Being Grammy

Reading “The Granddaughter Necklace” at Grammy’s house, August, 2018

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?

 

 

 

 

Breaking Through (?)

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?

Sitting This One Out

Summer Rain, July, 2018

Sometimes I just want to sit on my front porch. Sometimes I don’t want to read my emails or The New York Times. Sometimes I don’t care what Jennifer Rubin has to say. Or Bill McKibben. Or Naomi Klein. Sometimes, especially after a grueling heat wave, I just want to sit on my front porch and gratefully bless every precious drop of rain as a heat-wave-ending thunder storm begins. I don’t even need a glass of lemonade; I just need to be drowsy-grateful. Quiet. Alone. Did I mention grateful?

Ah, but as those “Could Do Better Work”* voices in my head constantly remind me, opting out, sitting this one out, there’s your White Privilege is action, lady. (Okay. Inaction, if you want to get technical about it.) “You’re not going to be deported or sent to jail, are you, Patricia? You are not targeted by this administration’s racist, Nazi-Germany nightmare.** And hey! What about climate change and the terrifying future your grandchildren will inherit? Huh? Sure, gratitude is nice and all but TIME’S A-WASTIN’ AND THERE’S WORK TO DO!”

Here is what I am learning to whisper to those nagging voices: Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” – From The Talmud, 303.

And, dare I add, taking time out just to be grateful and to recharge your batteries is A Good Thing, right?

(Just don’t make a habit of it, okay?)

 

 

 

*What my teachers invariably wrote on my reports cards

** Not yet, anyway. But, to paraphrase, those who don’t read history are doomed to be horribly surprised when they discover they’re next on the Target List.

 

Touching

When you visit someone in a Massachusetts prison, what you’re wearing must conform to a very long and very specific list of do’s and don’ts. Every month, I reread this list beforehand. Every month I always mess up one thing. This month? I completely forgot I was wearing an underwire brassiere. So when going through security I set off the metal detector and was just as mystified as the guards. My genuinely-puzzled-quickly-morphing-to-mortified look must have convinced them I’d (again) made an honest mistake so, thank you, Jesus, I was allowed to see my friend. Who is being held in a Special Management Unit— AKA The Hole. Did the fact that I was visiting someone in solitary confinement—a form of incarceration many consider torture, inhumane—influence those guards’ decision to cut me some slack? I’d like to think so.

About that jewelry I leave on the top of my bureau: No Iris Apfel but, as another aging woman determined to look her best, I do wear a little bling; six silver bracelets I’ve collected over the years, one for each offspring, on my left wrist, for example. I love their collective tinkling/chiming as my dominant hand moves through my daily life. My wedding ring (which doesn’t look like a wedding ring so I take it off), a lovely silver and amethyst necklace my step-daughter and daughter-in-law gave me, my watch; these are part of me; stripped of them I feel off-balance. Thoroughly intimidated. Not myself. Which is why, every damned month, I mess up!  My fear, imbalance, and not-feeling-grounded get in the way of my being my best self.( I may be overstating this—but not by much.)

I’m coming to accept this about myself. To accept that, hell yeah, I need some kind of physical, against my skin “Dumbo’s Magic Feather” as I walk inside MCI Norfolk to be the loving and present person my friend deserves.

So, here’s my against-my-skin solution: Nina Ricci’s “L’Air Du Temps!  Background: Trying to almost literally inhabit a new character for a novel I’m slowly working on, it came to me that “Nora,” an aging screenwriter based in LA, would wear this classic scent. (She just would. You’ll have to trust me on this.) So I bought an on-sale bottle of this cologne from the drugstore down the street and when I’m writing about Nora, give myself a few squirts. It’s also a perfume very popular when my mother was a young woman so I wear it when I visit her. It makes her happy. And now I wear it on prison visits, too, a kind of self-annonting this far-from-perfect woman trying to do prison ministry (that would be me) absolutely must have, apparently, and reminiscent of Luke 4:18:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,

 

 

 

 

Thank you, Blanche

“Blanche on the Lam” by Barbara Neely.

If you, like many of my friends, believe that summer reading = murder mysteries, please add Barbara Neely’s amazing Blanche White series to your queue. (You may have already discovered these wonderful books and I’m late to the party!) What a premise: that an ignored, heavy-set servant in a grey uniform and small, white apron sees, hears, reasons, and, ultimately, brilliantly solves mysteries/saves the day—all the while inwardly noting how racism plays out in her dealings with her white employers.

Propitiously, this has been the perfect week to consider the role of servant as I, having finished Blanche on the Lam,  have also been preparing to give a talk at my Quaker meeting on George Fox’s Christology. (Here’s another form of summer escapism: Get all wonky and in-the-weeds-obsessed by something you know nothing about and are therefore required to look up every other word!) The founder of Quakerism, in 1647 Fox declared:  Oh then, I heard a voice which said, “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition,” and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy.

