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

Butter-knifing

Here I am, once again, “circling Fort Knox with a butter knife trying to figure out how to get in.”* I know I want to write about loss, about sorrow, and about how, for most of my life, I’ve let anger mask sadness. I want to write about the grief of climate change. I want to write about my mother’s family, its secrets, its tragedies; about transgenerational trauma. I want to write about my moment-to-moment grief and horror to be white and affluent at a time when the ravages of income disparity and systemic racism and growing fascism are more and more real, obvious.

Yikes.

Meanwhile, as I circle, sadness, grief, loss happen. Terrifying headlines reporting another environmental disaster happen. Someone pisses me off happens—and I, self-conscious “apprentice” that I am, try to access the sadness underlying my anger. (And it’s not as hard as I thought.) Meanwhile, I feel all the heartbreaking Feels that I get to do this work at the same time the People Of Color all around me struggle. Meanwhile, I buy myself a copy of The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief  by Francis Weller so I can physically interact with his every word, every paragraph, write in the margins.

Here’s a bit I’ve already starred and underlined and <3-ed (heart-ed):

An apprenticeship with sorrow requires a hands-on encounter in which we are invited to work with the materials of grief, its leaden weight, and the particular demands of melancholy. We can feel it already, just in these few sentences, that this apprenticeship leads us below ground, into the hallway of shadows and forgotten ancestors. Here we find the scattered shards of unattended grief, the pieces of unwept loss, and the shavings of old wounds swept into the corner.

Meanwhile, like someone in recovery, I’m making amends.

 

  • Ann Patchett said this—at a writers’ conference I’d attended—about trying to figure out how to begin a novel.

Yes, Ma’am

[Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind.]

Take it from me, someone who’d stumbled around post-cataract surgery until I got my new glasses, I am now exquisitely aware of how we’re inundated with written stuff! It’s everywhere. It’s a given. (And when you can’t actually read it, it’s a pain in the neck!)

But when I saw this fancy-font sign in my health plan’s Mammography Department—well, like you, perhaps, I had one of those instant understandings of where the woman—someone working in that a department, right?—who’d posted that sign was coming from. Because she’s witnessed those battles. From the other side of that department’s reception desk window.  She knew. Knows.

And she’s watched us, too, the Lucky Ones. Who blithely stroll in and out once a year. Who may be more sensitive, more patient with, more compassionate about the trials and tribulations of others while we wait to be given the All Clear. But once we’ve received the good news —Phew!—we immediately forget our There But For The Grace of God moment. We forget how inordinately beautiful life seemed while we waited.

We move on. We forget to be kind.

Sign Poster’s knows all about that, too.

Maybe we should pay attention to what she has to say?

 

Freshly Brilliant

There have been many times over the past month as I either prepared for or recovered from both eyes’ cataract surgery, when I simply sat. Sunblocked, broad-brim hatted, adequately hydrated, I just sat. Earlier in the month I silently mourned for someone; when—Oh Joy!—I learned he was still alive, I gave thanks. Over and over. Sometimes, as my post-surgery vision improved, I marveled at a world now scrubbed clean. (Some shades of blue, like the color of my gas stove’s flame, remain startlingly, astonishingly amazing!) Sometimes, bright light still hurting, I’d wear my “Ray Charles” glasses and, seemingly impaired or disabled or something-not-quite-right-about me, was blissfully ignored as city life swirled around me. Sometimes, sitting on my back deck, I flexed my new long-distance post-cataract lenses to more fully observe a dutiful catbird feed its squawking fledgling or squirrels playing tag. Bumblebees and white butterflies—and at least one monarch—dart over freshly-brilliant-to-my eyes zinnias and black-eyed susan’s. A strand of spider web bending in the soft breeze. I watched clouds from my hammock. Swallows. Con-trails.

One day, my grandchildren in town, I’d arranged for them to meet with Claire O’Neill, a French scientist who is training volunteers to keep count of pollinators in a community garden near my house. But, it turned out, in order for more people to understand what is happening to our world because of climate change, she trains adults, not children—and my close-range vision Not Good, I’d be hopeless at this!

