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!

 

“. . . Hallelujah by and by”

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At the beginning of yoga class began last week, our teacher invited us to say a little about transitions and how that might be playing out in our lives. Although each of us had something different to contribute, that summer had ended and fall had begun was definitely a common theme.

It was a wonderful, varied, invigorating class so when it came time for savasana, I gratefully sank into “corpse pose,” the traditional ending to every yoga class, with every muscle in my body relaxed and my eyes closed.

Well, almost every muscle. Because as I lay there on my mat, aware of only my breath and the quiet, a set of hands firmly but gently pushed my shoulders against  the mat as if to say: “You’re still holding onto some tension, there. Here! Let me help you release it.” And then, almost as though there had been a second pair of hands it happened so fast, a folded blanket perfectly cradled my head.

Here’s the thing: While I knew it had been Annie, my teacher, who’d performed these kindnesses, I had the eyes-shut-tight vision that, indeed, I was on my death bed and that someone, a daughter, perhaps, had eased my burdens and calmed my mind as I moved towards The Big Transition: my death.

Does that sound morbid? It hasn’t felt so. All week I’ve been grateful to be reminded that my remaining years on this precious earth, like the hairs on my head, are numbered.

 

 

 

 

 

“Does anyone ever realize life?”

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As I overhead a Niagara-on-the-Lake resident remark in July, at the height of her Canadian resort-town’s summer season: “Any day now we’ll all be talking about the polar vortex again!”

Sigh.

This glorious summer is coming to an end. Farmers’ market peaches are mealy and sad, now, for instance. Did I truly appreciate every peach I ate in July, in August? I wonder. And remember, as I always do when I ask this Did I Truly Appreciate XYZ question, that precious, poignant moment at the end of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town:

EMILY: “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?”

STAGE MANAGER: “No. Saints and poets maybe…they do some.”

I remember the first time I saw Our Town—sitting beside my mother at a small and shabby community theater in Lynchburg, Virginia. I was fifteen or sixteen. I remember, hearing the Stage Manager’s answer, promising to myself that night: “will! I will always live my life, ‘every minute,’ with intention, with gratitude, with focus.” (If I’d known the word “mindfulness” I would have added it to my mental list. But I hadn’t. Not at that age. And not in segregated, conservative, sleepy Lynchburg.)

But I haven’t.

 

Waiting

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Outside my kitchen door, a fledgling robin sits on the deck railing. Downy, helpless, utterly quiet, the baby bird waits so quietly, so still, I would not have even seen it had not its red-breasted father—a flash of ochre on a gray day in a gray backyard—suddenly appeared. With a worm.  No doubt aware of the potentially dangerous human just inches away, the father-child feeding is efficient and soundless. Off Dad flies. The fledging waits.

I, too, wait. “Final Draft 4” (?!) of Welling Up* sent off to my wise and thoughtful writing coach, told to take as much time as she needed, like that patient fledgling, I await her comments and suggestions with complete trust.

Inwardly, however, I am a mess. The focus of so much of my consciousness both awake and asleep, my creative and ever-plotting, ever-sifting brain now set on “Pause,” I am anxious and obsessive.

So I could learn a lot from that tiny, quiet creature.

Simply I am here. Simply snow falls. [Issa]

* For two thousand years, as the role of women shifts in Western culture, so does the story told of Mary Magdalene. Set in Somerville and Cambridge, Massachusetts, Welling Up offers another version of this evolving tale. My novel begins on Easter of 1997, ends at Christmas of that same year, and centers on the emerging love and trust between redhead Jewell McCormick, a formerly-homeless homecare worker, and her favorite client, Rocco Pellegrino, an elderly, wheelchair-bound Red Sox fan.

All (American) Women

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Raised by Republicans, I was no Red Diaper Baby Feminist nor, having grown up in the complacent suburbs of the 50s, can claim an early awareness of social injustice. And yet from an early age—at least this is how I remember it—I knew that being a woman  mattered. I can remember in junior high, maybe at UU Sunday school, discussing a quote by Eleanor Roosevelt or Eisenhower or . . . to the effect that American women were this country’s greatest untapped resource and, being eleven or twelve, thinking, “Yup! True. And when I get old enough, I’ll be a part of the tapping. I’ll be a part of Something Amazing!”

And I am. Although It’s taken way, way longer than I’d imagined when in junior high. And at that age and easeful time of my life, how could I have possibly imagined the power, the rage, the unspeakable cruelty of sexism? (Writing this, I realize that that the young, cosseted, idealistic eleven-year-old me still lives and breathes, sometimes. She’s the me so bewildered by horrific headlines: “How can this* be?”)

I see this Something Amazing every day: in the paradigm-shifting work of Michelle Alexander and Mothers Out Front, in the voices of Elizabeth Warren**, Rachel Maddow, Annie Hoffman, my yoga teacher, my strong, realized granddaughters.

And I see it in the faces, the smiles and nods of the women I pass by everyday, women from all over the world, women of all ages and ethnicities and classes and sexual persuasions, women in flowing robes and tight jeans and Birkenstocks. Not everyone, of course. But—and this may be Just Me—I see Sisterhood. I see silent acknowledgement of “Yup.”, a female version of a secret handshake.

Yup.

* For example

** This link’s worth watching on SO many levels, particularly the “Looking great!” comment. Really? You went there? “How can this be?”