“Nobody’s Free Until Everybody’s Free”*

Tuesday,  having spent some wonderful time with our Tarrytown, NY family, my husband and I explored that part of the world a little on our own. Driving north, the broad, magnificent Hudson to our left, we’d gotten off Route 9 to wend our way through the side streets of another charming, perched-above-the-Hudson village much like Tarrytown; the village’s name not quite registering until lo, unmistakably,  there it was. The thick, grey walls and guards’ tower of Sing Sing. (So, yes, we were literally, “up the river.”)

Surprised to willy nilly stumble upon such a famous prison, it took a moment or two for us—who both visit people in the Massachusetts’ Department of Corrections system—to adequately take in what we were seeing. Because, well, for starters, unlike the DOC sites we know, isolated and inaccessible and surrounded by razor wire, this prison is surrounded on three sides by a low-income residential neighborhood. Like directly across the street! And, like a Rockerfeller mansion, its position right on the river allows a beautiful view! (But who inside is able to see that view? Enjoy it? Take solace from it?)

Another cognitive dissonance: A ground crew was working outside one portion of the prison, this portion not surrounded by a thick, stone wall but, instead, by a very tall chainlink fence. And like good neighbors, two crew members, one on one side of the fence, one on the other, were having a cozy chat—both under the watchful eye of the squad car parked nearby. But, still. It all seemed so, well, benign. Neighborly. Normal!

But then, praise Spirit, the same horror I experienced as a child every time my family drove past the prison near our house hit me. And the same, horrifying thought that gave me bad dreams for nights when I was eight: There are people locked up, being held inside those formidable walls.

Thank you, Light. May I, with your guidance, never, ever normalize our prison system!

 

 

*Fannie Lou Hammer

Clutching My [Pearls]

Slowly, slowly, my siblings and I have been disposing of the enormous amount of stuff my parents left behind. That they’d held on to everything they’d ever touched, apparently—when a Tufts undergraduate, my father saved every program from every concert he’d attended at Boston’s Symphony Hall—had been aided and abetted by the General Electric Company which, whenever my father would be transferred, simply shlepped our family’s extensive belongings to the next GE site—like Syracuse, New York, Lynchburg, Virginia, Huntsville, Alabama. Without protest.

Finally, my sibs and I are almost done. A few things remain—including the contents of our parents’ last safe-deposit box. Among the items deemed worthy of such careful storage are my father’s 1970 patent for an electric car (I know!) and a lovely, ivory-bead necklace. A choker, really. And, yes, lovely; its largest, central beads, five of them, delicately carved; other beads a warm brown with age. And so, more than once, I have actually asked myself if I shouldn’t just keep it. Wear it.

How did it come to be in our family’s possession? I am guessing that my great-grandmother’s sister, Isabella Faulkner Ranlett, bought it in China when traveling with her clipper ship captain husband. (She must have been quite the shopper. Lots of Wilds own lots of things she’d brought home. To Billerica, Massachusetts.) So, of course, for 19th century Isabella, this necklace made from an elephant’s tusk had been a guilt-free purchase.

Not so any more, of course. And why, despite how lovely it is, I can’t imagine wearing such a thing.

Well, no, I can. Imagine, that is. Given that last week, a word I would never have imagined being uttered in Congress was spoken aloud: Reparations. Hallelujah. (I know, I know. This is ivory to reparations leap is  quite a stretch. Bear with me.) Does this mean our country is at last ready to address its slavery history? All of it?

If so, how do people like me make clear that we believe it’s about time!? What if “clutching our pearls” or wearing the loot, the plunder our ancestors brought home means: I, the beneficiary of racism, of privilege, of rapaciousness, believe in reparations. Now.

But, meanwhile, I will happily donate this necklace—which actually isn’t worth much—to any cause that can further this reparations initiative. My own money, too.

