April 20, 2009: Now, listen my children. . . “

Today is Patriot’s Day which, to Boston Marathon or Red Sox fans, must seem like a silly name for this holiday. But, as I write this, a Paul Revere impersonator, in colonial garb and astride an actual horse, gallops towards Lexington and Concord having already stopped here in Somerville. (I don’t know if he’s yelling “The British are coming!” since we know, now, that PR never actually yelled that. But when my kids were little, PR impersonators sure did.)

So on this Patriot’s Day which, in a way, celebrates how the well-connected Paul Revere so effectively broadcast news in 1775, I am once again musing on how information is disseminated. Two other events this morning underline my ongoing fascination: 1) I stepped onto my porch this morning: no Boston Globe. “Ohmygod,” I thought. “It’s finally happened. The Globe’s gone belly up, too.” (But it was production problems so, no, the paper’s demise isn’t today, anyway.) 2) Daughters Hope and Christina have posed a video onto Utube so we’re avidly watching the count rate increase hourly. Not exactly viral as yet but gettin’ there. (Forgot to link the site but like a prayer cat gets you there.) Very exciting.

Like a prayer: My prayer is that this site can tell stories of racial injustice and my own cluelessness effectively.


April 7, 2009: “Count on me”

When step-son Jeremy and his wife, Vita, invited David and me to travel with them and their toddler daughter Sasha this fall, maybe to Spain, maybe to Croatia, maybe to Turkey, we were flattered to be asked. Since I’ve been to what used to be Yugoslavia and spent several months in Spain, I’d volunteered that, given my druthers, Turkey would be my first choice (You know, life-lists, and all that.) It was only when Vita e-mailed that, yes, let’s do Turkey together that it occurred to me: What will Garen, my Armenian brother-in-law, and my sister, Deborah, also well-connected to Armenia, think? Will they be pissed that we’ll be traveling to a country that ethnically cleansed 1.5 million Armenians between 1915-1918? And now denies that genocide?

So I called my sister; we talked. Former assistant director of the Peace Corps in Armenia and still very active with Armenia-based organizations, with a wide circle of Armenian friends, my sister is far more in tune with the ongoing tensions re Turkey’s denial than most Americans. (Indeed, she’s been enormously  supportive re a play I’ve written re the genocide and denial.) But my sister, mother of a terrific son (who BTW, once attended an Armenian school), is also deeply connected to the whole idea of family. So while not thrilled about our plans (“It’s your life.”), she completely understood how excited we were to be accompanying “Baby Sasha”—no matter where.

“It’s [the genocide] going to come up,” she predicted. Which made me realize that, like the “Count on me” campaign here in Somerville a few years back, when white people in this community actually discussed what to say and what to do when someone made a racist remark, our little travel group (excluding year-old Sasha) needs to practice our remarks ahead of time. How to be honest, how to acknowledge a tragic event without putting notoriously gracious and hospitable Turks on the defensive, how to encourage talk, listen to stories? Not easy. But definitely required.

And, of course, not every Turk is a genocide denier. If we enter Turkey EXPECTING the worst from its citizens, that would be grossly unfair. So I am excited to see the wonders of this historic country and equally excited to learn from its people.

March 25, 2009: “Night Tree Necktie Party”

We’re back after a wonderful CA trip a little jet-lagged, a little weary—but robustly certain we’re blessed by an amazing family. Yesterday, a little jet-lagged, a little weary, I was walking to Union Square when I noticed a poster announcing an upcoming show at a neighborhood club; Night Tree Necktie Party is the name of the band to be performing.

My first (jet-lagged, weary) reaction: Well, that’s no more  shocking or attention-grabbing than the Dead Kennedys, I guess.

Almost immediately I wondered: maybe it’s 2 bands. Night Tree Necktie Party doesn’t exactly roll off your tongue, does it?

But then, despite being jet-lagged and weary, I remembered a story—a story about lynching—included in several of the earlier drafts of Way Opens which didn’t make the final cut. And here it is:

Since Lynchburg’s name is so inescapably intertwined with the word lynch, in the earliest days of my leading, I’d done quite a bit of research about “necktie parties.” Such research stirred up a vague, vague memory of a black-and-white photograph of a lynching I’d seen as a child—probably in Life Magazine. Naively, I’d assumed such a photo to be one of a kind and therefore easy to locate so I’d asked a research librarian at the Somerville Public Library for help. She steered me to the Without Sanctuary exhibit  which, at the time, was online. (Maybe it still is.)

Determined to find my photograph, I briskly went through the site’s slide show: “Nope.” “Nope.” Finally, thank God, the horror  of what I’d been briskly rejecting hit me. My God, I realized. There are hundreds of such photographs! They show us, again and again, a black man—there were a few black women, too—dangling from a tree, a train trestle, etc., while a crowd of white people—hundreds of them in locales all over this country—watch, laugh, eat. Some of those photographs had been made into postcards. My God, I realized. Lynchings were far, far more prevalent than I’d ever imagined. Chastened, I forced myself to look at those pictures again, this time very slowly, lingering over every scene as I’d done as a child. And praying.

