“Fallen On Hard Times”

So many stories here.

Once upon a time, my beloved grandmother, Florence Moulton Mirick Wild, born in 1877, lived at 130 Beacon Street, Worcester, with her large, extended, closely-knit, and well-to-do family. My brother and I grew up listening, saucer-eyed, to her adventure-filled childhood stories; she was a gifted storyteller of the Always Leave A Story Better Than You Found It School. (When she got to a good part, like the time she almost got trampled by Mr. Jones’ horse and sulky when she’d run into Beacon Street without looking, she’d clutch her pearls. Literally. Not in horror but in sheer, unmitigated excitement!)

Friday I spent a few hours exploring my grandmother’s childhood neighborhood—which, like so many neighborhoods in so many American cities, has “fallen on hard times.” So this will not be a story about my beloved grandmother.* This is a story about brokenness.

View of downtown Worcester from Beacon Street

This is also a story about how you tell the story. For as I learned at my grandmother’s knee, language matters. Specificity matters. Facts matter. For example, little Florence didn’t just willy-nilly run across Beacon Street. No, she ran into the path of a speeding horse—who, by the way, always sped down Beacon Street—because Mrs. Doane across the street had just invited Florence to come have ginger cake. Of course that little girl, looking like a Kate Greenaway illustration, just “dashed into the street!”

So let’s get real. Let’s tell real stories of real people who’ve lost their jobs. Let’s use concrete language when we talk about poverty, when we talk about the bottom-line decisions to close down factories or to move them elsewhere; let’s admit there’s nothing benign about neglect! Let’s not say “Fallen on hard times,” okay?   As if that neighborhood—known (ironically) as Beacon Brightly—had accidentally, clumsily stumbled when, in fact, it was pushed.

An interesting development: Right around the corner from my grandmother’s house, where a spacious and elegant home—maybe two?— once stood, there is now YouthGrow Farm! Where youth from that neighborhood can learn about urban farming, leadership skills, teamwork, and so much more. And are paid to do so.

Hallelujah!

 

 

*As a sign prominently displayed in an antique store wisely advised, “The only person interested in what your grandmother had was your grandfather!”

What Do I Yearn For?

A memorial reception with gluten-free or other diary-needs offerings carefully labeled, Friends Meeting at Cambridge, January, 2018

Walking to Meeting on Sunday, I passed a couple of  Ant “dockless” bicycles in front of Harvard’s Science Center, a new company that, like Hubway, the other bike-rental company in greater Boston, uses crossbar-free bikes. Exclusively. “Girls’ bikes,” we used to say. (When I was a kid, I wore dresses. That crossbar was highly inconvenient!)

During the unusually long quiet I found myself deeply moved that Ant’s and Hubway’s bikes are inclusive, accommodating, and account for “the least of these.” (Someone in a pencil skirt, a kilt, a sari? Anyone for whom swinging a leg over a crossbar could be challenging?)

More came to me during the quiet: I remembered a concert a while back, given by Daniel Parker, a former Quaker Voluntary Service fellow, now studying piano at Julliard. (Daniel’s concert was a fund-raiser for QVS.) Before he began Bach’s Goldberg variations, he asked the fifty-or-so-member audience if we wanted him to play straight through or if we’d prefer a break. Some of us—perhaps the same demographic who’d prefer not to swing our leg over a bike’s crossbar?—indicated we’d like a break. “I think we need to respect that,” Daniel said. There was pushback: “Put it to a vote!” someone called out. Gently but firmly, Daniel reiterated that we all needed to accommodate those who’d expressed need.

“What do I yearn for?” I have been asking myself that question a lot lately. Sunday I was offered a glimpse: I yearn to live in an accommodating, inclusive world, a world where day-to-day decisions are made after asking: How will this effect the poor, the homeless, the undocumented, the abused?

Sound good?

 

 

 

 

Random Acts of Beauty, Kindness

Between Nor’easters, Somerville, MA, March, 2018

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Sometimes—especially now—a news story is not the news story. Sometimes what seems significant isn’t. All the time, stuff just happens and making meaning of all that stuff can be exhausting and confusing. (And, must say, New England’s disquieting, alarming, climate-changed weather—for months!—hasn’t helped!)

