View From El Yunque National Forest; March 13, 2019
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain
On our way to El Yunque National Forest, Narayan De Jesus Reyes, our excellent tour guide and driver, made a stab at this quote. Our small white bus weaving in and out of Puerto Rican traffic and over the island’s not-great roads, Narayan got Twain’s remarks pretty much right— although he was a little shaky on attribution. (Which happens a lot with Mark Twain quotes, right?)
So many ironies, so many paradoxes, so much to consider and to hold:
That so often, it is only the privileged who can afford to travel!
That, seemingly, travel = selfies these days, i.e. an opportunity, for example, to pose in front of a rainforest waterfall, post your ecstatic face on social media, then climb back onto a tour bus.
That there were so many tour buses! As we moved from site to site—most of the park’s trails are still inaccessible so we mostly stopped at look-out areas—Narayan constantly struggled to find a place to park. Every day, two or three humungous cruise ships visit San Juan; every day those cruise folks book tour buses bound for El Yunque.
These other tour buses proved a personal struggle. I resented all those fossil-fuel-powered vehicles—like the one I rode on; like the plane I flew on—and was grateful that this still-recovering-from Hurricane Maria paradise might benefit from all those tourists’ dollars. (That our mainland money might actually benefit Puerto Rico was a major reason why my husband and I had chosen to go there.)
That, according to Narayan, a good third of the rainforest’s trees had been destroyed by yet another climate-change-era superstorm. And, as one of the park’s rangers later told us, its famous, endangered parrots were seriously impacted by such devastation and now seem to have disappeared. The kicker? I only know this because I can afford to take a guided tour to this holy place in a fossil-fuel-spewing bus!
About that holy place: For our last stop, Narayan had arranged for us to bathe in a delightful swimming hole surrounded by rich, tropical foliage and fed by a rainforest-generated river. Think of it! As I sat on a volcanic rock at the bottom of a small, gurgling waterfall in bright sunshine listening to birdsong and the soft, gentle murmur of three young women nearby, I felt wholly blessed. Annointed. Utterly grateful. “My people believe El Yunque takes care of us,” Kenia, who served me breakfast the next day, explained. “That’s what you were feeling.”
Yesterday was disquieting. Morning snow squalls were quickly followed by heavy winds, so strong the house shook and windows rattled. Some in greater Boston lost power, some lost chimneys; many trash cans and recycle bins ended up in neighbors’ yards or in the street. The light-rail service known as the Green Line was disrupted because of downed trees.
I was disquieted, again disturbed by fears around not doing enough/should I do more/what is God asking me? And in this uneasy, soul-searching time, found myself, um, sorting earrings? Yup. I don’t want to brag but I even developed a new system for dealing with the remaining earring of a beloved but now one-missing pair. (I know, I know. Pretty impressive, huh.)
Let me elucidate: The little dish I throw my earrings and bracelets into at bedtime was full of all kinds of stuff and so, of course, in the midst of another spiritual crisis, I had to fix that. By dumping everything that had been in that little dish onto my bureau top. After dealing with the fore-mentioned singletons and putting earrings I seldom wear in my jewelry box and the loose change in my coin purse, the top of my bureau was pretty much bare. Except for a tiny, arrowhead-shaped piece of dark grey metal: a “widow’s mite.” (Or so it was touted on the piece of cardboard it was once attached to and, no, I have no idea how I got it.)
An answer! Right there on my bureau. About proportionality. (And Biblical scholars are free to argue about my take-away from this touching story from Luke.) Jesus points out that rich people contribute money generously because they can. But the poor widow’s puny offering of almost-worthless coins (to God) represents her “her livelihood.” Or, as I prefer to frame it, her modest contribution represents her enormous, generous, loving spirit.
Could I be doing more? Of course. Is what I am now doing “fixing” systemic racism or climate change or whatever else ails this broken world? Of course not. Is what I am doing done in a spirit of joy, generosity, love? Yes. Is it proportional; does it represent all I am asked to do?
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.”
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.
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, maybe. We 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.
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.
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?
