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.

Excerpt 3: Strands

On a propitiously spectacular early-summer Sunday, maybe fifty of us, maybe a hundred, most of us White, most of us over sixty, stood at six-foot intervals on either side of Massachusetts Avenue. We waved Black Lives Matter signs, other signs. Passersby waved and honked. It was lovely and peaceful and Spirit-filled. And Pentecost.

I was filled by that same fiery moment that Pentecost commemorates, seven Sundays after Easter when, according to Acts 2, the Apostles were gathered in one place when suddenly there came from the sky a noise like that of a strong driving wind, which filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues like flames of fire dispersed among them and resting on each one. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to talk in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them power of utterance.

 (As I transcribe this Bible passage, I can see Reverend Owen Cardwell, Jr., on a Sunday morning in Richmond, Virginia. Dressed in his white vestments he stands at the New Canaan International Church’s pulpit. “Help me, Holy Ghost!I hear him beseech.)

Had the stand-out’s organizers picked this particular, foundational Sunday in the Christian calendar to stage that demonstration? Probably not. Holding my sign, holding George Floyd, Breanna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbury in the Light, this Quaker felt that Sunday morning’s synchronicity; its power. I recognized Spirit in the sign-bearing people lining Mass Ave and in the proclaiming car horns.

In Peter’s interpretation of that fiery, language-barrier-crossing moment, I hear the same paradigm-shifting message of early Friends: that Spirit is here, now, transformative, available to all, accessible to all. Christ is come to teach his people himself. That Pentecost morning I sensed I was hearing that prophetic voice, too, in the nationwide conversation on policing and reapportioning resources towards affordable housing and mental health services.

More about that synchronicity: Peter, the voice of the dispossessed and the marginalized, explains why the bewildered crowd can suddenly speak of the great things God has done—even though they spoke different tongues. The former fisherman reminds the gathering that this startling, inclusive moment had been prophesized; he quotes from Joel 2: 28: Therefore the day shall come when I will pour out my spirit on all mankind; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams and your young men see visions; I will pour out my spirit in those days even upon slaves and slave-girls.

     Even upon slaves. While I, hearing that prophetic voice in 2020, cherish Joel and Peter’s promise of how widespread God will pour out his spirit, I have a fiery reaction to that dismissive even. It reminds of  two challenging interactions I’d had with correctional officers at MCI Cedar Junction. The first happened as a CO escorted me to his workplace’s solitary confinement unit, the Department Disciplinary Unit. (Our prison system certainly loves euphemisms!) On our quarter-mile walk from the Visitors Center to the DDU, past silent cell blocks and empty, weedy, exercise cages, he’d quizzed me as to why I there. I mumbled something about being a Quaker and prison ministry. My actual answer would have taken much longer than our walk: I would have had to tell him about my leading to find Owen and Lynda, about Owen’s trying to keep Black men out of jail, about how my Quaker meeting had gotten involved with returning citizens, offering a weekly meal and sharing circle for ex-offenders; how I’d written to several prisoners over the years but, supported and guided by those weekly circles, had finally found the courage to actually step foot inside one—and how I was therefore there to visit one of my pen-pals.

Rapid-fire stringing together keywords from Isaiah and Matthew, the guard offered me a Biblical word salad: proclaim-liberty-to-captives-and-release-to-those-in-prison-when-in-prison-you-visited-me-as-you-did-for-the-least of-these, ending by raising his voice as if to ask a question; as if to make sure he’d gotten it right.

Startled to hear a couple of my favorite biblical passages spoken by a CO and, as always when inside a prison, struggling to stay grounded and centered, initially I’d been touched he’d understood me. But later I realized his references had nothing to do with me or my prison ministry as much as what he was telling me about his job: Get it? I think he’d actually said. Even the Bible says prisoners are a special category—they’re the lowest of the low. They’re the least of these. They’re scum. You come here once a month. That’s nice and all. But I have to deal with these low-lifes 24/7. It’s my job. This is how I feed my family.

      Even upon slave girls. On a subsequent trip to Walpole, a female CO escorted me to the DDU. Short, compact, buxom, White, she’d set a brisk pace for our walk. I quickly found out why. Those tomb-like units suddenly came to life. Catcalls, hoots, insinuating comments, it seemed like every man, unseen but easily heard through the open windows, had something to say. “I know you know who this voice is,” one man called, his voice husky and seductive. As if she had every reason to recognize his voice. As if she and he had a relationship; something special going on. And I realized that, just like the world outside these prison walls, an attractive woman can be treated like property. As if even less than least.

Excerpt 1: Strands

[Since I am both proud of what I am currently working on and, apparently, unable to do more than one thing at a time, here is an excerpt from a new book I’m working on: Strands]

Sometimes Nature lies beyond my backyard but still close to home. On my masked walks through Somerville these days, hungry for a glimpse of Turtle Island green, I’ve begun to notice inexplicably tall pine trees towering over the two or three-story frame houses beside them, their needled branches filling what little remains of an eighth-of-an-acre city plot. They’re all over the city!

