Say It! Name It!

Tanner Fountain, Harvard University, July, 2017

 

One evening last week, after a full day of swimming and story-telling in the hammock—just she and I—and playing with her cousins, my granddaughter crawled into my lap.

“Show me a video,” she asked.”Please?” (Here’s one we both love.)

I thought a bit, Dear Reader, for, truth be told, as a Facebook/don’t own a TV kinda grandma, I watch a fair amount of videos! And then I showed her this one.  “Blue jeans!” She loved it.

Because her parents were apparently content to let her keep watching and Youtube being Youtube, she and I watched other such videos, conveniently grouped and accessible: the first time a mother hears her son’s voice. The first time a blind child sees his mother’s face. The first time . . . And in every single one, tears. Copious tears. “It just wells up, doesn’t it,” notes a Brit technician to a weeping young woman who has just experienced sound for the first time.

Exactly.

How Sweet the Sound

[Jesse in the Groove, Honk!, Somerville, MA 2016]

When you’ve traveled around the sun as many times as I have, and been blessed, as have I, to know a host of lovely people, you’ll want to send off a LOT of Season’s Greetings* cards, right? I do. And, because I am human and, this season, easily overwhelmed, by Hour Three of writing and addressing cards on Saturday, I hit the wall. Only up to the H’s in my address book, I questioned my sanity; I doubted that a pretty card touting “happiness”—ordered  in sunnier, cheerier, pre-election August—was even the right thing to mail!

But, you know, Grace happens. Sometimes. Sometimes we are given, willy nilly, an opening: Suddenly I saw my-way-too-facile-cards and the United State Postal Service and the water warriors of Standing Rock and Sanctuary Cities and activist lawyers and the Muslim owners of a restaurant in London that invited the homeless and the lonely to come eat for free on Christmas Day and good people everywhere; millions and millions of people profoundly and intrinsically and powerfully connected together. What a vision! What an opening! I saw how perhaps-silly-but heartfelt acts of reaching out, connecting with those we love, can be a simple yet significant act of solidarity, reassurance, kindness; support. Yes!

But, wait, there’s more. I heard it. That ginormous web. Just for an instant. I heard its hum. Like the sound I remember from my teaching days when my writing students silently, happily settled into their individual work.

Yes. I heard that sweet “Mmmmm.” I’ll end by offering another sweet sound:

“The secret of the mountain is that the mountains simply exist, as I do myself: the mountains exist simply, which I do not. The mountains have no “meaning,” they are meaning; the mountains are. The sun is round. I ring with life, and the mountains ring, and when I can hear it, there is a ringing that we share. I understand all this, not in my mind but in my heart, knowing how meaningless it is to try to capture what cannot be expressed, knowing that mere words will remain when I read it all again, another day.”
― Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard

*Although I celebrate Christmas, many people do not. I respect that. It’s that simple. End of discussion.

Stronger Together

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[Sign outside a Louisville, KY church; June, 2016]

Like you, maybe, I’ve somehow been inducted into the 1.3 million-member Pantsuit Nation on Facebook.  Numbed, worn out by this long and painful and ugly election, I’d been unwilling to read what contributors had to say. Until this one grabbed my attention:

November 6 at 6:44pm
Took my brother with special needs to vote earlier today. When he was done I asked him why did he vote for Hillary? He said because Trump reminds him of guys at his HS that used to call him names and pick on him, and Hillary reminds him of his favorite teacher that protected him. I told him his story was inspiring if could share it with people and he said YES.

Wow.

You know, when I saw the video of Donald Trump ridiculing a New York Times reporter’s disability, my horror went so deep it was impossible to imagine that my distress could be shared. That’s what deep, deep pain does, I think. It’s exquisitely and powerfully personal. It isolates as it overwhelms. Our horror is strictly ours.