Recently my heroine, Elizabeth Warren, declared that we would “use our pain to make power.”
Transformation happens. And change is incremental. Week 1, post Kavanaugh’s confirmation, may I share my first, baby step towards empowerment?
Here’s something I’m beginning to understand: Cruelty is a blunt, crude tool being used to demoralize and weaken those of us who believe that Love is Love is Love, or that Black Lives Matter, or The Golden Rule, or When In Doubt, Choose Kindness, or that climate change is real and, ohmygod, we don’t have much time!
I have discovered this week that when I recognize this fundamental, cruelly- brilliant strategy when, for example, learning more about the proposed changes to “Public Charge,” or when reading despicable tweets or online comments, my experience feels different! Feels as though I’ve laid down my self-righteousness and strapped on armor. Feels as if I can let those hateful, nasty words go—or, to put it another way, feels as though I don’t get caught up in mentally arguing about these hateful words, one by one, but see them for what they are. A strategy.
Something Else (and still a little foggy): I think Cruelty is unsustainable. I think its practitioners shrink as they wield their blunt, crude tool. They get small. And, like the public outrage when the truth of caged children became known, cruelty is not invincible.
Something Else I AM Sure Of: Love is love is love. And renewable. Sustainable. Invincible.
But, then,The prologue to John says much the same thing, doesn’t it! The Light shines on in the dark, and the darkness has never mastered it.
Circling, circling Nick Cave’s soundsuits, I marveled how this African-American artist had transformed his rage, his fears, his searing pain into fabric and sequins, into cast-asides made sculpture, into crocheted body suits; into beauty. Horrified by Rodney King’s brutal assault by Los Angeles police in 1991, Cave created armor, costumes, disguises, performance pieces, each wearable sculpture inviting us to try on what it means for a man of color to walk down an American sidewalk. Back home, still awed by what I’d seen in Nashville, I considered Cave’s pain-to-transcendence process. How does such breathtaking transformation happen? On meditative walks on the icy, snowy sidewalks of Somerville and Cambridge (MA), at meeting for worship, and noodling in my journal, I’ve wondered what I, a Quaker writer, might learn about my own process by reflecting on Cave’s astonishing work?
His rage as impetus? This genesis I understand. Often my writing projects have originated from the white-hot anger felt during meeting for worship! Held, sustained in deep, collective silence, I have dared to truly examine what lies heavy on my heart. When, for example, my homeless students, women I’d taught in greater Boston family shelters, shared with me their stories of childhood sexual abuse, I brought my horror and fury into worship. What am I asked to do? I prayed. Over many months, my novel, Swimming In It, was born. Yes, I know how negative emotions can inspire!
But those soundsuits’ not-to-be-ignored sequins, their thousands of hand-sewn buttons, those bolts of gaudy fabric and tin instruments! Surely such voluminous, undeniable stuff could teach me something about transformation? Cave, himself, answered my question during an April, 2013, interview with Artspace.com’s editor-in-chief, Andrew Goldstein:
“So the first soundsuit was constructed entirely out of twigs. I was making a sculpture first—I didn’t even think I could physically put this on—but once it was developed I physically put it on and moved around in it, and it made sound. And when I made that sound, it moved me into a role of protest. In order to be heard you have to speak louder. So that was something that was of interest to me, and it kept unfolding and really becoming much more versatile in that sense, and it made me think more, again, about my role and civic responsibility as an artist.”
In my ears, Cave’s ownership of his artistic agency is a variation of What am I asked to do? But that serendipitous moment when those twigs asserted their twigginess and Cave’s process shifted? This unfolding intrigues me— and invites me to look at my own “twigs.”
What are my twigs? Not words or my thumb-worn thesaurus, certainly, not pen to paper nor a blank computer screen; these are implements, tools like Cave’s needle and thread. What asserts its essence, its Truth, its possibility to me? Against what do my inchoate thoughts interact with, bump up against? What shapes my ideas? What is mutable—yet instructive?