 

 

Tethered

Last evening after the rain had ended, I was walking along one of Cambridge Common’s asphalt paths when I noticed a mother and her two or three year old son walking ahead of me. Coming upon the park’s broad and luscious open space, its grass glistening from the rain, the little boy darted off the path and ran, just ran, twenty, twenty-five feet away from his mother—who continued to walk along the path. Not actually looking at her, he turned and happily walked through the wet grass as if alone yet parallel to her, eventually veering closer and closer to her until, maybe fifty feet down the path, they rejoined.

I’d been thinking about my dear friend, recently released from prison and dealing with all the terrifying and daunting issues of re-entry,  when gifted with that child’s joyful yet judicious experience of freedom. Because, yes, when that child first took off he’d been so free! And my friend tells me he sometimes experiences freedom, too. And about as briefly.

Because although his cell bars and his manacles have been removed, my friend’s still tethered in ways he both understands and, like that child wordlessly and instinctively tracking his mother’s route, he’s also still bound up in ways he cannot yet name.

 

Going Deep(er)

This morning after a long silence I received a text from the man I had been visiting in prison. He’s finally been deported—back to the Dominican Republic. (Red Sox Nation citizens will marvel at his horrible luck to have been sent to DR this week!) For almost two years he and I had been Old-School corresponding via the United States Postal Service so, for starters in this brand-new phase of our friendship, it was pretty sweet to text back and forth! In real time.

As he never failed to do in all his letters and during our month visits, he texted me his thanks for being his good friend. I used to think that his thanks was all that mattered in our relationship; that by his being briefly grateful that he, held in solitary confinement in a series of Massachusetts’ prisons, got to be human in a different way.  Briefly. Very briefly.

But during this long silence after being released by the DOC and then detained by ICE—which meant being sent to Louisiana where, as a soft, Southern, female voice informed me, “He ain’t here long enough to get mail”—I found myself watching myself. I saw myself free. With agency. Able to go wherever, whenever. Free.

How truly precious freedom is!

Some ICE detention centers in Louisiana are prisons-for-profit so, newly cherishing my own freedom, I was also haunted by what that meant for my friend. And imagined that the cruel, tortuous treatment he’d experienced while in “The Hole” in Massachusetts’ Department of Correction facilities would be far, far worse. And that how long he’d be detained in Louisiana would not be about Fair or Right or Just but predicated on some corporation’s bottom line. The longer he’d be detained meant more money for some “Keep occupancy high and costs low” business, right?

But now he’s in violent, drug-infested DR—a country he’d left when he was four. Where, he says, there’s already a price on his head. Where there are 200 murders every month in Santo Domingo. Where he, an ex-offender already dealing with a very complicated re-entry process because of being held in solitary confinement, knows no one and cannot yet suss out who might be a trustworthy friend.

In his recent, viral, heart-breaking essay on climate degradation, Cody Patterson states “I wish I didn’t know.” I get that; I feel the opposite. I am grateful to know what I now know only because of this friendship.

May this deeper knowledge inform my life.

And, more important, may my friend find his way.

 

Emergent

Saturday I attended the memorial for Paul Hood, a much revered peace activist and former member of Friends Meeting at Cambridge. Paul, who’d moved to Burlington, Vermont in the early eighties, had been an FMC superstar back in the late seventies—just when I first started to attend Quaker meetings. One Sunday, perhaps after he’d spoken during worship, someone whispered to me that he’d poured blood on Draper Labs, an apocryphal  story, probably; nevertheless, as a newbie, I was impressed. (And, certainly, like many other Quakers I have come to know and admire, Paul was arrested many, many times while doing civil disobedience in support of some deeply-felt cause.)

The pamphlet distributed at his memorial provided the genesis for his life-long peace activism: During WWII in the winter of 1944, he consulted with his minister who counseled him that he must serve his country and that it was in accordance with Christian faith; so, at the age of 17, having also obtained his mother’s permission, he enlisted in the US Marine Corps. Shortly after his deployment to Japan, in the battle for Okinawa, a fellow soldier died in his arms and Paul’s shock precipitated an enraged killing spree that, albeit sanctioned by his status as a soldier on the front line, left him horrified and ashamed.

