“I can’t believe I’m still . . . “

[Jean Lafitte National Park, Lafitte, Louisiana]

That arc of history may be long and slowly bending towards justice—but it’s not exactly cruisin’ down I-95, is it! Sometimes that arc moves so slowly its movement is almost imperceptible. Sometimes it pauses, curves back on itself. Sometimes, like a twisty, bendy strangler fig vine, that arc moves backwards. And it feels as though we’re living in one of those retrograde times right now.

But here’s what privilege looks like: For most of my life I’ve expected linear. I’ve expected that arc to move steadily forward. So have been mystified and pissed that, jeez, here we are again? Like so many others, “I can’t believe I’m still . . . “  I mean, didn’t we already do this? Didn’t we settle all these trenchant issues once and for all? It’s so unfair!

So, yeah, I’ve been inwardly whining. Like a three-year-old. And need to take a good, hard look at my expectations surrounding social justice.  To admit that some of my stuff is ego, plain and simple and deadly. (I protested. I marched = I fixed it! Riiiight.) Some of this is about my belief that I have a “right to comfort.” On a really bad day, my resistance to accepting that, yup, Things Suck, Get Crackin’ is about not being twenty-two, anymore. I wonder if  I actually have the strength and energy and fortitude to show up, resist, interrupt. But, mostly, this is about, at the deepest, most profoundly fundamental level, my cluelessness. Again.  Why wouldn’t I, white and privileged, expect that arc to inch forward bit by bit. Slowly, yes. And not a crystal stair, certainly; I was never that clueless. (But close.)

So it is with both humility and fervent hope that I say: I still believe that arc moves toward justice. But it’s going to be much harder and take way longer than I ever before understood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Pray you, love, remember.”

[Abandoned-Hotel Trash, Sharon Springs, N.Y. 2016]

The more I read Robert Rossner’s The Year Without an Autumn: Portrait of a School in Crisis, the more I realize I’ve forgotten way more than I remember about the 1968 crisis Rossner chronicles. Which is startling! For not only was I was an elementary school teacher at P.S. 120 when the Ocean Hill/Brownsville strike happened, I was a scab. Yes. Until our school’s custodians locked us out, P.S.120’s teachers of color crossed the United Federation of Teachers’ picket line (i.e. an irate group of P.S. 120’s white teachers) for a couple of weeks in the fall of 1968. Two white teachers chose to join those black teachers. I was one of them. You’d think I’d remember more!

So I’m struck by how much trauma and time (and, okay, maybe the druggy haze of the sixties) wreak havoc on remembrance.*

Here’s probably the worst thing I got dead-wrong: I’d remembered that less than ten NYC public-school teachers had been fired by the decentralized, parent-and-community-based (read People of Color) Ocean Hill/Brownsville board. Or so I’ve always thought. But, no, nineteen teachers had been fired by the “local control” folks. A significant number. (So: Forty-nine years later, I almost get why the UFT got so high and mighty about so many of its teachers getting canned. Almost.)

I knew one of those nineteen. He was a total incompetent at P.S. 120 and had been let go. His incompetence made my decision to support the Ocean Hill/Brownsville board’s right to fire him pretty straight-forward: Would I strike to protest his being fired? Hell, no. And so I crossed a picket line.

But here’s what I must say: All these years later, while I am glad (relieved?) I’d made the right decision, I am humbled by how next-to-nothing I really understood about systemic racism in 1968! I now know how blindly I made that decision! So when I say trauma is a factor to my swiss-cheese memory of this experience, I mean both the scary, nasty bits I have sublimated, paved over but also my present-day realization/horror that, actually, I’d stumbled into doing the right thing!

And, finally, to honor Shakespeare’s injunction to love and to remember: an incongruously-lovely memory; a (self) love story: Somehow, in the midst of being called horrible names as I crossed the picket line or, once inside, tried to teach a few scared children while fire alarms keep going off or, on the subway, getting punched by a young man of color because, why not? Racial tensions were tearing the whole city apart. Yet somehow, in the midst of all of that—and all that I have forgotten—I suddenly stopped smoking. Just like that. I’d learned that the minute you quit smoking your lungs begin to heal. What I had been doing to myself since I was fifteen could be fixed. Hope, possibility, redemption were possible. So I quit.

*There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember.” Shakespeare.

