What I’m Adding for Lent: 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.”

 

 

 

 

Not In The Wind?

Quakers often quote that passage from 1 Kings when a depressed and confused Elijah, standing on top of Mount Horeb, experiences a wind so powerful it rends mountains and shatters rocks—but subsequently hears God/Spirit/The Holy in a low murmuring sound.

“Possibly the experience of prophetic inspiration,” my Oxford Study Edition of the New English Bible posits. “Not possibly,” most Quakers would say. “Absolutely!” (My edition notes other Old Testament inbreaking moments when God, indeed, is found in “natural phenomena”: I am now coming to you in a thick cloud, so that I may speak to you in the hearing of the people, and their faith in you may never fail,” God tells Moses in Exodus 19, for example.)

Three weeks after a furious mob rended and shattered our Capitol, I find myself wondering if I can find prophetic inspiration in both that low, murmuring voice, aka a still small voice, and that terrifying, powerful and roaring wind on Mount Horeb?  Raised in a binary, Yes/No, War/Peace/, Here/ There world—and definitely aware of my own, raging, vengeful “seeds of war” whenever I think about what happened on January 6th—can I discover something beyond, something greater than, something different from my heretofore Murmuring/Roaring cosmology? I don’t know.

I just know my Inner Teacher asks me to wonder.

 

 

 

 

 

The Light Returns

I distinctly remember how I’d felt, years ago, probably in a Philosophy 101 class, when I realized that light becomes darkness and darkness becomes light. I remember how it felt when I realized that what I’d always understood as binary, light versus dark, wasn’t! I remember how the hairs on the back of my head prickled;  how I’d felt encompassed in fuzzy warmth as I contemplated a radically-different way to look at the world around me. I didn’t have language, then or now; something about wholeness? Something about transformation? Something about how, at the flick of a switch, 180s can happen? Something about how darkness contains light and vice versa?Something about needing to always remember how quickly that On to Off, Off to On can happen?

Today, the day after the Inauguration, that metaphorical light switch robustly On, it seems important to note how, on January 6th, that switch had definitely been Off. I don’t want to ever forget that. I want to be mindful that my searing memory of that devastating, horrific attack is folded into the joy and hope I feel this morning.

How grateful I am that on the morning after that attack, despair for the world  heavy in my heart, like Wendell Berry,* I could come into the presence of still water. Walking through the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge, I’d stood at the edge of Taylor Brook. In utter quiet I’d stared at a beaver lodge—fuzzily visible and framed by two trees in this picture—as long as I needed. As long as my soul needed. I stood there as long as it took for me to feel ready to return to my peopled, urban life.

The (complicated/nuanced/layered/storied/. . . ) light returns.

 

 

*When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

An Audience of One

[Snarky Puppy, House of Blues, Boston, May 12, 2019]

Every year between Christmas and New Year’s, I read my journal from the previous year. This year, lying on my couch under a down quilt, the Christmas trees lights on, my belly rounded from a week of rich, delicious holiday treats, this yearly ritual has proved especially poignant.

Because the ate-too-much me on the couch knows how this story-told-in-daily-installments will unfold, right? But the me who’d been earnestly writing every morning in her journal did not. So I feel so tender, so protective of naive, confused me, the me who’d slowly realized, OMG, we’re dealing with a global pandemic!

But a little exasperated, too: “Will I even get to read what I’m writing here?” she’d written in late March, terrified, I guess, that being over seventy-five probably meant she’d die from Covid. How astonishing and gobsmacking humbling it is to now see, in stark black and white, how little I’d understood my own privilege!

As I move into this new year, may I not forget this; all of it: my gratitude to be alive and my deep, painful, never-to-be-denied realization of why.