Just coming out of one of those confusing and exhausting times, I’m moved this morning to lift up three instances, recently, when Spirit broke through the fog:

  1. Friday night, at our monthly Somerville worship-group gathering, a dear, long-time F/friend offered this query: “What do you yearn for?”  Try it. Let me know if simply posing that question to yourself is grounding. Do you find that coming up with An Answer not that important? That it’s the process of asking yourself, opening yourself up to look at, to wonder about your deepest hunger, that matters? (Thank you, Chris.)
  2. One of the things I yearn for, apparently, is declarative sentences about love. “Because he’s a twelve-year-old boy. Dogs love those.” (Thank you, Wes Anderson.) Bonus: this declarative sentence is voiced by a female.
  3. Random, anonymous acts of beauty and kindness. Like three packages of Jello, each a different color, artfully arranged on front yard wall. (Thank you, Neighbor, whoever you are.)

“CONTEXT!”

Front page of the local section, The News & Advance, Lynchburg, VA, October 12, 2008

Dr. Lynda Woodruff, my mentor and friend, died last week. Hearing this awful news, I registered both gut-punched grief and that my first question—Did she die because she’d received inadequate healthcare?—came to me only because I’d been schooled by Lynda.

A woman of “grit and salt” (her words), Lynda schooled so many! My first tutorial with this fierce, brilliant woman happened after I’d mailed her a draft of a book manuscript which, eventually, with her guidance, became Way Opens. “Context!” she’d written in bold letters on that first, pathetic draft. Meaning: You neither know the backstory nor understand its implications. Meaning: You’re a clueless white woman. Meaning: Do your homework.

So I began. And, with Spirit’s guidance, keep on keeping’ on. (Although I already know I’ll earn a C+ at best. )

Something else I note with deep sorrow. “The burden of the race” resting on her shoulders since she was thirteen, over the years Lynda “just got tired.” (Her words.)  Can you imagine how exhausting, how debilitating our current political nightmare must have been for her?

Rest in peace, dear Lynda.

 

 

Who Is My Neighbor?

Maybe another foot of snow due tomorrow, maybe another opportunity to use our “neighborhood snowblower.” After a very snowy winter a couple of years ago, a bunch of us chipped in to buy one. The next year? It collected dust in our carriage house. But it’s been worth every collective penny this winter; that’s for sure. (Is it wishful thinking to believe that since that gas-powered sidewalk-clearer is shared by several households, our neighborhood reduces its carbon footprint? Anyone? Anyone?)

Who is my neighbor?  Buying a snowblower together, sharing ripe tomatoes and zucchini together from the raised-bed vegetable garden in their (more sunny than ours) back yard. These are my neighbors. But what about that woman whose anguished, Haitian-Creole lament woke me up yesterday morning as she walked past my house? Isn’t she my neighbor, too?

What am I called to do?

 

 

(Almost)-Spring Cleaning

A Rainy Day at Castle in the Clouds, Moutonborough, N.H.

Sunday, chilled, rainy, very windy, I’d almost wished there’d been a fireplace fire in the meetinghouse fireplace. Surely a hearty blaze would brighten my spirits?  But, no, I realized. If there were to be any cheering up going on that gloomy morning, it would have to come from within!

And I remembered something someone in my yoga class had said on Thursday. (Actually, this was at our pre-yoga class, when we discuss a poem someone has brought in, or the Sutras, or a piece of writing our gifted teacher wishes to share.) One woman talked about sadness, hard times, grief and loss; how we’re sometimes too eager to be happy. “There’s good reasons to feel sad,” she said.

So I let myself sink into despair. Not to “wallow in it,” as my father always cautioned when anyone in our family dared to be sad. (You were allowed to be sad in my family for about five minutes. Then you had to get over it.)  But to be honest! To honor the countless reasons we all have to feel sad.

And, mysteriously, after way more than five minutes of sitting in silence and letting myself “feel the feels,” as my daughter, Hope (!) says, Something happened. As if something inside me had been decluttered, de-cobwebbed, dusted or lemon-oiled or rearranged. As if I’d cleared a space within me to hold this sadness. And it was okay. More than okay. It was exactly what I was supposed to do.

What Joy when we do what we’re supposed to do!