 

Losing A Step

[Oval Hole in New Orleans Sidewalk, January, 2017]

I fell yesterday—on a shoveled-bare, brick and asphalt sidewalk maintained by Harvard University. Because of the icy sidewalks all over Somerville and Cambridge yesterday, I’d been wearing YakTrax; one coiled wire had apparently got caught in a gap between two sidewalk bricks and down I went! (Or so I assume. It all happened so fast.)

Two kind young men, a guy who’d been driving past in an Eversource van and a uniformed member of the Harvard University Police Department, instantly materialized and helped me to my feet.  “Do you require medical attention?” the HUPD guy asked. “Is anything broken?”

“I think I’m okay,” I answered, already a little weepy. And hobbled home. An ice pack on my bunged-up right knee and under two quilts, I was still emotional. “I feel old,” I confessed to my husband.

Or, as Kathryn Schulz made clear in her recent, brilliant New Yorker essay, “Losing Streak: Reflections on two seasons of loss,” I lost something. In my case, I’d lost the pre-fall me’s confidence that with the right foul weather gear, the proper equipment, I could walk without incident; no problem. (Such insouciance! Such taking-for-granted! Such ingratitude!)

But, as Schulz points out, losing is what we do.  “Loss is a kind of external conscience, urging us to make better use of our finite days.” Finite, indeed. I am definitely feeling that “finity” right now. And, oh, how precious!

Today, when I needed to mail some letters, as if preparing to scale a small mountain, I added a new piece of equipment to my gear: a walking stick. Gingerly, cautiously, still bruised and achy, I walked a half-block on a shoveled-to-the-concrete sidewalk and crossed the street to the mailbox. (Thanks, neighbors!) Crossing the street again, with the light, I heard a car behind me wanting to make a left turn—exactly where I was slowly walking. But instead of impatiently honking, I swear, because I was leaning on a sturdy branch I’d used on a real hike on a real, small mountain last summer, that driver waited. Patiently.

That I’d announced to that driver my need for extra care reminds me of one of my favorite poems; I’m also sharing it in honor of those two kind young men.

  Title Poem— by Rainer Maria Rilke

It’s OK for the rich and the lucky to keep still,

no one wants to know about them anyway.

But those in need have to step forward,

have to say: I am blind,

or: I’m about to go blind,

or: nothing is going well with me,

or: I have a child who is sick,

or: right there I’m sort of glued together. . .

And probably that doesn’t do anything either.

They have to sing, if they didn’t sing, everyone
would walk past, as if they were fences or trees.

That’s where you can hear good singing.

People really are strange: they prefer
to hear castratos in boychoirs.

But God himself comes and stays a long time
when the world of half-people start to bore him.

(translated by Robert Bly)

“It Takes A Lot of Work to be This Serene!”

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[Boutique Window, Venice, CA, October, 2016]

In a word, it was consolidating to stroll along Abbot Kinney Boulevard last Thursday. Because what I felt wasn’t my own desire to try on or to sample. Walking past upscale shops and hip restaurants, I instead sensed the outsized ambition of their owners. I smelled their desire for success. How much these (young, I assume) entrepreneurs yearned to make their mark. To make it. I wasn’t buying.

I’m not starting out, I saw. I’m not in my twenties or thirties and terrified I might not have what it takes—whatever that meant for me when I was just starting out. No. I’m successful, I saw, in the What Matters ways it’s taken me my whole life to define for myself.

Sunday, in silent worship, I reflected on that Ah hah moment lit by golden California sunlight. And it came to me—and I almost giggled out loud—”It takes a lot of work to be this serene!”

I Am White/I Am A Woman

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[Willow Sculptures, Oslo, Norway Botanical Garden, October, 2015]

I am white/I am a woman

I am white/I am responsible

I am white/I am not responsible

I am white/I am powerful

I am a woman/I hold up half the sky

I am a woman/I am not powerful

I am white/I am a Quaker (almost goes without saying*!)

I am white/I am old

I am old/I am not powerful

I am an old Quaker/I am powerful

 

*In the USA

Listening in Tongues (3)

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[Shoulders: Louisville, KY, June, 2016]

As a Wheelock College sophomore, I was required to take “HGD” (Human Growth and Development) for an entire year. Aka Ages and Stages, the course ended at adolescence. Yup! When you turned twenty-one, HGD implied, you, me, all of us were done! Finished. Realized. (Really?)

