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.

“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.

 

 

 

Least of These

Somerville High School Temporary Ramp, March, 2019

There’s a wonderful cartoon depicting an elementary school entrance after a big snowstorm. A group of winter-garbed children, a couple in wheelchairs, wait at the foot of  the school’s ramp as the custodian shovels the school’s stairs, right next to the ramp. “If you shoveled the ramp first we could all get inside,” a child says.

A couple of weeks ago I remembered that cartoon while attending a memorial for Chuck Woodbury (1920-2018), beloved member of my Quaker meeting. Attentive father and grandfather, noted psychologist, ardent violinist, Chuck was also so hard of hearing that in his last years attending our meeting for worship, needed someone to sit beside him to write down the vocal ministry shared that morning. So it was fitting that at his memorial, people who wished to share a story about Chuck would stand and wait until the hand mic would be delivered. (This mic usage a first, I think.)

Two things happened because of this. Like all those children able to get inside their school, everyone could hear. Like those folks my age who, for now, may be pre-hearing aid—but not for long. Or, as so often happens, when a speaker dropped their voice at the end of a sentence—we all do that—anyone could catch those last three or four words. And because the woman tasked with delivering the mic walks slowly, we all had ample opportunity to reflect on the previous message and on what Chuck’s full, graced life meant for us.

How would this world be if “What will work for everyone?” were our guiding principle?And isn’t asking this question without ceasing another way to be a peacemaker?

 

 

 

Small Thing/Great Love

Snow Squall Outside, Peace Cranes Inside

Yesterday was disquieting. Morning snow squalls were quickly followed by heavy winds, so strong the house shook and windows rattled. Some in greater Boston lost power, some lost chimneys; many trash cans and recycle bins ended up in neighbors’ yards or in the street. The light-rail service known as the Green Line was disrupted because of downed trees.

was disquieted, again disturbed by fears around not doing enough/should I do more/what is God asking me? And in this uneasy, soul-searching time, found myself, um, sorting earrings? Yup. I don’t want to brag but I even developed a new system for dealing with the remaining earring of a beloved but now one-missing pair. (I know, I know. Pretty impressive, huh.)

Let me elucidate: The little dish I throw my earrings and bracelets into at bedtime was full of all kinds of stuff and so, of course, in the midst of another spiritual crisis, I had to fix that. By dumping everything that had been in that little dish onto my bureau top. After dealing with the fore-mentioned singletons and putting earrings I seldom wear in my jewelry box and the loose change in my coin purse, the top of my bureau was pretty much bare. Except for a tiny, arrowhead-shaped piece of dark grey metal: a “widow’s mite.” (Or so it was touted on the piece of cardboard it was once attached to and, no, I have no idea how I got it.)

An answer! Right there on my bureau. About proportionality. (And Biblical scholars are free to argue about my take-away from this touching story from Luke.) Jesus points out that rich people contribute money generously because they can. But the poor widow’s puny offering of almost-worthless coins (to God) represents her “her livelihood.” Or, as I prefer to frame it, her modest contribution represents her enormous, generous, loving spirit.

Could I be doing more? Of course. Is what I am now doing “fixing” systemic racism or climate change or whatever else ails this broken world? Of course not. Is what I am doing done in a spirit of joy, generosity, love? Yes. Is it proportional; does it represent all I am asked to do?

Hmm. I’ll have to get back to you on that.

 

How It Ends

After listening to WellingUp.net’s podcasts, my daughter questioned an important, fundamental decision: “Why did you begin the story with Rocco’s death,” she wondered. “Wouldn’t it be better to tell the story chronologically?”

“No,” I answered. “I don’t think so.” And recalled a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. biography I’d read that begins with King’s assassination. “I felt like the book was way more powerful because I’d been reminded from the git-go that this wonderful man would be murdered, ” I told her. “And besides,” I continued. “This story is another version of the Jesus and Mary Magdalene story. And what do most people seem to remember about Jesus? How he died!”

I’ve been thinking about that conversation this past week as I read over my 2018 journals, a sobering, humbling end of the year/beginning of the year ritual I’ve performed for a few years, now. What? I did that stupid thing again? And again? And . . . Jeez! Every mention of my mother, who died in October of 2018, leaps off the page. Every conversation. Every health concern. Every interaction with a staff person at her long-term care facility. It’s all so precious.

So many excerpts I could share but here are few moments I’m so glad I recorded:

May 24, 2018 . . . Had a wonderful moment with Mom when she talked about dying and how it won’t be hard because she’s had such a wonderful life—and I told her how lovely it is that she told me that because her leaving will be less painful, knowing that. A sweet, lovely, who-would-have-predicted moment . . .

May 26, 2018 . . . Took Mom down to Black’s Nook where pond life is beginning to thrive. Water lilies, a frog, lots of birds—but no heron or geese—and Mom was pretty lively, herself. Reached over to touch a young man’s arm so she could look at his tattoo more easily. I teased her about touching strange men and she said,”If he’s brave enough to have tattoos he should be able to deal.” Or words to that effect . . . .

