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]

“Intensified Sky”

[Bird at the edge of the Grand Canyon}

I am currently going through an intense passage; Rilke’s poem speaks to me:

Ah, not to be cut off

Ah, not to be cut off,
not through the slightest partition
shut out from the law of the stars.
The inner—what is it?
if not intensified sky,
hurled through with birds and deep
with the winds of homecoming.

— Rainer Maria Rilke

 

“Love It All”

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

Exactly. Here’s what I am (barely functionally) struggling with: For those of us who wish to honor Lent, how can we both acknowledge this season of impending death and celebrate its fecundity, its sweetness, its abundance? How do we better celebrate Lent’s spring-ness? What ritual could better embrace this Lenten paradox? Because giving up chocolate for forty days doesn’t cut it for me any more. Nor had receiving pussy willows on Palm Sunday when I went to a Unitarian Sunday school. Nope.

In her remarkable memoir, Lost & Found: A Memoir,
Kathryn Schulz struggles with this, too. Still missing her beloved father, she marries the love of her life. And throughout her remarkable, seamless wedding day (well, okay, there had been a tornado warning), she was exquisitely aware of how she was experiencing both incredible grief and unadulterated joy. (Schulz has lots to say about and/&) 

How do we hold two disparate ideas—and then get up the next morning to do it all over again? An answer came to me recently walking past a neighborhood grocery store which did not survive the shutdown. While grieving its loss, a “small, still voice” counseled: “Love it all.”

Sounds like a plan.

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!

 

 

 

Creation Story 2.0

[Fresh water tank, Great Lakes Aquarium, Duluth, MN, July, 2021]

On a recent visit to Duluth and unable to visit the delightful Tweed Museum of Art, shut down for renovations, I discovered Duluth’s American Indian Community Housing Organization (AICHO). Closed because of COVID, AICHO’s website offered what I was hungry to see: an online gallery of art created by Indigenous people of the Great Lakes. (At a previous visit, I’d become a huge fan of Rabbet before Horses Strickland.)

And lo, what did I discover? Another version of the “Skywoman” creation story which begins Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass—a retelling which speaks to me. For in Karen Savage Blue‘s lyrical depiction, Skywoman reaches down; down into icy, creature-rich waters. Skywoman rescues Muskrat! Don’t you love it?

I do. So much so that I am now in the process of buying a giclee of Savage Blue’s watery, female-superstar, Love-infused depiction. (In deference to AICHO, I am not reproducing “Creation Story” here because I do not have permission to do so.)

I love that a creation story can shift. Change. Evolve. I love being reminded that creation continues. That our universe is a work-in-progress. And so are we. I love being reminded that “inbreaking” happens: “If, as I believe, the soul has its root in God, it should not be strange or amazing that fresh installments of life break in from beyond us and refresh us,” the Quaker mystic, Rufus Jones, tell us. And, yes, I’ll admit it: I love how Savage Blue has turned Michaelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” upside down and sideways!

 

 

Circles Happen

[I have been single-mindedly working on a book manuscript, Strands, to be published by Barclay Press next year, so have woefully neglected this blog. Here’s an excerpt I just finished—maybe?]

Almost every Wednesday night for the past thirteen years, Friends Meeting at Cambridge has hosted a meal and a sharing circle for “the formerly incarcerated and those who care about them.”* Our circle the outgrowth of another sharing circle begun years ago in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, our circle has replicated the JP circle’s thoughtful rituals. We, too, eat dinner together first, our shared meal in the commodious Friends Room—a gourmet meal lovingly and bounteously prepared by my husband. (Cooking is his ministry; he also helps to prepare FMC’s Sunday lunch.) After cleanup, we, too, set up chairs around a cluster of flickering candles but, because our sage-cleansing ceremony has set off FMC’s smoke detectors once too often, summoning an embarrassing convoy of Cambridge Fire Department equipment to Longfellow Park, rain or shine or freezing temperatures, we troupe outside to ritually cleanse ourselves. The lights turned off in the Friends Room, we sit in a circle around the flickering candles. We review the circle’s guidelines and values. An ornately-carved walking stick is passed clock-wise; only the person holding the talking piece may speak. Like the JP circle, our time together ends with the Serenity Prayer.

These days, Zoom offers another, pared down, and far-less-satisfying version: no meal, no sage, no physical circle, no candles, no talking piece, no closeness or breathing in harmony with one another, and when we say the Serenity Prayer? It’s pretty raggedy. Sadly, several central members of our circle have decided they “don’t do Zoom” and have opted out.