Besides, as I have had ample time to reflect upon over this past month, Just Sitting has gifted me the message Claire so passionately seeks to share with us: observe this precious world, love it; mourn.

From The Smell of Rain on Dust by Martin Prechtel: “Grief expressed out loud for someone we have lost, or a country or home we have lost, is in itself the greatest praise we could ever give them. Grief is praise, because it is the natural way love honors what it misses.”

 

Somewhere With No Service

[Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery, Old San Juan, Puerto Rico]

It’s been almost three weeks since I last heard from the friend I used to visit in prison, recently deported back to trouble-torn Dominican Republic. “They’ll kill you for a pair of $25 sneakers over here,” he told me a week or so after he’d arrived. “I think I’m destined for a violent death,” he’d said not long after that. And now: silence.

“Maybe he lost his phone,” my husband has offered. “You said he was moving—maybe he’s somewhere with no service.” Maybe he’s still alive, my husband is trying to say. Maybe.

The last time we talked, I’d had the chance to comment on something he’d said a couple of days before: “Remember how you’d said there are more bad people than good people?” I reminded him. “I’ve been thinking a lot about that. And I’m pretty sure that if I’d been born into your family, I’d think so, too.” And over these past three weeks, I’ve thought about him, how bright he is, how full of promise, about his violent life, about trans-generational trauma, about poverty, about racism, about The Jail Trail,  about all the good things I’ve always hoped were in his future. I think about his word destined. I think about what, in a perfect world, he was destined to be.

And in this three-week silence, the obscene disparity between my life and his has become as close to me as the air I breathe. Waiting in a spotless, equipment-filled examination room for my well-trained, courteous doctor to come in, I am reminded in a new and piercingly painful way of his world-view. Of course!

“I feel as though I have joined a gigantic group,” I’d told my husband. (I feel as though I have learned another way to be human, I might have said.) “It’s made up of all the millions of people who have ever lived or who are living now who don’t know what happened to someone they love.”

 

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

What’s The Story?

Palm Sunday I was walking towards Friends Meeting at Cambridge (FMC) when I caught sight of a small procession outside the Swedenborg Chapel. Or, as a little boy walking along Kirkland Street near me exclaimed to his father, “It’s a little parade!” Members of an African-originated faith group, I’m guessing, the singing procession-members wore white clothing and red hats and, waving palm fronds, marched single-file along the chapel’s sidewalk behind one of their members who held a carved, wooden cross a foot or so above his head.

As we stood together watching this procession across the street I wondered: Will the father tell his child the story behind this little parade? He did not. So, I confess, I actually considered telling it, myself (Yikes!). But, thank you Jesus, instantly I realized the pair would simply dismiss me as crazy, a zealot, a weird old lady—so kept my mouth shut. And, soon, off they and I went in different directions.

Sitting in deliciously-long silent worship at FMC, I realized that the next time I’d be sitting in that space would be Saturday, April 2oth, at my mother’s memorial—where plenty of Pat Wild stories, celebratory and bittersweet, would be told. (Wilds are storytellers.) And about Story. And about the story I’d been tempted to tell on Kirkland Street. About why I’d been tempted. (More about Story has come since.)

On Sunday I realized a couple of things. My impulse to share the Palm Sunday story had been about my belief that it’s important to listen to the Stories most meaningful to our friends and neighbors. (Such gratitude for Robin Wall Kimmerer and all she has taught me about origin stories.) I shared this belief with my Sunday school students—high school students—when we studied the Bible. “This book, which early Quakers knew very well, remains incredibly important to millions of people throughout the world,” I told them. “Your lives will be filled with references to this book. So whether or not you believe every word,  as world citizens you’re going to need to have at least a cursory understanding. Otherwise, you’re going to miss a lot.”

Had that father not explained why those beautifully-clad, dark-skinned people across the street waved those palms and sang because he didn’t know? Or, perhaps, he did know, maybe better than I, but bore such pain around twenty-first century Christianity that he chose to remain silent? His silence invited me, sitting in silence, to go deeper about that story. And suddenly I realized something.

