“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.

 

 

 

The View from Here

 

View From El Yunque National Forest; March 13, 2019

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain

On our way to El Yunque National Forest, Narayan De Jesus Reyes, our excellent tour guide and driver, made a stab at this quote. Our small white bus weaving in and out of Puerto Rican traffic and over the island’s not-great roads, Narayan got Twain’s remarks pretty much right— although he was a little shaky on attribution. (Which happens a lot with Mark Twain quotes, right?)

So many ironies, so many paradoxes, so much to consider and to hold:

That so often, it is only the privileged who can afford to travel!

That, seemingly, travel = selfies these days, i.e. an opportunity, for example, to pose in front of a rainforest waterfall, post your ecstatic face on social media, then climb back onto a tour bus.

That there were so many tour buses! As we moved from site to site—most of the park’s trails are still inaccessible so we mostly stopped at look-out areas—Narayan constantly struggled to find a place to park. Every day, two or three humungous cruise ships visit San Juan; every day those cruise folks book tour buses bound for El Yunque.

These other tour buses proved a personal struggle. I resented all those fossil-fuel-powered vehicles—like the one I rode on; like the plane I flew on—and was grateful that this still-recovering-from Hurricane Maria paradise might benefit from all those tourists’ dollars. (That our mainland money might actually benefit Puerto Rico was a major reason why my husband and I had chosen to go there.)

That, according to Narayan, a good third of the rainforest’s trees had been destroyed by yet another climate-change-era superstorm. And, as one of the park’s rangers later told us, its famous, endangered parrots were seriously impacted by such devastation and now seem to have disappeared. The kicker?  I only know this because I can afford to take a guided tour to this holy place in a fossil-fuel-spewing bus!

About that holy place: For our last stop, Narayan had arranged for us to bathe in a delightful swimming hole surrounded by rich, tropical foliage and fed by a rainforest-generated river. Think of it!  As I sat on a volcanic rock at the bottom of a small, gurgling waterfall in bright sunshine listening to birdsong and the soft, gentle murmur of three young women nearby, I felt wholly blessed. Annointed. Utterly grateful. “My people believe El Yunque takes care of us,” Kenia, who served me breakfast the next day, explained. “That’s what you were feeling.”

Oh.

 

 

 

 

Room With A View

Rockwood Hall State Park, Sleepy Hollow, NY. (The Tappan Zee Bridge in the background.)

Thursday, a warm and sunny post-snowstorm day, while visiting my daughter and her family in Tarrytown, New York, I’d asked her if we could maybe take a walk along the Hudson. Her  eyes lit up: “Oh, yes,” she said, clearly excited to share yet another feature of her still-newish community (She and her family had moved to Tarrytown about a year and a half ago), “we can definitely arrange that.”

Ever since the UN report re climate change and how little time we have left, I am devouring books like The Overstory and Braiding Sweetgrass. My prayer life has expanded to include prayers, gratitude for all living things—especially trees. As much as I can, given winter weather and my urban surroundings, I’m walking through this precious, natural world as if both loving all I see and already mourning its loss. So I was psyched!

Land along the Hudson being prime real estate, I’d imagined our riverside walk would be maybe a mile or so long, on a wood-chip path through some overgrown vegetation, and end at some high-end development. So was astonished to find myself on the sculpted grounds of the Rockwood Hall State Park, perched above the Hudson, with magnificent views and wonderful, paved paths to explore but also, the beautifully designed landscape of a Frederick Law Olmsted-designed park. (It was my daughter’s father who’d first taught me how to recognize Olmsted’s eye-catching tree placement. On the campus of Vassar College. “See how your attention moves from this tree to that one and then to over there?” he’d coached. Yes. I did. Still do.)

But, wait! What’s the story behind all this magnificence? Who’d preserved these eighty-eight acres? Who’d made possible all this room with a view? Who’d hired Olmsted? The answer is: William Rockefeller. The brother of John D. Rockefeller and co-owner of Standard Oil Company. (I can still remember how brilliant I’d considered myself at eight or ten when I’d figured out that Esso, as in the name of the gas station—now known as Exxon, of course—was actually  S. O. As in Standard Oil.) He’d built Rockwood Hall; its foundations still stand although the mansion is gone. And, eventually, his vast estate—less than half of it anyway—became a state park.