Like so many mixed outcomes because of this pandemic, not being able to perform the sage ceremony has been both a loss yet an unplanned but welcomed opportunity to reflect on this sometimes-questioned ritual. Over the years, some have rightly pointed out that this practice comes from a Native tradition—and is therefore an appropriation. I respect that. Other circle members do, too.

When we can all safely meet again in person, however, I will share a recent opening which has allowed me to consider this aromatic ritual in a new but still flickering light.

The backstory to this opening: Inspired by a wonderful poem by Judith Offer, “On Studying Sacred Texts,” during Covid Summer at our pre-meeting for worship forums, various members of the FMC community took turns reflecting on various writings, like Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” or Arundhati Roy’s “The Pandemic is a Portal.

One sacred text we studied, “Skywoman Falling,” comes from the oral tradition. Although this creation story from the Shenandoah and George people begins Robin Wall Kimmerer’s seminal book, Braiding Sweetgrass, “Skywoman Falling” is a story shared, told, passed down from generation to generation, as people sat around a fire. Like, ah, a sharing circle?

Had the JP sharing-circle originator, Father Brian Murdock, understood humans’ shared circle history? Had he and others intuitively replicated rituals our ancestors had performed? Had he remembered that all humans once sat around fires? When we’d first visited the JP circle, for example, we Quakers were told that prison lighting so harsh and obtrusive, returning citizens would relish a sharing circle’s dim, gentle, soothing lighting. But don’t all of us, returning citizens or not, prompted by the lingering smell of burning sage and the flickering candles in the middle of a circle, remember when we’d sat around a fire and told the stories of our village or shared our own truths? Given how dangerous making eye contact had been behind bars, the JP organizers had also explained that each person ritualistically make eye contact before speaking to be a necessary trust-building exercise. But when we deeply look into another eyes aren’t we, in fact, reinforcing what a nomadic community 0r a village or an extended family does? We see each another. Literally. We value, we honor each person. We acknowledge our shared space. Like the signs in my neighbors’ windows these days, we affirm, “We’re all in this together.”

After hearing how the “Skywoman Falling” story resonated with our forum speaker, I was moved to ask that “circle” of Zoom tiles, “Who are you in this story?” And, like our speaker, several people shared wonderfully open and honest answers.

My answer would have been, “I am the old woman, the crone, seated near the fire to warm her old bones. I am the one telling this story. Again. Like my grandmother, I embellish here and there, add a little something someone in the circle may need to hear that night. My voice rises and falls but when I talk about Muskrat, it becomes husky with love and gratitude.”

*from the circle’s flyer

“From Me to We”

Yesterday during meeting for worship, I found myself remembering the first time I’d facilitated a forum* on Zoom— just days after the shutdown began. Since I am often uber-responsible for everything, even things beyond my control, that our speaker, Abraham Sussman, couldn’t turn on his camera that morning had been my fault, of course. Couple that  unfortunate technological glitch—and my “culpability”—with how non-stop terrified I’d been in those earliest days of the pandemic, I’d been one hot mess that late-March Sunday!

Much to my amazement, during the quiet of a Quaker meeting yesterday, I realized that despite my off-the-charts anxiety that morning, I actually remember Dr. Sussman’s (disembodied) talk! Entitled “Comprehensive Compassion: From Me to We: The Path of an Evolving Humanity,” the noted therapist and Dances of Universal Peace co-leader said something like, “Humans have adapted for ions. Our species will find a way to get though this pandemic.”

3,886,302 people have died so far from the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak as of June 21, 2021, 21:34 GMT, a horrifying loss neither you nor I nor Dr. Sussman could have possibly imagined in March of 2020.

Consciously or not, you, I, we live with that loss. We carry it. We feel it. This weight, this sense of ongoing loss; this, too, is how our species adapts. We can both celebrate the myriad of creative, endearing, amazing, community-building ways our species got through the past two years—and we will perpetually mourn those who did not.

 

 

*An hour long session held before meeting for worship, forums offer my faith community the opportunity to listen to speakers speak about their spiritual journeys and to reflect upon their own.