June 16, 2018 . . . Mom had lots to say about “A’s” [another resident she’d disliked] sudden death. Guilt, maybeWe talked a little about how, maybe A really was in a better place, not heaven, necessarily, but not in pain or angry or frustrated any more. A talk I again appreciated having with my mother. 

Oh, yes!

Tea For Two Or More?

May I be a boring old woman who talks about her health? 

Thank you.

Because what I’d like to say just might be helpful to you:

Like many people my age, my cholesterol’s not been great and, like many people my age, I’ve been told by both my primary care provider and my cardiologist I should go on statins. But I’ve resisted. Mostly because I’ve heard many things about statins’ nasty side effects—muscle cramps being the one I’d feared the most—and would prefer to not wonder, with every other ache or pain, “Is this the statins? Or something else?”

But a dear friend’s stroke this past summer forced me to look at my own mortality more honestly—so I succumbed. And started taking this new medication in late September. The day before the Kavanaugh hearing. And during that hearing, had a violent, horrific reaction!

Was this the statins? Or my body’s revulsion at what I was watching unfold in a United States Senate chamber? I guessed both —but mostly the meds. So stopped taking them.

Here’s where my story gets weird. Because at this same time I was also reading The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, a novel about China, mothers and daughters, and puerh tea. Towards the end of the book, one character references Alice Waters (a household god around here); Waters states that by drinking puerh tea, she cut her cholesterol in half! Hello!

So I made a deal with my cardiologist. For two months I would drink a mug of this tea, a tea which quietly invites me to sit, to ponder, contemplate, savor with others, every day. And then I’d have my cholesterol tested. 

Dear reader: It’s working! In two months my cholesterol has lowered enough so that it is not longer flagged as a health concern. 

You’re welcome.

Muscle Memory

[Patsy Cline’s salt and pepper collection, Patsy Cline Museum, Nashville, Tennessee]

A wonderful surprise happened in 2018: I made two new, wonderful friends, both in their seventies, too. Over tea last week with one, a fellow peace activist and feminist, we discovered that although we’d grown up in very different parts of the country, our families’ respective religions differed, and she’d grown up with more siblings than I, in one respect, her parents and mine were exactly the same. She and I, who’d both grown up in the fifties and early sixties, had both taken piano lessons. And ballroom dancing!

We snickered. And agreed that learning how to waltz or foxtrot was not something young people ascribed to anymore. She quoted that famous line: “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did—only backwards and in high heels.” And I shared a story from my thirties, when my then-husband and I—probably chemically enhanced, shall we say?—had crashed a big, fancy, neighborhood party one summer night, a party held in a tent and with a live band. Boldly I’d invited a neighbor I really, really admired to dance with me. Kind of shy, not a dancer, he’d hesitated: “Don’t worry, darlin’,” I’d assured him. “I’ll make you look good.” And I did. Because from my ballroom-dance classes, I knew how to balance my weight on the balls of my feet; how to lightly rest my left hand on my partner’s shoulder in order to sense whatever direction he would go, and in a split-second, feet poised to respond, to accommodate that movement—wherever!

What a dated, horrifying story! But it begs me to wonder: Do I still do that? Do I still, in ways I don’t even realize because it’s just what I was trained to do, do I still wait, poised to move in response to someone else? Do I accommodate? Dedicate myself to making someone else look good?

Hmmm.

 

 

My Public Charge Letter (First Draft)

[Information re Public Charge]

To: Samantha Deshommes, Office of Policy and Strategy, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Department of Homeland Security, 20 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, D C 20529-29140

[Link to submit comments online]

Re: DHS Docket No. USCIS-2010-0012

I am writing to express my opposition to this proposed rule change.

[Okay, fine. That’s the standard stuff. But what should I say? “Write from your place of strength,” an immigration advocate coached a group of us letter-writers recently.

What’s mine? Do I note that because of the fear these proposed changes are causing, providers of greater-Boston health care services note a 5 to 10% drop in people coming to their clinics? So, for example, people aren’t getting flu shots? And how that makes me very nervous to get on public transportation or shop at my neighborhood supermarket? Or how I am fearful how these changes, designed to instill fear and insecurity,  will adversely effect the wonderful, upbeat people, most of them from other countries, who work at my mother’s long-term care facility?

Absolutely not! Public Charge isn’t about white, privileged me or my white, privileged family! It’s about the Trump Administration rewriting Emma Lazarus‘s poem to read, “We only want you if you’re young, healthy, wealthy, and speak English.”

No, my place of strength is the same place as so many of those who these proposed changes would exclude: I am a grandmother. I know how my family needs me. I know how my family relies on me. I know how the stories I tell my grandchildren, my “These are some of the men and women who came before you; here’s what they thought was important” narratives anchor my family. I know how grandparents’ (free) childcare makes it possible for both parents to work. Grandparents cast a long shadow in ways I can speak to. Grandparents make this country work in ways few understand or acknowledge.