Oh the irony. That our magnificent view, those perfectly-placed oaks and firs and sugar maples and sycamores, our excitement to watch soaring red-tailed hawks and a bald eagle, that glorious walk could have only happened because of the enormous wealth derived from a fossil fuel! A commodity which, like coal and natural gas, will make this planet unlivable for many, many species unless something truly miraculous happens.

Egad.

 

 

“Where To Begin?”

A Katrina Leftover, New Orleans, 2017

In the process of retrieving a much-needed toy from my granddaughter’s stroller parked on my front porch, I’d stepped outside to discover a white, curly-haired, slightly chunky young man about to ring my doorbell. Grandma on a mission, I think he told me he was soliciting for WGBH— but I could be wrong. I really wasn’t listening. For sure he launched into a spirited spiel lauding NPR; he even listed several programs and, to his credit, having taken note of the stroller and the toy in my hand, made special mention of  “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.”

“I know what NPR is,” I muttered.

“Then I’m sure you want to support it,” he countered.

Approaching the front door I turned to face him. “I truly believe in what NPR does but, no, I can’t.”

“May I ask why?” he demanded and, to my consternation, took on an offensive pose, widening his stance, inflating his chest. (My guess? He played football in high school.)

Ahh, dear reader, what a teachable moment! How I would have loved to explain to that young man that for aging Quakers like me and my husband, living on retirement funds, charitable giving is incredibly complicated. Babies starve in Yemen, there’s relief money desperately needed all over the world because of climate change, and, locally, the Somerville Homeless Coalition always needs money; so does the Welcome Project. Every year my husband and I receive thousands of nudges and tugs and polite requests and the occasional solicitor at our door. Yes, we believe in God’s unlimited love, yes, we believe that “There’s enough” but, sadly, yes, our ability to support every worthy cause— I’m not even getting in political contributions!—is definitely limited. (And, sadly, because of inflation and rising health care costs, especially medications, actually shrinking.) How I would have loved to tell that young man that it took my husband and me almost two years to come up with a careful, thoughtful formula for giving. So, sorry, young man but NPR didn’t make the final cut.

But his belligerence on my own front porch—his aggressive posture triggered something very primal and territorial—meant I was Done. And besides, I was still Grandma on a mission!

“Where to begin?” I asked, stepping inside. (Sorry, young man. That’s all I got.)

And firmly shut the door.

 

“Unidentified Artist”

Detail from “Pieta” by an unknown artist, circa 1470, School of Avignon, France.

My mother isn’t doing well. Despite pain meds and massages and ice packs and the tender, loving care she receives from her long-term-care facility’s excellent staff, she suffers. She weeps. She’s horribly confused. Sometimes she’ll tell me about her conversations with my father (he died in 2010); sometimes she perseverates, “Who’s taking care of him? He’s over a hundred, you know.”!

For most of my life I’ve had a complicated, fraught relationship with my beautiful and brilliant and, until late in her life, unrealized mother. “You know,” she told me years ago; she might have been drinking.”You should have been my mother.” Over time I came to understand why this crazy-weird impossibility was so tragically true. Therapy helped. Al-Anon helped. Having four daughters of my own helped. Getting older—both of us—helped. And for the past three years, being able to drive fifteen minutes to visit her in her private, sunny room surrounded by her own paintings and photographs and books helps. That she receives meds to ease her lifelong anxiety and depression helps. (She pays a pretty penny for this care; an obscenely huge amount. Which she can afford. Until she won’t.)

Yet even on the best of visits, when we’ve “walked” along wheelchair accessible pathways to see how the community gardens’ tomatoes fare, or strolled down to a lovely, little pond to watch turtles and fish and, sometimes, a blue heron; even then, I’d come home and take a nap!

So, last night, worried about her and wiped out by another too-hot, terrifyingly unseasonal day, I lay on my bed, AC valiantly chugging along, and, headphones on, listened to music. I didn’t curate my selections; I just listened to what I love. (Or so I thought.) Like Maria Callas’s “Casta Diva.” Or Faure’s “Requiem” which, the first time I heard it, on my car radio on the way to work, triggered a peak religious experience. Yes, triggered. For having just experienced The Whole, That Which Is Beyond Words, Spirit’s Transcendent Love, all I could think of was “Well, this is highly inconvenient! Right here on Mass Av in Porter Square? Couldn’t I have been in a forest?”