Peek Experience (No, that’s not a typo)

These days, I’ve noticed that when my dear friend Alex is asked how he’s doing, he’ll often respond, “Given the givens? I’m . . . ” Alex is also the first person I know to use the phrase radical acceptance. Indebted to Alex’s namings, I’ve been mulling over Three Givens that powerfully inform my spiritual life and, sigh, I have no choice but to radically accept, right!?

The first Given, of course, is Death. (There is some controversy as to who first quipped The only certainty is death and taxes. Benjamin Franklin? Mark Twain? I’m going with Anonymous—who, of course, was a woman!) I am going to die. So what is it I plan to do with my one wild and precious life ?

Radically accepting the second Given requires faith—and deep humility: contrary to Corinthians 13, even as an adult, I can only see through a glass darkly. I can only know in part. I can be as loving and compassionate as Paul counsels, I can be faithful and live up to the Light that has been given me—but there’s more; there will be deeper understandings. Always. There will always be  continuing revelations. After reading Isabel Wilkerson’s   Caste:The Order of Our Discontentsfor example, I am painfully aware that what seems the natural order of things* isn’t!

The third Given—and what most interests me right now—makes me sad but there it is. A Given. So maybe I should radically accept? And it’s about the transitory nature of transcendent moments; aka peak experiences. What can’t we instantly recreate such glorious moments; these sneak peeks at All That is Holy and Divine, huh?  Why, when I whisper All my relations before I begin eating dinner every night, do I only remember that moment when those three words encapsulated All? (Another sigh.)

Here’s the feeble light I can shine on this question for now; this light comes in the form of another question: maybe it’s my longing, my yearning to connect to All that matters?

Hmmm.

*Caste is insidious and therefore powerful because it is not hatred, it is not necessarily personal. It is the worn grooves of comforting routines and unthinking expectations, patterns of a social order that have been in place for so long that it looks like the natural order of things. 

Grounded

Urged to do so, I dutifully watched the first two episodes of the Ken Burns’ documentary on Ernest Hemingway—and, much to my surprise, look forward to the third. (Thank you, PBS, for making such wonderful programs accessible to luddites like me who do not own a television.)

Why surprised? Because although I define myself as a writer and am proud of my very modest body of work, it is a very modest body of work! So I’d anticipated that spending hours learning more about one of the most successful writers of all time would reinforce my own sense of inadequacy—which waxes and wanes but is undeniable. Delving deeper and deeper into Hemingway’s story, however, I felt solidified.  Confirmed. Grounded. “My oeuvre may be skimpy as hell—but I am glad I’m me.” Another way to put this might be: “Thank you, God, for making me a woman!”

I began to work on my craft after my first daughter was born; in those earliest days I’d copied out passages I found particularly well-written. I’d study these bits, word by word, coma by semi-colon, partly to learn from such close reading and partly, I think, in the childish hope that the genius of that particular writer might magically become my own. So, in Episode 2, when I heard the excerpt from A Farewell to Arms I’d copied long ago read aloud, it was a wonderful moment, like suddenly remembering a beloved teacher but also remembering myself as the yearning, open-hearted, grateful student. And to be reminded that every time I begin a sentence with And I know whom to credit!

Here’s the thing: leafing through the battered notebook containing that A Farewell to Arms excerpt, I found so much more to remember. For I’d copied out bits from Alice Munro, Virginia Woolf, Paula Gunn Allen, Shirley Hazzard, too. I’d written poetry; many poems had been about being a mother. A harried mother. An anxious mother. A mother in solidarity with mothers in my neighborhood. I’d written journal-like entries about my struggles to find time to write. I’d written outlines for possible stories, novels, a screenplay. (I have actually completed some of those projects, too. Some.) And pep talks, lots of pep talks/coaching!

I’ll end with this one:

Hold the image in your mind

Make it clear and true

Then all you do

Follows naturally.

 

 

 

 

What I’m Adding for Lent: Week Six

Week Six:

“And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”

So the Aramaic word, waahboqlan, can mean “forgive” but it also can mean “embrace with emptiness.” Which instantly recalls my yoga teacher, Annie Hoffman, talking about learning how to let go of attachment/old hurts/holding on to negativity, etc. “It’s like the command people give to their dogs when the dog comes upon something tasty but maybe disgusting on the ground: ‘Leave it!’ ”

I’ve heard dog owners give this command a couple of different ways; both are useful as I struggle with my own embracing with emptiness:

The first version gives those two syllables equal weight. they’re firm, stern, no-nonsense. (During menopause, when I sometimes struggled with anxious thoughts, telling that panicky inner voice to “Shut up, shut, shut up!” was ridiculously efficacious!)

