Is There A Theme, Here?

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[Broken Mirror on Sidewalk Self-Portrait, 2016]

A getting-to-know-you lunch with a yoga classmate, Muhammad Ali’s death, my 50th college reunion, a late-afternoon lobbying session (with other, WAY more informed people) to discuss an upcoming energy bill with my state rep; is there a theme, here? (besides the fact that I’ve simply noted some highlights of this past week?)

Why, yes, there is!

Let’s put it this way: at my Wheelock College reunion Saturday, someone asked a group of about thirty Class of ’66 members who’d read Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. Most of us had.

Being mortal/growing old: for me, Ali’s death has proved a telling benchmark, a very real, very concrete measurement marking how vastly different the young me of the mid-sixties, who’d regarded Cassius Clay/ Muhammad Ali with fear and scorn and, yes, confusion, and the seventy-one-year-old me who marvels at, celebrates his witness* against racism and oppression and war!

So, yeah, I’m no longer pre-intimation of mortality. I’m mortal.

We all are. Which is why I went to lunch with that yoga classmate, a delightful woman who usually places her mat next to mine. The classmate who used to put her mat there (and who often said she and I should get together but when it came time to actually set up a date . . . ) died. Tragically. And why I, ever-mindful of the urgency of addressing climate change, showed up at a 4:30 meeting to discuss an energy bill. Because who else can show up during working hours? Activists and pensioners!

*In Quakerese: to stand up, to show up, to speak out about, to get arrested for some injustice you’ve been moved (“led”) to protest.

What The Living Do

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[“Whitewashed”: lawn ornament, Somerville, MA, 2016]

Every Monday my husband and I care for our three-year-old granddaughter who arrived yesterday not feeling well. So the three of us spent as-quiet-as-it-can-get-with-a-three-year-old day. Although she never napped, much of the day she created cozy spots for herself and her toys to snuggle under various “blankets”; at lunchtime she even carefully tucked her pomegranate-pear squeeze food pouch under her napkin!

But by 5:00 even cuddly pleasures and rereading favorite books and . . . had lost their charm—so sitting on the couch together and perusing that day’s mail proved an excellent alternative. After scouring a couple of catalogs, she decided Grandma’s “Vanity Fair” (I know!) pretty intriguing. (Can you imagine what a three-year-old makes of a Gucci ad?!)

“Why is that woman smiling?” she asked when we turned another glossy page to discover a full-page Chopard (a jeweler) ad. “Because she’s happy that she’s wearing those fancy diamond earrings and that fancy diamond ring,” I tiredly replied.

Good God! What did I just do? I thought. Bad Grandma! Bad Grandma!

“No, sweetie,” I quickly amended. “That’s not why. She’s happy because she got—” I was about to say “. . . to spend the whole day with her granddaughter.” But the precious creature beside me was way ahead of me, already leaning close and reaching up to give me the most tender, loving kiss on my cheek. “Yes!” I affirmed. “You guessed it! She’s so happy because she just got a kiss from her wonderful granddaughter.”

“We can do no great things; only small things with great love,” Mother Teresa (reportedly) said. In the spirit of racial harmony we whitewash a lawn ornament. We vote. We leave our cans and bottles next to our recycle bin so that the people who rely on “redeemables” to survive don’t have to paw through our trash. We cherish.

WHAT THE LIVING DO

by Marie Howe
Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there.
And the Drano won’t work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up

waiting for the plumber I still haven’t called. This is the everyday we spoke of.
It’s winter again: the sky’s a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through

the open living-room windows because the heat’s on too high in here and I can’t turn it off.
For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,

I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those
wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,

I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.
Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning.

What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want
whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss–we want more and more and then more of it.

But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,
say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a cherishing so deep

for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless:
I am living. I remember you.

“Ambiguous Loss”

[Community Bulletin Board, Somerville Public Library, October, 2015 ]
I’m learning how to live with ambiguous loss. Since Christmas, I’ve been enrolled in a crash course.

I’m learning how to mourn someone I haven’t yet lost.

I’m learning how to mourn what has been lost yet never was.

I’m learning how to live with ambiguity. And both-and. (Early lessons learned : it’s exhausting! And pervasively sad.)

As I learn to live with ongoing stress and grief, I’m learning how to live with the Good Enough. I’m shooting for a C- in this class; maybe a solid B on a really good day.

I’m learning how to go with the flow.

But maybe all of us are living with ambiguous loss. The loss of weather we can recognize. Loss of seasons we remember. Loss of polar caps. Song birds. Clean water where and when we always expected it to be. And yet good ol’ Mother Earth keeps circling the sun, doesn’t she; for many of us—God, not all—life just keeps rolling along; doesn’t it? Maybe the pervasive anger all around us is about our collective, pervasive sadness. But maybe we can’t quite admit to that sadness. It’s SO much easier to be pissed! Our loss isn’t obvious, maybe. Yet we’re all mourning a Mother Earth who, yes, is still here but irrevocably changed.