In storytelling there’s a device known as “a McGuffin”: a thing or a situation important to a character but which listeners (or moviegoers),  who know more about how the story is unfolding than the character does, care nothing about. (The most famous example is the envelope filled with money Janet Leigh steals in Psycho. That envelope is a McGuffin.) Thinking about the Palm Sunday story, I suddenly wondered if, perhaps, Jesus’s triumphant entrance into Jerusalem isn’t a McGuffin.

Because why’s he going there? To celebrate Passover. We tell Jesus’s triumphant entrance with such sadness—because we know what will happen later in the week. We know how this story ends. Jesus didn’t. A Jew, he was observing one of his faith’s most significant rituals by deciding to join his dearest friends to collectively remember The Exodus Story. (And what a powerful Story!)

So, now, okay, here’s where my Wild DNA kicks in; I am compelled to leave this tale better than I found it. Why did Jesus pick Jerusalem to celebrate Passover? Well, because those famous sisters, Mary and Martha, who’d patched up their differences and had agreed to perform the pre-Passover cleansing rituals together, to cook together, and discuss theology with Jesus together while their brother, Lazarus, did the washing up, had invited Jesus and his followers. (Their hometown of Bethany’s near Jerusalem. I looked it up.)

The denouement: As I write this, the world mourns the terrible destruction of Paris’s Notre Dame cathedral, an ancient, wondrous edifice I, like so many, have visited and been awed by—so much so that whenever I despair of my species, I remind myself, “Well, at least humans built Notre Dame.”

Nothing gold can stay,” Frost tells us. Things fall apart. A mighty cathedral can collapse.

But Story stays.

Let’s tell some.

 

 

“She’s Everywhere!”

Sunset, Puerto Rico; March 14, 2019

Like crocuses, a conversation about the perils of perfectionism keeps popping up among my disparate friends these days. Which means that I, too, am looking at the Shoulds and the Oughts and the Am I Doing This Rights? in my own life. (and who, exactly, wrote this Should, Ought, Right Rule Book anyway?)

So noticed that among all the insidious ways I hold myself up to a standard that I should perhaps be rethinking, I was feeling inadequate/unworthy/doing it all wrong about how I was mourning my mother, who’d died in October of 2018. Shouldn’t I be actively missing her? Shouldn’t I be feeling enormous loss? Shouldn’t I—well, you get the idea, I’m afraid. And that, no, I wasn’t.

What has happened is that since she died I’ve taken on, incorporated my mother’s acuity, her ever-present sensibility about, as she called it, “the quality of light.” Which, I’m guessing, had been tied in to her seasonal affected disorder and began, as I recall, when she and my father moved to Cape Cod twenty-five years ago. (And may have been further inspired by this stunning, best-selling photography book.) I notice the light. I stop; I bask in it. I’m particularly moved by southern light. But moonlight will do. Saturday night I drank a glass of water lit by the almost-full moon shining into my kitchen. And when I did, I felt such gratitude for my mother’s hand-off to me.

But still . . . (Ought! Should! Wrong, wrong wrong!)

Flying home from Puerto Rico last week, I’d begun a book a friend had recommended, The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully by Frank Ostasecki.What a perfect post-vacation book to read! When I was already examining my busy, anxious life and how, when I returned, I might avoid getting sucked up into all that craziness again.

And read this touching story the author shares about Samantha and Jeff—who was dying.

Jeff exhaled a few more times and didn’t breathe in again. A stillness and ease embraced us. I felt it as warmth and sensed a luminosity, a sort of brilliance. After sometime, Samantha spoke out loud, as if talking to the space more than to me. “I thought I was losing him, but he is everywhere.”

My mother is everywhere.

 

 

 

How It Ends

After listening to WellingUp.net’s podcasts, my daughter questioned an important, fundamental decision: “Why did you begin the story with Rocco’s death,” she wondered. “Wouldn’t it be better to tell the story chronologically?”

“No,” I answered. “I don’t think so.” And recalled a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. biography I’d read that begins with King’s assassination. “I felt like the book was way more powerful because I’d been reminded from the git-go that this wonderful man would be murdered, ” I told her. “And besides,” I continued. “This story is another version of the Jesus and Mary Magdalene story. And what do most people seem to remember about Jesus? How he died!”