It’s November 23, 1960; Opening Night of my first high school play: For three months the (all-white) cast of that musty favorite, “Seventeen,” has rehearsed in our Lynchburg, Virginia high school’s chilly, cavernous auditorium, its fifteen-hundred seats empty save Miss Virginia Wiley, doyenne of E.C. Glass’s English Department and our fierce director, seated in the middle seat of the third row. Now, nervously waiting backstage, I hear muffled—and welcomed—laughter from many rows, I hear rustling, coughing; crossing stage right, the auditorium’s warmth so startles me I almost trip. So balmy, so charged, so pulsing, so expectant has the auditorium air become, I long to stare past the footlights to catch a glimpse of that multi-headed, breathing organism out there. Instead I say my first line.
It’s September, 1966: After we graduated in June, my college roommate joined the Peace Corps; I’m teaching fourth grade in Brooklyn. I send her a letter complaining about the city’s pollution, a major topic among my new, Big Apple friends, Park Slope neighbors, P. S. 120 colleagues. “Air?” she writes back from El Salvador. “You’re writing about air?”
It’s 2005: I’m writing a book about the two African-American students who desegregated E.C. Glass High School in 1962 and, today, every word is a struggle. You’re getting cobwebs!” I inwardly hear my mother shout from the kitchen, just like she did when I was eight and made the same stupid mistake over and over while practicing the piano. “Go outside and get some fresh air!” I’ve spent so long inhabiting Lynchburg’s civil rights history today that, walking along Somerville Avenue, when a gritty March wind stings my face, I need to remind myself of where I am. What year this is. And why I was led to write this book. Exposed to traffic-fetid air, my inchoate ideas shift. And way opens.
It’s January 21, 2017 and everyone I know is at a Women’s March somewhere. Not me. I’m in a recording studio in Union Square’s Somerville Media Center, headphones on, podcasts’ script in hand. My script. I wrote these words. I honed them for years, since 1999, draft after draft. And now, sometimes tentatively, with a southern accent, as if a thirty-five-year old Lynchburg-born woman only just now figuring it out, sometimes rasping and growling and dropping my Rs as if a working-class old man from Somerville, sometimes myself, the author, I speak my words into a microphone, Stuart, my sound engineer, at my side. And although I can imagine Miss Virginia Wiley’s multiple charm bracelets jangling as she furiously scribbles a note lambasting my performance, nevertheless, I persist. I love emergent Jewell, I love crippled Rocco, I love their love story, an agape love story. I love this self-made opportunity to praise Unconditional Love—on a website! I’m loving these in-the-moment openings as I revise, improve my script as I say my lines. My love comes through in my voice; I hear it in my headphones. When, three years before, I’d first conceived of creating WellingUp.net to share my Quaker-based novel, Welling Up online, podcasts had seemed another techie bell or whistle at my disposal. Now, surrounded by recording equipment, hearing what’s coming through my voice, I acknowledge and celebrate my airtime. For I remember, pre-television, the four, five-year-old me, alone, transported, legs-crossed seated on the rug in front of my family’s radio console as I listened—and trusted—Don McNeill’s gentle, flat, Midwestern voice. Which, at the speed of light, beamed from downtown Chicago to our fusty, upstate New York living room every morning from nine to ten. “Each in his own words, each in his own way, for a world united in peace, bow your heads and pray,” he’d suggest every morning. And I did.
It’s First Day. Perhaps there’s a fireplace fire; a heavy log shifts, thuds. Perhaps a restless branch pops. Perhaps there’s been another school massacre; another horror each of us carried with us into Friends Meeting at Cambridge’s spacious meetinghouse this morning. Whatever has happened, it is here. It is present. We hundred or so worshippers swim in it. Our shoulders droop under its collective weight. I listen to my breathing. My heart races. What am I asked to do? Should I stand to name our shared outrage? For I have experienced—and written about—how such naming can sometimes be a balm. What am I asked to do? Should I break the silence? As if wetting my index finger and lifting it into the wind, I test the air. It is agitated, hornets-nest stirred up. You can’t fix this, always-responsible-oldest-sister, I counsel myself. And remain seated.
