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.

 

“Is not this Joseph’s son?”

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In the silence of meeting for worship on Sunday, in the midst of my own faith community, after spending a week with others of my faith but not of my community, a touching moment from the Gospels came to me. (That I could not quite remember how the relevant passage was worded may mean I’m destined to sit in silence with a Bible on my lap. Maybe.) This moment from Luke 4: 16 – 30, is one sentence long; a bit, you might say, a little piece of theatrical business to explore or illustrate dramatic possibilities.

So let’s set the scene: Jesus of Nazareth has just returned to Galilee after spending forty days in the wilderness where he’d been tested by the devil—and passed. Having begun preaching in other Galilee synagogues, he returns to Nazareth and his own synagogue and on the sabbath, reads that stirring Jubilee passage from Isaiah. (Some of it. Jesus edits, apparently. But that’s another story, another post.) Like he’s been doing all over Galilee, Jesus wows ’em with his “gracious words.”

But here’s the bit: “They [his former neighbors, friends of his parents, the parents of his childhood friends] said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ ” (Mary’s son, too, we might add.)

Yep. He is. Composed, well-spoken, “filled with the power of the Spirit” after his wilderness-and-devil-and-forty-days’-fasting ordeal, he’s all that, he’s Local Kid Makes Good. Speaks Good. And his wowed listeners are both profoundly moved and remembering him when he was ten and, say, worked in his dad’s woodworking shop or carted water jars for his mother.

And we know thrilling moments such as what happened to Jesus’s hometown residents. We’ve been there. We’ve attended other people’s sons’ and daughters’ rites of passage and experienced, maybe for an instant, a thrill, frisson.

To be able to witness another person’s growth, change, transformation is holy. And while, of course, it’s touching when a child does these things, watching an adult transform is, for me, seeing Spirit made manifest.

Which, I believe, is Good News.

 

Like Riding a Bike

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[Panels & Rust; Somerville, MA 2015]

Yesterday I handed over my bike, Olivia, to my daughter. My sixty-fifth birthday gift to myself, Olivia cruised the busy streets of Somerville only a handful of times. Fo no matter how earnestly my younger friends assured me that Somerville had become a bike-friendly city, I never overcame my fears, my overpowering sense of vulnerability, to enjoy her.

So now my daughter will. Now my daughter can transport her daughter (in a helmut and super-safe bike seat) to daycare along the bike path half a block from her house on an olive bike as classy as her namesake.

Still . . .  I’m reminded of a wonderful piece about aging —and about its challenges and uncertainties—written by my writing student, Irene Ficarra. Irene recounted how, every summer, her family had rented a little place near the ocean for a week and how, on the last day, room by room, her mother would carefully sweep out a week’s worth of sand and grit and family debris and then, room by room, shut the door, telling the children they could no longer play in the now-swept room. All these years later, I am still moved by what Irene, in her mid-seventies, wrote next: she likened those shut-off rooms to beloved activities, like ballroom dancing, no longer accessible to her. Aligning herself with the little girl who’d been resentful when her mother forbade her to enter those cleaned rooms, she wondered if some of those shut doors in her own life might have been shut off too soon.

I so understand Irene’s questioning—because so much about growing old is not instinctual. Like learning to ride a bike, once you’ve noticed a pattern—Whoa! I get tired faster, now!—you will never not recognize this New Old You. It’s incorporated. Literally. Your body gets it. You cruise. (You accept, submit, surrender.)

But, oh, the tottering, the wobbling, the bruising, skinned-knee moments before you figure this stuff out!

 

[I will be joining Quakers from all over New England for our yearly gathering next week. So next week’s post will be August 7th.]

 

 

 

Summer Sloth or “Well-Used”?

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[Vineyard, Niagara-on-the Lake, Canada, 2014]

Recently I “cycled off” a committee at my Quaker meeting I’d served on for several years, a volunteer job I’d gladly signed up for but which had required a lot of my time. Last July, for example, several of us on that committee were hiring a new staff person; even now, dear Reader, remembering that Thumbs Up /Thumbs Down hiring experience makes my heart race! (Apparently I am not cut out for personnel work!)

So I’m having a delicious summer. One perfect summer afternoon a couple of weeks ago, lying in dappled sunlight on a hammock, a Trollope novel in hand, I felt held, both that every-bone-in-your-body-support of a hammock, but also that deep and warm sense of being held by Spirit; of being loved unconditionally. Is this just summertime and livin’ easy bliss? I wondered. Or, because I’ve been toiling in the vineyard I’ve earned this blissful, peace-drenched, birdsong-sweet moment?

Part of me scoffed at this notion of earned bliss. “This is a broken world,” my mindful self reminded me. “And so much more you could be doing! When you get home. . . ” And, then and there, my mindful self ignored those puffy clouds and birdsong and the neglected novel on my belly to create a long To Do List for me.

Reader: I’ve pretty much ignored her list. And am taking great comfort in thinking about those laborers who, the parable goes, were hired late in the day but were nevertheless paid for a full day’s work.

I see an old woman with nut-brown, gnarled skin and stooped over from years of hard work. Of course the landowner didn’t chose her first-thing that morning! But when, grateful to be called to service, she put in whatever time she had left with vim and care, her work, like that other Biblical old woman’s mite, was priceless. (Or at least worth a day’s pay!)

