Comin’ Around Again

When I was young I was very young. And the world I grew up in was a younger world, a world that told me, “When you grow up, you can be a secretary, a nurse, or a teacher.” So for many reasons that seemed relevant in those long-ago times, I chose teaching. Given that those times’ imposed limitations meant that my “choice” wasn’t much of a choice, turns out I am a pretty good teacher! Turns out, interacting with children gives me enormous joy! Turns out, I got lucky.

Over the years my teaching career swerved from teaching elementary school-aged children, as I’d been trained to do in college, to teaching deaf teenagers, to, for almost 20 years, working with adult learners in housing projects, homeless shelters, and at an adult learning center. But when my first book was published in 1998, I declared myself a writer—and never looked back.

Until now. A grandmother, I am once again teaching small children at my Quaker meeting. I’m again writing lesson plans. I’m again buying art supplies. I’m again talking with parents about their children’s needs. I’m again being schooled by insightful and loving co-teachers. And scraping play-doh off a rug. (Oops.)

And while sometimes this gig feels very automatic—”You know, we’ve heard some wonderful ideas from you. Let’s see if someone else has some good ideas, okay?”—something feels absolutely new.

This choice is so, so different, isn’t it! So realized. So informed. So much about joyously reclaiming a part of myself that, yes, I’d only dimly understood over sixty years ago (GASP) when I’d chosen Teacher. So whole.

 

To Have and To Hold

When I was maybe three or four, one of my favorite “toys” had been my mother’s button box. (What was that box’s backstory? Was it made of sturdy cardboard or metal? Had it once held candy or tea? Had it been a biscuit tin? I don’t remember.) I’d loved the susurration those hundred of buttons made when I slowly trawled the box’s contents with my hand.  I’d loved the randomness; the not-knowing what I’d discover in my hand when I extracted one or two buttons. Would I hold a large, plastic, Art-Deco button from a thirties-era jacket?A tiny, opalescent mother-0f-pearl memento of my babyhood? If I dipped again, would I perhaps find a duplicate to my first haul? What I’d loved most, though, was to treasure whatever I held.

Sunday night, my sister’s vast collection of earrings, necklaces, bracelets, brooches, pendants, and rings covering my living room coffee table, I was reminded of those individualized and reverent moments. Randomly picking up an exquisite ring or a necklace, I held my fierce and brilliant sister Deborah, who died from pancreatic cancer on June 7th. With tenderness and care her grieving ex-husband and son have been slowly dispensing her things; Sunday night, thanks to my daughter’s cell phone’s texting capabilities, our extended family had the opportunity to pick and choose a piece of Deborah’s jewelry.

Because my sister had already specified she’d wanted me to have her silver charm bracelet, my brother-in-law handed it to me beforehand. What I slowly realized as I picked up and admired Deborah’s collection, one by one, was that her laden, tinkling keepsake would be enough. (Although I did chose a couple of pieces I plan to pass along to two dear friends who have held me as I grieve.) Like admiring my mother’s button box collection, I loved, loved, loved cherishing Deborah’s jewelry. And that charm bracelet is enough.

This understanding may have been made more clear for me, I think, because of my recent visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Over the past fifty years I have visited “Mrs. Jack’s” hodgepodge collection many times; this most recent visit stirred up some concern: What happens to someone’s soul when she owns so much cheek-by-jowl, impossible-to-keep-track-of beauty? How could Isabella Stewart Gardner possibly love the thousands of things she’d collected? At some point, had she become inured to her breathtaking possessions? Become deadened to such overwhelming splendor? After the crowds went home, had she ever strolled through her higglety-pigglety gallery rooms and randomly picked up something small and exquisite? Had she held it? Loved it?

I hope so.

 

 

 

“Just Roll With It”

[Turner’s unfinished “Venice with the Salute”*]

Yesterday, in the collective silence of a Quaker meeting, I waited for whatever was to come to come. And was given: “You’re sad, sweetheart. Just roll with it.”