So, yeah, I get why an up-and-coming band gives itself an edgy name. But as my Buddhist/Catholic friend Dolores says, “There’s so much hatred and evil in the world. Why add to it?”




March 12, 2009:”Go tell it. . . “

Three times last week I heard tragic, dire stories from Palestine. Last Sunday, Gay Harter* showed slides of her trip to Palestine last fall and shared her concern for the troubled country’s remaining Christians. A few days later, photographer Skip Schiel, a f/Friend, presented his slide show which included photos from ravaged, desperate Gaza and painful first-hand accounts from the Palestinians Skip has met on his numerous trips. This past Sunday, at First Church in Jamaica Plain, Reverend Terry Burke, to illustrate his Lenten rededication to social justice, told the story of Rachel Corrie, killed by an Israeli bulldozer (made in USA) while protesting the destruction of Palestinian homes (Skip had also recounted Rachel Corrie’s death).

A huge fan of both Gay and Skip, I’d attended their respective shows because I knew they would tell me news from “over the hill,” i.e. information and stories not reported, not told. They did not disappoint. And I’d heard Terry Burke’s wonderful sermon because I’d been asked to give a talk re Way Opens that morning at First Church.

During my talk, I quoted from a Derrick Z. Jackson Boston Globe column from the day before: “This week, the Pew Center on the States released a report that found that states spent $47 billion on prisons last year, with spending rising faster than for education. The spending continues to rise, even as crime rates have fallen by 25 percent over the last 20 years. . . Huge percentages of the 1.5 million people in prison, particularly African-Americans (one in 11 African-Americans are under some form of correction), are there for nonviolent drug offenses that call out not for barbed wire, but for treatment, education, and job opportunities.”

Like their counterparts in other churches I have visited, these JP U-Us are concerned and well-informed and compassionate people. When I brought up CORI reform, for example, they knew what I was talking about. Still, I got the feeling, especially when I read that column, that I, too, was bringing news from “over the hill.”

When I’d heard Gay and Skip’s impassioned presentations, my first reaction both times was “I, too, need, to go to Palestine so I, too, can come back and tell what I saw. That’s the only way our country’s policy will ever change.” But, after Sunday, I’m rededicating myself to reminding people how many African-Americans are “under some form of correction” (one in ELEVEN? C’mon!). And—this is brand-new, folks—to explore ways to better connect with other people of faith working on, as some call it,  “the very criminal justice system.”

* Gay Harter is a loyal member of Side-by-Side, a safe and loving sharing circle for the formerly incarcerated  held every Monday night in Boston’s JP. After people from my Quaker meeting’s Prison Fellowship group visited this circle, we decided to start a similar group in Cambridge. No wonder I’m a big fan!



February 28, 2009: “Nation of Cowards”?

My dear friend Delia sent me a New York Times op-ed piece by Charles M. Blow re Attorney Eric Holder’s comment that we’re a “nation of cowards” because we don’t have frank conversations about race.

“I take exception to Holder’s language,” Blow says, “but not his line of reasoning. Calling people cowards is counterproductive. it turns the conversation into confrontation—moving it beyond the breach of true dialogue and the pale of real understanding.”

For what it’s worth: This week, I bumped into a bi-racial Somerville couple I’ve known for many years. We’re not close friends, but our lives overlap in several ways so we keep in touch. After we’d brought each other up to date—I’d asked about their daughter; they’d asked me how book sales were going—this husband-wife duo proceeded to tell stories about race and passing. Words we’d never spoken in each other’s presence before, words like “colored” and “Negro” and “prejudice” were said aloud.

Now I’ve known this couple for twenty years, I think, but this was the first time our “racial difference” (to quote a study mentioned in the Charles Blow piece.) was discussed.

Why now? First of all, because they’d initiated it. (Honestly? Even now, right this minute, looking back. I have no idea how I could have brought up the subject of race. No idea.) So why did they initiate this conversation? I think  because they’d hoped that the woman they know slightly who’d written Way Opens might be open to—and fascinated by—their stories. And they were right.

So, yeah, I’m perfectly willing to label myself a coward. But, I’d also like to humbly (Really!) suggest that some relationships, like the breezy, Hi-how-are-ya? interactions with a neighbor (who just might be a person of color), or the friendship/acquaintanceship I’ve had with this biracial couple, don’t offer much in the way of openings to begin “true dialogue.”

Or am I just being cowardly?