I have heard versions of this story many times over the years; indeed, I have experienced—and written about—a far less dramatic yet still life-changing version myself. So on Sunday, in the quiet of silent worship, I spent time thinking about, you know, Redemption. Transformation. Do-Overs. And that perennial challenge, Self-Forgiveness.

And maybe because on Friday I’d released the four Painted Lady butterflies I’d watched grow from wriggly caterpillars, hourly poking my nose against their netted habitat to observe their latest miraculous development, I realized on Sunday that I was thinking different.

Non-binary, for sure. It’s not “Ocean of Darkness vs. Ocean of Light,” is it. The darkness becomes the light. Transformation—which, surely, is another God word—is always in movement, always in flux, sometimes forward, sometimes back, sometimes imperceptible. (The four chrysalises emanated such quiet strength I could sense their life-force yet nothing visibly moved.)

When I imagine self-forgiveness (Yikes), I’m stuck.

God isn’t.

 

 

 

With A Tender Hand*

Yesterday at meeting for worship, an elderly man struggled to stand and then spoke so quietly that almost no-one could hear or understand him. Yet, like the rest of eighty or ninety people seated in the meetinghouse, although I’d given up all hope of understanding what he had to say, I held my breath. We were all holding our breath, I sensed, we were all listening to words beyond his words; we were, all of us, deeply respectful. Because, as someone noted later, he was so clearly between Being and Not Being. “On the ledge,” someone else put it. Or as I’d noted at some point during my mother’s last months, the veil between his life and death was thinning.

Would that collective, open-hearted receptivity been different had he been a Person of Color, I wondered? This question came to me because I am trying to observe what happens at my Quaker meeting as though I am not the white and privileged person I am. What about if he’d been a scruffy, unkempt street person? Would we have listened so carefully, so tenderly; in prayer?

I think we would. I think that witnessing such a moment is holy. And so, regardless of the messenger from that Ledge, we would be reverent.

 

* “Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand. . .” Isaac Penington, 1667

Hammered

Sunday night, partly out of curiosity, mostly to accompany my wonderful nephew, I went to Boston’s House of Blues to hear two Brooklyn-based bands, House of Waters and Snarky Puppy. Surrounded, mostly, by intense, absorbed young men one-quarter my age, this seventy-five year old grandmother  cheered, danced, oohed and ahhed at the amazing musicality, the talent, the showmanship I experienced, super-loud, super-close and personal and just feet away from where I stood. (Yes. Stood.)

House of Waters, who opened, were a delightful surprise; my nephew declared he’d actually like them better and I have to agree. The magical sound of a hammered dulcimer? The most amazing bass player I’ve ever heard? (And I was once a huge Jaco Pastorius fan.) A relentless, preternaturally cheerful drummer?   What’s not to like?

Well, to be honest, I felt too close; my aging body too rattled by the powerful, constant thump of the bass drum. So if I do this again I won’t stand so close to the stage.

Here’s what I loved most: to feel all that young, intelligent, appreciative energy all around me. “Dude!” the tall young man next to me kept shouting at a particularly intricate modulation or a virtuoso solo.

Exactly.

Identity Politics

I’m old enough to remember when clothing first became a major form of advertisement, self or Calvin Klein et al. Loathe to become a walking billboard, I’d tried resisting—buying vintage proved an excellent strategy—but over time I reluctantly had to accept that resistance was futile; this branding phenomenon was here to stay. (And that I would continue to buy vintage; Goodwill.)

So I’m not exactly sure what led me to buy, retail/online, a KAMALA baseball cap. But am so glad I did.

Because although I am now, indeed, a walking billboard for a presidential candidate, what’s happening is that my cap, an anti-MAGA statement, is inviting total strangers, many of them People of Color, to chat.

What I’m hearing in these conversations is both excitement that a brilliant, strong Woman of Color just might have a shot at the presidency and the steely, reasoned, cold, hard pragmatism of Let’s Go With Whoever’s Going To Win. So maybe, sigh, one of those Old White Guys and Kamala for Veep?