At first, feeling that acknowledged sadness weight my body, this somber, right-on message seemed enough. Full Stop. The End. But as I literally sat with that weight, sadness became A Thing, an opening, a possibility, a tool, a medium. “My palette,” I decided.  Something to work with.

So I will. I am.

 

*”Venice with the Salute, about 1840-45 (Oil on canvas)

The monumental Baroque church of the Salute, with its great dome,

dominates the entrance to Venice’s Grand Canal. Turner probably 

focused on this landmark in hopes of finding a buyer. 

He left the work unfinished, however, barely defining the buildings

on either side; water, land, and sky merge. The extraordinary,

shimmering forms evoke the paradox of dense fog on a sunny day.

[Explanatory notes, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, May 2022]

Through the Ether

My father were be astonished. Self-labeled “a merchant of death,”during the Cold War my definitely-analog dad sold General Electric-manufactured heavy military equipment to the government. Gigantic and metal and painted battleship-grey; such armaments were how the USA would win this war, Dad believed—who’d died decades before Twitter and Tik Tok and Spotify et al. How mystified my father would be to learn how weightless, colorless, relatively inexpensive, and transmitted-through-a-network-he’d-never-comprehended* misinformation can be and is destructive, disruptive, even deadly!

Who’s winning this Cold War 2.0 which weaponizes instability and fear and distrust? My sense is they are. But how would I know?!

I do know this: I believe in another weightless and colorless and mysteriously transmitted network. When this network broadcasts it’s called prayer. When we open ourselves to Spirit; i.e. when we click on our “radio” to signal to ourselves and to the Universe that we’re listening, something grounding happens. We’re hearing Truth.

 

*After World War II but before the Cold War, Dad sold GE radio and television equipment to stations throughout the northeast. Radio waves—aka microwaves—he’d understood!

 

 

 

“Land Acknowledgement Day”?

This year at my house, Thanksgiving Day will look pretty normal. Our menu will feature indigenous entrees like cranberries, corn, squash, maybe even turkey. (Some years we’ve served chicken with figs to rave reviews.) There will be several pies, yes, and family, yes, and between the main course and all those pies, we’ll go around the table and each of us will say what we’re thankful for. Like I said: normal.

But in my heart, ahh, this year will be radically different. This year, silently, I will celebrate this tiny patch of Somerville real estate I call “mine.” I will celebrate the land beneath me. As I savor my made-once-a-year cranberry sauce or baked squash, I will celebrate the fruits of The Land. I will remember the Massachusetts people who’d once trod upon this land. I will hold them in the Light, a prayer without ceasing.

Perhaps you will, too?

 

Light A Candle

[Mom’s 95th birthday party, Neville Center, Cambridge, MA,  2018]

This has been a week of anniversaries: my mother died three years ago this week, my father died eleven years ago this week, and yesterday my Quaker meeting held its twelfth anniversary, all-meeting silent worship in front of Raytheon Technology Corporation. [“Raytheon wins $2B contract for new nuclear cruise missile,” July 6, 2021] Seated on folding chairs and holding signs declaring “Quakers praying for peace,” about twenty of us sat on Cambridge’s Concord Avenue’s sidewalk; an equal number sat across the street—in front of the long-term-care facility, Neville Center, where my mother had died. Alone.

For several years every third Sunday of the month, rain or shine, members of my meeting have been faithfully worshipping in front of Raytheon (and before that, in front of Textron, maker of cluster bombs.) But since my mother died, I had not felt able to show up on Concord Avenue. Until yesterday.

Sitting in delicious, warming, October sunshine and gazing at the three-story Neville Center across the street, I prayed for peace and held my mother in the Light. Is there something, I wondered, besides this little patch of Cambridge real estate, that connects my disparate prayers?

And what came to me is this: I am not alone. Seated here, my prayers for peace entwine with others’. But for many reasons, most not of her own making, rarely did my mother experience this delicious interconnectivity I feel right now.

