This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Last summer during a fierce heat wave, discovering Shannon Beach was a godsend. Pristine, beautiful, located on Mystic Lake in nearby Winchester, the beach offered fresh water swimming, a wide, beautifully-maintained sandy beach and ample parking. Its only downside? In order to get there, I had to drive through five, five rotaries—a bit excessive for even this seasoned greater Boston driver! But to swim in fresh water or to hear children happy and splashing while reading a trashy novel was definitely worth the nightmarish drive, I decided.

Close readers have noticed that first paragraph was written in the past tense. Why? Because in its infinite wisdom, Massachusetts’ Parks Department decided to renovate Shannon Beach, making much of its sandy beach inaccessible. When did this happen, you ask? When summer was well underway.  Huh? (These same brilliant souls’ equally inept counterparts in state government recently shut down an entire public transit branch, the Orange Line, with, so far, no good options for the thousands of people relying on the Orange Line to get to work or school. JEEZ!)

That gorgeous lake isn’t past tense, of course, so in the midst of one of this summer’s heat waves, I navigated those pesky rotaries and parked in the Beach’s parking lot. “Surely I can find a spot abutting the beach where I can swim,” I reasoned.

But what I discovered, Dear Reader, was heartbreaking. Because the large expanse of beach was no longer accessible, the pebbly “shingle” lining the lake was crowded, impossible to walk on, and, worst of all, covered with broken glass. With no shingle maintenance, climate change’s back-to-back heat waves, and so many families flocking to this “beach,” it’s no wonder that this past Sunday night a violent fight broke out at Shannon Beach resulting in one hospitalization and several arrests.

And, yes, we can be pretty sure alcohol and COVID-frayed nerves contributed to this nasty fight.

But not entirely. The brilliant souls who decided to begin work on a wildly popular swimming area just as things were heating up must shoulder some of the blame.

 

“Intensified Sky”

[Bird at the edge of the Grand Canyon}

I am currently going through an intense passage; Rilke’s poem speaks to me:

Ah, not to be cut off

Ah, not to be cut off,
not through the slightest partition
shut out from the law of the stars.
The inner—what is it?
if not intensified sky,
hurled through with birds and deep
with the winds of homecoming.

— Rainer Maria Rilke

 

“Everywhere As Blue As Mine”

Recently, as bombs continue to hit civilian targets in Ukraine, someone posted this deeply moving video.

The last time I’d sung this version of “Finlandia” had been in 2008, in Cuba. A member of a small group of American Quakers visiting that beleaguered* country, our group joined the Gibara Friends Church congregation to sing this song of peace together—first in Spanish, then in English.

And I shall never forget, as we’d all sung the Spanish words to But other hearts in other lands are beating/ With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine, how one Cuban Quaker woman and I locked eyes. And nodded. And smiled.

THIS IS MY SONG

This is my song,
O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;

But other hearts in other lands are beating
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
And sunlight beams on clover- leaf and pine.

But other lands have sunlight too and clover,
And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
Oh, hear my song, O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for their land and for mine.

To the melody of Finlandia — Lyrics by Lloyd Stone

*Beleagured much because of my country’s policies

This I What We Do Now:

Last night at a Zoom worship group we were asked, “How has this pandemic affected your world view?” Um—yikes?

In the silence as we collectively pondered, each inside our own little tile, what came to me was something like this: I calibrate differently, now. Living through this constant, relentless pile-up of disaster after disaster, my aging brain now nimbly juggles, judges, assesses, rates, ranks and re-orders the daily headlines. What’s worse now? (And where is my heart most called to hold, pray, feel most profoundly?)

Like this: I live in Somerville’s Union Square which means I live in a neighborhood where I can’t walk on its sidewalks anymore because they’re obstructed by lumber and steel and beeping trucks. A treeless, ugly, noisy, blocks-long and blocks-wide construction site which, until last week, I’d termed “A war zone.”

But: no. For the past two weeks we’ve all seen real war zones, haven’t we. My dismay at what’s happening to my beloved neighborhood has lost primacy in my mental list of Things That Suck. Forever. I’ve recalibrated. And, heartbroken, hold the people of Ukraine and all who offer shelter to its fleeing people in the Light.

Or this: Yesterday afternoon a dear friend worried aloud: “Is there another variant out there? Will we have to go back to another shut-down? What’s going to happen?”

And a mental video of the past two years unspooled. I saw her, I saw me, I saw us, all of us who have survived, just do it!  Again. First we cry, scream, up our anti-depressants; wonder if we have the strength to get through yet another Shit Show? And then, because we have no choice, because we now know that much, much worse things could happen, have happened, we shrug our collective shoulders. We put on our effing masks again.

