Comic Book Store Window, Park Slope/Brooklyn, NY; June, 2016]
“When you make peace with uncertainty, you find a kind of liberation. You are freed from bracing yourself against every piece of bad news, and from constantly having to work up a sense of hopefulness in order to act—which can be exhausting. There’s a certain equanimity and moral economy that comes when you are not constantly computing your chance of success. The enterprise is vast, there is no way to judge the effects of this or that individual effort—or the extent to which it makes any difference at all. Once we acknowledge this, we can enjoy the challenge and the adventure. Then we can see that it is a privilege to be alive now is this Great Turning, when all the wisdom and courage ever harvested can be put to use.”
(from World As Lover World As Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal, p.143, 2007)
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.
Overheard at the Union Square farmers’ market: A young man loudly whined; the young woman beside him muttered “Stay there.” As if to say, “Stay in your petulance! Listen to yourself! Take whatever time you need to remember that you’re a white, American male—the most privileged creature on this planet—and hear how you sound like a spoiled three-year old!”
That woman’s verbal eye-roll* reminds me of an oft-quoted Quaker story:
There is a widely told, entirely apocryphal, story that at one time George Fox and William Penn met. At this meeting William Penn expressed concern over wearing a sword (a standard part of dress for people of Penn’s station), and how this was not in keeping with Quaker beliefs. George Fox responded, “Wear it as long as thou canst.” Later, according to the story, Penn again met Fox, but this time without the sword. Penn then said, “I have taken thy advice; I wore it as long as I could.” Though this story is entirely unfounded, it serves as an instructive parable about Penn’s Quaker beliefs. (From Brief History of William Penn)
Of course, Penn’s individual sword-wearing-until-he’d internalized-Quaker-beliefs is one thing; the hatred, the racism, the violence we’re witnessing as countless white Americans act out in this time of incredible and radical and inevitable transition—and possibility—is truly terrifying! Right now, staying there is scary.
(And sad. I get that. I understand the sadness beneath the violence.)
And, given climate change, none of us have much time to ponder, to contemplate, to leisurely make peace with that sword. (Talk about incredible and radical and inevitable!) So let’s get to it. Now. Let’s do whatever’s needed, with love and with compassion and grace—whine, acknowledge our shame, our guilt, mourn, grieve, make reparations, accept; whatever—so we can embrace that Big Change that’s gonna come.
PS: One day later, I’m not comfortable with what I’ve said, here. There’s too much more that needs to be said. So, Dear Readers, please consider the words above as a Work in Progress.
Pretty sure the Big Changes a-comin’ will not come easy. Yet am moved to suggest that not only will the revolution not be in English, it might not be in words. It might be/could be as quiet and as powerful as love. William Penn suggested in 1693: “Let us then try what Love will do.” Now, there’s a revolutionary idea!
I know, I know; right about now you’re saying: “Patricia’s nuts. The inmates run the asylum and hatred is rampant. Love? Faggetaboutit.” (You might be right.)
So let’s unpack that at-first-glance-ridiculously-fey example: For starters, let’s talk about Facebook and game-changing social media. And how new, good ideas like The Dandelion Story get instant play with a simple picture and a slogan. Powerful stuff! And no blood was shed.
The Dandelion Story goes deeper, taproot deeper. Because how many of us as kids spent our suburban Saturdays pulling up those pesky weeds? (Some kids got a nickel for every plant dug up. My parents didn’t roll that way. No, my “reward” was to discover the joy of completing hard, sweaty work! And, when done, how delicious a glass of cold water tasted.) And how many of us, by the second hour or so on our youthful knees, wrestling with those dandelions’ stubborn, deep-in-the-ground taproots, wondered: “Why the heck am I doing this? Because this plant’s fighting me. It wants to live. It has gained my respect! Why, besides the fact that my parents told me to, am I doing this?” (Or something mystical or in-the-moment or At One With The Universe like that.) So how many of us, now knowing what we know about endangered bees and dandelions’ newfound respect and recalling our rebellious yet In Tune With Nature youthful selves can think: “I was right!” More important: How many of us now begin to wonder about other “weeds” we need to look at more appreciatively? Other long-held ideas we haven’t rethought. Other ways Mother Nature is asking us for our respect?
A little background: Somerville is the most densely populated community in New England, with lots of people and buildings and cars and parking lots; trees and open spaces? Not so much. So whatever trees we do have that have managed to survive development and pollution and gas leaks and neglect certainly deserve our entire community’s hearty thanks! Especially since, given our heating-up planet, this summer promises to be, as New Englanders say, “A Skawchah.” (translation: Scorcher, i.e. hot as hell.) And with both an interstate and several major thoroughfares transecting our 4.209 square miles, we need every leaf from every tree to help mitigate all that heavy traffic!
So, Friday evening, weather permitting, we’ll write “thank you” in many languages on hanging-style names badges, decorate them, too, and then hang our grateful creations on trees all over the city!