Such sadness to realize this and yet such gratitude for my faith community; a community I might add, I sometimes struggle with.

So today, as this anniversary week ends, feeling all the feels, I light a memorial candle.

 

 

Serendipity

[An excerpt from Strands: An Apprenticeship with Grief and Loss, to be published by Barclay Press, 2022.]

In January of 2020, the same day Beijing reported its first coronavirus death, out-of-the-blue I decided to rescue family photos in moldy photo albums or crammed into shoeboxes under my bed. After buying a nifty storage box, I began to sort and organize. That same week, Ancestry.com informed me that my ancestors had been English, Scottish, Norwegian, and German. (I’d hoped to learn something startling!) A local historian contacted me, again out of the blue, to learn more about my great-grandmother, Amy, who had been a Faulkner before marrying Benjamin Franklin Wild.  (He’d preferred “Frank.”)

That synchronistic week continued: StoryCorps notified me that a family-history story set in Somerville, which I’d recorded a few years earlier, was now accessible at the Library of Congress. I reconnected with my beloved second cousin, Peter Wild. And that Saturday, I’d been invited to visit a recently-opened and beautifully organized food pantry in the roomy basement of the Mission Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ on Highland Avenue—just a few blocks from my house. From 1894 until 1975, Mission Church had been “First Unitarian Somerville,” and located next door to Amy and Frank’s mansion, now razed, where three generations of Wilds, including my father and my Aunt Amy, once worshipped.

That Sunday, still able to worship in person in the Friends Meeting at Cambridge’s meetinghouse, I reflected on that week.What does all this family stuff in one week mean? I wondered. Seated with a hundred or so fellow worshippers, we’d sat in deep quiet for over a half hour before someone stood to break the silence. And in that long and delicious time to deepen and reflect, something came to me: You call these random, all-the-same-week incidents family. Yet most of these happenstances have been about Wilds. Most of the photos in your nifty storage box are Wilds. You know next to nothing of your mother’s history.

This accurate observation had been followed by A Nudge: And isn’t about time for you to find out? Or, as I would come to view this Spirit-sourced prompt: Here is the first exercise of your apprenticeship. Go!

The next day when I googled for clues, I discovered that I hadn’t known how to spell my maternal grandmother’s maiden name—it’s Cogill—and that I’d been spelling my maternal grandfather’s first and last names wrong, too! My ignorance humbled me; to immediately realize how little I knew seemed a gift, an opening,* an invitation to apply what Buddhists call “Beginner’s Mind ” to this apprenticeship; to be curious, openhearted, eager. A Bonus: Stumbling upon the actual spelling of my grandfather’s name had been “serendipitous,” to use a word my mother often employed (sometimes wrong), and a reminder that, indeed, way opens.*

My maternal grandparents divorced when my mother had been a toddler; her father was never a part of her life. In 1966, when she and my father vacationed in Palm Beach, Florida, her father reentered her life: “You know, Al,” she’d mused one night at dinner. “I think my father lives here.” Low lights, flowers, a delicious, expensive, seafood dinner and a bourbon or two probably contributed to Mom’s pensive mood. Encouraged by Dad— “There’s two sides to every story, Pat,” he reminded her—she called her father. Who, I want to believe, immediately jumped in a cab to meet his daughter.

Did my grandfather stand for a few moments at the entrance to the dining room scanning the tables for Mom? Did his face light up when spotted her—the stunning, middle-aged, well-dressed woman craning her elegant neck to scrutinize every man entering the room? When he’d approached my parents’ table, had all three shook hands? Hugged? What were the first things my mother and her father said to each other? Had their initial conversation been stiff? Awkward? Warm? I don’t know. As already noted, my mother wasn’t much of a storyteller. I do know that sometime during this reunion, Mom announced that I would be getting married that July.

“I’m coming,” her father declared. (In that declarative moment, did my mother remember all the times in her childhood when she’d longed for a proverbial Dad?) The dapper, elderly stranger who’d showed up—in spats—to my first wedding had been Munro not Monroe. And his last name was Horre. Not, as my mother, her sister Kay and her mother spelled it, Horrie.