 

 

Call Me Fred

Hoping to see the once-in-a-lifetime sighting of Jupiter and Saturn last night, I’d traipsed all over my neighborhood trying to spot this wondrous sight. (Densely-populated and sorely lacking in open space, Somerville is not ideal for star/planet-gazing.) Stubborn clouds at the horizon, too-tall buildings blocking what I believed was my view—although I was not exactly sure where to look—cold and hungry and discouraged, I’d started walking home when the moon, a crescent moon, appeared high in the sky.

And I remembered the Gospel of John’s prologue and the Light which the darkness has never mastered. I rejoiced to walk beneath the soft, gentle, opalescent light of a partially illuminated moon.

“You’re outside on ‘a cold winter’s night’,” I reminded myself. “You never do that! You’re experiencing this silvered moonlight. You’re seeking.  Like Balthazar, Melchior, and, um — Fred? That’s enough.”

Close to home, I was walking down L-shaped Preston Road and just at its elbow when I looked up and lo, perfectly positioned between two houses and just above the branches of a nearby Norway maple, Jupiter and Saturn, bright, distinct, and miraculously unlike anything else in the night sky.

Joy to the world!

You’re Evicted!

I’ve heard lots of people talk about “the real estate in my head” lately but have had no reason to use this expression myself—until last night. After three days of euphoria that, hallelujah, the great storm is over, after three joyful, relieved days, I found myself tossing and turning at 3AM. Again. Like I’ve been doing, over and over, for the past four years. You, too?

But that trendy phrase came to me: “Why am I allowing That Man to occupy so much real estate in my head?” I wondered. “Mr. ex-President,” I announced to the dark, “you’re evicted!”

But a vague, 3AM understanding of how my brain works—something about neural pathways, maybe?—came to me in the dark, too. So although I don’t know much about brain chemistry, like most writers, I can work with a good metaphor: “Okay. That space has been vacated. So, now:Who should I invite inside? Rent-free.”

And, almost automatically, I began my new, spiritual practice of metta, also known as loving-kindness meditation:  And since 3AM anxiety also means a pounding heart, I began with myself: “May I be safe. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I live with ease.” Then, after my anxiety lessened and my heart rate improved, I moved on to all the people who’d stood in long lines to vote over the past month. “May you be safe. May you . . . ” I moved on to all who were awake. And then to those who were asleep. (Did you sense this, dear Reader?)

And gradually, as it always does if I do this long enough, my silent mediation produced waves of Love. (A neurologist would probably say that’s the dopamine kicking in.) And I went back to sleep.

 

 

“Opening like air, like realization”*

This year, Coming Out Day prompted me to recall the first time someone came out to me—almost fifty years ago.

It didn’t go well. To announce their truth, they’d given me their much-underlined copy of Adrianne Rich’s Diving Into the Wreck, inscribing that much-read paperback—which I still have—with a touching but enigmatic statement.

I didn’t understand. That they’d given me a dog-eared book of poetry that had moved them? This I could appreciate. That they’d wanted me to know something fundamentally central about who they were? I had no language and no experience to comprehend that by taking that book into my hand, I’d performed a precious and poignant ceremony right in my own living room that night.

For fifty years I have held onto intense, crippling shame about that evening. “How could I have been so stupid?” I’ve railed at myself. (Answer: Because that’s where I was.) But with Divine Guidance (which could also be called prayer), something new has emerged: That young person had trusted me! While no doubt fearful our conversation might go South, they’d nevertheless had enough faith in me to take the risk to tell me something they’d wanted me to understand. Yes, I hadn’t. But also, yes, in  the time we’d known each other, I’d somehow indicated to them that I saw them. Appreciated them. That despite my incomplete understanding of who they truly were, I’d somehow earned their trust. Such trust breaks my heart, now.

What if every day is the day before Coming Out Day? What if every single one of us has some truth we yearn to say out loud—and are constantly, silently assessing our risk in doing so? What would that look like? Feel like?

 

*From Rich’s poem “Waking In The Dark,” Diving Into The Wreck, p. 9.