None of this much matters yet. But then, I’m a Quaker, so I’m comfortable with lots of different ideas, different possibilities, different What Ifs tossed round—and trusting that something worthwhile will eventually emerge. That the Democratic Party will do The Right Thing. Whatever that will look like. Which, admittedly, given the horrors of America’s political reality like special interests and racism and sexism, is probably crazy. Although “Knock Down the House,” which I just saw, certainly gives me hope.

Meanwhile, about Kamala Harris. And me. And why I’m rocking her merch. Because, no, she’s far from my ideal candidate. My understanding, for example, is that she has not signed the pledge to refuse fossil fuel campaign contributions. (Note to KH: “C’mon!”)

No, Dear Reader, as crazy as what I am about to say is, here’s why I hope she wins: Remember during one of the debates, when Hillary was talking and Trump was pacing back in forth behind her? (And as a former TV star, he knew he was in camera view.)

Here’s what I’m pretty sure Kamala would have done. She would have stopped. She would have turned around. She would have said something like, “Donald? You are losing votes right now. Every woman who has ever been bullied or imposed upon or threatened by a man—and that’s all of us—is watching you right now. And deciding not to vote for you. And every Person of Color who has ever experienced a white man claim a space to be his property, his turf—and that’s all of us—is thinking the same thing. Sit Down.”

 

 

 

God Language 2.0

Sunday, I found myself on my feet at meeting for worship to praise a “benign, loving, transformative, regenerative force” that I felt so powerfully that spring morning, a force another Quaker in another time described as “a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things.”*

A few more adjectives I might’ve added on Sunday: Non-anthrocentric. Restorative. Grateful. Mysterious.

Yes, mysterious. Because here’s A Thing, as my godson would say: on Monday, after doing several errands, I was walking home and had turned off busy and congested Somerville Avenue to walk along a more quiet side street near my home. A street lined with trees delicately in bloom. And tulips or daffodils or forsythia or flame-colored quince bushes in their full glory.

And, suddenly, I felt that force all-around me and so powerfully it brought tears to my eyes. “Welcome home,” that loving force seemed to say to me. “We’re grateful that you understand how we’re all in this together, aren’t we? We’re all connected. And inter-dependent.  Yes.”

Oh, my.

*James Naylor, October 20, 1660; on his deathbed.

“How Do I Tell Myself?”

Buoyed by a weekend with precious family, I felt brave enough to read this.

And then I finished my coffee. Put away the laundry. Sent some emails. Not surprisingly, given that I’ve been thinking a lot about storytelling lately, Cody Petterson’s essential question remained, however: “How do I tell myself?”

How do I tell myself this story?

Some instructive, guiding adverbs: Unflinchingly. Honestly. And perhaps most important, Humbly. To keep in mind that whatever I tell myself is simply my own, inadequate version. It is absolutely not The Story. Another version, guided by different adverbs, perhaps, may present itself over time. (Will Kindly join the mix? Would that be remotely possible? TBD)

Key elements: Change is inevitable. And impermanence is, to quote my current fave, Frank Ostaseski, “an essential truth woven into the very fabric of existence. It’s inescapable and perfectly natural. How we meet that truth makes a world of difference.”

Key Question: Do I insert “Nevertheless, . . . ” into my story? Do I unflinchingly list all the ways we’re doomed—but then employ that wonderful literary device referenced by Richard Powers in a recent interview?

Question: What moves you most in a work of literature?

Powers: The bending of certainty, the surrender of ironclad temperament and the surprise capacity of otherwise completely predictable human beings to forgive each other and counter the unforgiving world with a “Nevertheless.”

A couple of possible, key word neverthelesses: Indigenous wisdom. Women. Trees. Botanists. (Hmm. I think I just inadvertently googled Robin Wall Kimmerer!)

Ending: I won’t live long enough to see how this story ends. So I’m left with only that old, old way to conclude: ” . . . and the moral is:”

And that’s easy. Mourn. Now. Be grateful. Now. Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly with my God. Now. Shower the people I love with love. Now.

 

 

 

What’s The Story?