New Year’s Affirmations:

Malden, MA Bike Trail, Christmas, 2017

May good people walk beside you.

May you find strength and joy in community.

May you receive “Good Will, Support, and Healing”* from others.

May other living beings guide you, teach you, sustain you.

May you find your way.

 

 

 

 

 

*One of the Friends Meeting at Cambridge’s Wednesday night sharing circle’s most cherished values.

“This Turning Year”

Winter Light at 7:39 AM, EST, December 21, 2017

Pretty sure I learned about the winter solstice from a textbook—in sixth grade, maybe. Dimly I can conjure up the rudimentary, line-drawing illustration that accompanied the text. I’m betting “solstice” had been on that week’s spelling test, too. Sound familiar?

Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if Mr. Phelps, our natty, bowtied, horn-rimmed glasses science teacher, had exclaimed: “Think about it, boys and girls,” his voice rising in excitement.* “Our shared ancestors knew about the winter solstice because they noticed it! They noted, they studied, they watched the world around them, the seasons, the weather, the night sky. They figured out a way to keep track of what they’d observed. Think about it!”

Here’s what most moves me about this simple, elegant fact about those ancient souls: That we’ll never know who first figured out this “turning year” phenomena. But I’m guessing the cumulative observations leading to our understanding were collaborative, communal; I’m guessing women and children participated in that ancient data collection.

And, today, right now, December 21, 2017,  it brings me to tears to be reminded that our greedy, selfish, warring species can also be curious. Such a simple yet wondrous quality of being human. Yes.

A Winter Blessing
By Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker

In the shadowed quiet of winter’s light
earth speaks softly
of her longing.
Because the wild places are in tears.

Come, she cries to us.
Kneel down here
on the frosty grass,
and feel the prayer buried in the ground.

Bend your ear to my heart
and listen hard.

Love this world, she whispers.
Distill peace from the snow
and water the cities
with mercy.

Weave wonder from the forest
and clothe grief
with beauty.

Rest in the rhythm of the turning year,
Trace the bending arc
Rounding the curve toward justice.
And vow anew to do no harm.

The winter trees stand watch
haloed in the last gleams of the slanting sun.
Glory sings here.
Heaven echoes the call:
Repeat the sounding joy.

Make your life an answer:
Bow.
Praise.
Rise.

*For all his bowtie primness, Mr. Phelps was, on occasion, passionate. His marveling that the Russians had launched Sputnik was both unexpectedly adorable and illustrative; that my Cold War-era teacher had been so gaga about this historic event taught me something fundamental about science.

“Right There I’m Sort Of Glued Together”

Last week, doing warrior pose in yoga class, I remembered how, right after Trump had been elected, my usual teacher,  Annie Hoffman, was out of town—so we’d had a sub that day. A wonderful teacher, the sub had prepared a themed class; a series of poses and movements readying us to become women warriors. “Cool idea,” I thought; my body felt differently. Moving slower and slower as if weighted down, I finally stopped altogether.

“What’s going on?” the teacher asked.

“I’m not ready to be a warrior yet,” I realized. “I’m still too sad.” ( So she Immediately set me up in a restorative pose. Where I cried. And felt my muscles twitch and relax.)

Since the tax bill vote I’ve been in a funk. (Yes, today’s news from Alabama is definitely lifting my spirits!) After a year of being a warrior, though, I no longer deny my occasional need to crawl under my quilt for twenty-four hours. “Re-covery,” my yoga teacher quips.

When in this melancholy state, a favorite Rilke poem, “Title Poem” from The Voices, always comes to mind (Eerily apt vis a vis that tax bill, yes?) :

It's OK for the rich and the lucky to keep still, 

no one wants to know about them anyway. 

But those in need have to step forward, 

have to say: I am blind, 

or: I'm about to go blind, 

or: nothing is going well with me, 

or: I have a child who is sick, 

or: right there I'm sort of glued together. . . 

And probably that doesn't do anything either. 

They have to sing, if they didn't sing, everyone 
would walk past, as if they were fences or trees. 

That's where you can hear good singing. 

People really are strange: they prefer 
to hear castratos in boychoirs. 

But God himself comes and stays a long time 
when the world of half-people start to bore him. 

