Talk to the Hand

[This story centers on someone whose identity I should protect. So will be using the they pronoun.]

Yesterday on a walk, I passed an elderly white person, warmly dressed, waiting in a bus shelter in Porter Square. (And by “elderly” I mean the same age as me!) A second look and, yes, although considerably aged from when I last knew them, they had been a student I’d met years ago when a counselor at Somerville’s adult learning center. So I stopped and, keeping the required six-foot distance, called out their name.

I’ve aged considerably too, of course, so they took a moment or two to recognize me. “Oh, hi,” they said. Without much energy or warmth. Which I surmised—duh— was because they were terrified. So acknowledged the current situation.

“The virus?” they asked; their Azores accent flavoring their terse words. I nodded.

“Ya know,” they said, leaning forward and almost under their breath, giving me a we-both-know-what’s-really-going- on look. And rubbed their thumb and forefinger together, the universal sign for money.

I wasn’t having it; I was not at all interested in their conspiracy theory: “I’m not listening to this,” I told them, turning on my heels.

“God bless you,” they called after me. Which felt like a curse in disguise.

Who, exactly, did they think was making money off of this pandemic? Stewing, brooding, I walked home. The Chinese government, maybe? Big Pharma? Given the ugliness that crossed their face when they’d rubbed their fingers together, however, I’m guessing that former student might harbor long-standing hatred for those so often blamed in times of crisis. I think they may be anti-Semitic. Maybe.

But, suddenly, stomping down the sidewalk, I remembered a salient fact: They had been an ABE 1 student! (Translation: they’re totally illiterate. Cannot read. At all. Nada.) And, if I remember correctly, they’d dropped out after less than a semester. Which means that, most likely, they’re completely dependent on whatever xenophobic bullS@#* Fox News spouts as “news.”

Personally, I cannot imagine enduring this devastating situation without daily devouring multiple newspaper and magazine articles and Facebook postings from wise friends—and then stopping when I’ve had enough already, to listen to music or read a good book. Can you? You, reading these (pearls of great price) words now? It’s unimaginable, isn’t it.

Had I blown a teachable moment? I pondered closer to home. Had I been so appalled, so outraged by their conspiratorial face, those rubbing fingers, that I missed an opportunity to engage?

Perhaps. But do we not show a form of Love when we interrupt hatred? At a time when the president of the United States referred to COVID-19 as “a foreign virus” or, just today, “the Chinese virus,” I think it’s okay, indeed necessary to say, “Talk to the hand!”

And maybe, just maybe, in their “God bless you,” they kinda, sorta were telling me they got that?

Nah.

 

What I’m Taking On For Lent

I’m not giving up anything this year; I’m taking on something. Something I’ve been afraid to take on for most of my life: I’m welcoming everything that happens to me. For, as Francis Weller points out, “This is the secret to being fully alive.” (He also notes how incredibly hard this is!)

Today, Day 3 into this spiritual exercise—which might become a practice—I’m pissed off. Someone I do prison ministry alongside with—well, why go into it? Because, as I remind myself, taking a few, deep breaths, this is capital L Life, right? I am fully alive and still following the leading I began over twenty years ago. I am actually doing what Spirit asked of me! And that is a blessing.

Day 1, at a weekly meeting I attend sometimes, I listened to my community’s immigration-rights activists lament the Supreme Court’s recent, heartbreaking decision on “Public Charge.” And felt myself do what I always do: wall myself off from the pain around the table. Protect myself. “This is the life you are living,” I silently coached myself. “This is that damned Chinese curse, ‘May you live in interesting times.’ For whatever reason, you were born to experience this, now. You are alive to experience this. All of it.”

I am hyperaware that were I daily experiencing non-stop pain and trauma it’s entirely possible I’d be telling a different story. I am hyperaware of my cushy, privileged life. I am hyperaware that my race and class and resultant medical care is why I get to do this soul-work/grief work; why I’m still alive at my age. I am hyperaware that were I a Woman of Color I might not be alive to tell this story.

But, Friends, I am and I can and here’s what happened: I briefly experienced that exhilaration Ray Bradbury’s short story, “Dandelion Wine” so wonderfully captured: “I am alive!” And so, openhearted, was also gifted to hear how my community plans to address this latest assault on our neighbors and friends, an ironically and unexpectedly touching outcome of living in this interesting time: I now know so much more fully how many other people are also working on social-justice issues. Oh.

Does the harsh fact that over the past year my Quaker meeting/my “village”/ my tribe has lost eight people, two of whom I counted as dear friends, focus attention on that word alive?

Yes, it does.

 

Butter-knifing

Here I am, once again, “circling Fort Knox with a butter knife trying to figure out how to get in.”* I know I want to write about loss, about sorrow, and about how, for most of my life, I’ve let anger mask sadness. I want to write about the grief of climate change. I want to write about my mother’s family, its secrets, its tragedies; about transgenerational trauma. I want to write about my moment-to-moment grief and horror to be white and affluent at a time when the ravages of income disparity and systemic racism and growing fascism are more and more real, obvious.