But as countless Pantsuit Nation’s Muslims and survivors of sexual abuse and immigrants and men and women wearing “Don’t Dis My Ability” tee shirts are making clear, our pain and horror at all the gut-wrenching things Donald Trump has done and said is shared. Magnified. Sanctified. And we are stronger together.

Thanks, Facebook.

 

Listening in Tongues (2)

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[A Black Shoe, a Lei, Other Detritus, AND a Fork in the Road]

“No one’s interested in anyone else’s dreams.”  That quote—or something like it—and usually attributed to “The Philadelphia Story” (Well, it might have been that 1940 movie but . . . ) effectively shut down my siblings and me. For while my parents were always fuzzy when it came to both exact quote and attribution, their distain for their children’s unconscious creations was always crystal clear. We kept our dream-lives to ourselves.

So I offer a recent dream and its crystal-clear “listening in tongues” Aha with great humility (and trepidation):

I had this dream the night before I was to have “care of meeting,” i.e.  to be the person who holds/prays for a meeting for worship. (Rarely, but still a part of the job description, having care of meeting can also mean being the person to intervene should someone offer a message that does not reflect Quaker values.) And then there’s ending the meeting when it’s both close to an hour but also has allowed time for quiet reflection at the end of worship. And inviting newcomers to introduce themselves. And encouraging the numerous people who want to make an announcement to be brief. And . . .

So, not surprisingly, my dream began when numerous members of my extended family, all with pressing concerns and questions and stories they wanted to share, simultaneously approached me! “Mom! Listen to me!” “What should I do about . . . ?” “Patricia! I really think you should. . . ” “Mom! You’ve got to . . . ! Right now!”

But as dreams often do, this nightmare suddenly morphed when, as my youngest daughter demanded an an immediate answer—about where a bicycle should be stored—her adult face transformed into a child’s. My child. My precious daughter. Wordlessly, my overwhelmedness transformed to love.

Quakers talk about ‘answering that of God in everyone.” Post that dream,  I’m trying a silent next step: And look into everyone’s eyes to seek out and to acknowledge the precious child within.

First Responder

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[Subway Eldering on the Red Line; June, 2016]

This past weekend on retreat in New Hampshire I swam, I picked blueberries, I read—and kept my SmartPhone off. Guess what happened? Unplugged from the wider world was just fine. Delicious. But not being accessible should something happen to My Loved One—I am her health care proxy—was not.

No crisis. She’s fine; I was not needed. My anxiety was around both my failure to have arranged a back-up while out of town (Ooops) but, also, my realization of how central my sense of responsibility for my Loved One has become. (Oh!)

Ironically, this realization came on a weekend spent acknowledging my overweening* sense of responsibility. (I know !?)  A sweltering weekend back home, every time I cooled myself off in the velvet-feeling lake or felt refreshed by a gentle breeze a part of me scolded: I have no right to enjoy this! I should be organizing around climate action. As if I were solely responsible for fighting global warming! Overweening, much? Absolutely.

But as I have noted before, being with Loved One and accompanying her in any small way I can during her final journey is sacred work. Holy. So I want to Be There in the fullest sense of those simple words.

 

[I willI be away next week; please check out my next post on August 2nd]

  • Overweening: ” Arrogant. Overbearing. Immoderate.”

Sacred

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[Cave Hill Cemetery. Louisville, KY]

My Loved One, ninety-three and struggling with dementia, wanted to talk about her memorial service. Again. So I described a scenario she’d stipulated countless times before. Since what I described were her own wishes repeated back to her, she listened, she smiled; she approved. But then, suddenly, her face fell: “Where will I be?” she wondered.

As you may know, correcting someone with dementia is almost never the best approach. But what to say? Especially since My Loved One does not believe in the Hereafter? I prayed for Divine Assistance.

And something came to me, something based on the fact that she and I had also talked, many times, about how she can still feel her husband’s presence—although he died is 2010.

“Hovering,” I was led to say. “That’s where you’ll be. And you’ll be whispering in my ear.”