Lost

Johnny D’s Debris, November 28, 2017

Caught in another traffic jam, my husband and I agreed: “Right this minute, half the people in Greater Boston are sitting bumper-to-bumper, the other half work on the construction projects that block all this traffic.” Today, walking home from East Somerville, I glanced at the horizon and saw a skyline I’d never seen before. Where had those buildings sprung from? Iconic Somerville hotspots like Johnnny D’s? Razed. My auto mechanic’s shop, just down the street, has been usurped by a glitzy new building touting million-dollar condo’s. What? And while I know that it’s normal for people my age to view a changing world with bewilderment and alarm, the disruption and displacement and gentrification happening in my formerly working-class neighborhood right now is not a normal I can accept. Far worse, after what happened on the Senate floor Friday night, I can no longer recognize my country.

Last week my yoga teacher shared this poem with our class. Perfect timing, right?

Lost

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

David Wagoner
(1999)

It Goes On

Harvard Square Sidewalk, Election Day, 2017

Like many “Villens,” Ralph Hergert had dual citizenship: Somerville and Cambridge. So it was not surprising that although a long-time, pivotal, and much-loved Somerville activist, Ralph’s memorial on Saturday was held at Old Cambridge Baptist Church, his spiritual home in his last years. And that his beloved, vaulted church overflowed with OCBC congregants and Villens who’d worked with him and beside him on peace and social justice issues for over thirty years.

Still the pastor of Grace Baptist Church in East Somerville when we first met, Ralph and I had many conversations about how his faith and mine, both predicated on the belief that we can experience The Divine without an intermediary, were so radically different culturally yet, in fact, so very close. Good stuff.

My favorite Ralph story: He and I worked in the same building, he as the head of the Mayor’s Office of Human Services and I as a teacher at Somerville’s adult learning center. One morning as we were both coming to work we met outside the building and, somehow, got to talking about music—specifically, for some reason lost in the mists of time, about “There Is A Balm in Gilead.” (Endlessly kind, he nevertheless pitied my ignorance of liturgical/spiritual music.) We walked inside, he walking up a flight of stairs, me walking down a flight, and when he reached the top of the stairs, he leaned over the railing. He looked down at me. He grinned. And  began singing that wonderful spiritual. His voice filled the stairwell. His voice filled my sin-sick soul.

Ralph struggled with Alzheimer’s in his last years; his disease was referenced, present, many times during his (music-rich) memorial.  Something else was present, too: a sense that The Work continues. I felt it; others did, too. That all that Ralph held dear and had worked so hard for lived. Buoyant. Enduring. Possible.

Good stuff.

“I Praise”

“Sam,” a ceramic created by Shelly Ann Moore.

“Despairing for the world,” I spotted her just as she about to get off the 85 bus. In a white, lacy, off-the-shoulder blouse and no-nonsense dark skirt, a black, canvas bag touting the name of whatever tech/Kendall Square conference she was about to attend slung over her bared, coffee-brown shoulder, she exuded confidence. Anticipation. Smarts. “Young, gifted, and black,” indeed. ( Need I add STEM-strong, too?) And, suddenly, because women like her lived in this broken world, too, my grief lifted.

A few weeks later, having just bought “Sam” at a craft fair in Ventura, California, I told my husband and brother-in-law that story. Falteringly I tried to put into words why this figurine so powerfully spoke to me.

“You suddenly saw another version of the future and a world you wanted to live in,” my brother-in-law offered.

Close.

Yes, mysteriously, Sam does somehow invoke that lifting, hope-filled moment on the 85 bus.

She does more, though. Weighted, burdened, as all Women Of Color are, nevertheless Sam persists, she stands, bending but unbowed. Because she’s “under the Power” as Shelly Ann Moore, her creator, put it. And, thus, ironically, her clasped hands remind me of a favorite poem by, yes, an Austro-Hungarian man:

O tell us, poet, what you do. –I praise.
Yes, but the deadly and the monstrous phase,
how do you take it, how resist? –I praise.
But the anonymous, the nameless maze,
how summon it, how call it, poet? –I praise.
What right is yours, in all these varied ways,
under a thousand masks yet true? –I praise.
And why do stillnesss and the roaring blaze,
both star and storm acknowledge you? –because I praise.