Why weren’t these giants cut down years ago? How have these magnificent trees survived in, until very recently, a working-class city where landscaping often meant a postage-stamp-sized concrete yard dotted by one or two joint-compound buckets filled with plastic flowers? (To be fair, when the city was still called Slummerville, some ‘ville residents, many of them Italian or Portuguese, tended grape arbors and compact gardens, often terraced to make best use of their small size; some residents scrupulously cared for two or three fruit trees. And if not priced out of the homes where they’d raised their children and grown these crops, some still do.)

Had these pine trees survived because they look like giant Christmas trees and were therefore considered holy? Are they still here because they don’t require leaf-raking or the yearly ritual of unclogging the gutters? Do they remain because, for generations, the human occupants of those tiny plots have loved to fall asleep, windows open, and listen to the sound of wind soughing through their branches? Just as humans have loved hearing that soothing sound since Skywoman fell out of the sky and Jesus walked this precious Earth?

“Fewer birds sing just a loud,” Veronica, a young woman from my Meeting offered at a recent, Zoom meeting for worship as she’d sat outside, in her own tiny backyard. In her message, sparrows and crows, maybe a pigeon or two audible in the background, I heard so much: I heard her pain at nature’s diminishment. I heard her joy to be in worship in citified nature. I heard her celebrate robust Aliveness; I heard her radical acceptance of what is here, available, now. As is.

 

 

 

“Feeding off the Vibe”*

Zoom has become a daily feature in my life, much-needed yet disquieting. Yes, I long for connection with others; I am cheered when I see beloved faces, each in a tiny box, fill my desktop screen. Like my daughter Melissa, I, too, have observed that although each dear F/friend or family member is contained within such a small space, my loved ones’ spirit, their energy expands far beyond those few pixels. But to state the obvious, this virtual connection has its drawbacks—especially if you’re facilitating. Or, as my daughter Christina recently discovered, are being interviewed for a job!

Recently, however, Zoom taught me something about group dynamics I hadn’t fully understood. At this past week’s Wednesday night sharing circle, because of a poor connection, I was only able to hear about a quarter of what was said. Wanting to remain in (virtual) proximity with everyone, I just looked at person’s face frozen on my screen. I held each person in the Light. I listened to their garbled, as-if-underwater messages with love. “This is what it’s like to be deaf or hard of hearing,” I told myself. “I feel so left out!” Duh.

Cut off from what was said and therefore unaware of what themes or ideas others had been building upon, speaker by speaker, when it was my turn to speak, I declined. It seemed arrogant to simply talk as if the others hadn’t. To insert my words into something, something real, something organic, something the group had collectively created. Whatever had been woven by that gathering seemed precious. I didn’t want to tear it.

And because I’d fed off another kind of vibe that night, mysterious and love-centered, my silence was the right thing to do.

How Can I Keep from Singing?

Almost home from our daily walk, just as we were walking past, we saw a neighbor we didn’t know come out of her front door, sit down on a chair on her cluttered porch, and sing. Loudly. As if in the shower. As if in her car. As if we’d been invisible. “I think we’re all going feral,” I told my husband. But feral not as a pejorative, no. But as wildly alive.

Have we ever lived here before, right here, right at the wild edge of sorrow*? Have we ever begun a new week having heard such sobering news? No.

Yes, we’ve all experienced loss and grief. But not like this. never like this. This, this moment, this is new. What are we called to do? What am I called to do?

I, too, will burst into song. I will sing. I will be grateful to be alive.

 

 

*A tip o’ my hat to Francis Weller’s The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief

Cover Your Mouth!

More than forty years ago, when my oldest daughter was in elementary school, we’d lived in Wethersfield, Connecticut’s historic district, its Main Street lined with carefully-restored eighteen-century homes interspersed with newer yet still elegant dutch-colonials and Victorians. (We’d lived in one of the more modest houses squeezed between some real beauties!)

One evening a neighbor, who’d recently moved in across the street, called to demand I come over. Like now. I don’t remember how she’d put it; whatever she’d said must have been compelling because I  went. To learn that her daughter, let’s call her Janice, three or four years younger than my daughter, had been in tears because my daughter and the other girls my daughter hung out with had refused to play with her.

Pre-Quaker, pre-learning how to be a loving, compassionate member of a community, I did not handle this accusation well. At all. Defensive and pissed, I’d lectured about Erickson’s “Ages and Stages,” about the developmental differences between our daughters. This lecture was not well-received. So I’d said something like, “Look, just because we bought houses on the same street doesn’t automatically mean we’ll all be best buddies.” Yup. I said that. I did not say—and was proud of myself for not blurting out, “My daughter and her friends think Janice is a whiny, spoiled brat so even though you have a swimming pool in your back yard they’d rather not spend time with her.”