I’d known—but forgotten—that Horre to Horrie spelling-change story, too; its broad outline, at least. When I’d been maybe ten or eleven Mom explained, “My mother went to court. She added the I. You’d think that with a name like Horre, she might have added a few more letters!” Too young and too cosseted to understand her quip, I didn’t get it. Twice-divorced, I can now also appreciate how my grandmother, who wanted to be called Lil and not “Grandma,” had inserted an i into her ex-husband’s last name. I love how Lil inserted her personhood, her selfhood. I.

I remember that inserted-i story. But do I also remember a veiled look, how my lovely mother might have looked away, twirled a lock of her wavy brown hair or stared at her wedding ring when she’d finished telling it? Had she “cleaned her molars” with her tongue, as my sister and brothers called this Mom-tell which signaled, “I’m done! And angry. No more. Stop!”

The serendipitous story (And it really is):  Seven months and two days before the Wall Street Crash of 1929, Munro Horre and Muriel Kershaw applied for a marriage license and earned a tiny notice in The Palm Beach Post. I only discovered my grandfather’s name misspelling because someone researching Kemp family history had apparently clipped a two-paragraph, alphabetized snippet—which had also included Munro and Muriel’s announcement. And because of “a little thing I like to call ‘The Internet,’ ” as my daughter, Hope, says, there that snippet was, waiting for me to find.

Although newspapers misspell names all the time, seeing my grandfather’s name in print felt solid. Felt real. Important. I liked looking at this little scrap of information. So I took a screen shot of this small memento of the grandfather I met once but never knew and sent it to my four daughters and my sister.

Horre. Munro Horre. Who, during my mid-sixties-hippie-style-wedding-in-a-park reception, having just met his other daughter, my Aunt Kay, sidled up to my mother and whispered, “I like you more than her!” Munro Horre.

(Spell-check keeps asking if I actually mean Horror. And maybe I do.)

Thanks to the Internet I located a Cogill family lineage tracing back to the mid-eighteen hundreds, too. I printed it out. I hole-punched it and reverently placed those family names and dates, as dry and as dusty as the begats of the Bible, in a three-ring binder. Thanks to the Internet, I learned that Lillian Cogill Horrie died in 1961 at the horrifyingly young age of fifty-nine. (No wonder she hadn’t wanted to be called “Grandma”!)

Possessing a Cogill family lineage or doing simple arithmetic to learn that Lil had been forty-two when I’d been born didn’t speak to my condition, however. * This “exercise” had not been about right-brain, three-ring binders or pouring over census records. I was not supposed to research my mother’s family’s history.

What had I been gently nudged to do? To spend some time wandering through that metaphorical hallway of shadows and forgotten ancestors; that’s what this exercise had been about. To inhabit that mournful word, forgotten, but supply my own adjectives as well. Like lost. Unacknowledged. Denied. Stricken from the records. Missing. Never named. Gone. To walk past artists’ renderings of my English, Scottish, Norwegian, and German ancestors in that hallway of shadows and forgotten ancestors, to study the more recent portraits and photographs of the New Englanders listed in my three-ring binder and, at last, to discover that where Munro Horre’s portrait ought to be is an empty frame. To stand in front of that empty frame, its brass nameplate correctly spelled, to feel the sadness of his not-there-ness. To connect with my mother’s sadness. And to begin to connect with my mother differently.

This too: to connect my own and my mother’s sense of loss with humanity’s collective loss; our shared grief. All our lost, missing, gone ancestors! All their lost wisdom. All the revelatory stories we will never hear. When an old person dies a library burns down, an African proverb reminds us. What enormous loss we all carry!

My sense of loss was to become enlarged, more painful, more focused, soon after that weirdly synchronistic week. Thanks to Ancestry.com, I learned that an eighth cousin—nine generations back she and I share a common ancestor—is a young Woman of Color. More than likely our common ancestor had been male and White. More than likely our shared DNA means rape, coercion, a violent sexual assault.

