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.

“Unidentified Artist”

Detail from “Pieta” by an unknown artist, circa 1470, School of Avignon, France.

My mother isn’t doing well. Despite pain meds and massages and ice packs and the tender, loving care she receives from her long-term-care facility’s excellent staff, she suffers. She weeps. She’s horribly confused. Sometimes she’ll tell me about her conversations with my father (he died in 2010); sometimes she perseverates, “Who’s taking care of him? He’s over a hundred, you know.”!

For most of my life I’ve had a complicated, fraught relationship with my beautiful and brilliant and, until late in her life, unrealized mother. “You know,” she told me years ago; she might have been drinking.”You should have been my mother.” Over time I came to understand why this crazy-weird impossibility was so tragically true. Therapy helped. Al-Anon helped. Having four daughters of my own helped. Getting older—both of us—helped. And for the past three years, being able to drive fifteen minutes to visit her in her private, sunny room surrounded by her own paintings and photographs and books helps. That she receives meds to ease her lifelong anxiety and depression helps. (She pays a pretty penny for this care; an obscenely huge amount. Which she can afford. Until she won’t.)

Yet even on the best of visits, when we’ve “walked” along wheelchair accessible pathways to see how the community gardens’ tomatoes fare, or strolled down to a lovely, little pond to watch turtles and fish and, sometimes, a blue heron; even then, I’d come home and take a nap!

So, last night, worried about her and wiped out by another too-hot, terrifyingly unseasonal day, I lay on my bed, AC valiantly chugging along, and, headphones on, listened to music. I didn’t curate my selections; I just listened to what I love. (Or so I thought.) Like Maria Callas’s “Casta Diva.” Or Faure’s “Requiem” which, the first time I heard it, on my car radio on the way to work, triggered a peak religious experience. Yes, triggered. For having just experienced The Whole, That Which Is Beyond Words, Spirit’s Transcendent Love, all I could think of was “Well, this is highly inconvenient! Right here on Mass Av in Porter Square? Couldn’t I have been in a forest?”

Oh, right, I realized, listening to Faure’s gorgeous mass. Requiem! Ummm, as in death? As in my mother’s tears of pain, certainly, but also her tears of shame and sadness that she’s so helpless and weak; as in her dim understanding of what, possibly, is happening to her? As in, perhaps, that the veil between the living and the dead begins to thin for her; she’s catching glimpses of what I cannot see? Like my father? As in that I am in mourning for my beautiful and brilliant and realized mother; I am in mourning for a Mother Earth who is much too hot, now. (Jeez.)

And that, again, mysteriously, an Unidentified Artist some call Spirit loved me, guided me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being Grammy

Reading “The Granddaughter Necklace” at Grammy’s house, August, 2018

For the past week I’ve been “Grammy.” That this delightful grandma-derivation is both something my beloved granddaughter began calling me one day, but can also mean prize-winning musicality, makes me very happy. Being Grammy makes me very happy— in the same way I feel whenever I am doing what is truly asked of me. Why is that?

What is it about being a grandmother that feels so “in the place just right”? For starters, spending time with the children of my children is a non-stop intimation of mortality! As Grammy, I am ever-aware that, yup; I am going to die. I. Just. Always. Am.

This fundamental realization immediately prompts a couple of questions: Okay, then, Grammy. So how do you want to spend this time with this child? And what do you want this child to remember about you?

So, yes, I am probably My Best Self as Grammy but, honestly? The role—which, for me, blessedly, also means being retired—allows that. Having cleared my calendar of all but the most essential duties and responsibilities when my grandchildren come to visit, Grammy time is pretty leisurely. You want to dawdle over breakfast, spend all morning in your jammies? No worries. (I could go on and on about this! But won’t.)

And what do I want this child to remember about me? My stories. Stories about when this child’s mother was a little girl; yes. Of course. But stories, too, about when I was a child; how different the world was, then. For I learned from my own, gifted, story-teller Grandma what a blessing it is to look at one’s own life as the next installment of an ongoing, mysterious, amazing story. To understand how we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.

And, yes, looking into the eyes of my beloved grandchildren, I know I am looking into The Future. And ask myself: what am I, Grammy, called to do?

 

 

 

 

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.

Near-Hit*

No, that isn’t a tree growing in our driveway. That’s a Norway maple branch which broke off during Sunday night’s fierce winds and, miraculously, hit no one, nothing as it crashed to the ground. Tilting backwards, that impressively thick branch—and its leafy, smaller branches—then nestled against the building next door. Today, while more than a half-million people in New England are still without power because of other, less felicitous broken-off branches, ours has already been sawed into manageable bits. So tonight, on All Hallow’s Eve, as I’ll pass out Snickers and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, I’ll take time between doorbell responses to consider Life’s tenuousness. And its preciousness.

 

 

 

*Thanks, George Carlin