Ironically, of all the ill-thought-through and nasty things I said that night, the one thing that most offended my neighbor I’d actually intended to be conciliatory: “Can’t we just be civil?”

Looking back, I can see that for Janice’s mom, that word must have been a pejorative. Like,  “Keep a civil tongue in your head!” Or something. And that for me, it meant civil/civility, both of us signing a social contract, agreeing to some bottom-line, fundamental guidelines as to how to be members of the same community.  Or something.

As this coronavirus looms, spreads, I remember this testy conversation. And about what form of civility is asked for, now, what the bottom-line social contract everyone should agree to should specify: When we sneeze or cough we’ll cover our mouths. We’ll wash our hands. A lot. if we don’t feel well, we’ll stay home. Etc.

Ironically, now a member of a loving and compassionate faith community, I have less confidence that we’re all going to agree to these simple, vitally important guidelines than I probably would have when I’d argued with Janice’s mother. Yes, I love the people in my Meeting. Yes, I have been brought to tears, welled up many times when, over time, we have struggled together to find unity among us. And did.  But because I have been gifted to be so deeply and intimately connected with so many people, I know, first-hand, how distracted and clueless and thoughtless we humans can be. (Me, too, of course.)

Yes, I believe there is that of God/Light/the Holy/the Divine in each of us. And, yes, I believe I am dependent upon others’ ability to do unto others . . . And that sometimes that’s shaky!

What I’m Taking On For Lent

I’m not giving up anything this year; I’m taking on something. Something I’ve been afraid to take on for most of my life: I’m welcoming everything that happens to me. For, as Francis Weller points out, “This is the secret to being fully alive.” (He also notes how incredibly hard this is!)

Today, Day 3 into this spiritual exercise—which might become a practice—I’m pissed off. Someone I do prison ministry alongside with—well, why go into it? Because, as I remind myself, taking a few, deep breaths, this is capital L Life, right? I am fully alive and still following the leading I began over twenty years ago. I am actually doing what Spirit asked of me! And that is a blessing.

Day 1, at a weekly meeting I attend sometimes, I listened to my community’s immigration-rights activists lament the Supreme Court’s recent, heartbreaking decision on “Public Charge.” And felt myself do what I always do: wall myself off from the pain around the table. Protect myself. “This is the life you are living,” I silently coached myself. “This is that damned Chinese curse, ‘May you live in interesting times.’ For whatever reason, you were born to experience this, now. You are alive to experience this. All of it.”

I am hyperaware that were I daily experiencing non-stop pain and trauma it’s entirely possible I’d be telling a different story. I am hyperaware of my cushy, privileged life. I am hyperaware that my race and class and resultant medical care is why I get to do this soul-work/grief work; why I’m still alive at my age. I am hyperaware that were I a Woman of Color I might not be alive to tell this story.

But, Friends, I am and I can and here’s what happened: I briefly experienced that exhilaration Ray Bradbury’s short story, “Dandelion Wine” so wonderfully captured: “I am alive!” And so, openhearted, was also gifted to hear how my community plans to address this latest assault on our neighbors and friends, an ironically and unexpectedly touching outcome of living in this interesting time: I now know so much more fully how many other people are also working on social-justice issues. Oh.

Does the harsh fact that over the past year my Quaker meeting/my “village”/ my tribe has lost eight people, two of whom I counted as dear friends, focus attention on that word alive?

Yes, it does.

 

It’s Complicated

Back in the day when I taught homeless women in greater Boston shelters, one of my students, young and lovely, suddenly looked up from whatever she was working on* to say, “You know something? It’s not that we don’t know because we’re stupid. It’s that we just don’t know!”

Yup.

Here are some things we know:

No one is all one thing. No one is defined by the worst or best thing they did.

We’ve all been broken/hurt people hurt people.

Sometimes, by design, we don’t know things because we’re not supposed to. For example, what happens behind prison walls.

Often, after we die, because many believe “we don’t speak ill of the dead,” only the best parts of ourselves are shared at our funerals and printed in our obituaries; found in the letters we’ve left behind—and edited**.

Here are some things we don’t know:

Anyone else’s whole story.

Our own.

Here’s what I struggle with:

How to acknowledge and even accept the worst parts of myself.

 

*Three things she might have been working on that morning, as six or seven of us sat together around a battered oak table in a Baptist-church-now-family-shelter Sunday school classroom, weak winter light coming through a stained-glass window:

How to convert a fraction to a decimal to a percent. And back again.

Her journal—in which, very likely, she wrote page after tear-stained page about her childhood sexual abuse.

What “executive,” legislative,” and “judicial” mean (There was always a three-branches-of government question on the GED).

**True Confession: Going through my father’s letters after he died, I tossed several hateful letters into the recycle bin. Because I didn’t want him remembered that way, I destroyed a painful but truthful piece of history.

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