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?

Dunno.

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!

June 30th: A New-Style Reading

As fans of the Porter Square Bookstore readings know, often what’s billed as a “reading” ain’t necessarily so. The old-style reading, when an author droned from his or her  latest work, rarely gave those attending a sense of that author or offered something a little special (a notable exception was when ninety-something Stan Goldman recently read from The Caregiver. That was special.). A new-style reading might actually be a lecture, as was delivered by the awesome Frances Moore Lappe, or a slide show of the author’s landscape – like Howard Frank Mosher’s pics of the Northern Kingdom.

As readers of this blog know, I’ve given a couple of Way Opens readings; although the Q&A sessions were pretty lively, these readings were pretty old-style. Former teacher that I am and, believe it or not, actually not all that comfortable being in the spotlight (Really!), I’ve been wondering if there weren’t a more interactive way to talk about my book.

On Monday, June 30th, that interactive way just sort of happened. The incomparable Bob David had invited me to give a reading at the Side By Side meals and sharing program in Jamaica Plain. After a delicious meal (thank you, Kevin!) and the announcements, Bob invited me to begin. I’d noticed that the sharing circle rug, chairs, candles centerpiece, etc. had already been set up, so on the spur of the moment, suggested we sit in the circle. (For more about sharing circles, both JP’s and FMC’s, see the last chapter of Way Opens) The candles were lit, the sage/cleansing ceremony began, and then I read two passages, having offered the group a couple of things to listen for (which I don’t think I’ll do again). After each passage, using the talking piece, the multiracial group talked about race, White privilege, “showing up,” their own experiences, gratitude, forgiveness; quite a rich array!

Looking back on Monday night, there are things I wish I’d done better. But  the sharing-circle format is definitely a safe, intentional, all-opinions-matter way for people to talk about some really hard stuff.

Do I dare to bring sage to my August 12th reading at Porter Square Bookstore ?

 

 

June 25, 2008

Last night was the Graduation Ceremony for the Carey Program. Run by the City of Cambridge’s (MA) Department of Human Services, the Carey Program is a very structured,  9-month opportunity for homeless men, many of them just out of prison, to “become men,” as one speaker said last night. These men live at the Cambridge Y where they report to Carey Program counselors and advisors weekly; meanwhile they’re looking for work and, with assistance from the Program, find a place to live.

Because 2 of the men from Friends Meeting’s meals-and-sharing circle were graduating, David, I and three others from the circle went too. As had been predicted earlier in the evening by Cambridge’s mayor (Denise Simmons; she’s impressive!) and others, the speeches given by each graduate after he’d received his certificate were powerful, tear-producing, amazing.

What struck me was the same thing that struck me when I taught homeless students: How much  having a spiritual life plays a leading role in recovery, survival, making it. “God put some beautiful people in my life,” the first graduate stated. He was followed by graduate after graduate thanking God, asking for a moment of silence, etc.

Years ago I was asked to talk to Harvard Education School students who were taking a look at why some students hang in there and others just give up and fail. When I mentioned my observation that homeless students who had some kind of spiritual life seemed to fare better than those who didn’t, they didn’t seem all that interested.

Too bad.

First Reading:Unexpected Tears

Since Friends Meeting at Cambridge (FMC) has been so much a part of the Way Opens story, the first reading had to happen there. As soon as possible. A busy, busy place, however, the only time available in May was Memorial Day weekend. Not a great time to launch a book.

But, I reluctantly decided, in the spirit of “The people who show up at business meeting are FMC,” the handful of people  expected could represent the larger community, right? The May 24th event could be symbolic. So Saturday afternoon, David * set up twenty chairs in a circle in the spacious Friends Room, I arranged food and flowers, and then we waited for the first arrivals, braced, I think, for a lackluster event.

Close to forty people came! And rather than eat and shmooze, these lovely souls immediately sat down in the ever-expanding circle in “expectant waiting.”

Here’s the unexpected part: David has read the book more than once yet cried several times during the reading. In the years leading up to this book’s publication, I have read and reread Susan Lloyd Mc Garry’s poem, “Empire,” which introduces Chapter 10, countless times. Hearing her read it at the reading (Thanks again, Susan Lloyd) made me cry, however, as if I’d never before been moved by her powerful and deeply felt poem. When I read  a little piece re Patricia Watson, more tears. After the reading, friends/Friends reported they’d cried, too.

I’d thought this reading was supposed to be an opportunity to thank FMC for all its love and support. But what it actually turned out to be was an opportunity for me to be reminded of something essential, something fundamental, something very, very deep.

So, once again, thank you, FMC.

* David Myers, “my L.L. Bean outfitter, my guide and companion every step of the way,” is my wonderful husband.