It’s First Day. Slowly, an older woman rises to speak: “It seems to me,” she begins, “that meeting for worship is like a radio? When we come into worship, when we sit quietly and wait, it’s like we’re turning the radio on. We’re saying we’re ready to listen. To what is all around us.” In us, too, I silently amend.
Inspired, literally, by this exploration of Cave’s pain-to-transformation process, an important question still remains: what of Beauty? Nick Cave’s glorious process began in sorrow and ends in glorious, wondrous, transcendent beauty. What is my writerly final destination? And am reminded of a poem quoted at meeting for worship years ago and, apparently, still guiding me: The Poet Speaks of Praising by Rainer Maria Rilke
Oh speak, poet, what do you do? I praise.
But the monstrosities and the murderous days, how do you endure them, how do you take them? I praise.
But the anonymous, the nameless grays, how, poet, do you still invoke them? I praise.
What right have you, in all displays, in very mask, to be genuine? I praise.
And that the stillness and the turbulent sprays know you like star and storm? because I praise.
(from Rilke on Love and Other Difficulties, ed. and trans. by John J. L. Mood, Norton, 1975)
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.
As I write this, the day after another September 11th anniversary, a truly terrifying hurricane inexorably approaches the Carolinas. And like those painful days following the Twin Towers attack had felt, this morning I sense a collective pause as millions of us hold our breath. We wait. And, yes, as hackneyed and ill-used as that phrase has become, we pray.
At some point in my life, I was made aware that all over the world were people, many of them women, who spent their lives in constant prayer. Yes. Always. What a joy to discover this!
This past summer I had the good fortune to meet one, Sister Virginia, who lives—and prays—in a convent in France, and is the (biological) sister of my husband’s ex-wife. For me, meeting this aging, slight nun, who radiated Love, who hugged me when introduced as if we were old, close friends, was like meeting a rock star!
Saturday, exploring the Italian section of Gloucester (MA), my husband and I discovered its magnificently decorated Mother of Grace Club. The club, I later learned from Google, had begun during World War II by Gloucester mothers who prayed for their sons serving in the military to return. And they did. (I also learned that Saturday was The Blessed Mother’s birthday. Which explains those amazing decorations!)
But walking past before googling about it, I’d already intuited what that club was about. Sitting on a folding chair just inside its garlanded, ruffled, opened doorway sat an older woman. Praying. And having sat, alone, in my completely empty meetinghouse when, during the week after September 11th, my Quaker meeting has opened its space to anyone who wished to come—although nobody came while I was there—there was something about her body language that spoke to me. Reminded me what it had felt like to pray without ceasing. To be like Sister Virginia and her spiritual sisters and brothers all over the world. To truly and whole-heartedly embrace the power of prayer.
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?
This morning I was having a wonderful, searching conversation with a dear friend when I heard myself begin a sentence with, “I feel as though . . . ” and used that cautious, questioning tone I hear a lot from Millennials. (Even now as I write this I am strongly tempted to add a question mark to that sentence?)
What a gift! To be able to efficiently and clearly state: “Okay. I am now moving this conversation into how I feel. And that’s pretty confusing, right? But it’s feeling as though [See what I did just then?] I want to speculatively make a statement about non-factual, totally subjective, more-than-likely-inaccurate or, at the very least, clumsy stuff. Here goes:”
This shorthand announcement, by the way, is pretty much the opposite of another introductory phrase used by young people: “I want to say . . . ” Sentences begun this way are also spoken tentatively, with the speaker sometimes looking upward as if to trying to remember something, but without the question inflection? And these sentences usually end with a fact. A number. A statistic. A clarifying adjective. But, like “I feel as though,” the speaker is giving their listener a useful heads-up, in this case basically saying, “I may very well have no idea what I’m talking about. Don’t go posting this on Facebook for all the world to attack you for. This could not be true.”
Seems as though—yes, another variation—in the polarized, divided, contentious time we’re living in, to hone our ability to engage in conversations, especially when speaking with those with whom we disagree, with caution, with humility, with, if we’ve really got it going on, Love, is something worth working on?