Oh, right, I realized, listening to Faure’s gorgeous mass. Requiem! Ummm, as in death? As in my mother’s tears of pain, certainly, but also her tears of shame and sadness that she’s so helpless and weak; as in her dim understanding of what, possibly, is happening to her? As in, perhaps, that the veil between the living and the dead begins to thin for her; she’s catching glimpses of what I cannot see? Like my father? As in that I am in mourning for my beautiful and brilliant and realized mother; I am in mourning for a Mother Earth who is much too hot, now. (Jeez.)

And that, again, mysteriously, an Unidentified Artist some call Spirit loved me, guided me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being Grammy

Reading “The Granddaughter Necklace” at Grammy’s house, August, 2018

For the past week I’ve been “Grammy.” That this delightful grandma-derivation is both something my beloved granddaughter began calling me one day, but can also mean prize-winning musicality, makes me very happy. Being Grammy makes me very happy— in the same way I feel whenever I am doing what is truly asked of me. Why is that?

What is it about being a grandmother that feels so “in the place just right”? For starters, spending time with the children of my children is a non-stop intimation of mortality! As Grammy, I am ever-aware that, yup; I am going to die. I. Just. Always. Am.

This fundamental realization immediately prompts a couple of questions: Okay, then, Grammy. So how do you want to spend this time with this child? And what do you want this child to remember about you?

So, yes, I am probably My Best Self as Grammy but, honestly? The role—which, for me, blessedly, also means being retired—allows that. Having cleared my calendar of all but the most essential duties and responsibilities when my grandchildren come to visit, Grammy time is pretty leisurely. You want to dawdle over breakfast, spend all morning in your jammies? No worries. (I could go on and on about this! But won’t.)

And what do I want this child to remember about me? My stories. Stories about when this child’s mother was a little girl; yes. Of course. But stories, too, about when I was a child; how different the world was, then. For I learned from my own, gifted, story-teller Grandma what a blessing it is to look at one’s own life as the next installment of an ongoing, mysterious, amazing story. To understand how we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.

And, yes, looking into the eyes of my beloved grandchildren, I know I am looking into The Future. And ask myself: what am I, Grammy, called to do?

 

 

 

 

Tempus Fugit

Trash Day, March 10, 2018, Dane Street, Somerville, MA

This will be brief and, I hope, to the point: Several people have recently posted on Facebook that the extraordinary heat we’re experiencing all over the globe is the result of the carbon we collectively put in the air years ago! (Thirty, maybe? I was too appalled to keep reading.)

Which, somehow, this hot, muggy afternoon, makes something very clear: It all matters. Right now! Over time, our undoubtedly small and puny, individual efforts to Do Right in our daily lives mean something. Collectively.

Cool!

Sitting This One Out

Summer Rain, July, 2018

Sometimes I just want to sit on my front porch. Sometimes I don’t want to read my emails or The New York Times. Sometimes I don’t care what Jennifer Rubin has to say. Or Bill McKibben. Or Naomi Klein. Sometimes, especially after a grueling heat wave, I just want to sit on my front porch and gratefully bless every precious drop of rain as a heat-wave-ending thunder storm begins. I don’t even need a glass of lemonade; I just need to be drowsy-grateful. Quiet. Alone. Did I mention grateful?

Ah, but as those “Could Do Better Work”* voices in my head constantly remind me, opting out, sitting this one out, there’s your White Privilege is action, lady. (Okay. Inaction, if you want to get technical about it.) “You’re not going to be deported or sent to jail, are you, Patricia? You are not targeted by this administration’s racist, Nazi-Germany nightmare.** And hey! What about climate change and the terrifying future your grandchildren will inherit? Huh? Sure, gratitude is nice and all but TIME’S A-WASTIN’ AND THERE’S WORK TO DO!”

Here is what I am learning to whisper to those nagging voices: Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” – From The Talmud, 303.

And, dare I add, taking time out just to be grateful and to recharge your batteries is A Good Thing, right?

(Just don’t make a habit of it, okay?)

 

 

 

*What my teachers invariably wrote on my reports cards

** Not yet, anyway. But, to paraphrase, those who don’t read history are doomed to be horribly surprised when they discover they’re next on the Target List.

 

. . . Not A Sprint.

Today, apparently, because of relentless, vociferous, worldwide protest, 45 announced that his pernicious policy of separating children from their parents at our nation’s borders will discontinue.

But don’t get too excited. He has also, in the past 24 hours, used the word “infest” when tweeting about immigration issues. A word to use when talking about rats, bed bugs, cockroaches.

I suggest we allow ourselves to take a brief moment to celebrate the power of collective action/ Love in Action. Praise God! Eat chocolate! Ceremoniously sip a delicious glass of pinot noir! Listen to music that brings you to tears.