Because that’s what we do.

 

 

 

“Land Acknowledgement Day”?

This year at my house, Thanksgiving Day will look pretty normal. Our menu will feature indigenous entrees like cranberries, corn, squash, maybe even turkey. (Some years we’ve served chicken with figs to rave reviews.) There will be several pies, yes, and family, yes, and between the main course and all those pies, we’ll go around the table and each of us will say what we’re thankful for. Like I said: normal.

But in my heart, ahh, this year will be radically different. This year, silently, I will celebrate this tiny patch of Somerville real estate I call “mine.” I will celebrate the land beneath me. As I savor my made-once-a-year cranberry sauce or baked squash, I will celebrate the fruits of The Land. I will remember the Massachusetts people who’d once trod upon this land. I will hold them in the Light, a prayer without ceasing.

Perhaps you will, too?

 

Light A Candle

[Mom’s 95th birthday party, Neville Center, Cambridge, MA,  2018]

This has been a week of anniversaries: my mother died three years ago this week, my father died eleven years ago this week, and yesterday my Quaker meeting held its twelfth anniversary, all-meeting silent worship in front of Raytheon Technology Corporation. [“Raytheon wins $2B contract for new nuclear cruise missile,” July 6, 2021] Seated on folding chairs and holding signs declaring “Quakers praying for peace,” about twenty of us sat on Cambridge’s Concord Avenue’s sidewalk; an equal number sat across the street—in front of the long-term-care facility, Neville Center, where my mother had died. Alone.

For several years every third Sunday of the month, rain or shine, members of my meeting have been faithfully worshipping in front of Raytheon (and before that, in front of Textron, maker of cluster bombs.) But since my mother died, I had not felt able to show up on Concord Avenue. Until yesterday.

Sitting in delicious, warming, October sunshine and gazing at the three-story Neville Center across the street, I prayed for peace and held my mother in the Light. Is there something, I wondered, besides this little patch of Cambridge real estate, that connects my disparate prayers?

And what came to me is this: I am not alone. Seated here, my prayers for peace entwine with others’. But for many reasons, most not of her own making, rarely did my mother experience this delicious interconnectivity I feel right now.

Such sadness to realize this and yet such gratitude for my faith community; a community I might add, I sometimes struggle with.

So today, as this anniversary week ends, feeling all the feels, I light a memorial candle.

 

 

Circles Happen

[I have been single-mindedly working on a book manuscript, Strands, to be published by Barclay Press next year, so have woefully neglected this blog. Here’s an excerpt I just finished—maybe?]

Almost every Wednesday night for the past thirteen years, Friends Meeting at Cambridge has hosted a meal and a sharing circle for “the formerly incarcerated and those who care about them.”* Our circle the outgrowth of another sharing circle begun years ago in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, our circle has replicated the JP circle’s thoughtful rituals. We, too, eat dinner together first, our shared meal in the commodious Friends Room—a gourmet meal lovingly and bounteously prepared by my husband. (Cooking is his ministry; he also helps to prepare FMC’s Sunday lunch.) After cleanup, we, too, set up chairs around a cluster of flickering candles but, because our sage-cleansing ceremony has set off FMC’s smoke detectors once too often, summoning an embarrassing convoy of Cambridge Fire Department equipment to Longfellow Park, rain or shine or freezing temperatures, we troupe outside to ritually cleanse ourselves. The lights turned off in the Friends Room, we sit in a circle around the flickering candles. We review the circle’s guidelines and values. An ornately-carved walking stick is passed clock-wise; only the person holding the talking piece may speak. Like the JP circle, our time together ends with the Serenity Prayer.

These days, Zoom offers another, pared down, and far-less-satisfying version: no meal, no sage, no physical circle, no candles, no talking piece, no closeness or breathing in harmony with one another, and when we say the Serenity Prayer? It’s pretty raggedy. Sadly, several central members of our circle have decided they “don’t do Zoom” and have opted out.

Like so many mixed outcomes because of this pandemic, not being able to perform the sage ceremony has been both a loss yet an unplanned but welcomed opportunity to reflect on this sometimes-questioned ritual. Over the years, some have rightly pointed out that this practice comes from a Native tradition—and is therefore an appropriation. I respect that. Other circle members do, too.

When we can all safely meet again in person, however, I will share a recent opening which has allowed me to consider this aromatic ritual in a new but still flickering light.