She smiled again.

I’ve been having sacred conversations with my Loved One.

 

 

Rewriting the Past

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[ a (Defiled) “This Changes Everything” poster, Somerville Ave, 2016]

Years ago at an anti-war demonstration—Vietnam, this time—poet Allen Ginsburg made a startling announcement from the podium: “If the United States government can illegally declare this war,” he shouted, ” I can declare that it’s over! Yes! I declare that this illegal, horrible war is over! Bring the troops home! Peace at last!”  And the crowd cheered and wept and hugged and released balloons (it was the 60s; we brought balloons to demonstrations back then.)

I cheered and wept and hugged, too. And for four or five seconds I celebrated Ginsburg’s fantasy. I believed it. More important, that brilliant poet had given me, had offered all of us a brief, delicious taste of What Might Be. Could Be. He’d allowed us to experience how it felt, ever so briefly, to live in a country not at war. Imbedded in that contrived moment was an incentive: “Your heart lifted, sang just now? And you were filled with hope? Nice, right? Then keep on keepin’ on. Keep protesting.” So we did.

Sometimes, these days, as my Loved One remembers less and less and my actual childhood is being rewritten to resemble a fairy tale: “. . . and they all lived happily ever after,” I don’t correct her.  Just as I don’t correct her when she confuses times or names or other pesky facts. I don’t remind her that, actually, our relationship was “fraught,” as my father would say. No, instead, like that balloon-releasing moment of unadulterated joy, I briefly savor a childhood that never happened but is filled with love—the same love I now see in my Loved One’s eyes. And, like Ginsburg’s “peace,” possible.

(I guess it’s true: it’s never too late to have a happy childhood.)

Family Business/Family Secrets

chinese opium resized

[1800’s Chinese rice-paper painting of a “cloud couch” (used for smoking opium) in a Chinese home : a Wild family heirloom.]

Saturday, I drove to Bristol, Rhode Island to spend some precious, one-to-one time with my twenty-year-old nephew, a student at Roger Williams University. My first time there, he showed me around the campus; touring the glitzy Global Heritage Hall, he referred to Bristol’s slaving trade history—in the way only a principled young man can bring up such a charged subject: with pain, horror, and outrage behind his widened eyes. Global heritage, indeed!

And I immediately remembered “Traces of the Trade: A Story of The Deep North,” an excellent documentary I’d seen years ago re the DeWolf family and its incredibly lucrative slave-trading “family business,” a film so powerful and eye-opening that my own horror—and realization that many New England families were very much complicit in this national shame—is still with me.

What hadn’t stayed with me was the name of the DeWolfs’ hometown. So while driving through the charming and well-appointed seaside village of Bristol before arriving at the Roger Williams campus, I had not thought: this wealth is the result of slavery! But going back into town for lunch, I saw that waterfront resort through informed eyes.

Which begs the question: what about my own New England family? Were Wilds (and Horries and Coghills and Miricks  and Faulkners and . . .) complicit? And it seems to me that the Truthful/spiritual answer is: of course! In some way, large or small, all 18th and 19th century white families in New England were complicit, tainted; all had benefitted by slavery in some way. Family business, family secrets, indeed!

A Prayer: May that acknowledgement light my way.

A final note: That accompanying rice painting is one of a set of three hand-painted Chinese scenes that had been given to me by my Aunt Amy ( Prescott Wild Zlotnick) in 1980; they’ve hung on a hallway wall for years and years. But one day, prompted by that opium pipe and “Traces of the Trade,” I became curious: did my family have another, more explicit dark secret? Did we have anything to do with the opium trade? The rice paintings had been brought back from China by Isabella Faulkner Ranlett, the wife of a clipper ship captain, Charles A. Ranlett, Jr. Belle, who died in China, had been the sister of my great grandmother, Amy Faulkner Wild. Had Belle’s husband’s clipper ship, The Surprise,* delivered opium? Had Belle known?