What did the word Christ mean for George Fox? I’ve spent this week asking this question. And have learned that, apparently, in one of many ways he differed from his contemporaries, Fox believed, as did both Peter and Stephen, that Christ  meant “servant.” *  ( When Fox used the word Christ he also meant “Prophet.” And “Light.” And “The Word”/Logos— as in the Preface to the gospel of John; what a stunning piece of writing! And . . . )

Not sure how this bit o’pedantry will land on my (mostly white) listeners this Sunday. (Not matter what our race or class, “servant” is a loaded word to twenty-first-century ears, isn’t it? But surely this version of Christ—another loaded word—meant something quite different for Fox’s seventeeth-century listeners.) Thanks to Blanche/Barbara Neely, however, I’ve been gifted with much to think about and consider!

*Benson, Lewis, (1974) George Fox’s Teaching About Christ, Quaker Religious Thought, Vol. 39, Article, 3, p. 34.

 

 

. . . Not A Sprint.

Today, apparently, because of relentless, vociferous, worldwide protest, 45 announced that his pernicious policy of separating children from their parents at our nation’s borders will discontinue.

But don’t get too excited. He has also, in the past 24 hours, used the word “infest” when tweeting about immigration issues. A word to use when talking about rats, bed bugs, cockroaches.

I suggest we allow ourselves to take a brief moment to celebrate the power of collective action/ Love in Action. Praise God! Eat chocolate! Ceremoniously sip a delicious glass of pinot noir! Listen to music that brings you to tears.

And then let’s get back to work. Let’s keep showing up*. (Fascism is relentless, too.)

*Boston-area folks: let’s flood the Moakley Courthouse on July 12th at 2:00!

 

 

What Do I Yearn For?

A memorial reception with gluten-free or other diary-needs offerings carefully labeled, Friends Meeting at Cambridge, January, 2018

Walking to Meeting on Sunday, I passed a couple of  Ant “dockless” bicycles in front of Harvard’s Science Center, a new company that, like Hubway, the other bike-rental company in greater Boston, uses crossbar-free bikes. Exclusively. “Girls’ bikes,” we used to say. (When I was a kid, I wore dresses. That crossbar was highly inconvenient!)

During the unusually long quiet I found myself deeply moved that Ant’s and Hubway’s bikes are inclusive, accommodating, and account for “the least of these.” (Someone in a pencil skirt, a kilt, a sari? Anyone for whom swinging a leg over a crossbar could be challenging?)

More came to me during the quiet: I remembered a concert a while back, given by Daniel Parker, a former Quaker Voluntary Service fellow, now studying piano at Julliard. (Daniel’s concert was a fund-raiser for QVS.) Before he began Bach’s Goldberg variations, he asked the fifty-or-so-member audience if we wanted him to play straight through or if we’d prefer a break. Some of us—perhaps the same demographic who’d prefer not to swing our leg over a bike’s crossbar?—indicated we’d like a break. “I think we need to respect that,” Daniel said. There was pushback: “Put it to a vote!” someone called out. Gently but firmly, Daniel reiterated that we all needed to accommodate those who’d expressed need.

“What do I yearn for?” I have been asking myself that question a lot lately. Sunday I was offered a glimpse: I yearn to live in an accommodating, inclusive world, a world where day-to-day decisions are made after asking: How will this effect the poor, the homeless, the undocumented, the abused?

Sound good?

 

 

 

 

Random Acts of Beauty, Kindness

Between Nor’easters, Somerville, MA, March, 2018

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Sometimes—especially now—a news story is not the news story. Sometimes what seems significant isn’t. All the time, stuff just happens and making meaning of all that stuff can be exhausting and confusing. (And, must say, New England’s disquieting, alarming, climate-changed weather—for months!—hasn’t helped!)

Just coming out of one of those confusing and exhausting times, I’m moved this morning to lift up three instances, recently, when Spirit broke through the fog:

  1. Friday night, at our monthly Somerville worship-group gathering, a dear, long-time F/friend offered this query: “What do you yearn for?”  Try it. Let me know if simply posing that question to yourself is grounding. Do you find that coming up with An Answer not that important? That it’s the process of asking yourself, opening yourself up to look at, to wonder about your deepest hunger, that matters? (Thank you, Chris.)
  2. One of the things I yearn for, apparently, is declarative sentences about love. “Because he’s a twelve-year-old boy. Dogs love those.” (Thank you, Wes Anderson.) Bonus: this declarative sentence is voiced by a female.
  3. Random, anonymous acts of beauty and kindness. Like three packages of Jello, each a different color, artfully arranged on front yard wall. (Thank you, Neighbor, whoever you are.)

(Almost)-Spring Cleaning

A Rainy Day at Castle in the Clouds, Moutonborough, N.H.