The backstory to this opening: Inspired by a wonderful poem by Judith Offer, “On Studying Sacred Texts,” during Covid Summer at our pre-meeting for worship forums, various members of the FMC community took turns reflecting on various writings, like Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” or Arundhati Roy’s “The Pandemic is a Portal.

One sacred text we studied, “Skywoman Falling,” comes from the oral tradition. Although this creation story from the Shenandoah and George people begins Robin Wall Kimmerer’s seminal book, Braiding Sweetgrass, “Skywoman Falling” is a story shared, told, passed down from generation to generation, as people sat around a fire. Like, ah, a sharing circle?

Had the JP sharing-circle originator, Father Brian Murdock, understood humans’ shared circle history? Had he and others intuitively replicated rituals our ancestors had performed? Had he remembered that all humans once sat around fires? When we’d first visited the JP circle, for example, we Quakers were told that prison lighting so harsh and obtrusive, returning citizens would relish a sharing circle’s dim, gentle, soothing lighting. But don’t all of us, returning citizens or not, prompted by the lingering smell of burning sage and the flickering candles in the middle of a circle, remember when we’d sat around a fire and told the stories of our village or shared our own truths? Given how dangerous making eye contact had been behind bars, the JP organizers had also explained that each person ritualistically make eye contact before speaking to be a necessary trust-building exercise. But when we deeply look into another eyes aren’t we, in fact, reinforcing what a nomadic community 0r a village or an extended family does? We see each another. Literally. We value, we honor each person. We acknowledge our shared space. Like the signs in my neighbors’ windows these days, we affirm, “We’re all in this together.”

After hearing how the “Skywoman Falling” story resonated with our forum speaker, I was moved to ask that “circle” of Zoom tiles, “Who are you in this story?” And, like our speaker, several people shared wonderfully open and honest answers.

My answer would have been, “I am the old woman, the crone, seated near the fire to warm her old bones. I am the one telling this story. Again. Like my grandmother, I embellish here and there, add a little something someone in the circle may need to hear that night. My voice rises and falls but when I talk about Muskrat, it becomes husky with love and gratitude.”

*from the circle’s flyer

“From Me to We”

Yesterday during meeting for worship, I found myself remembering the first time I’d facilitated a forum* on Zoom— just days after the shutdown began. Since I am often uber-responsible for everything, even things beyond my control, that our speaker, Abraham Sussman, couldn’t turn on his camera that morning had been my fault, of course. Couple that  unfortunate technological glitch—and my “culpability”—with how non-stop terrified I’d been in those earliest days of the pandemic, I’d been one hot mess that late-March Sunday!

Much to my amazement, during the quiet of a Quaker meeting yesterday, I realized that despite my off-the-charts anxiety that morning, I actually remember Dr. Sussman’s (disembodied) talk! Entitled “Comprehensive Compassion: From Me to We: The Path of an Evolving Humanity,” the noted therapist and Dances of Universal Peace co-leader said something like, “Humans have adapted for ions. Our species will find a way to get though this pandemic.”

3,886,302 people have died so far from the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak as of June 21, 2021, 21:34 GMT, a horrifying loss neither you nor I nor Dr. Sussman could have possibly imagined in March of 2020.

Consciously or not, you, I, we live with that loss. We carry it. We feel it. This weight, this sense of ongoing loss; this, too, is how our species adapts. We can both celebrate the myriad of creative, endearing, amazing, community-building ways our species got through the past two years—and we will perpetually mourn those who did not.

 

 

*An hour long session held before meeting for worship, forums offer my faith community the opportunity to listen to speakers speak about their spiritual journeys and to reflect upon their own.

“Attention Must be Paid”

Saturday, a gorgeous spring day, I was sitting, maskless, on a Cambridge Common park bench chatting with a new friend when I stopped mid-sentence: “Oh!” I crowed happily as a bicyclist zipped past us. “He made it.”

“You know him?” my new friend asked. Politely, I think. My “he,” a dark-skinned, straight-haired older man, had flown by us so fast I doubt she’d had time to take him in.

How to explain? Because, no, I don’t know Bike Guy—although I think I may have seen him perform, years ago, in a locally-produced play. A Harvard Square regular, he might be a waiter, too. I do know that in the summer he wears the skimpiest of running shorts. Lipstick red. Sometimes, in tacit acknowledgement of our inter-connectivity, I wave as he breezes by. Sometimes he waves back.

Like the older and dark-skinned and theatrically-dressed Sombrero Woman, who weekly pushes her laden shopping cart past my house while combing my neighborhood’s recycle bins for redeemable cans and bottles, Bike Guy is my regular, too. As is Goldilocks, a heavy-set, pale-skinned older man with shoulder-length ringlets always found on a park bench outside my neighborhood’s skating rink. Bike Guy, Sombrero Woman, and Goldilocks are touchstones in my life. Their routines overlap with mine. When I don’t see them I worry. Especially these days.