Yikes.

Meanwhile, as I circle, sadness, grief, loss happen. Terrifying headlines reporting another environmental disaster happen. Someone pisses me off happens—and I, self-conscious “apprentice” that I am, try to access the sadness underlying my anger. (And it’s not as hard as I thought.) Meanwhile, I feel all the heartbreaking Feels that I get to do this work at the same time the People Of Color all around me struggle. Meanwhile, I buy myself a copy of The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief  by Francis Weller so I can physically interact with his every word, every paragraph, write in the margins.

Here’s a bit I’ve already starred and underlined and <3-ed (heart-ed):

An apprenticeship with sorrow requires a hands-on encounter in which we are invited to work with the materials of grief, its leaden weight, and the particular demands of melancholy. We can feel it already, just in these few sentences, that this apprenticeship leads us below ground, into the hallway of shadows and forgotten ancestors. Here we find the scattered shards of unattended grief, the pieces of unwept loss, and the shavings of old wounds swept into the corner.

Meanwhile, like someone in recovery, I’m making amends.

 

  • Ann Patchett said this—at a writers’ conference I’d attended—about trying to figure out how to begin a novel.

It’s Complicated

Back in the day when I taught homeless women in greater Boston shelters, one of my students, young and lovely, suddenly looked up from whatever she was working on* to say, “You know something? It’s not that we don’t know because we’re stupid. It’s that we just don’t know!”

Yup.

Here are some things we know:

No one is all one thing. No one is defined by the worst or best thing they did.

We’ve all been broken/hurt people hurt people.

Sometimes, by design, we don’t know things because we’re not supposed to. For example, what happens behind prison walls.

Often, after we die, because many believe “we don’t speak ill of the dead,” only the best parts of ourselves are shared at our funerals and printed in our obituaries; found in the letters we’ve left behind—and edited**.

Here are some things we don’t know:

Anyone else’s whole story.

Our own.

Here’s what I struggle with:

How to acknowledge and even accept the worst parts of myself.

 

*Three things she might have been working on that morning, as six or seven of us sat together around a battered oak table in a Baptist-church-now-family-shelter Sunday school classroom, weak winter light coming through a stained-glass window:

How to convert a fraction to a decimal to a percent. And back again.

Her journal—in which, very likely, she wrote page after tear-stained page about her childhood sexual abuse.

What “executive,” legislative,” and “judicial” mean (There was always a three-branches-of government question on the GED).

**True Confession: Going through my father’s letters after he died, I tossed several hateful letters into the recycle bin. Because I didn’t want him remembered that way, I destroyed a painful but truthful piece of history.

Muscle Memory

 

One Sunday morning every December, my Quaker meeting shortens its morning worship to put on a fifteen-minute Christmas pageant. Directed and performed by the children of our community, some First Day School students chose speaking parts, others opt to dress up as angels or sheep or shepherds or to perform in our once-a-year orchestra. Rightfully, every year the star of the show is a live baby, traditionally the most recent arrival to our community. (The rest of the Holy Family varies. Three years ago, the baby’s single mother was “Mary”; “Joseph” was played by a stalwart, beloved member of our community.)

This past Sunday as the hundred or so of us in the meetinghouse transitioned from silent worshippers to live theater-goers and the pageant’s young, excited actors bunched together in the meetinghouse foyer to wait for their cue, the meetinghouse door opened and “Joseph,” father of this year’s “Baby Jesus,” approached me as I sat, close to where the pageant would be performed . “Here,” he said, handing me his son. “Why don’t you hold him until things get settled.” Then turned to quickly rejoin his fellow actors in the foyer.

What Christmas story am I suddenly performing, I wondered as I held up my arms to receive this exalted child? Am I Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s mother? Mary’s mother, Saint Anne? No, my arms told me. You are playing the role of another ancient tale. You are Old Woman, The Crone, a mother and grandmother. Your crepey arms once held your own children and grandchildren. Your muscles remember how to hold a newborn. Just as you now sometimes remember so much of the wisdom imparted to you—by Life, by Spirit, by other wise souls. And why you were entrusted with this great honor.

Rejoice!

 

 

Yes, Ma’am

[Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind.]

Take it from me, someone who’d stumbled around post-cataract surgery until I got my new glasses, I am now exquisitely aware of how we’re inundated with written stuff! It’s everywhere. It’s a given. (And when you can’t actually read it, it’s a pain in the neck!)

But when I saw this fancy-font sign in my health plan’s Mammography Department—well, like you, perhaps, I had one of those instant understandings of where the woman—someone working in that a department, right?—who’d posted that sign was coming from. Because she’s witnessed those battles. From the other side of that department’s reception desk window.  She knew. Knows.

And she’s watched us, too, the Lucky Ones. Who blithely stroll in and out once a year. Who may be more sensitive, more patient with, more compassionate about the trials and tribulations of others while we wait to be given the All Clear. But once we’ve received the good news —Phew!—we immediately forget our There But For The Grace of God moment. We forget how inordinately beautiful life seemed while we waited.

