May 26, 2009: What gets lost

In today’s Boston Globe, there’s an article about Hobson City, Alabama, a “small town which once thrived as a rarity: a place where black people were in charge in the midst of the Jim Crow South.” Now dying, this historic community, incorporated in 1899 and governed by African Americans, once supported businesses, restaurants, a skating rink, and “a vibrant culture centered on the all-black vocational school.”

“Sometimes I think I wouldn’t have gone out and done all that marching if I realized how much we were going to lose,” Mayor Alberta McCory is quoted as saying. Her (complicated, bittersweet) comment re the civil rights movement and its aftermath—Hobson City’s all-black vocational school integrated in 1972—of course reminded me of Lynchburg’s all-black Dunbar High School and that city’s “vibrant” cultural center. After Lynchburg’s schools integrated, Dunbar was razed. And, sadly, something absolutely vital to Lynchburg’s African American community was irrevocably lost.

Because I knew about the Dunbar-demise story, I could instantly understand Mayor McCory’s comment. And, I realized, that immediate gestalt just might be pointing me in a new direction.

To connect the dots:

Dot 1) Because Lynda Woodruff insisted I learn “CONTEXT!” I discovered  the Dunbar-demise story.

Dot 2) Some days I’d emerge from my house, having just spent a few hours reading about Lynchburg history, and realize, “Oh! I live here!”

Dot 3) There are thousands of comparable Somerville stories I know nothing about.

Dot 4) Because I’m currently working on a novel, I have zero interest in researching such stories.

Dot 5) But have enormous interest in reading them; learning more.

Dot 6) A group of writers and activists here in Somerville are looking at community-based journalism, i.e. when interested readers pledge money in order for a journalist to research and write a particular article.

Dot 7) Maybe other writers, from Somerville’s immigrant community, perhaps, could be paid to research and to write such stories.

[I know. This is pretty vague. But, as I’ve learned from following a leading this far, this kinda/sorta stuff is EXACTLY how something eventually happens. Whatever that something is. Like “A Chorus Line” ‘s Michael Bennett said of that amazing Broadway production’s earliest, earliest iteration: “We have something here.”]

Meanwhile, while this sorts itself out, let us mourn Dunbar High School’s death and let us pray that Hobson City’s unique history isn’t lost.

May 19, 2009: Lynchburg’s Community Dialogue on Race and Racism

[OOPS! This SHOULD have been posted last week. So sorry]

Here’s a description of the Community Dialogue written by Leslie King, who coordinates this important project. The people who’d participated in the program—and, BTW, read Way Opens—are invited, nay URGED, to write comments.

The Community Dialogue on Race and Racism began in response to some  racially charged incidence in our community:Real and perceived gang activity in the City, the death of an African-American man, Clarence Beard while in the custody of White police officers, public reaction to low-income housing proposal (Pedcor) and conversations with community leaders/others.   As a result of these events, the City Manager and Mayor decided it was time to address the issues of race and racism in Lynchburg. With the assistance of two-community based groups, Lynchburg Community Council and the Neighborhood Executive Advisory Committee, the study circle model was chosen as the method for engaging the community in the conversation. Everyday Democracy(www.everyday-democracy.org) out of Hartford, CT have advised and provided the necessary resources in order begin the Community Dialogue on Race and Racism. We have engaged over a 1000 people in our work and intend to continue the discussion. As of today, we currently have 8 Action Groups actively working toward racial equity in the following areas: 1) Police 2) Education Youth & Family Support 3) Faith-Based 4) Citizen Advocacy/Strengthening Community 5) Diversity Events 6) Ward Forums 7) Workforce Development 8) Communications and Media. In an effort to shift the leadership of the Dialogue from a City lead initiative to a more community based one, we have made the transition from a Working Group to our current Advisory Board. The board realizes that it must continue learning about the issues and about our community, which are some of the reasons why your book was very helpful in beginning the discussion on white privilege and relevance of Lynchburg’s history to our work.

May 19, 2009: Drama on Longfellow Park

On Sunday morning, just as we were settling into worship, the Mormon church across Longfellow Park from Friends Meeting at Cambridge, maybe fifty yards away, caught fire. As I’d taken my usual seat that morning, I’d  heard an insistent alarm bleating but, like the 300 or so Mormons inside the (doomed) building, did not, could not imagine that the annoying alarm meant imminent danger. Assuming the alarm to be a drill, the Mormons apparently exited without fuss. Everyone made it out, thank God. (Meanwhile, of course, across the little park’s green, most Quakers were still centering. Except for the ones sitting near the windows facing the park. They knew something extraordinary was happening.) A few minutes later, a member of FMC entered the meetinghouse to report the fire and to suggest that people move their cars to assist firefighters’ access.

