Do I Matter?

[This 2007 photograph of an El Salvadoran mural taken by Alison McKeller.]

This week I heard a story, a story I’d heard before, told by a friend held in solitary confinement. His tiny cell’s overhead light broken, for months he literally lived in darkness; only a beam of light the size of a quarter shone in. His food, shoved in through a slot in a steel door so thick it blocked all outside sounds, was barely enough.  Fearful for his mental health, over time he learned how to tie threads—harvested from his underwear—to cockroaches’ torsos and hitch them to an empty milk container,  those creatures’ progress, their struggles as entertaining as a 3-D movie. “Does anyone know what I am going through?” he wondered, alone, hungry, in the dark, and completely cut off from all human contact.

Listening to this horrific story again, I heard his plaintive, poignant question anew—and,  serendipitously, connected his question to a lament I’ve heard lately. “People need to know,” an immigration-rights activist I know says. Over and over. Until I heard my returning-citizen friend’s story again this week, I’d always heard my Salvadoran friend’s statement as a plea for more information-sharing on today’s immigration issues. (Do you know, for example, what’s going on for TPS holders right now? You’re welcome.)

But what I believe both are asking is: If no one knows what I am going through, what will change? Does my struggle matter? I feel alone; am I alone? Must I always live with my overwhelming sense that most people have no idea what my life has been about? Does my life have meaning? Do I matter?

 

 

Muscle Memory

 

One Sunday morning every December, my Quaker meeting shortens its morning worship to put on a fifteen-minute Christmas pageant. Directed and performed by the children of our community, some First Day School students chose speaking parts, others opt to dress up as angels or sheep or shepherds or to perform in our once-a-year orchestra. Rightfully, every year the star of the show is a live baby, traditionally the most recent arrival to our community. (The rest of the Holy Family varies. Three years ago, the baby’s single mother was “Mary”; “Joseph” was played by a stalwart, beloved member of our community.)

This past Sunday as the hundred or so of us in the meetinghouse transitioned from silent worshippers to live theater-goers and the pageant’s young, excited actors bunched together in the meetinghouse foyer to wait for their cue, the meetinghouse door opened and “Joseph,” father of this year’s “Baby Jesus,” approached me as I sat, close to where the pageant would be performed . “Here,” he said, handing me his son. “Why don’t you hold him until things get settled.” Then turned to quickly rejoin his fellow actors in the foyer.

What Christmas story am I suddenly performing, I wondered as I held up my arms to receive this exalted child? Am I Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s mother? Mary’s mother, Saint Anne? No, my arms told me. You are playing the role of another ancient tale. You are Old Woman, The Crone, a mother and grandmother. Your crepey arms once held your own children and grandchildren. Your muscles remember how to hold a newborn. Just as you now sometimes remember so much of the wisdom imparted to you—by Life, by Spirit, by other wise souls. And why you were entrusted with this great honor.

Rejoice!

 

 

Two Toucans Touching

Sometimes I exchange books with a dear friend. Sometimes I’ll notice intriguing titles or descriptives in a box of give-aways on the sidewalk and grab a book or two. Sometimes my grandchildren tell me I should read the YA they’ve just finished. However randomly books show up in my reading queue, it is not random that I’ve just read two post-apocalyptic novels* back to back. Sadly, given the dire time we live in, such subject matter makes perfect sense.

Towards the end of one of those recent reads—no, I won’t say which one—a grandchild asks his grandmother, “Did you ever see an elephant?” That child’s wistful question much on my mind and in my heart, on Black Friday I visited the San Diego Zoo.

I saw elephants. I spent considerable time in the Reptile House—which I’d always avoided. Like a pilgrim I walked from habitat to habitat—as zoos go, San Diego’s is pretty spectacular—giving thanks for all creatures great and small.

And, dear Reader, I was not alone. For there were times, in one of the aviaries, for example, where the (probably endangered) birds from distant countries were so close, so accessible, so magnificent that zoo-visitors were noticeably hushed. Reverent. Grateful. Grieving.

How do we live into such grief and loss? That question, dear Reader, haunts me.

*The Bone Clocks and The Fifth Wave

Just The Facts, Folks

In order to be very, very careful, I must leave out most of the salient details that would make this post come alive. Pop. For the safety of the person I want to write about, I’m leaving out most of this story. Their story.

The facts are these: Every day for the past couple of months, I have been made aware of one of my neighbors. Who has no clue that their existence has become a regular—and deeply moving—part of my life. Every day I hold that person, who I suspect is undocumented, in the Light. (That’s Quakerese for pray. Close to it, anyway) Every day, as I do so, I feel the disparity between their life and my own. And more recently, every day, I think about how this situation is exactly like the extraordinary movie, Parasite—only in reverse. I, the privileged one, know one or two important things about them. I know they exist. Close by. They know nothing about me. I don’t exist.