I have’t seen Goldilocks for months. And maybe he’s happily settled somewhere; maybe he moved in with his grown daughter in Florida. But maybe he ended up on a Somerville Hospital ventilator. Maybe he didn’t make it. Like thousands of others this past year, maybe Goldilocks died of COVID. Alone.

How do we collectively acknowledge our missing regulars? How do we collectively mourn?

 

 

What I’m Adding for Lent: Week Six

Week Six:

“And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”

So the Aramaic word, waahboqlan, can mean “forgive” but it also can mean “embrace with emptiness.” Which instantly recalls my yoga teacher, Annie Hoffman, talking about learning how to let go of attachment/old hurts/holding on to negativity, etc. “It’s like the command people give to their dogs when the dog comes upon something tasty but maybe disgusting on the ground: ‘Leave it!’ ”

I’ve heard dog owners give this command a couple of different ways; both are useful as I struggle with my own embracing with emptiness:

The first version gives those two syllables equal weight. they’re firm, stern, no-nonsense. (During menopause, when I sometimes struggled with anxious thoughts, telling that panicky inner voice to “Shut up, shut, shut up!” was ridiculously efficacious!)

The second version is almost a question. “Leave it?” my voice rising as if to acknowledge, “Yup, darlin’. I get it. This is hard. You’ve held on to this hurt for a long time. And, let’s be frank. You’ve enjoyed being pissed, right? But just do this.” It’s a coaxing voice. Forgiving.

And isn’t that the woman’s voice I most need to hear?

Week Five:

Give us this day our daily bread.”

So lachma can be both “bread” and “understanding.” And the verb, here, has several variations; my favorite is “animate with fruit”! But hold up. It seems as though the last Aramaic word in this sentence, yeomana, hasn’t been translated?  Hmm.

So what to do? Maybe I’ll just do what I’ve been doing since Ash Wednesday: let women suggest possible interpretations and meaning and metaphors for this prayer. “This day” + lachma =  Caroline Fox’s famous quote, right?  Especially its last bit: Live Up to the Light that thou hast and more will be granted thee.  You’ll receive more understanding, more light tomorrow. Next week. The same Source that animates with fruit will offer you further enlightenment—if you’re listening to your Inner Guide.

Week Four:

. . .on earth as it is in heaven:

“In the fourth and most central line of the prayer, heaven meet earth in acts of compassion,” Douglas-Klotz writes.

The Aramaic scholar’s words immediately conjure up for me one of my favorite places is the world, Crete, and standing on the beach, the  blue-green Mediterranean behind me, looking up at Mt. Ida, the birthplace of Zeus. There, at its snow-capped peak, where clouds obscure the delineation between earth and sky,  is where early Cretans believed earth met heaven.

If I can connect with how joyful, how grateful, how filled with love I’d felt standing there on a perfect day in March of 2003, can I remember to let go of whatever keeps me from acknowledging—without ceasing—Spirit’s abiding Love?

Week Three:

“Thy will be done . . . ” The word will tripped me up this week; “tzevanach” in Aramaic. Which translates as “desire” but bears an ancient, layered meaning of “harmony and generation.”  Which might mean, again, a verb, a motion towards, an inexorable, cosmic, supreme force ever-striving, yearning for balance, harmony, Love?

I don’t know for sure; I suspect others don’t either. But I certainly relish the idea of praying to, acknowledging that inexorable, cosmic, supreme force!

 

Week Two:

I found “Thy kingdom come . . . ” very confusing. Something in the original Aramaic hinted at a nuptial chamber? Other ancient words implied co-creation—and possibility, too? I couldn’t wrap my brain around it.

But on Sunday, at meeting for worship, someone read that lovely quote, “Live up to the light that thou hast and more will be granted thee.” And I saw a deep and powerful connections  between those Aramaic-to-English keywords and the message of early Friends: that the kingdom of God is here and now and  accessible. That when we live up to the light we are in right relationship with Spirit. We’re co-creating the beloved community. And we’re promised  updates. Continuing revelation. We’re in this together.

Week One:

Giving up something for Lent lost meaning for me years ago; this year my reluctance to take away rather than to add seems particularly appropriate as we collectively mourn the over 500,000 Americans who have died from this pandemic. Such an enormous loss!

