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

Out Of My Comfort Zone

[Set, “King Lear,” Actors Shakespeare Project, Chelsea Theatre Works, Chelsea, MA]

One of the many reasons my husband and I subscribe to ASP has been that their (brilliant and well-acted) productions are staged in under-used spaces throughout greater Boston. We shlep. We explore. We have pre-play meals in parts of town we’ve never spent time in before.

A couple of weeks after seeing ASP’s excellent production of “King Lear,” do you know what continues to haunt me? Two things. One, this reflection from Doug Lockwood in his “Director’s Notes”: Familial Love is indeed at the core and pain of “King Lear.” Harold Bloom writes that ‘Love is no healer in “King Lear.” Indeed, it starts all the trouble and is a tragedy in itself.” I found myself thinking about this throughout the play. [Note: If you wish to accompany me to a play, please be prepared to get to the theater in plenty of time so I can read these illuminating notes, okay?] And about my own confusing and complex family dynamics. And how love is not the whole story, sometimes, is it!

And the second? How, despite being engrossed in the action on stage, how so much of my attention was drawn to what was happening above the theater: plane after plane after plane taking off from nearby Logan Airport. So loud! So near! So constant!

“People live with this, 24/7,” I thought. “This is what they have to endure in order to be able to afford housing in greater Boston for themselves and their families.”

Puts a whole, new spin on “Oh, brave new world,” doesn’t it?

Just Imagine!

Saturday, at Art Beat, Somerville’s largest cultural festival, I experienced A Moment: The nearby band playing Elvis Costello’s “(What So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding,” an immigrant grandfather, his three grandchildren, and their parents decorated butterfly* pins, the adults as fully engaged in color selection and overall design as the three children. Seated on the opposite side of the table from where this lovely family worked, I thought, “This is how this country can be. This is what it could look like.” And welled up.

Safe. Gentle. Creative. Loving. Welcoming. Collaborative. All-ages. Inclusive. Multi-ethnic. (And, hey! How ’bout that perfect, profound soundtrack!)

Just imagine!

Clutching My [Pearls]

Slowly, slowly, my siblings and I have been disposing of the enormous amount of stuff my parents left behind. That they’d held on to everything they’d ever touched, apparently—when a Tufts undergraduate, my father saved every program from every concert he’d attended at Boston’s Symphony Hall—had been aided and abetted by the General Electric Company which, whenever my father would be transferred, simply shlepped our family’s extensive belongings to the next GE site—like Syracuse, New York, Lynchburg, Virginia, Huntsville, Alabama. Without protest.

Finally, my sibs and I are almost done. A few things remain—including the contents of our parents’ last safe-deposit box. Among the items deemed worthy of such careful storage are my father’s 1970 patent for an electric car (I know!) and a lovely, ivory-bead necklace. A choker, really. And, yes, lovely; its largest, central beads, five of them, delicately carved; other beads a warm brown with age. And so, more than once, I have actually asked myself if I shouldn’t just keep it. Wear it.

How did it come to be in our family’s possession? I am guessing that my great-grandmother’s sister, Isabella Faulkner Ranlett, bought it in China when traveling with her clipper ship captain husband. (She must have been quite the shopper. Lots of Wilds own lots of things she’d brought home. To Billerica, Massachusetts.) So, of course, for 19th century Isabella, this necklace made from an elephant’s tusk had been a guilt-free purchase.

Not so any more, of course. And why, despite how lovely it is, I can’t imagine wearing such a thing.

Well, no, I can. Imagine, that is. Given that last week, a word I would never have imagined being uttered in Congress was spoken aloud: Reparations. Hallelujah. (I know, I know. This is ivory to reparations leap is  quite a stretch. Bear with me.) Does this mean our country is at last ready to address its slavery history? All of it?

If so, how do people like me make clear that we believe it’s about time!? What if “clutching our pearls” or wearing the loot, the plunder our ancestors brought home means: I, the beneficiary of racism, of privilege, of rapaciousness, believe in reparations. Now.

But, meanwhile, I will happily donate this necklace—which actually isn’t worth much—to any cause that can further this reparations initiative. My own money, too.

 

 

Tethered

Last evening after the rain had ended, I was walking along one of Cambridge Common’s asphalt paths when I noticed a mother and her two or three year old son walking ahead of me. Coming upon the park’s broad and luscious open space, its grass glistening from the rain, the little boy darted off the path and ran, just ran, twenty, twenty-five feet away from his mother—who continued to walk along the path. Not actually looking at her, he turned and happily walked through the wet grass as if alone yet parallel to her, eventually veering closer and closer to her until, maybe fifty feet down the path, they rejoined.

I’d been thinking about my dear friend, recently released from prison and dealing with all the terrifying and daunting issues of re-entry,  when gifted with that child’s joyful yet judicious experience of freedom. Because, yes, when that child first took off he’d been so free! And my friend tells me he sometimes experiences freedom, too. And about as briefly.

Because although his cell bars and his manacles have been removed, my friend’s still tethered in ways he both understands and, like that child wordlessly and instinctively tracking his mother’s route, he’s also still bound up in ways he cannot yet name.

 

“How Do I Tell Myself?”

Buoyed by a weekend with precious family, I felt brave enough to read this.

And then I finished my coffee. Put away the laundry. Sent some emails. Not surprisingly, given that I’ve been thinking a lot about storytelling lately, Cody Petterson’s essential question remained, however: “How do I tell myself?”