And then let’s get back to work. Let’s keep showing up*. (Fascism is relentless, too.)

*Boston-area folks: let’s flood the Moakley Courthouse on July 12th at 2:00!

 

 

Extraction

 

Coal Barge, Ohio River, June, 2018

“If you are a hammer everything looks like a nail,” right?  Or, since I recently had a molar pulled, I’ve been thinking—ahem—deeply about extraction. About trauma and pain. About “Keep it in the ground.” About The Extraction Economy. About rape. About women.

Let me be clear: Keeping the remaining reserves of coal, natural gas, and oil in the ground is imperative. Absolutely. Keeping a cracked and festering tooth in my head? Probably not a good idea. So, last week, reluctantly, very reluctantly, I agreed to undergo—well, I’ll spare you the details.

Out of this past week’s trauma and pain has come such tenderness! First for myself, formerly known as Ms. Got-It-Going-On, who now humbly answers to Sort-of-Glued-Together.  (What the hell was I thinking when I gave myself one day to recover? Jeez.)

Oh, such newfound tenderness for our raped Mother Earth! Such abundant tenderness for all who have been used, plundered, abused, invaded. Most, most importantly, such tenderness for my sisters. Who can speak with such authority about—and against—the Extraction Economy. Who can connect dots the patriarchy doesn’t even see. Who can bring our collective tenderness and wisdom to the table, to the board room, to the voting booth.

Because, yes. We got it going on!

 

 

What Do I Yearn For?

A memorial reception with gluten-free or other diary-needs offerings carefully labeled, Friends Meeting at Cambridge, January, 2018

Walking to Meeting on Sunday, I passed a couple of  Ant “dockless” bicycles in front of Harvard’s Science Center, a new company that, like Hubway, the other bike-rental company in greater Boston, uses crossbar-free bikes. Exclusively. “Girls’ bikes,” we used to say. (When I was a kid, I wore dresses. That crossbar was highly inconvenient!)

During the unusually long quiet I found myself deeply moved that Ant’s and Hubway’s bikes are inclusive, accommodating, and account for “the least of these.” (Someone in a pencil skirt, a kilt, a sari? Anyone for whom swinging a leg over a crossbar could be challenging?)

More came to me during the quiet: I remembered a concert a while back, given by Daniel Parker, a former Quaker Voluntary Service fellow, now studying piano at Julliard. (Daniel’s concert was a fund-raiser for QVS.) Before he began Bach’s Goldberg variations, he asked the fifty-or-so-member audience if we wanted him to play straight through or if we’d prefer a break. Some of us—perhaps the same demographic who’d prefer not to swing our leg over a bike’s crossbar?—indicated we’d like a break. “I think we need to respect that,” Daniel said. There was pushback: “Put it to a vote!” someone called out. Gently but firmly, Daniel reiterated that we all needed to accommodate those who’d expressed need.

“What do I yearn for?” I have been asking myself that question a lot lately. Sunday I was offered a glimpse: I yearn to live in an accommodating, inclusive world, a world where day-to-day decisions are made after asking: How will this effect the poor, the homeless, the undocumented, the abused?

Sound good?

 

 

 

 

Random Acts of Beauty, Kindness

Between Nor’easters, Somerville, MA, March, 2018

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Sometimes—especially now—a news story is not the news story. Sometimes what seems significant isn’t. All the time, stuff just happens and making meaning of all that stuff can be exhausting and confusing. (And, must say, New England’s disquieting, alarming, climate-changed weather—for months!—hasn’t helped!)

Just coming out of one of those confusing and exhausting times, I’m moved this morning to lift up three instances, recently, when Spirit broke through the fog:

  1. Friday night, at our monthly Somerville worship-group gathering, a dear, long-time F/friend offered this query: “What do you yearn for?”  Try it. Let me know if simply posing that question to yourself is grounding. Do you find that coming up with An Answer not that important? That it’s the process of asking yourself, opening yourself up to look at, to wonder about your deepest hunger, that matters? (Thank you, Chris.)
  2. One of the things I yearn for, apparently, is declarative sentences about love. “Because he’s a twelve-year-old boy. Dogs love those.” (Thank you, Wes Anderson.) Bonus: this declarative sentence is voiced by a female.
  3. Random, anonymous acts of beauty and kindness. Like three packages of Jello, each a different color, artfully arranged on front yard wall. (Thank you, Neighbor, whoever you are.)