Luckily, in 1976, eleven years into my own (developmentally vague and misunderstood) adulthood, Gail Sheehy published Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life—and rocked my world. Sheehy gave me a whole new set of ages and stages I could imagine myself moving through. Someday I’ll be middle-aged, I realized. Someday, perhaps, I’ll be a grandmother.

And so, the other day, when I got into a suddenly-deep, suddenly touchingly-honest conversation—re “adulting”— with a fifty-year-old father I’d just met, a part of me was able to step back from the conversation to silently acknowledge: he and I are in very different places developmentally. I have already lived through what he’s now experiencing. (I won’t repeat what he told me. It’s his story to share, not mine.) Surely, to remember such adult ages-and-stages is yet another way to listen in tongues.

So it didn’t surprise me when I told him my latest adulting/being-a-grandmother story—and he didn’t get it. (He blinked politely. But he didn’t get it.) For what it’s worth, here it is: Last Monday, just for a moment, as my four-year-old granddaughter put her heart, mind, and soul into lifting her vintage Radio Flyer (Lord knows why!), I saw in her determined, little face the woman she will become. And I was both grateful to see that vision and welled up realizing I might not live long enough to see my actual, over-21 grandchild.

Such preciousness and such mindfulness in that teary moment!

Is There A Theme, Here?

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[Broken Mirror on Sidewalk Self-Portrait, 2016]

A getting-to-know-you lunch with a yoga classmate, Muhammad Ali’s death, my 50th college reunion, a late-afternoon lobbying session (with other, WAY more informed people) to discuss an upcoming energy bill with my state rep; is there a theme, here? (besides the fact that I’ve simply noted some highlights of this past week?)

Why, yes, there is!

Let’s put it this way: at my Wheelock College reunion Saturday, someone asked a group of about thirty Class of ’66 members who’d read Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. Most of us had.

Being mortal/growing old: for me, Ali’s death has proved a telling benchmark, a very real, very concrete measurement marking how vastly different the young me of the mid-sixties, who’d regarded Cassius Clay/ Muhammad Ali with fear and scorn and, yes, confusion, and the seventy-one-year-old me who marvels at, celebrates his witness* against racism and oppression and war!

So, yeah, I’m no longer pre-intimation of mortality. I’m mortal.

We all are. Which is why I went to lunch with that yoga classmate, a delightful woman who usually places her mat next to mine. The classmate who used to put her mat there (and who often said she and I should get together but when it came time to actually set up a date . . . ) died. Tragically. And why I, ever-mindful of the urgency of addressing climate change, showed up at a 4:30 meeting to discuss an energy bill. Because who else can show up during working hours? Activists and pensioners!

*In Quakerese: to stand up, to show up, to speak out about, to get arrested for some injustice you’ve been moved (“led”) to protest.

Rewriting the Past

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[ a (Defiled) “This Changes Everything” poster, Somerville Ave, 2016]

Years ago at an anti-war demonstration—Vietnam, this time—poet Allen Ginsburg made a startling announcement from the podium: “If the United States government can illegally declare this war,” he shouted, ” I can declare that it’s over! Yes! I declare that this illegal, horrible war is over! Bring the troops home! Peace at last!”  And the crowd cheered and wept and hugged and released balloons (it was the 60s; we brought balloons to demonstrations back then.)

I cheered and wept and hugged, too. And for four or five seconds I celebrated Ginsburg’s fantasy. I believed it. More important, that brilliant poet had given me, had offered all of us a brief, delicious taste of What Might Be. Could Be. He’d allowed us to experience how it felt, ever so briefly, to live in a country not at war. Imbedded in that contrived moment was an incentive: “Your heart lifted, sang just now? And you were filled with hope? Nice, right? Then keep on keepin’ on. Keep protesting.” So we did.

Sometimes, these days, as my Loved One remembers less and less and my actual childhood is being rewritten to resemble a fairy tale: “. . . and they all lived happily ever after,” I don’t correct her.  Just as I don’t correct her when she confuses times or names or other pesky facts. I don’t remind her that, actually, our relationship was “fraught,” as my father would say. No, instead, like that balloon-releasing moment of unadulterated joy, I briefly savor a childhood that never happened but is filled with love—the same love I now see in my Loved One’s eyes. And, like Ginsburg’s “peace,” possible.

(I guess it’s true: it’s never too late to have a happy childhood.)