Excerpt 3: Strands

On a propitiously spectacular early-summer Sunday, maybe fifty of us, maybe a hundred, most of us White, most of us over sixty, stood at six-foot intervals on either side of Massachusetts Avenue. We waved Black Lives Matter signs, other signs. Passersby waved and honked. It was lovely and peaceful and Spirit-filled. And Pentecost.

I was filled by that same fiery moment that Pentecost commemorates, seven Sundays after Easter when, according to Acts 2, the Apostles were gathered in one place when suddenly there came from the sky a noise like that of a strong driving wind, which filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues like flames of fire dispersed among them and resting on each one. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to talk in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them power of utterance.

 (As I transcribe this Bible passage, I can see Reverend Owen Cardwell, Jr., on a Sunday morning in Richmond, Virginia. Dressed in his white vestments he stands at the New Canaan International Church’s pulpit. “Help me, Holy Ghost!I hear him beseech.)

Had the stand-out’s organizers picked this particular, foundational Sunday in the Christian calendar to stage that demonstration? Probably not. Holding my sign, holding George Floyd, Breanna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbury in the Light, this Quaker felt that Sunday morning’s synchronicity; its power. I recognized Spirit in the sign-bearing people lining Mass Ave and in the proclaiming car horns.

In Peter’s interpretation of that fiery, language-barrier-crossing moment, I hear the same paradigm-shifting message of early Friends: that Spirit is here, now, transformative, available to all, accessible to all. Christ is come to teach his people himself. That Pentecost morning I sensed I was hearing that prophetic voice, too, in the nationwide conversation on policing and reapportioning resources towards affordable housing and mental health services.

More about that synchronicity: Peter, the voice of the dispossessed and the marginalized, explains why the bewildered crowd can suddenly speak of the great things God has done—even though they spoke different tongues. The former fisherman reminds the gathering that this startling, inclusive moment had been prophesized; he quotes from Joel 2: 28: Therefore the day shall come when I will pour out my spirit on all mankind; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams and your young men see visions; I will pour out my spirit in those days even upon slaves and slave-girls.

     Even upon slaves. While I, hearing that prophetic voice in 2020, cherish Joel and Peter’s promise of how widespread God will pour out his spirit, I have a fiery reaction to that dismissive even. It reminds of  two challenging interactions I’d had with correctional officers at MCI Cedar Junction. The first happened as a CO escorted me to his workplace’s solitary confinement unit, the Department Disciplinary Unit. (Our prison system certainly loves euphemisms!) On our quarter-mile walk from the Visitors Center to the DDU, past silent cell blocks and empty, weedy, exercise cages, he’d quizzed me as to why I there. I mumbled something about being a Quaker and prison ministry. My actual answer would have taken much longer than our walk: I would have had to tell him about my leading to find Owen and Lynda, about Owen’s trying to keep Black men out of jail, about how my Quaker meeting had gotten involved with returning citizens, offering a weekly meal and sharing circle for ex-offenders; how I’d written to several prisoners over the years but, supported and guided by those weekly circles, had finally found the courage to actually step foot inside one—and how I was therefore there to visit one of my pen-pals.

Rapid-fire stringing together keywords from Isaiah and Matthew, the guard offered me a Biblical word salad: proclaim-liberty-to-captives-and-release-to-those-in-prison-when-in-prison-you-visited-me-as-you-did-for-the-least of-these, ending by raising his voice as if to ask a question; as if to make sure he’d gotten it right.

Startled to hear a couple of my favorite biblical passages spoken by a CO and, as always when inside a prison, struggling to stay grounded and centered, initially I’d been touched he’d understood me. But later I realized his references had nothing to do with me or my prison ministry as much as what he was telling me about his job: Get it? I think he’d actually said. Even the Bible says prisoners are a special category—they’re the lowest of the low. They’re the least of these. They’re scum. You come here once a month. That’s nice and all. But I have to deal with these low-lifes 24/7. It’s my job. This is how I feed my family.