We move on. We forget to be kind.

Sign Poster’s knows all about that, too.

Maybe we should pay attention to what she has to say?

 

Time-Sensitive

A coal barge slowly cruises up the Ohio River; it passes the Jeffboat Company, now shut down, where the rust-colored barge that coal’s resting on had probably been built. And I, sitting at a cafe across the river sipping an iced chai, can totally relate!

Let’s break that down: Like the Ohio flowing towards the Mississippi, like my own mortality, such deeply-moving inevitability informs that moment. Undeniably that coal keeps rolling along—as do I—yet, just as undeniable, coal’s on its way out. For there sits that shuttered, still, silent factory.  With no more orders coming in it’s “the end of an era,” someone noted. (And way-too-long-time coming, right?)

So, yeah, too many close friends gone or struggling, I’m humming “September Song” much more these days. But, like coal’s demise, there’s great openings, as in Spirit-infused possibilities or insights, in this time-sensitivity. I’m grateful; I’m especially grateful for the young people I know (You know who you are) and the Greta Thunbergs, the Emma Gonzalezes, the Malala Yousafzaies of this emergent era.

“Few precious days,” indeed!

 

 

 

 

 

Freshly Brilliant

There have been many times over the past month as I either prepared for or recovered from both eyes’ cataract surgery, when I simply sat. Sunblocked, broad-brim hatted, adequately hydrated, I just sat. Earlier in the month I silently mourned for someone; when—Oh Joy!—I learned he was still alive, I gave thanks. Over and over. Sometimes, as my post-surgery vision improved, I marveled at a world now scrubbed clean. (Some shades of blue, like the color of my gas stove’s flame, remain startlingly, astonishingly amazing!) Sometimes, bright light still hurting, I’d wear my “Ray Charles” glasses and, seemingly impaired or disabled or something-not-quite-right-about me, was blissfully ignored as city life swirled around me. Sometimes, sitting on my back deck, I flexed my new long-distance post-cataract lenses to more fully observe a dutiful catbird feed its squawking fledgling or squirrels playing tag. Bumblebees and white butterflies—and at least one monarch—dart over freshly-brilliant-to-my eyes zinnias and black-eyed susan’s. A strand of spider web bending in the soft breeze. I watched clouds from my hammock. Swallows. Con-trails.

One day, my grandchildren in town, I’d arranged for them to meet with Claire O’Neill, a French scientist who is training volunteers to keep count of pollinators in a community garden near my house. But, it turned out, in order for more people to understand what is happening to our world because of climate change, she trains adults, not children—and my close-range vision Not Good, I’d be hopeless at this!

Besides, as I have had ample time to reflect upon over this past month, Just Sitting has gifted me the message Claire so passionately seeks to share with us: observe this precious world, love it; mourn.

From The Smell of Rain on Dust by Martin Prechtel: “Grief expressed out loud for someone we have lost, or a country or home we have lost, is in itself the greatest praise we could ever give them. Grief is praise, because it is the natural way love honors what it misses.”

 

Patterns, Examples

Forty years ago and just beginning to attend Friends Meeting at Cambridge, I’d considered the people I’d worshipped with every Sunday far, far superior to me. Until I didn’t. Over the years, although my fellow Friends have proved themselves to be just as flawed, just as human as I, there is one category amongst my faith community I still revere all out of proportion: older women. So this past Sunday, when a young woman stood up and expressed thanks for the women of our Meeting, I could both be touched by her gratitude and, remembering my own favs, spent some quiet time thinking about the many beloved, older women who, by their example, guided my own aging process. And my spiritual journey. (Which, these days, sometimes feels like the same thing!)

I don’t even know the name of the first older woman I noticed; Sundays, she and I often sat on opposite benches and as the hour progressed, I’d sneak peeks at her from time to time. Because I’d noticed how her lined face changed; how her obvious tension eased, how her taut face softened and, yes, became beautiful.  Hmm, I thought. Serenity as a beauty aid? No, there’s an incentive!

Others offered more substantive guidance. “I don’t do chitchat,” Patricia Watson told me the first time we met at coffee hour. And walked away. Nope. She did something else. She brought a fiercely-just and brilliant perspective to whatever was being discussed. Serving on the Ministry and Counsel committee with her, I’d marvel at her sharp, thoughtful analysis. And noted that rarely would she be the first person to speak on an issue but would, instead, listen intensely, sift through what was being said—and what wasn’t. One of her gifts, I think, was to ask, “Whose rights, whose conditions aren’t being considered as we discern? Who’s being left out? Who’s not at the table?” How blessed I am to have known her!

Other women, too, like Daisy Newman, Anne Kriebel, Emily Sander, Eloise Houghton, Ginny Hutchison. Names that won’t mean anything to you, perhaps, Dear Reader. I just like writing them out and in doing so, acknowledge the many gifts they offered me.

Thank you.

 

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.