Sawing away Making God-Awful Noises

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[Trondheim, Norway]

“Life is a public performance on the violin, in which you must learn the instrument as you go along,” says E.M. Forster. It’s that “public performance” that most moves me. The sad, cold, hard fact is that sometimes, while we saw away making god-awful noises we’re on stage, in rhinestones or tux, a horrible disappointment to our audience and ourselves. Flop sweat soaking our evening wear, grimly we work through our repertoire. No one claps.

( I can still remember the first time I was in a high school play how, after months of rehearsal in a large and empty and drafty auditorium, that at our first performance I’d walked on stage to feel all those bodies’ warmth—and to hear their rustling anticipation/impatience.)

But what if we brought tolerance into that auditorium with us? What if we took our seats as if at an ongoing Suzuki recital? What if we whispered, “Wow! Last time he/she played that last bit he/she was much, much worse! What an improvement!” What if we cheered and clapped without ceasing.

We could note our own improvement, too. What if we whispered to ourselves as we strode onstage, our hands already sweaty: “I’m learning this as I go along.” And forgave ourselves for not being Perfect.

 

“Coolness of spirit is a precious frame”

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Yesterday brought the news that a second friend—and, like the first, a valued, pivotal member of this community—has been priced out of her Somerville home. So although yesterday was a banner day for the ‘ville,*  I’m sad.

Sad: When I was younger, I constantly confused Anger with Sadness, frantically lashing out at whoever/whatever upset me. Sometimes that anger fueled, energized projects; sometimes that anger meant “Fix It!” (Sometimes I could.) But mostly my anger kept me fuming, stuck. It affected my health. It affected my family, my marriages, my children. Afraid to let what I was really feeling to come forth, afraid to let myself be sad, it seemed somehow safer to just get pissed off!

But over decades—and lots of therapy—I have come to appreciate Isaac Pennington’s advice to a F/friend in 1679: O! Keep cool and low before the Lord, that the seed, the pure, living seed, may spring more and more in thee, and thy heart be united more and more to the Lord therein. Coolness of spirit is a precious frame; and the glory of the Lord most shines therein—in its own lustre and brightness; and when the soul is low before the Lord, it is still near the seed, and preciously (in its life) one with the seed.

So, on this lovely morning with lilacs in full bloom, I will let my soul stay low for a while and wait to see what springs forth.

 

* The Green Line extension, which will provide much needed light-rail transportation to my neighborhood, was (conditionally) approved yesterday afternoon and, last night, Somerville’s aldermen approved a 20% inclusionary bill which requires that 20% of all new housing be affordable.

Shrapnel: a poem

 

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[An Ocean Beach/San Diego garden]

Shrapnel

If my achy joints were all

that mattered I’d

move to Ocean Beach.

I’d abandon this damp and earnest coast and

all that kept me here,

kept me informed

and heartbroken

(Another shooting?)

to water my garden.

(A holy act in parched San Diego)

If I chose to honor the brokenness I’d

abandoned

I’d walk a block or two

 to the fishing pier,

I’d walk to the very end

(which smells like beer-piss and fish) and

wait for

an Army-green ‘copter

or a

shrapneled, long-haired vet

(Vietnam, no doubt)

to whirl by/

 limp past.

(Never a long wait)

I’d feel that concrete pier shudder

from each Pacific wave

I’d watch the surfers and pelicans and

let myself remember.

Seen/Scene at Connecticut Muffin

[Manhattan Underpass, Rush Hour, 2015]
Sometimes it’s those brief moments, a random glance out a Brooklyn cafe’s window that can be so telling, right?  Sunday morning sleepily drinking my coffee, I watched a young, tense man walk past and as I idly watched, saw his eyes brighten and a smile transform his caught-up-in-plans-and-worries face. No, I couldn’t see what so charmed him but, given that this was Brooklyn, a haven for hipsters and their offspring, it’s probably a sure bet that he’d spotted a child, a child somehow being adorable, but too short to be seen from where I sat.

Catching sight of his softened, tolerant face, I realized how blessed mixed communities truly are. Before Sunday when talking about mixed I might have meant strictly by ethnicity. But having witnessed that man’s face light up, I must now add: by age, too. A community is all the richer and stronger and more resilient when its citizens are reminded, just strolling down the street or seated on a park bench, that it’s a complex, mixed-up, diverse—and, yes, broken but sometimes adorable—world we’re sharing.

Tomorrow I will visit the assisted living center where my mother lives, a well-appointed, attractive, supportive community of and for old people. And I will remember that young man’s smile.