Answer: It seems not for 2 reasons: a) the dates when that ship sailed the China seas and the (again, incredibly lucrative) period when the British and Americans sold opium to the Chinese do not align [see Jay Dolin’s excellent When America First Met China for an excellent account) and b) probably not since, unlike other New England families of that era, like the Delanos and the Forbes and the Cabots, my family isn’t that rich!

  • This link, re the Delano family aboard The Surprise, briefly and covertly acknowledges the source of their wealth!

 

 

 

 

“All Bend in One Wind” (Wendell Berry)

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[Norway, October, 2015]

On my way to Friends Meeting at Cambridge Sunday morning, my phone rang. It was my brother; his best friend—someone I barely knew—had died the night before. So in silent worship I held my brother and his friend and his friend’s family “in the light,” as Quakers say. Which, for me, means I waited to hear what that small still voice* might teach me about this sad news.

A lot, it turned out. I found myself remembering Harriet Lerner’s Dance of Anger, for example, a wonderful book I haven’t consciously thought about in years. Lerner pointed out how exquisitely families organize, balance themselves. Recalling her wisdom prompted me to be open to the very real possibility that this tragic loss for my brother will impact the rest of our family. And to spend some time thinking how this wind of death and loss and grieving might bend all of us; what that might look like. And how I might be a Be There (as in that supreme compliment: “He/she was always there for me.”) sister.

Something else came to me in that pregnant silence: How in 1985, when I’d read Dance of Anger, how little I’d understood the concept of interconnectedness. (Safe to say I probably didn’t get it AT ALL!) And how, thirty-one years later, I do. I believe. Without ceasing.

Oh, yeah.

 

* Sometimes called The Inner Teacher

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.

Water: The New Oil?

[Fresh Pond, Cambridge, MA]
Sunday afternoon as my Loved One napped, I took a delicious post-snowstorm walk around Fresh Pond. (Loved One’s long term care facility sits on the Fresh Pond Reservation, 162 acres of open space and nature trails protecting the 155 acre, fenced-in, Fresh Pond Reservoir, the City of Cambridge’s water supply.)

Until Sunday, my relationship with Fresh Pond had been mixed: YesI’d always relished joining the parade of dog walkers and bicyclists and strolling couples and joggers circling the pond. (It’s about a 2 mile walk). In fact, walking around Fresh Pond on New Year’s Day has become a hallowed tradition in my life, a contemplative (and usually freezing) way to begin a new year. Yet, inevitably, as a Somerville resident, I have also resented that in order to enjoy this urban treasure, I have to drive to Cambridge! Where, as a non-resident. I might easily get a parking ticket.

No more. My car now neatly parked in Loved One’s facility’s parking lot, Fresh Pond is mine!

So, on Sunday, instead of muttering “Why can’t Somerville have acres and acres of unobstructed space—maybe beside the Mystic River? Nature trails and woods and community gardens as far as the eye can see? Huh? Huh?”* or stressing about a possible parking ticket, I was able to appreciate where I actually was. To be present. To grok.**

So, of course, walking past Cambridge’s water supply, I thought of Flint, Michigan. And how black lives didn’t matter when it came to making viable, decent decisions regarding that struggling city’s water supply. How inexpressively outrageous! And how, more and more, we’re seeing water as A Thing. A commodity as precious as oil. (and, like oil, a liquid to spill blood over.)

So as I walked listening to the pond’s gentle lap lap with newfound gratitude, I was also sobered by a water-scarce future suddenly more clear and more fraught than it’s ever been.

“Is Clean Water The New Oil? “What am I called to do?

 

*So many things to love about my community but its long-term commitment to open space is not one of one.

** A verb meaning to really, really get it and used in that 60s classic, Stranger in a Strange Land—in which for the protagonist, a human raised on Mars, “sharing water” was a Huge Deal.

“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.