A problem: that huge To Do list! Which means, dear friends, that I haven’t actually done much to get the word out that this little event’s even happening. Especially to those people, many of them poor, who live along the I-93 corridor and whose health and well-being is so compromised by where they live and what they breathe. A definite FAIL!
But as we also love to say here in New England: “Wait ’till next year!” (Actually: yee-ahh)
So many stories! There’s the story of an orange-haired, petulant racist we’re forced to hear again and again. And, oddly, there’s another story, the Feel the Bern story, notable for notbeing told—or gets “stealth-edited” within hours! (“Get me Rewrite!”) There’s an ancient, horrible story we lament this morning about innocents losing their lives in war, this time in Brussels. There’s another story many tell this week, the Holy Week story, that begins with strewn palms and hosannas and ends with betrayal and death.
I am trying to listen to another timeless story. It comes out of the earth. You can hear it in birdsong and the soughing of pine tree branches. (A wind chime will do.) It’s told every spring when the Northern Hemisphere tilts towards the sun. It demands we listen when a blizzard or hurricane or tsunami strike.
But because so many of us are not listening to this timeless story, it’s editing itself. And not by stealth, either, right? Superstorms, record-breaking temperatures, drought; undeniable plot twists.
Troubled by this edited story, fearful it is doomed to end tragically, grieving for Mother Earth and for my grandchildren’s future, I turn once again to Wendell Berry. (No, not “The Peace of Wild Things” this time.) This one:
If we will have the wisdom to survive,
To stand like slow growing trees on a ruined place,
Renewing, enriching it,
If we will make our seasons welcome here,
Asking not too much of earth or heaven,
Then a long time after we are dead
The lives our lives prepare will live here,
Their houses strongly placed upon the valley sides,
Fields and gardens rich in the windows.
The river will run clear as we never know it,
And over it the birdsong like a canopy.
On the levels of the hills will be green meadows,
Stock bells in noon shade
On the steeps where greed and ignorance cut down the old forest,
An old forest will stand, its rich leaf-fall drifting on its roots.
The veins of forgotten springs will have opened.
Families will be singing in the fields.
In their voices they will hear a music risen out of the ground.
They will take nothing out of the ground they will not return,
Whatever the grief at parting,
Memory, native to this valley, will spread over it like a grove,
And memory will grow into legend,
Legend into song, song into sacrament.
The abundance of this place, the songs of its people and its birds,
Will be health and wisdom and indwelling light.
This is no paradisal dream. Its hardship is its possibility.
Sunday afternoon as my Loved One napped, I took a delicious post-snowstorm walk around Fresh Pond. (Loved One’s long term care facility sits on the Fresh Pond Reservation, 162 acres of open space and nature trails protecting the 155 acre, fenced-in, Fresh Pond Reservoir, the City of Cambridge’s water supply.)
Until Sunday, my relationship with Fresh Pond had been mixed: Yes, I’d always relished joining the parade of dog walkers and bicyclists and strolling couples and joggers circling the pond. (It’s about a 2 mile walk). In fact, walking around Fresh Pond on New Year’s Day has become a hallowed tradition in my life, a contemplative (and usually freezing) way to begin a new year. Yet, inevitably, as a Somerville resident, I have also resented that in order to enjoy this urban treasure, I have to drive to Cambridge! Where, as a non-resident. I might easily get a parking ticket.
No more. My car now neatly parked in Loved One’s facility’s parking lot, Fresh Pond is mine!
So, on Sunday, instead of muttering “Why can’t Somerville have acres and acres of unobstructed space—maybe beside the Mystic River? Nature trails and woods and community gardens as far as the eye can see? Huh? Huh?”* or stressing about a possible parking ticket, I was able to appreciate where I actually was. To be present. To grok.**
So, of course, walking past Cambridge’s water supply, I thought of Flint, Michigan. And how black lives didn’t matter when it came to making viable, decent decisions regarding that struggling city’s water supply. How inexpressively outrageous! And how, more and more, we’re seeing water as A Thing. A commodity as precious as oil. (and, like oil, a liquid to spill blood over.)
So as I walked listening to the pond’s gentle lap lap with newfound gratitude, I was also sobered by a water-scarce future suddenly more clear and more fraught than it’s ever been.
I’m learning how to live with ambiguous loss. Since Christmas, I’ve been enrolled in a crash course.
I’m learning how to mourn someone I haven’t yet lost.
I’m learning how to mourn what has been lost yet never was.
I’m learning how to live with ambiguity. And both-and. (Early lessons learned : it’s exhausting! And pervasively sad.)
As I learn to live with ongoing stress and grief, I’m learning how to live with the Good Enough. I’m shooting for a C- in this class; maybe a solid B on a really good day.
I’m learning how to go with the flow.