I’ve been thinking about that conversation this past week as I read over my 2018 journals, a sobering, humbling end of the year/beginning of the year ritual I’ve performed for a few years, now. What? I did that stupid thing again? And again? And . . . Jeez! Every mention of my mother, who died in October of 2018, leaps off the page. Every conversation. Every health concern. Every interaction with a staff person at her long-term care facility. It’s all so precious.

So many excerpts I could share but here are few moments I’m so glad I recorded:

May 24, 2018 . . . Had a wonderful moment with Mom when she talked about dying and how it won’t be hard because she’s had such a wonderful life—and I told her how lovely it is that she told me that because her leaving will be less painful, knowing that. A sweet, lovely, who-would-have-predicted moment . . .

May 26, 2018 . . . Took Mom down to Black’s Nook where pond life is beginning to thrive. Water lilies, a frog, lots of birds—but no heron or geese—and Mom was pretty lively, herself. Reached over to touch a young man’s arm so she could look at his tattoo more easily. I teased her about touching strange men and she said,”If he’s brave enough to have tattoos he should be able to deal.” Or words to that effect . . . .

June 16, 2018 . . . Mom had lots to say about “A’s” [another resident she’d disliked] sudden death. Guilt, maybeWe talked a little about how, maybe A really was in a better place, not heaven, necessarily, but not in pain or angry or frustrated any more. A talk I again appreciated having with my mother. 

Oh, yes!

Can We Hold All Of It?

Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, San Diego, CA; November, 2015

Can we hold all of it? Can we both honor the war dead and wonder why, dear God, are we still engaged in endless war? Can we both use words like sacrifice and courage and service with conviction and sincerity and compassion while asking ourselves, are there other words I could be saying, too? Illuminating words? Game-changing words? Words that come from a deep and wise and loving place? Can we both grieve and resent that we are?

I’m trying to. And have come to realize that since the death of my mother a month ago, I’ve been practicing this spiritual balancing act. Because, yes, I mourn, yes, I miss her every day, yes, I’m sad, yes, I am grateful for all she imparted; how she’d modeled so many ways to be a strong, fulfilled woman. (Just writing fulfilled, a word she used all the time, makes me smile.) And yes, my relationship with Pat Wild was—and is— the most rich and complicated and challenging relationship I will ever have! So, yes, I am learning to hold all of it. Slowly. And sometimes failing, falling.

Meanwhile: The world just noted the one-hundredth anniversary of the end of “The Great War.” (aka “The War To End All Wars.”) Meanwhile: Veterans for Peace just reclaimed Armistice Day. Meanwhile, my mother’s unambiguous, clear, firm, posthumous message to me: be grateful.

 

Was it The Light?

My mother died a week ago.

So many, many things I could and want to say about her; I am moved, this morning, however, to tell this story:

About a week before she died, in terrible pain, she’d said, “I feel as though parts of me are flying away.” Which, as a dear friend no stranger to grief pointed out, is a lot like a wonderful song.

For the past week, much to my sorrow, unlike the sense of my father’s loving and abiding presence after he’d died, I have felt A Huge Void. As so poignantly described by Kathryn Schultz in her New Yorker essay about her father’s death. 

But, yesterday, in Boston’s Museum of Science’s butterfly garden, surrounded by fluttering, beautiful creatures, I felt my mother. I felt a powerful—how to describe it? An energy exchange? Her presence? Her essence? Her soul?

Was it the light? Or The Light?

Why ask.

Backlit

Having a loved one receiving “comfort care” is like being stoned—minus the munchies. Sometimes I forget and become absorbed or distracted or caught up in mindless routine but, mostly, my life glows, now, as if backlit. Ever aware that someone I love approaches death has imbued everything around me with such wonder, such preciousness, such gratitude!

Which, not for the first time, brings me to that wonderful moment at the end of “Our Town”:

“EMILY: “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?”

STAGE MANAGER: “No. Saints and poets maybe…they do some.”
Thornton Wilder, Our Town

Saints and poets, maybe—and those whose loved ones approach death.