      Even upon slave girls. On a subsequent trip to Walpole, a female CO escorted me to the DDU. Short, compact, buxom, White, she’d set a brisk pace for our walk. I quickly found out why. Those tomb-like units suddenly came to life. Catcalls, hoots, insinuating comments, it seemed like every man, unseen but easily heard through the open windows, had something to say. “I know you know who this voice is,” one man called, his voice husky and seductive. As if she had every reason to recognize his voice. As if she and he had a relationship; something special going on. And I realized that, just like the world outside these prison walls, an attractive woman can be treated like property. As if even less than least.

Excerpt 1: Strands

[Since I am both proud of what I am currently working on and, apparently, unable to do more than one thing at a time, here is an excerpt from a new book I’m working on: Strands]

Sometimes Nature lies beyond my backyard but still close to home. On my masked walks through Somerville these days, hungry for a glimpse of Turtle Island green, I’ve begun to notice inexplicably tall pine trees towering over the two or three-story frame houses beside them, their needled branches filling what little remains of an eighth-of-an-acre city plot. They’re all over the city!

Why weren’t these giants cut down years ago? How have these magnificent trees survived in, until very recently, a working-class city where landscaping often meant a postage-stamp-sized concrete yard dotted by one or two joint-compound buckets filled with plastic flowers? (To be fair, when the city was still called Slummerville, some ‘ville residents, many of them Italian or Portuguese, tended grape arbors and compact gardens, often terraced to make best use of their small size; some residents scrupulously cared for two or three fruit trees. And if not priced out of the homes where they’d raised their children and grown these crops, some still do.)

Had these pine trees survived because they look like giant Christmas trees and were therefore considered holy? Are they still here because they don’t require leaf-raking or the yearly ritual of unclogging the gutters? Do they remain because, for generations, the human occupants of those tiny plots have loved to fall asleep, windows open, and listen to the sound of wind soughing through their branches? Just as humans have loved hearing that soothing sound since Skywoman fell out of the sky and Jesus walked this precious Earth?

“Fewer birds sing just a loud,” Veronica, a young woman from my Meeting offered at a recent, Zoom meeting for worship as she’d sat outside, in her own tiny backyard. In her message, sparrows and crows, maybe a pigeon or two audible in the background, I heard so much: I heard her pain at nature’s diminishment. I heard her joy to be in worship in citified nature. I heard her celebrate robust Aliveness; I heard her radical acceptance of what is here, available, now. As is.

 

 

 

How Can I Keep from Singing?

Almost home from our daily walk, just as we were walking past, we saw a neighbor we didn’t know come out of her front door, sit down on a chair on her cluttered porch, and sing. Loudly. As if in the shower. As if in her car. As if we’d been invisible. “I think we’re all going feral,” I told my husband. But feral not as a pejorative, no. But as wildly alive.

Have we ever lived here before, right here, right at the wild edge of sorrow*? Have we ever begun a new week having heard such sobering news? No.

Yes, we’ve all experienced loss and grief. But not like this. never like this. This, this moment, this is new. What are we called to do? What am I called to do?

I, too, will burst into song. I will sing. I will be grateful to be alive.

 

 

*A tip o’ my hat to Francis Weller’s The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief

Talk to the Hand

[This story centers on someone whose identity I should protect. So will be using the they pronoun.]

Yesterday on a walk, I passed an elderly white person, warmly dressed, waiting in a bus shelter in Porter Square. (And by “elderly” I mean the same age as me!) A second look and, yes, although considerably aged from when I last knew them, they had been a student I’d met years ago when a counselor at Somerville’s adult learning center. So I stopped and, keeping the required six-foot distance, called out their name.

I’ve aged considerably too, of course, so they took a moment or two to recognize me. “Oh, hi,” they said. Without much energy or warmth. Which I surmised—duh— was because they were terrified. So acknowledged the current situation.

