“A Softness of Compassion”


[“Feeding Seagulls”; Tengelfjord, Norway, 2015]

Lately I’ve been thinking about a Ray Bradbury short story I must have read fifty years ago. Here’s how I remember it: a man pays an enormous amount of money to time-travel. At the time of his back-through-eons trip, a fierce presidential campaign wages; it pits a blowhard, right-wing, bullying, hate-monger versus a peace/love candidate. And the peace/love candidate is way ahead in the polls.

Now, this time-traveler had been repeatedly cautioned by the people operating the time machine not to leave a specially designated boardwalk. ( I can’t remember where he traveled—the Jurassic Period, maybe?) But, of course, he does step off the wooden path. And accidentally steps on a small insect. When he returns to his own time period, he’s amazed to discover that the bully is now a clear front-runner. The language he’d spoken had also morphed.

Bradbury explains why the bully won (He probably explained why language had radically changed, too, but I never understood that bit): The death of that one insect began a chain of depressing events, beginning with the subsequent death of  another creature—a bird, perhaps—that had depended on that particular insect for its survival and then . . .  And thus unfolded an alternative world dominated by an abiding sense of Not Enough. Deprivation. Fear. Might Makes Right. Me First.

Is it possible that, post 9/11, many now believe we live in that same mean, selfish, dog-eat-dog world Bradbury so insightfully created, a world so fear-filled that a bully could be seen a savior?

I wonder.

*From Elizabeth Strout’s excellent My Name is Lucy Barton (And, by the way, this softness was viewed with revulsion by one character.) 




Quality Quality of Life


[“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.

Bit by Bit


[Sign in a plumbing-supply store with a Christmas tree and presents in its front window]


Before Christmas, my husband, grand-daughter and I traded germs ( our two-year-old grand-daughter generously shares an unlimited supply of colds and other ailments from daycare with us) which, filled with Christmas Spirit, I fended off. But those germs finally won—and so I spent yesterday under a thick quilt with Olive Kitteridge. (And Kleenex and cough drops and tall glasses of orange juice.)

This morning, still pretty low-energy, still pretty sick, as I waited for my coffee water to boil I found myself wiping down our utterly filthy kitchen stove. “Ahh, ” I thought, watching myself clean up some of the past week’s spillage we’ve been too busy to attend to, “here’s a tiny bit of my Real Life breaking through my exhaustion,” like the hyacinths and paperwhites in my living room just beginning to reveal themselves. (The bulbs were gifts from a dear friend and a dear daughter.)

Low energy, pretty sick, it’s remarkably easy to think about the past week and to only remember how exhausting Christmas is! All that work! All that family drama! All those delicious holiday treats that left me worn out and debilitated once the sugar-buzz wore off! All that surrounding, worldly tension between Hopeful, Light-Filled, Peace-Loving, Joyful versus Cynical, Violent, Bah Humbug.

How comforting (Get it?) to remember as I lie under that thick quilt that Hope and Light and Peace  and Joy are within me—within all of us—no matter what the season or how we feel. Indeed, like those mysterious and unprepossessing bulbs, these gifts of the Spirit require only something to cling to and a little water:

Last night, as I was sleeping,

I dreamt—marvelous error!

That a spring was breaking out in my heart.

I said: Along which secret aqueduct,

Oh water, are you coming to me,

Water of a new life

That I have never drunk?

                                   [from “Times Alone” by Antonio Machado]




God Talk


Reading Adam Gopnik’s excellent Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life and came across this: (Gopnik is paraphrasing Alfred Kazin) “[For Lincoln], God. . . is the stenographic name for the absolute mystery of being alive and watching men suffer while still holding in mind ideals that ennoble the suffering and in some strange way make sense of it.”

Here’s what Kazin wrote: “It is clear that the terrible war has overwhelmed the Lincoln who identified himself as the man of reason. It has brought him to his knees, so to speak, in heartbreaking awareness of the restrictions imposed by a mystery so encompassing it can only be called ‘God.’ Lincoln could find no other other word for it.”


“God Bless Everyone, No Exceptions”

So here we are this week (at least in this part of the world): the Red Sox have won 50 games; strawberries are deliciously in season—and especially plump this year from all the rain, rain, rain; day lilies are in bloom; a water lily graces our little koi pond; and red, white, and blue’s everywhere.

As our nation prepares to celebrate its birthday with fireworks and bunting, I’m finding my waxes-and-wanes appreciation for my country enlarged by Team of Rivals. (Sorry to recommend such wrist-challenging books: Far from the Tree: 706 pp. This one: 754 pp!)

Having gone to a segregated high school in Lynchburg, Virginia, my knowledge of “The War of Northern Aggression” had been spotty, at best. Certainly Miz Wallace, my American History teacher, was not Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Team of Rivals, i.e. not a Pulitzer Prize historian nor resident of abolitionist-haven Concord, Massachusetts.