The second version is almost a question. “Leave it?” my voice rising as if to acknowledge, “Yup, darlin’. I get it. This is hard. You’ve held on to this hurt for a long time. And, let’s be frank. You’ve enjoyed being pissed, right? But just do this.” It’s a coaxing voice. Forgiving.

And isn’t that the woman’s voice I most need to hear?

Week Five:

Give us this day our daily bread.”

So lachma can be both “bread” and “understanding.” And the verb, here, has several variations; my favorite is “animate with fruit”! But hold up. It seems as though the last Aramaic word in this sentence, yeomana, hasn’t been translated?  Hmm.

So what to do? Maybe I’ll just do what I’ve been doing since Ash Wednesday: let women suggest possible interpretations and meaning and metaphors for this prayer. “This day” + lachma =  Caroline Fox’s famous quote, right?  Especially its last bit: Live Up to the Light that thou hast and more will be granted thee.  You’ll receive more understanding, more light tomorrow. Next week. The same Source that animates with fruit will offer you further enlightenment—if you’re listening to your Inner Guide.

Week Four:

. . .on earth as it is in heaven:

“In the fourth and most central line of the prayer, heaven meet earth in acts of compassion,” Douglas-Klotz writes.

The Aramaic scholar’s words immediately conjure up for me one of my favorite places is the world, Crete, and standing on the beach, the  blue-green Mediterranean behind me, looking up at Mt. Ida, the birthplace of Zeus. There, at its snow-capped peak, where clouds obscure the delineation between earth and sky,  is where early Cretans believed earth met heaven.

If I can connect with how joyful, how grateful, how filled with love I’d felt standing there on a perfect day in March of 2003, can I remember to let go of whatever keeps me from acknowledging—without ceasing—Spirit’s abiding Love?

Week Three:

“Thy will be done . . . ” The word will tripped me up this week; “tzevanach” in Aramaic. Which translates as “desire” but bears an ancient, layered meaning of “harmony and generation.”  Which might mean, again, a verb, a motion towards, an inexorable, cosmic, supreme force ever-striving, yearning for balance, harmony, Love?

I don’t know for sure; I suspect others don’t either. But I certainly relish the idea of praying to, acknowledging that inexorable, cosmic, supreme force!

 

Week Two:

I found “Thy kingdom come . . . ” very confusing. Something in the original Aramaic hinted at a nuptial chamber? Other ancient words implied co-creation—and possibility, too? I couldn’t wrap my brain around it.

But on Sunday, at meeting for worship, someone read that lovely quote, “Live up to the light that thou hast and more will be granted thee.” And I saw a deep and powerful connections  between those Aramaic-to-English keywords and the message of early Friends: that the kingdom of God is here and now and  accessible. That when we live up to the light we are in right relationship with Spirit. We’re co-creating the beloved community. And we’re promised  updates. Continuing revelation. We’re in this together.

Week One:

Giving up something for Lent lost meaning for me years ago; this year my reluctance to take away rather than to add seems particularly appropriate as we collectively mourn the over 500,000 Americans who have died from this pandemic. Such an enormous loss!

So this lenten season I’m spending a little time every day with a remarkable little book, Prayers of the Cosmos: Reflections on the Original Meaning of Jesus’s Words by Neil Douglas-Klotz. An Aramaic scholar, Douglas-Klotz has translated the Lord’s Prayer back into the language it had been originally spoken—and, oh my. According to him, not just “something” has been lost in translation!  As my shero Joanna Macy says, “For many of us who want to peel away centuries of dualistic, patriarchal forms and recover the life-affirming beauty of our Christian roots, nothing could be more welcome than this exquisite little volume.”

In the spirit of Increase not Decrease, I will add on to this post every Wednesday until Easter.

February 24: First gleanings after Week One:

The Aramaic version of “Our father who art in heaven” reminds me of this wonderful passage from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass:

“Puhpowee, she explained, translates as “the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight.” As a biologist, I was stunned that such a word existed.
The makers of this word understood a world of being, full of unseen energies that animate everything. I’ve cherished it for many years, as a talisman, and longed for the people who gave a name to the life force of mushrooms. The language that holds Puhpowee is one that I wanted to speak. So when I learned that the word for rising, for emergence, belonged to the language of my ancestors, it became a signpost for me.”