But we both know that something fundamentally wrong is going on. That this person lives in the shadows. And I don’t.

Apples and Oranges

We talk about “speaking truth to power”; sometimes using just the right words, even if they’re highfalutin’, can be enormously clarifying. Like “false equivalency.” I am loving how, with greater and greater frequency, the media is calling out out the Right’s “Well, how ’bout . . . ”  specious arguments. Which have confounded me for years but, until recently, never had language to understand—and name—this maddening “logic.”

But that’s so much about East Coast, New Yorker subscriber, writerly me! Who loves words—even five syllable ones. But when I acknowledge that, I am quickly brought up short. Because I find myself wondering how such multi-syllabic language plays on Fox News? And aren’t I being elitist? Aren’t I being snotty about my Red State fellow Americans? Who maybe love words just as much as I? And can recognize apple/oranges just as well as I can?

I wonder.

Just Imagine!

Saturday, at Art Beat, Somerville’s largest cultural festival, I experienced A Moment: The nearby band playing Elvis Costello’s “(What So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding,” an immigrant grandfather, his three grandchildren, and their parents decorated butterfly* pins, the adults as fully engaged in color selection and overall design as the three children. Seated on the opposite side of the table from where this lovely family worked, I thought, “This is how this country can be. This is what it could look like.” And welled up.

Safe. Gentle. Creative. Loving. Welcoming. Collaborative. All-ages. Inclusive. Multi-ethnic. (And, hey! How ’bout that perfect, profound soundtrack!)

Just imagine!

“Why me? Why us? Why Now?”

There is an us in this famous Marshall Ganz statement. I keep forgetting that. Called to follow Micah’s admonition to do justly, love mercy, walk humbly, I keep forgetting that a huge part of my particular version of humbly is to remember that others, too, are called.

Although, as someone recently pointed out, while many who are called may be “compassion-fatigued” right now, others may be “compassion-confused.” And wonder “What can I do?” Which might mean that on Saturday, at Somerville’s Art Beat, telling the throngs of people who will be flocking to Davis Square about The United Legal Defense Fund for Immigrants will be welcomed news! Good news!

(Which is why, like a diva, I’m resting my voice today!)

 

 

Tethered

Last evening after the rain had ended, I was walking along one of Cambridge Common’s asphalt paths when I noticed a mother and her two or three year old son walking ahead of me. Coming upon the park’s broad and luscious open space, its grass glistening from the rain, the little boy darted off the path and ran, just ran, twenty, twenty-five feet away from his mother—who continued to walk along the path. Not actually looking at her, he turned and happily walked through the wet grass as if alone yet parallel to her, eventually veering closer and closer to her until, maybe fifty feet down the path, they rejoined.

I’d been thinking about my dear friend, recently released from prison and dealing with all the terrifying and daunting issues of re-entry,  when gifted with that child’s joyful yet judicious experience of freedom. Because, yes, when that child first took off he’d been so free! And my friend tells me he sometimes experiences freedom, too. And about as briefly.

Because although his cell bars and his manacles have been removed, my friend’s still tethered in ways he both understands and, like that child wordlessly and instinctively tracking his mother’s route, he’s also still bound up in ways he cannot yet name.

 

Emergent

Saturday I attended the memorial for Paul Hood, a much revered peace activist and former member of Friends Meeting at Cambridge. Paul, who’d moved to Burlington, Vermont in the early eighties, had been an FMC superstar back in the late seventies—just when I first started to attend Quaker meetings. One Sunday, perhaps after he’d spoken during worship, someone whispered to me that he’d poured blood on Draper Labs, an apocryphal  story, probably; nevertheless, as a newbie, I was impressed. (And, certainly, like many other Quakers I have come to know and admire, Paul was arrested many, many times while doing civil disobedience in support of some deeply-felt cause.)

The pamphlet distributed at his memorial provided the genesis for his life-long peace activism: During WWII in the winter of 1944, he consulted with his minister who counseled him that he must serve his country and that it was in accordance with Christian faith; so, at the age of 17, having also obtained his mother’s permission, he enlisted in the US Marine Corps. Shortly after his deployment to Japan, in the battle for Okinawa, a fellow soldier died in his arms and Paul’s shock precipitated an enraged killing spree that, albeit sanctioned by his status as a soldier on the front line, left him horrified and ashamed.

I have heard versions of this story many times over the years; indeed, I have experienced—and written about—a far less dramatic yet still life-changing version myself. So on Sunday, in the quiet of silent worship, I spent time thinking about, you know, Redemption. Transformation. Do-Overs. And that perennial challenge, Self-Forgiveness.

And maybe because on Friday I’d released the four Painted Lady butterflies I’d watched grow from wriggly caterpillars, hourly poking my nose against their netted habitat to observe their latest miraculous development, I realized on Sunday that I was thinking different.

