, 2009: Johanna Appleseed

Saturday, a glorious summer day, I was picking up windfall apples in the front yard when a scruffy-looking guy walked by.”You Johnny Appleseed?” he asked. Wise guy responses much appreciated in these parts, I quickly corrected him: “Johanna Appleseed,” I replied. (He chuckled.)

That reminder of the plucky, selfless JA ( we’re talking the Walt Disney version, here, not the Michael Pollan account) was timely: My image for getting Way Opens into people’s hands has resembled the JA myth. You know, traveling around, talking to people about race and white privilege (there might be a wee bit of another John, John Woolman, wrapped up in my mental image), selling my book when appropriate but giving it away, too; getting the word out.

Timely, too, because the next day (yesterday) I was to give a reading at New England Yearly Meeting with Donna McDaniel, co-author with Vanessa Julye of the amazing Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship: Quakers, African Americans, and the Myth of Racial Justice. How exciting to sow seeds among Quakers, my targeted audience, alongside the wise and deeply committed anti-racist Donna!

But Donna called Sunday morning to report that because of SO MANY YM activities going on, a notice for our reading hadn’t made it into the daily announcement sheet. So only a handful of people attended our half-hour presentation. Since David and I had driven down to Smithfield, Rhode island, I might have been upset at this small turnout. But I wasn’t and am not.

Here’s why:

It is always a pleasure to spend time with Donna and to hear her take on how the world really works.

The people who did come were lovely: engaged, open, attentive.

It is always good to be reminded how busy and distracted Quakers (aka my targeted audience) are.

Although I did deliver books to the YM bookstore, expending that gas to get to and from Bryant College for so brief and scantily attended an event emphasized something I’ve been lackadaisically pursuing: an online, interactive expansion to this website. Stay tuned.

About those windfalls: Despite wind, rain, and squirrels knocking down bushels of apples (or so it seems), there is still plenty of fruit on our tree. Since there were hardly any blossoms on the tree this wet, cold spring, that there are ANY apples seems a minor miracle. A Johanna Appleseed wannabe, I need to be reminded of Nature’s mystery, its bountifulness, its resiliency, and how, contrary to the biblical enjoiner, seeds cast on rocky soil actually do sometimes germinate—and apples somehow grow  unexpectedly.

July 24, 2009: Skip Gates, local resilience

Since every Greater-Boston commentator, black and white, is weighing in on the recent Skip Gates incident, why should I be any different?

Because I’m presently hyper-aware of nothing less than ENORMOUS COLLECTIVE VULNERABILTY* I’ll be brief: To arrest Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. on his own porch because the Harvard scholar, possibly exhausted and certainly pissed, refused to kowtow to a police officer, was racially motivated. And maybe, although Gates’ friends claim otherwise, the possibly exhausted and certainly pissed prof pushed another button belonging to a white, working class Cambridge cop by being indignant—perhaps by being haughtily, righteously indignant: “Do you know who you’re dealing with?”

But here’s what I want to say: We don’t have time for this. (And we certainly don’t have time to pay a lot of attention when every Greater-Boston commentator, black and white, says exactly what you’d expect. When it come to race, we don’t need pontificators. We need dialogue.) As Richard Heinberg boldly states in the foreword to The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience, “We humans are facing tough times.”

Humans. That’s all of us. Black, white, the police, the formerly incarcerated, Mayflower descendants, the undocumented; all of us. Given that the Age of Cheap Oil will end in fifteen to twenty years, how are all of us going to work on local resilience—and, as the crow flies, Gates’ ritzy Cambridge neighborhood and my Somerville neighborhood, while socio-economically miles apart, are most certainly LOCAL—if we keep focusing on what’s different about us? Huh?

Schooled, first by Lynda and Owen and now by formerly incarcerated men, that, yes, racism is real, present, disturbingly operational, I (mostly) see the world differently. (Also disturbing is how easily I can lapse into age-old cluelessness sometimes.) Now I’m being schooled to be mindful of something else, something equally pervasive, huge, and absolutely critical to constantly consider: Life’s about to profoundly change.

A story: Last night, while reading The Transition Handbook, I suddenly had a terrifying thought: “Ohmygod, David, how will we heat this house?” (We’re going to run out of natural gas, faster than you might expect, too.)