“Own It!”

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[People’s Climate March, September 21, 2014]

On a cold and rainy evening a couple of weeks I walked to Porter Square Books to hear James Wood, book reviewer for The New Yorker, give a reading. During the Q & A, one woman raved about a novel he’d written years ago. Renowned critic of other people’s novels (his piece on Penelope Fitzgerald means he’s aka as “Household God” to me), Wood pooh-poohed his early-on book. In so many words he said, “I could write a much better novel now. I’m older and wiser.”

What? Huh? Household God’s use of wiser irked me. But because James Wood is someone I revere, walking home after the reading I spent some time thinking about why his word-choice bothered me so. And realized, rain drumming my umbrella, my discomfort wasn’t about him. But about me.

am unable to stand in a public place, fifty or sixty people seated in front of me, and declare that I am wise. have always inserted the mollifying “dare I say it?” before using the word wise when speaking of myself. Always. Unequivocally.

This ain’t false modesty. I really DO not feel worthy. Hoary-headed though I be, I am not yet able to own my wisdom. (Yet I am proud enough of my insightful and wise novel, Welling Up, to endure the rejection and yawny indifference and heartbreak of trying to get it published?!)

My own backstory : a few years ago I bought a fire-engine red, cotton, broad-brimmed hat from Davis Squared. Too broad-brimmed, maybe? I certainly felt conspicuous wearing it; that’s for sure. But when I told the (young and hip and model-worthy gorgeous) store’s owner how I felt she just shook her head: “Own it,” she advised.

Here are two (ahem) wise things I wish to say about owning it, about really embracing my wisdom:

1. This is about gender. Were James Wood a woman I think I would have reacted differently. (A clue: This past Sunday, a man at meeting for worship used the word wise to explain where “we” aging, spiritual people are developmentally. And again I bristled.)

2. This is about time and reflection and prayer. It took me years to write Welling Up. Off the cuff, off-balance, overwhelmed, I am usually ridiculous.

How fortuitous that in Quaker circles I can sit and vacantly stare into space as I ponder whatever’s before the group—collective wisdom is Good Stuff—and only if clear, wipe the bit o’ saliva that may have dribbled as I pondered, and say something!

 

 

 

 

Quality Quality of Life

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[“Wellness Ambassador,” RiteAid pharmacy]

Having just finished Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, heartily recommended, I’ve been giving that “what matters” some thought.

It’s been an excellent week to be asking this question: I’ve been out of town a lot lately so am looking at my home and my life with the eye of the returning traveler. And it’s one of those crunch times when too many important things must happen within a couple of days of one another. And I’ve been both sick and a little jet-lagged so am not really bringing my A game to my extra-long-because I’ve-been-out-out-town To Do list. So need to cull, prioritize. And, of course, the earthquake in Nepal and the headlines re Baltimore—and the headlines about those headlines—both weight heavy on my heart and ask me to look at my life, my choices from a larger, tragic perspective.

What matters? (And will be accessible as I age.)  Here are my Top 4:

1. Silent worship/opening myself to Spirit. Dare I confess that only because I’d agreed to meet someone after mid-week worship at my Quaker meeting yesterday morning* did I find myself sitting in silence with handful of people? (I guess I do.) After about ten minutes I was asking myself, “How come I don’t come here every week?”

2. Spending dedicated, unobstructed, no-distractions time with the people I love. Duh.

3. Nature–even the urban version I see and hear through my kitchen window. The wind through my wind chimes, watching clouds or a sparrow at my bird feeder matter. They feed me.

4. Writing. If I am not working on/mulling/stewing over a writing project I get very, very crabby. (And, strangely, anxious, too. Not sure why that is).  Good to know, right?

What would be Your Top 4?

 

* Don’t get the wrong idea; we did not discuss spiritual matters. But rather how to self-promote now that I’ve just finished a book. Hmmm.

Out of the Blue

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[Harvard Square; reflected]

Sometimes it’s challenging to live in this part of the world. Like my son-in-law noted the first time he took the T—known as the subway in his NYC—”too many students!”

Sometimes it’s challenging to be perpetually surrounded by young men and women. Sometimes I get impatient. Sometimes I feel invisible. Or irrelevant. Sometimes I just get tired of college students.

But last night, walking under a smeary, bright, three-quarter moon, something happened. I’d just left myQuaker meeting when one person didn’t show up for a meeting I’d attended. And had spent much of the meeting both absorbed in why we were there and pretty sure that missing person was AWOL because I’d again forgotten to notify her that we were meeting and feeling really, really, really bad. Again. (Did I mention I’d done this to her once before?) And angry at myself. And old.  (I make stupid mistakes SOO much more than I used to.)

As I walked across a broad, paved expanse of open space in front of Harvard’s Science Building, out of the blue a young man on a bike rode diagonally past me. (If I was going from a 6 to 12 direction on a clock face, the Science Building at 9, his route was from 10 to 4.) He rode, knees high and lost in thought, his hands in his pockets.

And I remembered how great it was as a kid to “Hey, Ma, no hands!” I remembered how riding my bike had been my first taste of autonomy; what an absolute thrill that was. I remembered being a kid. And, despite my anger and guilt, I remembered to be grateful.

PS: Turns out I did NOT mess up. Doubled gratitude!