Non-binary, for sure. It’s not “Ocean of Darkness vs. Ocean of Light,” is it. The darkness becomes the light. Transformation—which, surely, is another God word—is always in movement, always in flux, sometimes forward, sometimes back, sometimes imperceptible. (The four chrysalises emanated such quiet strength I could sense their life-force yet nothing visibly moved.)

When I imagine self-forgiveness (Yikes), I’m stuck.

God isn’t.

 

 

 

With A Tender Hand*

Yesterday at meeting for worship, an elderly man struggled to stand and then spoke so quietly that almost no-one could hear or understand him. Yet, like the rest of eighty or ninety people seated in the meetinghouse, although I’d given up all hope of understanding what he had to say, I held my breath. We were all holding our breath, I sensed, we were all listening to words beyond his words; we were, all of us, deeply respectful. Because, as someone noted later, he was so clearly between Being and Not Being. “On the ledge,” someone else put it. Or as I’d noted at some point during my mother’s last months, the veil between his life and death was thinning.

Would that collective, open-hearted receptivity been different had he been a Person of Color, I wondered? This question came to me because I am trying to observe what happens at my Quaker meeting as though I am not the white and privileged person I am. What about if he’d been a scruffy, unkempt street person? Would we have listened so carefully, so tenderly; in prayer?

I think we would. I think that witnessing such a moment is holy. And so, regardless of the messenger from that Ledge, we would be reverent.

 

* “Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand. . .” Isaac Penington, 1667

Hammered

Sunday night, partly out of curiosity, mostly to accompany my wonderful nephew, I went to Boston’s House of Blues to hear two Brooklyn-based bands, House of Waters and Snarky Puppy. Surrounded, mostly, by intense, absorbed young men one-quarter my age, this seventy-five year old grandmother  cheered, danced, oohed and ahhed at the amazing musicality, the talent, the showmanship I experienced, super-loud, super-close and personal and just feet away from where I stood. (Yes. Stood.)

House of Waters, who opened, were a delightful surprise; my nephew declared he’d actually like them better and I have to agree. The magical sound of a hammered dulcimer? The most amazing bass player I’ve ever heard? (And I was once a huge Jaco Pastorius fan.) A relentless, preternaturally cheerful drummer?   What’s not to like?

Well, to be honest, I felt too close; my aging body too rattled by the powerful, constant thump of the bass drum. So if I do this again I won’t stand so close to the stage.

Here’s what I loved most: to feel all that young, intelligent, appreciative energy all around me. “Dude!” the tall young man next to me kept shouting at a particularly intricate modulation or a virtuoso solo.

Exactly.

Identity Politics

I’m old enough to remember when clothing first became a major form of advertisement, self or Calvin Klein et al. Loathe to become a walking billboard, I’d tried resisting—buying vintage proved an excellent strategy—but over time I reluctantly had to accept that resistance was futile; this branding phenomenon was here to stay. (And that I would continue to buy vintage; Goodwill.)

So I’m not exactly sure what led me to buy, retail/online, a KAMALA baseball cap. But am so glad I did.

Because although I am now, indeed, a walking billboard for a presidential candidate, what’s happening is that my cap, an anti-MAGA statement, is inviting total strangers, many of them People of Color, to chat.

What I’m hearing in these conversations is both excitement that a brilliant, strong Woman of Color just might have a shot at the presidency and the steely, reasoned, cold, hard pragmatism of Let’s Go With Whoever’s Going To Win. So maybe, sigh, one of those Old White Guys and Kamala for Veep?

None of this much matters yet. But then, I’m a Quaker, so I’m comfortable with lots of different ideas, different possibilities, different What Ifs tossed round—and trusting that something worthwhile will eventually emerge. That the Democratic Party will do The Right Thing. Whatever that will look like. Which, admittedly, given the horrors of America’s political reality like special interests and racism and sexism, is probably crazy. Although “Knock Down the House,” which I just saw, certainly gives me hope.

Meanwhile, about Kamala Harris. And me. And why I’m rocking her merch. Because, no, she’s far from my ideal candidate. My understanding, for example, is that she has not signed the pledge to refuse fossil fuel campaign contributions. (Note to KH: “C’mon!”)

No, Dear Reader, as crazy as what I am about to say is, here’s why I hope she wins: Remember during one of the debates, when Hillary was talking and Trump was pacing back in forth behind her? (And as a former TV star, he knew he was in camera view.)

Here’s what I’m pretty sure Kamala would have done. She would have stopped. She would have turned around. She would have said something like, “Donald? You are losing votes right now. Every woman who has ever been bullied or imposed upon or threatened by a man—and that’s all of us—is watching you right now. And deciding not to vote for you. And every Person of Color who has ever experienced a white man claim a space to be his property, his turf—and that’s all of us—is thinking the same thing. Sit Down.”