But maybe all of us are living with ambiguous loss. The loss of weather we can recognize. Loss of seasons we remember. Loss of polar caps. Song birds. Clean water where and when we always expected it to be. And yet good ol’ Mother Earth keeps circling the sun, doesn’t she; for many of us—God, not all—life just keeps rolling along; doesn’t it? Maybe the pervasive anger all around us is about our collective, pervasive sadness. But maybe we can’t quite admit to that sadness. It’s SO much easier to be pissed! Our loss isn’t obvious, maybe. Yet we’re all mourning a Mother Earth who, yes, is still here but irrevocably changed.
How does living with constant fear affect us? Change Us? Scientists tell us that climate change has irrevocably changed our planet. What about our species, our hard-wiring, our DNA? How has living with the fear of climate change irrevocably changed human beings? That seems to be the question my next book will address. (This could definitely change. Stay tuned.) A related question: How does the trauma experienced by a people—slavery, the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide—get passed down from generation to generation? There’s good data, good research to support that such trauma is, indeed, experienced by later generations. What does this inchoate fear feel like?
In the face of All That, is this poem waaay too facile?
“West Wind #2
You are young. So you know everything. You leap
into the boat and begin rowing. But listen to me.
Without fanfare, without embarrassment, without
any doubt, I talk directly to your soul. Listen to me.
Lift the oars from the water, let your arms rest, and
your heart, and heart’s little intelligence, and listen to
me. There is life without love. It is not worth a bent
penny, or a scuffed shoe. It is not worth the body of a
dead dog nine days unburied. When you hear, a mile
away and still out of sight, the churn of the water
as it begins to swirl and roil, fretting around the
sharp rocks – when you hear that unmistakable
pounding – when you feel the mist on your mouth
and sense ahead the embattlement, the long falls
plunging and steaming – then row, row for your life
― Mary Oliver, West Wind
Good news: a new subway station/light rail is probably coming to my neighborhood (Cost overruns are making important people like the governor look twice at the project). More Good News: Many car-repair and other businesses dependent upon the fossil-fuel industry which once dominated my neighborhood are, seemingly overnight, being transformed into housing. In other words, the status quo of living in a world dominated by cars, is shifting. Changing. VERY Bad News: This new housing is NOT affordable housing.
“If you want peace, work for justice,” has been my mantra since the 90s. So on Sunday, instead of attending the International Day of Peace on Boston Common, I am abandoning my Quaker peeps to attend a forum on the future of my community, hosted by Union United, a grassroots organization advocating for, you guessed it, affordable housing!
In conversations a couple of times, lately, I’ve heard the word “upriver” used to anchor whatever that person—usually young, usually progressive, usually really smart—is talking about, a shorthand for systemic, overwhelming, we need to look at and deal with the root causes of whatever social ill you and I are presently talking about.
The backstory to “upriver” (Skip this paragraph if you already know.): Upriver references a much-told story I’d heard back in the early 90s; the third-hand way I’d heard the tale, it had been told by Kip Tiernan, a righteous, early-on advocate for the homeless. Kip’s story went like this: Once upon a time there was a village beside a river. One day someone from the village saw a baby on a raft floating by so rescued that baby, took it home, clothed it, fed it, built a crib for it to sleep in, etc. Next day, two babies, two rescues, next day, more and more until the people of that village were doing nothing else but rescuing babies. The story ends, of course, when someone in that village proposes that someone should walk upriver to find out what’s going on!
May our ability to connect dots, to be mindful, to think systemically, to acknowledge root cases, may such mindfulness lead to a precious moment for each of us to hear the answer to our question: “What is it I am called to do?”
[Coal Barge, Ohio River, Louisville, Kentucky, 2015]
Along the same lines as thinking that fussing over a Confederate flag will truly address the deep, deep brokenness of this country, last week I tried to remove the visible label from a Coal purple, acrylic beanie my grand-daughter wears. (She loves the color and looks adorable in it.) Really?
The label wouldn’t come off. (Let’s hear it for Chinese workmanship!) So I was forced to, you know, accept, embrace, move on, maybe even consider that by naming their clothing company after a hated fossil fuel, the Seattle hipsters who started Coal were trying to tell us something about moving on, about transformation; rebranding, so to speak.
(Or not. Got into a conversation with a hipster recently about the coffee beans sold at a neighborhood cafe. He’d just bought a bag but had abandoned it on the counter—where I picked it up. I was reading the coffee beans’ label when he showed up to claim his purchase. “Is it fair trade?” I asked, handing it over. “I don’t know,” he answered impatiently. “I just know it tastes good!” )
Here’s where I am: I accept that my attempted label-removal was ridiculous, nutzo. But given that NStar, purveyors of another fossil fuel, just rebranded itself Eversource, thereby discarding that pesky N for natural gas—slick move, NStar, but I say fossil fuel and fracking and the hell with it—I shall remain vigilant!
[I will be on vacation next week. Check this space in 2 weeks.]