But I better get to work. These letters, which can be as short as 250 words, are due by December 10, 2018.]

“Where To Begin?”

A Katrina Leftover, New Orleans, 2017

In the process of retrieving a much-needed toy from my granddaughter’s stroller parked on my front porch, I’d stepped outside to discover a white, curly-haired, slightly chunky young man about to ring my doorbell. Grandma on a mission, I think he told me he was soliciting for WGBH— but I could be wrong. I really wasn’t listening. For sure he launched into a spirited spiel lauding NPR; he even listed several programs and, to his credit, having taken note of the stroller and the toy in my hand, made special mention of  “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.”

“I know what NPR is,” I muttered.

“Then I’m sure you want to support it,” he countered.

Approaching the front door I turned to face him. “I truly believe in what NPR does but, no, I can’t.”

“May I ask why?” he demanded and, to my consternation, took on an offensive pose, widening his stance, inflating his chest. (My guess? He played football in high school.)

Ahh, dear reader, what a teachable moment! How I would have loved to explain to that young man that for aging Quakers like me and my husband, living on retirement funds, charitable giving is incredibly complicated. Babies starve in Yemen, there’s relief money desperately needed all over the world because of climate change, and, locally, the Somerville Homeless Coalition always needs money; so does the Welcome Project. Every year my husband and I receive thousands of nudges and tugs and polite requests and the occasional solicitor at our door. Yes, we believe in God’s unlimited love, yes, we believe that “There’s enough” but, sadly, yes, our ability to support every worthy cause— I’m not even getting in political contributions!—is definitely limited. (And, sadly, because of inflation and rising health care costs, especially medications, actually shrinking.) How I would have loved to tell that young man that it took my husband and me almost two years to come up with a careful, thoughtful formula for giving. So, sorry, young man but NPR didn’t make the final cut.

But his belligerence on my own front porch—his aggressive posture triggered something very primal and territorial—meant I was Done. And besides, I was still Grandma on a mission!

“Where to begin?” I asked, stepping inside. (Sorry, young man. That’s all I got.)

And firmly shut the door.

 

Be Peace

Saturday afternoon, I’d gone to the 70th birthday party for a dear, dear F/friend, hosted by her dear, dear husband. Reluctantly. Jet-lagged after a wonderful trip to LA, overwhelmed by my ever-growing To Do List, and, most critically, horrified by the news from Pittsburgh, I wasn’t sure I was up to spending a rainy and chilly afternoon chitchatting.

But there are some friends who are so wonderful, so amazing, you just have to show up for them, right? So I did. And was immediately glad. Her two adult children, who’d gone to First Day School (Quaker-style Sunday School) with mine had come; it was wonderful to see them, again, and to hear about their intriguing, fulfilled lives. The food was plentiful and delicious. I caught up with other good friends. It was a wonderful party. Until . . .

I’d gone into the kitchen to get something to drink and there I met—let’s call him “Bob,” a grey-haired, older man and, like the rest of us, in New England fall weather garb. A neighbor of my F/friends, I’m guessing. And, I’m also guessing, had either been drinking or, sadly, as is the case with some of us over seventy, might have had “cognitive issues”?

Because here’s our conversation went: “You a Quaker?” I nodded. “You look like a Quaker.” And without pausing: “You know what I like about Quakers? I can beat the shit out of [our host] and he wouldn’t fight back.”

“Why would you want to beat the shit out of him?”

“Don’t analyze it!” he scolded.

“Why not?” I retorted. Sharply. “You tell me you want to beat the shit out of someone, I want to know why!”

But apparently Bob, besotted by his presumed freedom to beat the shit out of someone without resistance, wasn’t interested in engaging in meaningful dialogue! At least not with a woman he’d just met and who’d just challenged him. (And, yes, Dear Reader, it did briefly occur to me that Bob may very well be another aging, cis, white male perpetually bewildered and threatened by women like me who, you know, want to smash the patriarchy!) Shrugging, I filled my glass and left.

Here’s the thing: I may look like a Quaker, Dear Reader, but that doesn’t mean that in the moment I’m automatically able to do or say The Right Thing. I may want to “Be Peace” as my license plate holder enjoins. But, sometimes I don’t know how.

What might I have said, instead? A couple of ideas came to me the next day, during silent worship, as we collectively mourned the eleven elderly Jews murdered while they had been in worship.

How about “[Your host] is your friend, yes? What else do you like about him?”

How about: “There is so much violence and hatred in the world. Like what just happened this morning in Pittsburgh. I think lots of people, not just Quakers, are looking for ways to not keep adding to it. Don’t you?”

How about “Been drinking, Bob? Off your meds, maybe?” (Okay, so sometimes snarky things come to me, too.)

Here’s the other thing: While I am chagrined I couldn’t be peace, I couldn’t find a way to move the conversation into something enlightened and transformative and nice, I’m not going to feel bad about what I said, either. Because this patriarchy isn’t going to smash itself!