“The virus?” they asked; their Azores accent flavoring their terse words. I nodded.

“Ya know,” they said, leaning forward and almost under their breath, giving me a we-both-know-what’s-really-going- on look. And rubbed their thumb and forefinger together, the universal sign for money.

I wasn’t having it; I was not at all interested in their conspiracy theory: “I’m not listening to this,” I told them, turning on my heels.

“God bless you,” they called after me. Which felt like a curse in disguise.

Who, exactly, did they think was making money off of this pandemic? Stewing, brooding, I walked home. The Chinese government, maybe? Big Pharma? Given the ugliness that crossed their face when they’d rubbed their fingers together, however, I’m guessing that former student might harbor long-standing hatred for those so often blamed in times of crisis. I think they may be anti-Semitic. Maybe.

But, suddenly, stomping down the sidewalk, I remembered a salient fact: They had been an ABE 1 student! (Translation: they’re totally illiterate. Cannot read. At all. Nada.) And, if I remember correctly, they’d dropped out after less than a semester. Which means that, most likely, they’re completely dependent on whatever xenophobic bullS@#* Fox News spouts as “news.”

Personally, I cannot imagine enduring this devastating situation without daily devouring multiple newspaper and magazine articles and Facebook postings from wise friends—and then stopping when I’ve had enough already, to listen to music or read a good book. Can you? You, reading these (pearls of great price) words now? It’s unimaginable, isn’t it.

Had I blown a teachable moment? I pondered closer to home. Had I been so appalled, so outraged by their conspiratorial face, those rubbing fingers, that I missed an opportunity to engage?

Perhaps. But do we not show a form of Love when we interrupt hatred? At a time when the president of the United States referred to COVID-19 as “a foreign virus” or, just today, “the Chinese virus,” I think it’s okay, indeed necessary to say, “Talk to the hand!”

And maybe, just maybe, in their “God bless you,” they kinda, sorta were telling me they got that?

Nah.

 

What I’m Taking On For Lent

I’m not giving up anything this year; I’m taking on something. Something I’ve been afraid to take on for most of my life: I’m welcoming everything that happens to me. For, as Francis Weller points out, “This is the secret to being fully alive.” (He also notes how incredibly hard this is!)

Today, Day 3 into this spiritual exercise—which might become a practice—I’m pissed off. Someone I do prison ministry alongside with—well, why go into it? Because, as I remind myself, taking a few, deep breaths, this is capital L Life, right? I am fully alive and still following the leading I began over twenty years ago. I am actually doing what Spirit asked of me! And that is a blessing.

Day 1, at a weekly meeting I attend sometimes, I listened to my community’s immigration-rights activists lament the Supreme Court’s recent, heartbreaking decision on “Public Charge.” And felt myself do what I always do: wall myself off from the pain around the table. Protect myself. “This is the life you are living,” I silently coached myself. “This is that damned Chinese curse, ‘May you live in interesting times.’ For whatever reason, you were born to experience this, now. You are alive to experience this. All of it.”

I am hyperaware that were I daily experiencing non-stop pain and trauma it’s entirely possible I’d be telling a different story. I am hyperaware of my cushy, privileged life. I am hyperaware that my race and class and resultant medical care is why I get to do this soul-work/grief work; why I’m still alive at my age. I am hyperaware that were I a Woman of Color I might not be alive to tell this story.

But, Friends, I am and I can and here’s what happened: I briefly experienced that exhilaration Ray Bradbury’s short story, “Dandelion Wine” so wonderfully captured: “I am alive!” And so, openhearted, was also gifted to hear how my community plans to address this latest assault on our neighbors and friends, an ironically and unexpectedly touching outcome of living in this interesting time: I now know so much more fully how many other people are also working on social-justice issues. Oh.

Does the harsh fact that over the past year my Quaker meeting/my “village”/ my tribe has lost eight people, two of whom I counted as dear friends, focus attention on that word alive?

Yes, it does.