My wise husband, David, who is building us a greenhouse, who built raised beds last year, and who, like me, is intricately connected to his neighborhood community, his faith community, and his Wednesday night community of the formerly incarcerated and those who care about them said, “That’s something we can’t do ourselves. That’s a problem to be solved collectively.”

As usual, he’s right.

Officer James Crowley, the man he arrested, Professor Gates, David and I face shrinking resources and cold New England winters together. A woman of faith (and the mother of a daughter named Hope), I believe that we WILL figure out how to survive. And WILL create a Blessed Community.

Collectively. Resiliently. Locally. And with compassion.

* Another quote from The Transition Handbook.

July 12, 2009: Interconnectedness

As you may know, I usually spend my Wednesday nights at my Quaker meeting breaking bread and talking with several formerly incarcerated men, a few folks in recovery, and a handful of Quakers. Indeed, these Wednesday nights, aka “meals-and-sharing,” are central to my life and, often the highlight of my week. But when I received an invitation to watch “Crash” and discuss it with members of an East Somerville community group last Wednesday, I decided to go. Much as I love m&s, I equally love discussing race and class. This East Somerville discussion—about a movie I’d already seen—would be especially important to show up for because, I knew, much of this discussion would happen in English and Spanish.

The evening didn’t go as well as one might hope for largely because the film took almost 2 hours so that there really wasn’t adequate time for discussion. A shame. That this hurried, happened-while-people were-moving-furniture (!) conversation did happen in English and Spanish was a plus, however.

The evening’s Ah hah turned out to be not some bit o’ wisdom I heard from someone, however, but a very new way I experienced the film. The first time I saw this amazing movie, much as I loved it, the coincidence-driven plot bothered me. I mean, c’mon: haven’t we moved on since Dickens?

But since my heightened awareness of how deeply, how profoundly, everything on this planet is connected, I experienced this film as an affirmation of this inter-dependency, our (often maddening) interconnectedness.


June 24, 2009: Blame the rain?

[Background to today’s blog; much of this info is discussed in the last chapter of Way Opens. Scroll down to the * if you already know about FMC’s inner workings.]

A few years ago, 8 to 12 people doing what’s sometimes called prison ministry, formed a quasi-support group at Friends Meeting at Cambridge (FMC) and called this group, what else, Prison Ministry. These people were visiting prisoners in jail, writing letters to men and women behind bars, advocating for a more just criminal justice system, volunteering in agencies working with families impacted by violent crime, etc., etc. Uncomfortable with the word “ministry,” this group, which meets once a month, is now called Prison Fellowship (PF).

Over time, PF, while continuing to support its members’ individual efforts, took on a new role: sponsoring talks and lectures about the criminal justice system and sharing the stories of individuals directly affected by what some call “the very criminal justice system” for the entire Meeting’s edification. PF also proposed FMC offer a weekly meal-and-sharing opportunity for the formerly incarcerated which is now in its second year and has attracted eight to twelve regular attenders. My husband (who cooks amazing meals for these weekly, powerful, community-building gatherings) and I attend faithfully.

* About a year ago, in the Spirit-led, organic way that these things happen, three people from Prison Fellowship found themselves raising funds, mostly from the larger FMC community, to bail out a young man who’d been held in jail for three years. This oh-my-God-we-actually-DID-this! has led PF to wonder: Should we create a bail fund? A legal defense fund?  Both? Neither? (Twice, through PF members’ efforts, money has also been raised to pay for lawyers, too.)

Over the past few months, at our monthly potluck-plus-meetings, PF has gone around and around on this should-we/ shouldn’t we. Lots of good meals, little progress. Last month, someone suggested we do a kind of personal assessment, ask ourselves what’s keeping us back, what’s a concern, fear, ” a stop,” as they say.

So I did. And here’s what I discovered when I listened to that still, small voice: Given how many people could use bail and/or legal defense funds, including, God forbid, people I love, people I break bread with every Wednesday night, how do you decide who gets what? I am simply not up to such a challenge. It’s too much.

Usually an energetic and optimistic person, I prefaced my gloomy remarks (last night) with: “Maybe it’s the rain but. . . ” (We haven’t seen sunshine around here FOR A LONG TIME!)