Horrified, devastated, I sought guidance from family and friends—and my apprenticeship handbook.

 And found this: The cumulative grief of the world is overwhelming, Weller notes. 1 And he counsels us to literally hold this enormity in our hands, to cup our hands as if holding water in order to offer ourselves a bottom, a limit; to perform this ritual in order to contain all these powerful feelings.

Unaccustomed to ritual yet appreciative of how Weller’s suggestion both acknowledged and honored what I was feeling while offering those feelings a safety net, I held that galactic grief. I embodied it. I honored it by lovingly cupping it in my hands. I grieved my own forgotten ancestors—and humanity’s. I held in the Light my eighth cousin’s forgotten ancestors, brought to this country in chains, whose real names and those of their descendants have been lost, forgotten, erased. I grieved those unnamed men and women and children who’d once walked on this tiny patch of Somerville real estate I call “mine.” I grieved for my fatherless mother.

I held that. For a few terrifying moments, I allowed myself to experience momentous grief. But then my right brain kicked in: You can never adequately cup water in your hands. You can never hold it all. And I spread my fingers wide.

Making Do

Six stamps left. Loathe to step inside our tiny, neighborhood post office and wanting to support the currently-endangered USPS, we’d both ordered stamps, lots of stamps—but because so many others have done the same thing, our orders were slow in coming. What to do meanwhile?

In the time it takes to press a Forever stamp onto a envelope we’d figured it out. Two for bills, the remaining four to mail a time-sensitive IRS form. And the condolence card to a dear friend whose mother has just died? It’ll have to be an email. “Just for now,” as my yoga teacher often says.

And, no, it wasn’t our solution that was remarkable—it’s how automatic, how seamless, how born-to-solve-this supply issue our thinking process has become.

Raised by parents who’d grown up during the Depression, born during World War II and its attendant rationing, victory gardens, et al, from the time we were born we’d known this same kind of shortage; the same kind of “Is This Trip Necessary?” decision-making that families always make during challenging times. (And let’s face it, we’re not living in a Yemen refugee camp are we! Or Chelsea.)

So in the midst of my horror, my rage, my heart-racing fear, my deep, deep sadness, the pain of  knowing how devastated many are while I am so unfairly untouched by this pandemic; in the midst of all I am feeling? Such love! Such gratitude for my mother and father.

 

 

 

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.

It’s Complicated

Back in the day when I taught homeless women in greater Boston shelters, one of my students, young and lovely, suddenly looked up from whatever she was working on* to say, “You know something? It’s not that we don’t know because we’re stupid. It’s that we just don’t know!”

Yup.

Here are some things we know:

No one is all one thing. No one is defined by the worst or best thing they did.

We’ve all been broken/hurt people hurt people.

Sometimes, by design, we don’t know things because we’re not supposed to. For example, what happens behind prison walls.

Often, after we die, because many believe “we don’t speak ill of the dead,” only the best parts of ourselves are shared at our funerals and printed in our obituaries; found in the letters we’ve left behind—and edited**.

Here are some things we don’t know:

Anyone else’s whole story.

Our own.

Here’s what I struggle with:

How to acknowledge and even accept the worst parts of myself.

 

*Three things she might have been working on that morning, as six or seven of us sat together around a battered oak table in a Baptist-church-now-family-shelter Sunday school classroom, weak winter light coming through a stained-glass window:

How to convert a fraction to a decimal to a percent. And back again.

Her journal—in which, very likely, she wrote page after tear-stained page about her childhood sexual abuse.

What “executive,” legislative,” and “judicial” mean (There was always a three-branches-of government question on the GED).

**True Confession: Going through my father’s letters after he died, I tossed several hateful letters into the recycle bin. Because I didn’t want him remembered that way, I destroyed a painful but truthful piece of history.