Some back-story which informed my subsequent discernment re whether to remain in worship or to go outside:

Pre-9/11, I was already in love with firefighters and would, whenever possible, witness them in action. (Even a peace-loving Quaker like me needs action figures!) So, I reminded myself on Sunday, I’d already seen plenty of fires.”Stay in your seat, Patricia. And pray for the people around the world swept up in similar disasters. The world needs your prayers.”

My dear friend Wendy Sanford gave a terrific forum that morning re her faithfulness to Spirit and about her daily spiritual practices in order to “sink down to that seed which God sows.” She used the word obedient several times. So I asked, as she reminded us to ask: What am I asked to do? And, again, it seemed as though remaining in my seat was what I was being asked to do. (Meanwhile, twenty-foot flames are now shooting out of the church’s roof!)

But then I was reminded of one of my greatest fears: That I become so inwardly focused I lose sight of what’s happening right under my nose. Or fifty yards away. So I “prayed with my feet” and left meeting. Left while someone was giving a message. (Which for non-Quakes, is SIMPLY NOT DONE!)

It was a drizzly, chilly morning; some Mormons were shivering, some were crying; all of us, Mormons and Quakers, stood shoulder-to-shoulder watching the firefighters struggle against that stubborn, consuming blaze. (It was the worst fire I’d ever witnessed.) Suited, high-heeled CLS-ers and fleece-n-sneakers folks, side by side. Dumbstruck. Horrified. Someone passed around cups of juice to the crowd, Mormon children were invited inside to play in our nursery, etc. When it became painfully clear that the church was doomed, invitations to use our facilities were extended.

This past Sunday was a read-a-query-aloud morning at FMC, i.e. a series of questions on a particular topic that are read at the beginning of meeting so we can collectively contemplate this topic. Ironically, here’s what was read this past Sunday, just as that fire alarm went off: Do you welcome inquirers and visitors to your meeting?. . .

Two days after that tragedy and one day after receiving a phone call from a former writing student and a Mormon who asked me to thank my “church” for its kindnesses, here’s where I’ve gotten:

1) That particular church, the first Mormon church in NE, had been started in the fifties by Mormons attending Harvard, a creation story which closely parallels FMC’s inception. Learning this reminded me that when you talk to people, face to face, you will discover common ground. (Sidewalk conversations about Quakers being persecuted in Puritan Boston and Mormons knowing all about persecution came up, too.)

2) How easy, how absolutely automatic it is to put aside whatever reservations or disagreements I might have with a particular sect or political party in the face of disaster!

3) I like to think that I am a seeker and open to Spirit and that it’s that Mormon certainty I find so appalling. But when I regard the (somewhat astonished) person who just wrote #s 1 and 2, when it comes to my brothers and sisters at 4 Longfellow Park, haven’t I, too, been a wee bit shut down, rigid, judgmental?

You betcha.

PS: The fire has been deemed “accidental” and not, as some in the crowd wondered, arson.

January 29, 2009: Happy anniversary, Owen and Lynda!

This past Sunday during meeting for worship, Katie Cullinan, a member of Friends Meeting at Cambridge, led all of us in a rousing “Rosa sat.” [“Rosa sat/ so Martin could walk. Martin walked/So Obama could run. Obama ran/He ran and he won/So all our children could fly.”]

Now although I am prone, as my daughters would tell you, to blithely burst out in song, I am usually not a big fan of singing during worship. In my experience, it is extremely rare when whatever song is put forth feels like an organic and natural expression of however Spirit is moving among us that morning. “Amazing Grace” sung like a dirge almost never speaks to my condition!

But this past Sunday, five days before the forty-seventh anniversary (!!) of Lynda Woodruff and Owen Cardwell desegregating E.C. Glass High School, to celebrate the Rosas and the Martins and the Lyndas and the Owens and the Virgils with my faith community felt just right. Virgil, by the way, is Dr. Virgil Wood, Lynchburg’s leading civil rights activist. “We stand on their shoulders,” he noted once, in reference to other Lynchburg civil rights movement notables.

Yes, we do.

January 15, 2009: Witnessing On the T

Earlier this week, right after lunch, I was on a Boston subway train (aka “the T”) and, since it wasn’t rush hour, easily got a seat. Pinned to my down coat’s collar was my “I’m Pro-Immigrant—and I vote!” button. Since my friend—and tireless immigration rights activist—Mary Hopkins told me that she’d been verbally attacked for wearing that same button while on the T, I have been a little wary. But continue to wear it.