But in the organic, Spirit-led way that these meetings go, another PF member suggested that the decision-making process re who gets what should be the responsibility of a wider group, including, she suggested, mothers whose children had either been the victims of the perpetrators of violence and people from the Wednesday night group!

Yes. Once again I’ve assumed primary responsibility for some endeavor. Once again I have decided it’s all up to me! Once again I have failed to appreciate the power of community.

Can’t blame the rain for THAT!

June 8, 2009: On Flannery O’Connor and Race

Having recently taken a workshop on unlikable characters (Takeaway: Don’t get hung up on some readers’ need for sympathetic characterswhen writing fiction.), I have both created a main character who steals from her generous landlady/employer and reread Flannery O’Connor. Talk about unlikable characters!

O’Connor was Southern—as is my sticky-fingered protagonist—and self-identified as a Catholic writer, two more reasons why this Quaker fiction writer decided to read her again.

But, oh my: Much as I had yearned to learn from O’Connor’s art, her treatment of her black characters appalled me. Hoping I’d find something more, dare I say enlightened, I read her letters, too. Which, sad to say, made her worse in my eyes. Example: In one letter, she tells a story and uses “colored people.” In another letter, to a different friend, she tells the same story but says “niggers.” So don’t tell me she was a product of her time and place. She knew better.

Tons of writers have written about O’Connor and race (Check out Links for an excellent but looong piece.) I want to add my two cents:

My personal theory re why this severely ill (lupus), Southern, white, female, Catholic writer living during the civil rights movement (1925-1964) was so drawn to the grotesque, so convinced that the South was “Christ-haunted” and so clueless that it was, in fact, slavery-haunted, is that she was absolutely all of those defining words AND Irish-American.

My hero James Carroll wrote a wonderful piece in the Boston Globe today re Irish Catholics in light of the recent abuse scandal in Ireland. His point was that to the Irish Catholics, oppressed by the British and decimated by famine, “the Catholic Church had such a grip on the Irish psyche, if not soul. . . ”

No wonder her stories are so fiercely concerned with redemption! And Original Sin. No wonder she believed that “the Catholic writer, in so far as he [sic] has the mind of the Church, will feel life from the standpoint of the central Christian mystery: that is, for all its horror, been found by God to be worth dying for.” No “cafeteria-style Catholicism” for our Flannery, no sirree. She puts ALL of it on her tray. Add all that painful Irish history/baggage to her Irish-American, day-to-day struggle to be Catholic in small-town, Bible Belt Georgia and, maybe, just maybe, you’ve got yourself someone so caught up in her own spiritual identity and survival, she was absolutely blind to the horror of racism.


June 2, 2009: Diversity as a Survival Tool

Last night I went to my first Transition Somerville meeting. Still a little unclear on the concept, I’m pretty sure this group is concerned with the peak oil crisis and climate change and living gently on this earth and, my personal fav, building community to  collectively create a brave new post-peak-oil world. (I’ve ordered the Transition Handbook so will be way more informed after I read it.)
It was the kind of meeting where people dared to say things like, “This is just my intuition but. . . ” and then saying something right-on/brilliant or “I read this thing in a novel which has nothing to do with climate change but I think one thing in this book might be a good idea for our ArtBeat table.” And it was. It was the kind of group that wondered if using either  Google or Yahoo to keep in touch wasn’t relying too heavily on computers and what if power failed—in other words, allowing the possibility of all hell breaking loose down the road informing the group’s decisions here and now.
I loved it.
Coming home, the much-repeated words of diversity and resiliency very much on my mind, I read of the Air France Airbus jetliner presumably lost in the Atlantic. Not sure why—maybe it was intuition—but Something moved me to read the NYT’s comments re this tragedy. Here’s the one made me sit up and take notice:
I always had concerns about Airbus design of their aircraft. They use fly by wire technology. They have 3 redundant computer systems to control the airplane including flight controls. It is nice on paper and very efficient, except a systemic failure like getting hit by lightning fries all the computers.

Boeing still uses a combination of mechanical and hydraulics. Take a little more weight and not as efficient… but much more reliable. It goes back to the tradition from WWII with the B-17 Bombers. It would take something like 25 direct hits on the average of 20 mm cannon from German fighters to bring one down. The Germans had to go to the MK-108 30 mm cannon and then it would need 4 direct hits on the average . . .