The Marmee Dilemma

Much is being written or vlogged about Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women.” May I join in?

Seated in perfect seats in the Somerville Theater on a rainy Saturday afternoon, a beloved, grown daughter by my side, I was already prepared to adore this latest iteration of a beloved novel-turned-film classic, released on Christmas Day of 2019. (Remember back then?) And I wasn’t disappointed.

Geraldine Brooks’ 2005 Pulizer-prize winning novel, March much on my mind, which features a  hot-tempered Marmee, I was eager, over dinner, to discuss this latest film version of that fictional mother, played by Laura Dern, with my insightful daughter. Who is painfully aware of both my own struggles with anger —and my mother’s. And so my daughter was moved, as was I, when Dern’s Marmee admits to her daughter Jo, “I’m angry nearly every day of my life.”

My mother used to tell me that one of the things I did that infuriated her was that I gave my father a free pass but was highly critical of her. Her anger. “Double standard,” she’d hiss when she perceived yet another transgression. For years I’d dismiss her hissings as indicative of a far more hurtful truth: my dad was so much more lovable. He deserved a free pass. (Ouch.)

Older now, I see much truth in my mother’s accusation; a Truth inexorably bound up in powerful and cultural expectations of the Good Mother, aka “The Angel of the House.”  (Another highly successful nineteenth-century writer, Charles Dickens, deserves lots of blame here.) An avid reader of Dickens and Louisa May Alcott, as a child and adolescent I both expected my mother to be another Marmee and gave little thought as to why she wasn’t. Marlee’s saintly and unselfish actions? Like when Dern’s character, exhausted, destitute, nevertheless wraps her own scarf into a bundle she hands over to a struggling father who’d lost two sons in the Civil War? That’s what a Good Mother looks like. Yikes.

So, right here, right now, a shout-out to another novelist, Sue Miller, for her 2002 The Good Mother, to Donald Winnicott, who’d coined the phrase, “the good enough mother,” and to feminists everywhere.

Good enough mothers like mine, like me, often confuse anger* with sadness. (Which is a whole other subject.) More to the point: Like Marmee, whose idealistic husband gives away all the family’s money before abandoning his wife and four daughters to go off to war, we, too, are plagued by present-day outrages and injustices and cruelties. So, yeah, we’re endlessly pissed, too. Of course we are! There’s plenty to be angry about. So we lose it. All the time.

And then many us are then overcome by shame. Because we can’t be like Marmee.

Sigh.

*Not talking about rage, although God knows my daughters know and I know what that looks like on the face of a furious mother. That’s terrifying! Rage should be squashed. Controlled. Redirected. Might Marmee’s scarf-giving have been a symbolic handing-over of her rage at War? Might she have been, in that instant, creating her own ritual?

 

 

 

 

Two Toucans Touching

Sometimes I exchange books with a dear friend. Sometimes I’ll notice intriguing titles or descriptives in a box of give-aways on the sidewalk and grab a book or two. Sometimes my grandchildren tell me I should read the YA they’ve just finished. However randomly books show up in my reading queue, it is not random that I’ve just read two post-apocalyptic novels* back to back. Sadly, given the dire time we live in, such subject matter makes perfect sense.

Towards the end of one of those recent reads—no, I won’t say which one—a grandchild asks his grandmother, “Did you ever see an elephant?” That child’s wistful question much on my mind and in my heart, on Black Friday I visited the San Diego Zoo.

I saw elephants. I spent considerable time in the Reptile House—which I’d always avoided. Like a pilgrim I walked from habitat to habitat—as zoos go, San Diego’s is pretty spectacular—giving thanks for all creatures great and small.

And, dear Reader, I was not alone. For there were times, in one of the aviaries, for example, where the (probably endangered) birds from distant countries were so close, so accessible, so magnificent that zoo-visitors were noticeably hushed. Reverent. Grateful. Grieving.

How do we live into such grief and loss? That question, dear Reader, haunts me.

*The Bone Clocks and The Fifth Wave