Palm Sunday I was walking towards Friends Meeting at Cambridge (FMC) when I caught sight of a small procession outside the Swedenborg Chapel. Or, as a little boy walking along Kirkland Street near me exclaimed to his father, “It’s a little parade!” Members of an African-originated faith group, I’m guessing, the singing procession-members wore white clothing and red hats and, waving palm fronds, marched single-file along the chapel’s sidewalk behind one of their members who held a carved, wooden cross a foot or so above his head.

As we stood together watching this procession across the street I wondered: Will the father tell his child the story behind this little parade? He did not. So, I confess, I actually considered telling it, myself (Yikes!). But, thank you Jesus, instantly I realized the pair would simply dismiss me as crazy, a zealot, a weird old lady—so kept my mouth shut. And, soon, off they and I went in different directions.

Sitting in deliciously-long silent worship at FMC, I realized that the next time I’d be sitting in that space would be Saturday, April 2oth, at my mother’s memorial—where plenty of Pat Wild stories, celebratory and bittersweet, would be told. (Wilds are storytellers.) And about Story. And about the story I’d been tempted to tell on Kirkland Street. About why I’d been tempted. (More about Story has come since.)

On Sunday I realized a couple of things. My impulse to share the Palm Sunday story had been about my belief that it’s important to listen to the Stories most meaningful to our friends and neighbors. (Such gratitude for Robin Wall Kimmerer and all she has taught me about origin stories.) I shared this belief with my Sunday school students—high school students—when we studied the Bible. “This book, which early Quakers knew very well, remains incredibly important to millions of people throughout the world,” I told them. “Your lives will be filled with references to this book. So whether or not you believe every word,  as world citizens you’re going to need to have at least a cursory understanding. Otherwise, you’re going to miss a lot.”

Had that father not explained why those beautifully-clad, dark-skinned people across the street waved those palms and sang because he didn’t know? Or, perhaps, he did know, maybe better than I, but bore such pain around twenty-first century Christianity that he chose to remain silent? His silence invited me, sitting in silence, to go deeper about that story. And suddenly I realized something.

In storytelling there’s a device known as “a McGuffin”: a thing or a situation important to a character but which listeners (or moviegoers),  who know more about how the story is unfolding than the character does, care nothing about. (The most famous example is the envelope filled with money Janet Leigh steals in Psycho. That envelope is a McGuffin.) Thinking about the Palm Sunday story, I suddenly wondered if, perhaps, Jesus’s triumphant entrance into Jerusalem isn’t a McGuffin.

Because why’s he going there? To celebrate Passover. We tell Jesus’s triumphant entrance with such sadness—because we know what will happen later in the week. We know how this story ends. Jesus didn’t. A Jew, he was observing one of his faith’s most significant rituals by deciding to join his dearest friends to collectively remember The Exodus Story. (And what a powerful Story!)

So, now, okay, here’s where my Wild DNA kicks in; I am compelled to leave this tale better than I found it. Why did Jesus pick Jerusalem to celebrate Passover? Well, because those famous sisters, Mary and Martha, who’d patched up their differences and had agreed to perform the pre-Passover cleansing rituals together, to cook together, and discuss theology with Jesus together while their brother, Lazarus, did the washing up, had invited Jesus and his followers. (Their hometown of Bethany’s near Jerusalem. I looked it up.)

The denouement: As I write this, the world mourns the terrible destruction of Paris’s Notre Dame cathedral, an ancient, wondrous edifice I, like so many, have visited and been awed by—so much so that whenever I despair of my species, I remind myself, “Well, at least humans built Notre Dame.”

Nothing gold can stay,” Frost tells us. Things fall apart. A mighty cathedral can collapse.

But Story stays.

Let’s tell some.

 

 

“Listen” by John Fox

When someone deeply listens to you
it is like holding out a dented cup
you’ve had since childhood
and watching it fill up with
cold, fresh water.
When it balances on top of the brim,
you are understood.
When it overflows and touches your skin,
you are loved.

When someone deeply listens to you
the room where you stay
starts a new life
and the place where you wrote
your first poem
begins to glow in your mind’s eye.
It is as if gold has been discovered!

When someone deeply listens to you
your barefeet are on the earth
and a beloved land that seemed distant
is now at home within you.