February 10, 2009: A teachable moment

Like Dickens, who walked the streets of London twenty miles a day, walking though my beloved community is integral to my writing process. This morning, delighted that the recent thaw meant I could actually stride entire blocks along Somerville’s Summer Street without watching out for ice,  I was mentally revising yesterday’s work and plotting  today’s writing when a voice behind me shouted “El-lah, el-lah.” (At least that’s what I thought I’d heard.) I kept walking. “El-lah, el-lah;” this time more loudly and emphatically. I turned around. An older woman, Haitian perhaps, wearing school crossing guard gear and carrying two empty cardboard cartons, pointed to my purple gloves which had—again!—fallen out of my coat pocket. (These gloves have the worst karma; they’re constantly almost lost. One time they fell onto a busy street. When I picked them up, they reeked of cat piss. How is that even possible?)

Now I’d already walked past this woman just as she’d been emptying those two cartons by tossing their contents into the street. Not cool. And, I must say, I was a little disturbed that a crossing guard’s command of English to be so minimal that she couldn’t shout, “Hey! Lady! You dropped your gloves!” (Again.) What if, God forbid, she had to warn a child of imminent danger? Huh?

So, I’m afraid, I was less than gracious when I picked up my gloves. I did not smile nor reward her with fulsome praise. Instead, I sort of glared at her, then muttered, “Thanks.” And kept walking.

Not half a block later, that same thinking-while-I walk process kicked right in, this time about what had just happened. Almost immediately, I realized several things:

1. My ungracious behavior very easily could have been explained by this older woman of color as racist. How easily my annoyance could be understood simply in black-white terms! She couldn’t have known how upsetting her trash-tossing had been to me. (Just writing this, I want to shake my own shoulders and shout, “Get over yourself!”)

2. “Maybe I should have used that moment to teach her a little English?” I wondered. Did I just blow a teachable moment? (And, yes, “The Class,” a French movie about teaching and race and blown teachable moments has been very much on my mind lately.)

“Whoa, girl,” another and wiser voice counseled. Teachable moments only work in teaching/learning settings. That woman had not signed up for your on-Summer-Street-on-a Tuesday-morning tutorial. No matter how warmly and kindly and lovingly  you’d instructed her: “Say ‘Excuse me!’ ” she would have, no doubt, decided you were no better than those other “English only” jerks. AND a racist to boot.

So. Not a teachable moment for her, apparently, but maybe a teachable moment for moi? One of the many ways Quakers talk about God, Spirit, etc, etc, is the Inward Teacher. Sometimes, like this morning, when I’m so caught up with my supreme righteousness that I am unable to be civil, i.e. to politely say “Thank you” and smile, I apparently need a Kindergarten-level Inward Teacher!

January 29, 2009: Happy anniversary, Owen and Lynda!

This past Sunday during meeting for worship, Katie Cullinan, a member of Friends Meeting at Cambridge, led all of us in a rousing “Rosa sat.” [“Rosa sat/ so Martin could walk. Martin walked/So Obama could run. Obama ran/He ran and he won/So all our children could fly.”]

Now although I am prone, as my daughters would tell you, to blithely burst out in song, I am usually not a big fan of singing during worship. In my experience, it is extremely rare when whatever song is put forth feels like an organic and natural expression of however Spirit is moving among us that morning. “Amazing Grace” sung like a dirge almost never speaks to my condition!

But this past Sunday, five days before the forty-seventh anniversary (!!) of Lynda Woodruff and Owen Cardwell desegregating E.C. Glass High School, to celebrate the Rosas and the Martins and the Lyndas and the Owens and the Virgils with my faith community felt just right. Virgil, by the way, is Dr. Virgil Wood, Lynchburg’s leading civil rights activist. “We stand on their shoulders,” he noted once, in reference to other Lynchburg civil rights movement notables.

Yes, we do.

January 15, 2009: Witnessing On the T

Earlier this week, right after lunch, I was on a Boston subway train (aka “the T”) and, since it wasn’t rush hour, easily got a seat. Pinned to my down coat’s collar was my “I’m Pro-Immigrant—and I vote!” button. Since my friend—and tireless immigration rights activist—Mary Hopkins told me that she’d been verbally attacked for wearing that same button while on the T, I have been a little wary. But continue to wear it.

Across from me sat two young Hispanic men, neither dressed  warmly enough for the frigid weather, one so agitated his right leg shook violently from time to time. As the train rattled along, their attention was drawn to the older Asian woman seated to my left as she worked through the large bundle of bills on her lap, slowly and carefully opening each business-sized envelope, glancing at it, then moving on. Since she sat so close I snuck a peek: they were medical bills. A thick stack of them.

One of the young men and I made eye contact. “Whoa!” our eyebrows and slight tilting of heads towards the Asian woman seemed to say. “That’s a huge pile.” Did that young man wonder about her health, about her health care, about her ability to pay those bills? I sure did. Did he wonder if she revealed her private life to strangers on a Green Line train because she felt invisible? Or because she held down multiple jobs so the only time she had to do things like look at her mail was between jobs? I sure did.

Whatever was going with that woman and with those two thinly-clad young men, whatever the reason that man’s leg shook, one thing was clear: my travel companions’ lives were hard. Very hard. Harder than I can imagine, I imagine.

And I stress about wearing my button?


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.)