Given that Miz Wallace may have displayed a Confederate flag in her classroom*, it’s easy for me to accept Ms. Goodwin’s gushing over Abraham Lincoln whose “political genius” saves the day again and again. (Sometimes the outcome seemed more about luck than cunning.) Because, of course, the larger story—and at 754 pp, that larger story is well elucidated—is page-turning dramatic: warring political factions, terrible conflicts among Lincoln’s cabinet members, a devastating civil war, the dehumanizing and passionately-felt issues of slavery, The Lincolns’ marriage and family life. We’re even treated to People Magazine-like peeks Inside The Beltway as the First Lady and Kate Chase, the stunningly beautiful daughter of Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon Chase, vie to outdo the other in home decor and entertaining.

Here’s what I’m especially appreciating: I get presidential. Although appalled by slavery, Lincoln was often condemned by people like Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists for not taking a strong enough stand against that evil. But when I read page after page of all the factors Lincoln took into account, knowing he wanted to resolve the war so as to continue a United States, I see why he was so mealy-mouthed, sometimes. (And, by extension, why Obama is, too, I guess.)

Which is not to say that I applaud mealy-mouthedness. I guess that’s what presidents have to do, sometimes. BUT: now I see more clearly how incredibly important activist, progressive voices are!

So let’s hear it for all our forefathers and foremothers. Let’s hear it for “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Let’s hear it for the birthplace of  that endearing, self-evident truth that we are all equals at the (summer-fare-laden) table.

*Dr. Lynda Woodruff, another E.C. Glass grad, asserts that Miz Wallace indeed did.


November 28, 2012: Far From The Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity

When it comes to book recommendations, my friend Lissa is rarely wrong. So when she urged me to go right out and buy a $40, 706 pp. book , I did.

And yes, Far From The Tree is truly amazing. Worth every penny. (Almost) every sentence is a gem: Like this one from the Introduction: “Though I have gathered statistics, I have relied primarily on anecdotes because numbers imply trends, while stories acknowledge chaos.”

[FYI: The queue to be the next person to read my water-damaged-from reading-at-the-(Palm Springs)pool-copy is, so far, exactly one person. So get in line!]

Andrew Solomon spent 6 years interviewing over 300 parents and their children, families who know all about deafness, being homosexual, autistic, gifted, et al because the children of these families are so; in other words, families whose children were not, as the saying goes, apples that fell close to the tree. He writes beautifully about love and ambivalence, about coping and falling apart. He quotes all kinds of parents, all kinds of studies. He uses words like “shimmering humanity.” If he finds a parent overbearing—this is especially true in the “Prodigies” chapter—he says so. If he discovers a parent whose caregiving overwhelms him with its tenderness and wisdom, his writing about that parent will make you cry.

So get in line!



September 6, 2012: The opposite of love is . . .

. . . Fear.

That came to me so powerfully at meeting this week.

It’s so easy to “feel the love” when I’m in worship, with my family, in community, sitting around the flickering candles of our Wednesday evening circle for “the formerly incarcerated and those who care about them.”

But . . . (Don’t even have to finish that sentence, do I?!)

Just finished the “astonishing” The Hare with Amber Eyes , a memoir about the Ephrussi family. But also about netsuke—tiny, exquisite Japanese carvings once used as toggles. So have been thinking about carrying in my pocket/on my person some thing that I can touch (the author of The Hare with Amber Eyes, Edmund De Waal, is a potter and has lots to say about touching things as a way of learning) to, ahem, feel the love. To be  sustained and comforted when I find myself in that scary and dark valley.

Sure beats a hairshirt!



July 12, 2012: “Beasts of the Southern Wild”

At meeting for worship last Sunday, we heard  (maybe too much?) ministry re tribes/tribal identity.

So I was kinda forced to think about tribes. And here’s where I got:

Seems like one, very important organizing principle of a tribe is this: Everyone in that tribe knows the same stories. (Do the words “Bucky F-ing Dent!” mean anything to you? If so, you and I are in the same tribe.)

The day before all that ministry and pondering, David and I saw “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” the first story-telling re climate-change movie I’ve seen, certainly the first non-documentary, non-urban-setting apocalyptic film I’ve ever seen.

I thought I recognized something else: the prequel to “The Shambhala Warrior Prophecy.” Here’s a video—with a way-too-earnest intro—of Joanna Macy telling that tale. (If you want to skip right to the Aesop’s Fable, the moral-of-the-story ending, here is it: The two weapons of the Shambhala warriors are compassion and insight.)

I invite you to see the movie, watch the video. So we can be in the same tribe.