Sunday, chilled, rainy, very windy, I’d almost wished there’d been a fireplace fire in the meetinghouse fireplace. Surely a hearty blaze would brighten my spirits?  But, no, I realized. If there were to be any cheering up going on that gloomy morning, it would have to come from within!

And I remembered something someone in my yoga class had said on Thursday. (Actually, this was at our pre-yoga class, when we discuss a poem someone has brought in, or the Sutras, or a piece of writing our gifted teacher wishes to share.) One woman talked about sadness, hard times, grief and loss; how we’re sometimes too eager to be happy. “There’s good reasons to feel sad,” she said.

So I let myself sink into despair. Not to “wallow in it,” as my father always cautioned when anyone in our family dared to be sad. (You were allowed to be sad in my family for about five minutes. Then you had to get over it.)  But to be honest! To honor the countless reasons we all have to feel sad.

And, mysteriously, after way more than five minutes of sitting in silence and letting myself “feel the feels,” as my daughter, Hope (!) says, Something happened. As if something inside me had been decluttered, de-cobwebbed, dusted or lemon-oiled or rearranged. As if I’d cleared a space within me to hold this sadness. And it was okay. More than okay. It was exactly what I was supposed to do.

What Joy when we do what we’re supposed to do!

. . . Things I Cannot Change

Playroom Creation by a Three Year Old.

I visit a man in “Seg.” (as in Segregation) Aka “The Hole” or “Solitary Confinement.” (Once, on the phone, while making the required appointment to visit this man, I’d carelessly used the word “Isolation” and was quickly and firmly corrected.)  Whatever its label, putting a human being in a tiny room all alone for long periods of time is cruel and unusual punishment. Period. And, yes, in the early nineteenth century, Quakers—and Anglicans—invented this form of punishment so, yes, of course, I feel personally responsible whenever I visit him. And am eternally grateful for the many activists working hard to abolish this inhumane punishment.

His story is his to tell, not mine, so I will offer only this: Let’s just say that because of the times we’re living in, when he’s served his sentence, another sentence will be imposed upon him. And, it seems, there’s nothing anyone can do to change that. (I’ve tried.)

But here’s what I want to report—and to marvel at. In the six months I’ve been visiting him, something truly wondrous has happened! On Friday, the angry, young man I met in September who’d rightfully demanded, “Why me?” shrugged his shoulders; he’s accepted that he cannot change his fate, as deeply unfair as it is. Indeed,he’s viewing his unplanned and unwanted future as, oh, my, an opportunity!  Grinning, he struggled to remember the words but eventually nailed F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Living well is the best revenge. And gestured as if to acknowledge to the cinderblock walls of the booth where we met, the glass and metal wall that separated us, the guards lurking outside the booth, the prison cells, the barbed wire fences; all that presently surrounded him.

And, yes, there’s a tiny, tiny part of me that wants to believe that those early Quakers and Anglicans were right! And that this man’s transformation was made possible by forcing him to be “penitent.”

But, mostly, I want to marvel at the human spirit. Again. Oh my.

“Carved In Stone”

“The Avenger” by Ernst Barlach. Bronze; cast in 1934. On display at the Fogg Museum, February, 2018

Sometimes I visit an art museum as if expecting to be tested. I study everything, read everything, skip nothing, dutifully walk in the direction the exhibit designers want me to go. Other times I randomly stroll through galleries until a color, a shape, a face demands my attention. Super Bowl Sunday afternoon at Harvard’s Fogg Museum, this face stopped me cold.

There’s a touching story behind that mournful face: Barlach, a German nationalist, created an earlier version of this sculpture from clay and plaster in 1914 as The War To End All Wars (ha!) raged. “As the fighting dragged on and disillusionment increased, however, Barlach envisioned war less as a noble sword-bearer and more as, in his words, ‘a hammer wielding butcher.'”* Years later he carved that same figure, this time from wood, recreating that avenger’s face to reflect his disillusionment, then cast the 2.0 version in bronze.

Quakers talk about “continuing revelation;” how Truth might be cast in stone but/and can also reveal itself in new forms, new ideas, new media.

Spirit’s not done with us yet.

*from the museum’s wall description

It Just Wells Up, Right?

Pre-Dawn Snow Sorm; Nashville International Airport, January, 2018

Sometimes it just hits me: my easeful life is made possible by the labor of thousands, millions of men and women working under conditions I cannot even imagine. Sometimes it just hits me: life is grotesquely unfair. (Yet I will almost always win.) And for hours, days, maybe even as long as a week, that piercing realization informs everything I experience.

But over time, this in-my-bones realization of the enormous disparity between my blessed and privileged life and those “less fortunate” —such a cold and lofty and dishonest phrase! — well, it fades. Lessens. Deadens.

How do I order my life so that this once-piercing realization informs everything I do? A citizen of a deeply connected/ interconnected Beloved Community, how am I to be truly mindful of all its residents?

I wonder.