— Buba2000, USA

Ohmygod, I realized. Diversity isn’t just about justice and racial equality and, as Reverend Cardwell says, “Being equals at the table.” (BTW: the TS group acknowledged its lack of diversity and took a couple of “baby steps” to address that. And promises to do more.) Collectively creating a resilient web of support is how ALL of us will survive “direct hits.” Which are coming.

May 26, 2009: What gets lost

In today’s Boston Globe, there’s an article about Hobson City, Alabama, a “small town which once thrived as a rarity: a place where black people were in charge in the midst of the Jim Crow South.” Now dying, this historic community, incorporated in 1899 and governed by African Americans, once supported businesses, restaurants, a skating rink, and “a vibrant culture centered on the all-black vocational school.”

“Sometimes I think I wouldn’t have gone out and done all that marching if I realized how much we were going to lose,” Mayor Alberta McCory is quoted as saying. Her (complicated, bittersweet) comment re the civil rights movement and its aftermath—Hobson City’s all-black vocational school integrated in 1972—of course reminded me of Lynchburg’s all-black Dunbar High School and that city’s “vibrant” cultural center. After Lynchburg’s schools integrated, Dunbar was razed. And, sadly, something absolutely vital to Lynchburg’s African American community was irrevocably lost.

Because I knew about the Dunbar-demise story, I could instantly understand Mayor McCory’s comment. And, I realized, that immediate gestalt just might be pointing me in a new direction.

To connect the dots:

Dot 1) Because Lynda Woodruff insisted I learn “CONTEXT!” I discovered  the Dunbar-demise story.

Dot 2) Some days I’d emerge from my house, having just spent a few hours reading about Lynchburg history, and realize, “Oh! I live here!”

Dot 3) There are thousands of comparable Somerville stories I know nothing about.

Dot 4) Because I’m currently working on a novel, I have zero interest in researching such stories.

Dot 5) But have enormous interest in reading them; learning more.

Dot 6) A group of writers and activists here in Somerville are looking at community-based journalism, i.e. when interested readers pledge money in order for a journalist to research and write a particular article.

Dot 7) Maybe other writers, from Somerville’s immigrant community, perhaps, could be paid to research and to write such stories.

[I know. This is pretty vague. But, as I’ve learned from following a leading this far, this kinda/sorta stuff is EXACTLY how something eventually happens. Whatever that something is. Like “A Chorus Line” ‘s Michael Bennett said of that amazing Broadway production’s earliest, earliest iteration: “We have something here.”]

Meanwhile, while this sorts itself out, let us mourn Dunbar High School’s death and let us pray that Hobson City’s unique history isn’t lost.

May 19, 2009: Lynchburg’s Community Dialogue on Race and Racism

[OOPS! This SHOULD have been posted last week. So sorry]

Here’s a description of the Community Dialogue written by Leslie King, who coordinates this important project. The people who’d participated in the program—and, BTW, read Way Opens—are invited, nay URGED, to write comments.

The Community Dialogue on Race and Racism began in response to some  racially charged incidence in our community:Real and perceived gang activity in the City, the death of an African-American man, Clarence Beard while in the custody of White police officers, public reaction to low-income housing proposal (Pedcor) and conversations with community leaders/others.   As a result of these events, the City Manager and Mayor decided it was time to address the issues of race and racism in Lynchburg. With the assistance of two-community based groups, Lynchburg Community Council and the Neighborhood Executive Advisory Committee, the study circle model was chosen as the method for engaging the community in the conversation. Everyday Democracy( out of Hartford, CT have advised and provided the necessary resources in order begin the Community Dialogue on Race and Racism. We have engaged over a 1000 people in our work and intend to continue the discussion. As of today, we currently have 8 Action Groups actively working toward racial equity in the following areas: 1) Police 2) Education Youth & Family Support 3) Faith-Based 4) Citizen Advocacy/Strengthening Community 5) Diversity Events 6) Ward Forums 7) Workforce Development 8) Communications and Media. In an effort to shift the leadership of the Dialogue from a City lead initiative to a more community based one, we have made the transition from a Working Group to our current Advisory Board. The board realizes that it must continue learning about the issues and about our community, which are some of the reasons why your book was very helpful in beginning the discussion on white privilege and relevance of Lynchburg’s history to our work.