June 28, 2012: Where Are You, Batia?

(And I hope you’re doing OK)

The other night after the SCA film (June 20th post), when people were doing the Just Standing Around Thing, I took my leave by saying: “Well, I gotta get home and read more about Iranian women.”

NOT an exit line worthy of Nora Ephron. (Yes. I was/am a huge fan and mourn her as if we’d been friends.)

Truth is, the “riveting” book I couldn’t wait to get home to, Wanted Women: Faith, Lies & the War on Terror: The Lives of Ayaan Hirsi Ali & Aafia Siddiqui, isn’t about Iranian women. (Pakistani and Somali, respectively) And I knew that when I said it.

So, I wondered, walking home, why such a stupid—and unnecessary—remark? Sure, I’m particularly drawn to films or memoirs or biographies of Muslim women—especially women from Iran. Still. . .

And then it came to me (Lots of things come to me while I’m walking): Because, years ago, when I was a counselor at an adult learning center, I’d worked with a young woman from Iran. Her name was Batia.

Ironically, Batia is Jewish; most of her stories centered around that fact. So, I reasoned, walking home, my fascination with Iranian women hasn’t been completely about learning about what it means to be a Muslim woman.  Something else has been going on.

And I think it’s this: Batia is not an abstraction. Once upon a time, we connected. She’s not a character in “A Separation.” She’s not words on a page. And although I have had no word from her in over ten years, Something very deep remains.

Shalom Aleikhem, Batia.


June 20, 2012: Narrative(s) from The Left

Last night I joined a smallish group of people to watch “Growthbusters: Hooked on Growth” (wish more people had come*; the film’s too dense yet excellent.) Afterward, Boston writer and activist  Jack Thorndike gave a brief talk. (Jack also attends Friends Meeting at Cambridge.) Still reeling from the film and struck by how much his body language reminded me of his daughter’s—I’ve been lucky enough to be her First Day School teacher a couple of years—I finally tuned in to what Jack was urging: that people from the Left, people of conscience, climate change activists, et al, share our narratives.

So here’s one:

A week ago, I again went to the Davis Square farmers’ market to collect signatures for the “Budget 4 All” (for Massachusetts) referendum. Only this time, it was POURING.

Loathe to get signature sheets wet—we signature collectors had been warned not to spill coffee or damage the sheets in any way—and not possessing enough hands to hold an umbrella, hold a clipboard and, being me, wildly gesture as I explained what this initiative’s all about, I was about to quit when a young woman holding a large box of tomato, basil, and other herb seedlings, walked up to me.

“Where’s your pen?” she asked after politely standing in the rain listening to my (hurried) spiel.

“You really want to do this?” I asked.


So like two contortionists just beginning to work on their act, she still clutching her box, we eventually managed to get her vital info on the dampened sheet.

“You’re amazing,” I told her. “I’m gonna blog about you.”



*This film, shown at Somerville’s Center for Arts at the Armory, was the last of the series co-sponsored by Somerville Climate Action and State Representative Denise Provost.



February 3, 2012: World as . . . battleground?

Slooowly reading Joanna Macy’s World as Lover, World as Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal. My glacial speed is partly because I never read books like this very fast (it takes me months to finish anything byPema Chodron) but mostly because Macy’s so freakin’ Right On!

So still absorbing her analysis re how we look at the world:

World as Battleground.

World as Trap

World as Lover

World as Self

And wouldn’t you know it? Am discovering that, good Quaker that I strive to be, much of how I relate to the world IS about “the reassuring sense that you are fighting God’s battle—and that ultimately you will win.”


Macy talks about a variation of this paradigm: “A more innocuous version of the battlefield image of the world is the one I learned from my grandparents. it is the world as a classroom, or a kind of moral gymnasium, where you are put though tests to prove your mettle and shape you up, so you can graduate to other arenas and rewards.”

Macy’s “innocuous version”  describe an insidious trait of mine and shared by my Cambridge/Somerville/intellectual friends—and they ARE my friends—I’ve shorthanded to “The Harvard Syndrome.” Although I did not go to Harvard, must admit I see myself struggling in that “moral gymnasium,” sometimes.


June 29, 2011: Talkin’

Whitey Bulger’s surprising, out–of-the-blue capture last week’s got me thinking: I need to deepen Welling Up. Why? Because one of the two main characters of my novel, which I thought I’d finished last summer, is a former member of the Winter Hill Gang.

While  All Souls tells Whitey’s sad/maddening/horrific tale best, it’s a House of Representatives’ report, written in 2004 that’s inspiring me to go deeper. Specifically, it’s the title: “Everything Secret Degenerates: The FBI’s Use of Murderers As Informants.”

Everything secret degenerates. Feels like an open invitation to probe, seek, TALK!