How do I tell myself this story?

Some instructive, guiding adverbs: Unflinchingly. Honestly. And perhaps most important, Humbly. To keep in mind that whatever I tell myself is simply my own, inadequate version. It is absolutely not The Story. Another version, guided by different adverbs, perhaps, may present itself over time. (Will Kindly join the mix? Would that be remotely possible? TBD)

Key elements: Change is inevitable. And impermanence is, to quote my current fave, Frank Ostaseski, “an essential truth woven into the very fabric of existence. It’s inescapable and perfectly natural. How we meet that truth makes a world of difference.”

Key Question: Do I insert “Nevertheless, . . . ” into my story? Do I unflinchingly list all the ways we’re doomed—but then employ that wonderful literary device referenced by Richard Powers in a recent interview?

Question: What moves you most in a work of literature?

Powers: The bending of certainty, the surrender of ironclad temperament and the surprise capacity of otherwise completely predictable human beings to forgive each other and counter the unforgiving world with a “Nevertheless.”

A couple of possible, key word neverthelesses: Indigenous wisdom. Women. Trees. Botanists. (Hmm. I think I just inadvertently googled Robin Wall Kimmerer!)

Ending: I won’t live long enough to see how this story ends. So I’m left with only that old, old way to conclude: ” . . . and the moral is:”

And that’s easy. Mourn. Now. Be grateful. Now. Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly with my God. Now. Shower the people I love with love. Now.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Room With A View

Rockwood Hall State Park, Sleepy Hollow, NY. (The Tappan Zee Bridge in the background.)

Thursday, a warm and sunny post-snowstorm day, while visiting my daughter and her family in Tarrytown, New York, I’d asked her if we could maybe take a walk along the Hudson. Her  eyes lit up: “Oh, yes,” she said, clearly excited to share yet another feature of her still-newish community (She and her family had moved to Tarrytown about a year and a half ago), “we can definitely arrange that.”

Ever since the UN report re climate change and how little time we have left, I am devouring books like The Overstory and Braiding Sweetgrass. My prayer life has expanded to include prayers, gratitude for all living things—especially trees. As much as I can, given winter weather and my urban surroundings, I’m walking through this precious, natural world as if both loving all I see and already mourning its loss. So I was psyched!

Land along the Hudson being prime real estate, I’d imagined our riverside walk would be maybe a mile or so long, on a wood-chip path through some overgrown vegetation, and end at some high-end development. So was astonished to find myself on the sculpted grounds of the Rockwood Hall State Park, perched above the Hudson, with magnificent views and wonderful, paved paths to explore but also, the beautifully designed landscape of a Frederick Law Olmsted-designed park. (It was my daughter’s father who’d first taught me how to recognize Olmsted’s eye-catching tree placement. On the campus of Vassar College. “See how your attention moves from this tree to that one and then to over there?” he’d coached. Yes. I did. Still do.)

But, wait! What’s the story behind all this magnificence? Who’d preserved these eighty-eight acres? Who’d made possible all this room with a view? Who’d hired Olmsted? The answer is: William Rockefeller. The brother of John D. Rockefeller and co-owner of Standard Oil Company. (I can still remember how brilliant I’d considered myself at eight or ten when I’d figured out that Esso, as in the name of the gas station—now known as Exxon, of course—was actually  S. O. As in Standard Oil.) He’d built Rockwood Hall; its foundations still stand although the mansion is gone. And, eventually, his vast estate—less than half of it anyway—became a state park.

Oh the irony. That our magnificent view, those perfectly-placed oaks and firs and sugar maples and sycamores, our excitement to watch soaring red-tailed hawks and a bald eagle, that glorious walk could have only happened because of the enormous wealth derived from a fossil fuel! A commodity which, like coal and natural gas, will make this planet unlivable for many, many species unless something truly miraculous happens.

Egad.

 

 

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!

Muscle Memory

[Patsy Cline’s salt and pepper collection, Patsy Cline Museum, Nashville, Tennessee]

A wonderful surprise happened in 2018: I made two new, wonderful friends, both in their seventies, too. Over tea last week with one, a fellow peace activist and feminist, we discovered that although we’d grown up in very different parts of the country, our families’ respective religions differed, and she’d grown up with more siblings than I, in one respect, her parents and mine were exactly the same. She and I, who’d both grown up in the fifties and early sixties, had both taken piano lessons. And ballroom dancing!

We snickered. And agreed that learning how to waltz or foxtrot was not something young people ascribed to anymore. She quoted that famous line: “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did—only backwards and in high heels.” And I shared a story from my thirties, when my then-husband and I—probably chemically enhanced, shall we say?—had crashed a big, fancy, neighborhood party one summer night, a party held in a tent and with a live band. Boldly I’d invited a neighbor I really, really admired to dance with me. Kind of shy, not a dancer, he’d hesitated: “Don’t worry, darlin’,” I’d assured him. “I’ll make you look good.” And I did. Because from my ballroom-dance classes, I knew how to balance my weight on the balls of my feet; how to lightly rest my left hand on my partner’s shoulder in order to sense whatever direction he would go, and in a split-second, feet poised to respond, to accommodate that movement—wherever!

What a dated, horrifying story! But it begs me to wonder: Do I still do that? Do I still, in ways I don’t even realize because it’s just what I was trained to do, do I still wait, poised to move in response to someone else? Do I accommodate? Dedicate myself to making someone else look good?

Hmmm.