So this lenten season I’m spending a little time every day with a remarkable little book, Prayers of the Cosmos: Reflections on the Original Meaning of Jesus’s Words by Neil Douglas-Klotz. An Aramaic scholar, Douglas-Klotz has translated the Lord’s Prayer back into the language it had been originally spoken—and, oh my. According to him, not just “something” has been lost in translation!  As my shero Joanna Macy says, “For many of us who want to peel away centuries of dualistic, patriarchal forms and recover the life-affirming beauty of our Christian roots, nothing could be more welcome than this exquisite little volume.”

In the spirit of Increase not Decrease, I will add on to this post every Wednesday until Easter.

February 24: First gleanings after Week One:

The Aramaic version of “Our father who art in heaven” reminds me of this wonderful passage from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass:

“Puhpowee, she explained, translates as “the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight.” As a biologist, I was stunned that such a word existed.
The makers of this word understood a world of being, full of unseen energies that animate everything. I’ve cherished it for many years, as a talisman, and longed for the people who gave a name to the life force of mushrooms. The language that holds Puhpowee is one that I wanted to speak. So when I learned that the word for rising, for emergence, belonged to the language of my ancestors, it became a signpost for me.”

 

 

 

 

Who’s In The Frame?

Needing to do some in-person banking yesterday (where, wearing a mask, my glasses so thoroughly fogged up I could barely fill our the forms), I walked home from Davis Square along Highland Avenue—a route I haven’t walked in eight months. So maybe this wonderful mural on a Somerville Hospital wall has been there fuh-eva? It was new to me.

These beautiful ‘ville residents “appeared” in my life at a moment when I’m actively contemplating an intriguing concern: I know a lot about a small Virginia city’s civil rights history. I know a lot about the Wild family’s deep roots in this community. But I know next to nothing about Somerville’s civil rights history. I know almost nothing about Somerville’s racial history. And now, when so many Somerville lawn signs rightfully declare, Black Lives Matter, maybe now’s the time to find out?

Who’s in the frame? Whose story gets told? Whose story is ignored? Who’s in the frame but ignored?

I have ignored someone in the frame: In my collection of Wild family photographs is a truly bizarre, 6″ by 8″ photo taken in front of a now-razed carriage house at the corner of School Street and Oakwood Avenue. Featured are my grandfather’s sister, Isabel, maybe four or five, wearing a fur-trimmed, hooded, puffy-sleeved coat and seated on a rotund pony; my father’s “Aunt Isabel” gazes at a soft-eyed, untethered cow a few feet away.

For years, Reader, my gaze has only taken in Isabel’s cunning coat, that incongruous cow,  the beautifully-crafted, two-story carriage house in the background. (On the back of the photo my father noted in pencil: “Carved numbers above [the carriage house] door say 1890.”)

But there is another person is that picture. A dark-skinned, mustachioed man in a fedora and dark suit stands in front of the carriage house, too, about twenty feet from Isabel and eight feet from the cow. His body is blurred, he tilts slightly forward, knees bent; he’s moving.Who was he moving towards? That well-dressed little girl on a pony? Or the cow.

More important: Who was he? And why have I never wondered about him before?

 

 

 

“Opening like air, like realization”*

This year, Coming Out Day prompted me to recall the first time someone came out to me—almost fifty years ago.

It didn’t go well. To announce their truth, they’d given me their much-underlined copy of Adrianne Rich’s Diving Into the Wreck, inscribing that much-read paperback—which I still have—with a touching but enigmatic statement.

I didn’t understand. That they’d given me a dog-eared book of poetry that had moved them? This I could appreciate. That they’d wanted me to know something fundamentally central about who they were? I had no language and no experience to comprehend that by taking that book into my hand, I’d performed a precious and poignant ceremony right in my own living room that night.

For fifty years I have held onto intense, crippling shame about that evening. “How could I have been so stupid?” I’ve railed at myself. (Answer: Because that’s where I was.) But with Divine Guidance (which could also be called prayer), something new has emerged: That young person had trusted me! While no doubt fearful our conversation might go South, they’d nevertheless had enough faith in me to take the risk to tell me something they’d wanted me to understand. Yes, I hadn’t. But also, yes, in  the time we’d known each other, I’d somehow indicated to them that I saw them. Appreciated them. That despite my incomplete understanding of who they truly were, I’d somehow earned their trust. Such trust breaks my heart, now.

What if every day is the day before Coming Out Day? What if every single one of us has some truth we yearn to say out loud—and are constantly, silently assessing our risk in doing so? What would that look like? Feel like?

 

*From Rich’s poem “Waking In The Dark,” Diving Into The Wreck, p. 9.