“Beautifully Banal”*

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[“Felled,” Cave Hill Cemetery, Louisville, KY]

Every year just before Halloween all the students in my (Unitarian) Sunday School class would each be handed a half-pint-sized orange carton and earnestly urged to collect money for UNICEF. And I always did (I took the offered candy, too), spurred on by my Sunday School teachers and my parents but most tellingly, by a UNICEF promotional movie. Sixty-five or so years later, I remember the dark-skinned, hollow-eyed, big-bellied children on the screen as a sonorous voice explained, “In the time you count to ten, someone in the world will have died of”—What? I no longer remember. Malaria, perhaps. I’m not sure. I am sure that sometimes on the bus on the way to my piano lesson or just before falling asleep, at times when quiet and alone, I silently counted to ten and, as I have come to say, held the unknown, unseen, out-there-somewhere person who had just died “in the Light”: a frisson, a self-induced horror; a moment.

People die. We all die. I’ve understood this since I was five. (As I write this, someone in India dies from horrific heat.) And yet on Friday sitting beside the nursing home bed of a dear friend who’s ready to die, I wanted to jump up and scream: “Hey, you! Yeah, you! You In the next room having such a great time playing Bingo. Do you understand? ATTENTION MUST BE PAID! Yes, [my friend’s] lived a long and rich and fulfilling life. Yes, she’s ready. But how ’bout some reverence, huh?

“Or how ’bout you two? Yeah, you! Standing on the other side of this cloth divider? Think you could whisper as you change that woman’s bandage? Would that be possible?”

I didn’t, of course. For my friend was deeply, profoundly asleep; the two nurses companionably working inches away and the delighted shrieks and outbursts from the next room and, yes, my fretting presence, were of as much concern to her as the discarded Kleenex under her bed.

So I sat and contemplated, I practiced as best I could both Letting Go Of It All and the Intensely and Reverently Holding On/Cherishing It All, this beautifully banal thing called Life, yes, even that shadowed Kleenex—but especially, of course, the life, the soul, The Light of the amazing woman, “my spiritual mother,” whose breath slowly and rhythmically raised and lowered her blue-print hospital johnny.

“Trust the process,” she instructed me.

Okay.

* James Wood’s perfect words, not mine.

 

 

“They are in the darkness that grows lighter”

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[For Jean and Sylvia, two women I knew and admired, who died in the past month.]

This is the poem that inspired Sweet Honey in the Rock’s Breaths (and which I’m hearing in my head a lot lately.)

“Spirits”

Listen to Things
More often than Beings,
Hear the voice of fire,
Hear the voice of water.
Listen in the wind,
To the sighs of the bush;
This is the ancestors breathing.

Those who are dead are not ever gone;
They are in the darkness that grows lighter
And in the darkness that grows darker.
The dead are not down in the earth;
They are in the trembling of the trees
In the groaning of the woods,
In the water that runs,
In the water that sleeps,
They are in the hut, they are in the crowd:
The dead are not dead.

Listen to things
More often than beings,
Hear the voice of fire,
Hear the voice of water.
Listen in the wind,
To the bush that is sighing:
This is the breathing of ancestors,
Who have not gone away
Who are not under earth
Who are not really dead.

Those who are dead are not ever gone;
They are in a woman’s breast,
In the wailing of a child,
And the burning of a log,
In the moaning rock,
In the weeping grasses,
In the forest and the home.
The dead are not dead.

Listen more often
To Things than to Beings,
Hear the voice of fire,
Hear the voice of water.
Listen in the wind to
The bush that is sobbing:
This is the ancestors breathing.

Each day they renew ancient bonds,
Ancient bonds that hold fast
Binding our lot to their law,
To the will of the spirits stronger than we
To the spell of our dead who are not really dead,
Whose covenant binds us to life,
Whose authority binds to their will,
The will of the spirits that stir
In the bed of the river, on the banks of the river,
The breathing of spirits
Who moan in the rocks and weep in the grasses.

Spirits inhabit
The darkness that lightens, the darkness that darkens,
The quivering tree, the murmuring wood,
The water that runs and the water that sleeps:
Spirits much stronger than we,
The breathing of the dead who are not really dead,
Of the dead who are not really gone,
Of the dead now no more in the earth.

Listen to Things
More often than Beings,
Hear the voice of fire,
Hear the voice of water.
Listen in the wind,
To the bush that is sobbing:
This is the ancestors, breathing.

Birago Diop