Across from me sat two young Hispanic men, neither dressed  warmly enough for the frigid weather, one so agitated his right leg shook violently from time to time. As the train rattled along, their attention was drawn to the older Asian woman seated to my left as she worked through the large bundle of bills on her lap, slowly and carefully opening each business-sized envelope, glancing at it, then moving on. Since she sat so close I snuck a peek: they were medical bills. A thick stack of them.

One of the young men and I made eye contact. “Whoa!” our eyebrows and slight tilting of heads towards the Asian woman seemed to say. “That’s a huge pile.” Did that young man wonder about her health, about her health care, about her ability to pay those bills? I sure did. Did he wonder if she revealed her private life to strangers on a Green Line train because she felt invisible? Or because she held down multiple jobs so the only time she had to do things like look at her mail was between jobs? I sure did.

Whatever was going with that woman and with those two thinly-clad young men, whatever the reason that man’s leg shook, one thing was clear: my travel companions’ lives were hard. Very hard. Harder than I can imagine, I imagine.

And I stress about wearing my button?

 

September 29, 2008: “Guest Book”?

Back in the spring, when Nathan Gwirtz, the incomparable creator of this website (Thanks again, Nathan!) asked if I wanted to allow people to add comments, I said “No way!” Hard as it is to admit, my skin’s a little more thin and tender than I’d prefer. The bruising comments left on The Somerville Journal‘s answering machine re my columns, for example, then printed in the paper’s “Speakout” section, upset me. And at the Women, Action, Media conference I attended a few months ago, I heard far too many scary stories of mean-spirited, nasty comments left on other women’s blogs. So: No.

A few things are encouraging me to rethink that decision.

1. A couple of weeks ago I went to a panel discussion on the media and civil liberties sponsored by, who else, the ACLU. One of the panelists raved, almost starry-eyed, about the media revolution and how blogs, UTube, Twitter et al fundamentally change how all of us can access information (Indeed, a young man with a camcorder was documenting the evening for his blog. He happened to be a September 11th conspiracy-theory advocate: everybody’s got a shtick.) Do I want commentary re Way Opens and this site to be a part of that new way to access info?

2. After a fun-filled but exhausting trip to Kentucky, I got sick last week. Really sick. But clicking on sites about the Palin-Couric interview—and the comments about that interview—or David Letterman’s rants when stood up by John McCain—ditto—or reading the hundreds of comments from people all over the country after Friday night’s presidential debate takes almost no effort at all. Click. Scroll. Click. Encouraged by the ACLU panelists to move out of my comfort zone, i.e. to read comments from people who don’t espouse my personal beliefs, I did. And, yes, sometimes it almost hurt to read some of the garbage I read. But, and here’s what was far more, ahem, telling: There’s some really thoughtful people out there whose opinions, I found, are helping to shape my own. Hmm.

3. Yesterday I heard an artist talk about her current exhibit of elaborate, intricate pen drawings which are now on exhibit at the Boston Public Library. Like most artists, she’d left a guest book at the library for exhibit viewers to write in; so far, these comments have filled 8 books! The public has lots to say about her work,she explained excitedly, from little drawings and one-sentence comments, to, as she said, “theses!” A “guest book,” I thought. Would calling a newly added section something vaguely old-fashioned like “guest book” encourage civility? Thoughtful discourse?

Dunno.

First Reading:Unexpected Tears

Since Friends Meeting at Cambridge (FMC) has been so much a part of the Way Opens story, the first reading had to happen there. As soon as possible. A busy, busy place, however, the only time available in May was Memorial Day weekend. Not a great time to launch a book.

But, I reluctantly decided, in the spirit of “The people who show up at business meeting are FMC,” the handful of people  expected could represent the larger community, right? The May 24th event could be symbolic. So Saturday afternoon, David * set up twenty chairs in a circle in the spacious Friends Room, I arranged food and flowers, and then we waited for the first arrivals, braced, I think, for a lackluster event.

Close to forty people came! And rather than eat and shmooze, these lovely souls immediately sat down in the ever-expanding circle in “expectant waiting.”

Here’s the unexpected part: David has read the book more than once yet cried several times during the reading. In the years leading up to this book’s publication, I have read and reread Susan Lloyd Mc Garry’s poem, “Empire,” which introduces Chapter 10, countless times. Hearing her read it at the reading (Thanks again, Susan Lloyd) made me cry, however, as if I’d never before been moved by her powerful and deeply felt poem. When I read  a little piece re Patricia Watson, more tears. After the reading, friends/Friends reported they’d cried, too.

I’d thought this reading was supposed to be an opportunity to thank FMC for all its love and support. But what it actually turned out to be was an opportunity for me to be reminded of something essential, something fundamental, something very, very deep.

So, once again, thank you, FMC.

* David Myers, “my L.L. Bean outfitter, my guide and companion every step of the way,” is my wonderful husband.