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.

New Year’s Affirmations:

Malden, MA Bike Trail, Christmas, 2017

May good people walk beside you.

May you find strength and joy in community.

May you receive “Good Will, Support, and Healing”* from others.

May other living beings guide you, teach you, sustain you.

May you find your way.

 

 

 

 

 

*One of the Friends Meeting at Cambridge’s Wednesday night sharing circle’s most cherished values.

“This Turning Year”

Winter Light at 7:39 AM, EST, December 21, 2017

Pretty sure I learned about the winter solstice from a textbook—in sixth grade, maybe. Dimly I can conjure up the rudimentary, line-drawing illustration that accompanied the text. I’m betting “solstice” had been on that week’s spelling test, too. Sound familiar?

Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if Mr. Phelps, our natty, bowtied, horn-rimmed glasses science teacher, had exclaimed: “Think about it, boys and girls,” his voice rising in excitement.* “Our shared ancestors knew about the winter solstice because they noticed it! They noted, they studied, they watched the world around them, the seasons, the weather, the night sky. They figured out a way to keep track of what they’d observed. Think about it!”

Here’s what most moves me about this simple, elegant fact about those ancient souls: That we’ll never know who first figured out this “turning year” phenomena. But I’m guessing the cumulative observations leading to our understanding were collaborative, communal; I’m guessing women and children participated in that ancient data collection.

And, today, right now, December 21, 2017,  it brings me to tears to be reminded that our greedy, selfish, warring species can also be curious. Such a simple yet wondrous quality of being human. Yes.

A Winter Blessing
By Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker

In the shadowed quiet of winter’s light
earth speaks softly
of her longing.
Because the wild places are in tears.

Come, she cries to us.
Kneel down here
on the frosty grass,
and feel the prayer buried in the ground.

Bend your ear to my heart
and listen hard.

Love this world, she whispers.
Distill peace from the snow
and water the cities
with mercy.

Weave wonder from the forest
and clothe grief
with beauty.

Rest in the rhythm of the turning year,
Trace the bending arc
Rounding the curve toward justice.
And vow anew to do no harm.

The winter trees stand watch
haloed in the last gleams of the slanting sun.
Glory sings here.
Heaven echoes the call:
Repeat the sounding joy.

Make your life an answer:
Bow.
Praise.
Rise.

*For all his bowtie primness, Mr. Phelps was, on occasion, passionate. His marveling that the Russians had launched Sputnik was both unexpectedly adorable and illustrative; that my Cold War-era teacher had been so gaga about this historic event taught me something fundamental about science.

“Right There I’m Sort Of Glued Together”

Last week, doing warrior pose in yoga class, I remembered how, right after Trump had been elected, my usual teacher,  Annie Hoffman, was out of town—so we’d had a sub that day. A wonderful teacher, the sub had prepared a themed class; a series of poses and movements readying us to become women warriors. “Cool idea,” I thought; my body felt differently. Moving slower and slower as if weighted down, I finally stopped altogether.

“What’s going on?” the teacher asked.

“I’m not ready to be a warrior yet,” I realized. “I’m still too sad.” ( So she Immediately set me up in a restorative pose. Where I cried. And felt my muscles twitch and relax.)

Since the tax bill vote I’ve been in a funk. (Yes, today’s news from Alabama is definitely lifting my spirits!) After a year of being a warrior, though, I no longer deny my occasional need to crawl under my quilt for twenty-four hours. “Re-covery,” my yoga teacher quips.

When in this melancholy state, a favorite Rilke poem, “Title Poem” from The Voices, always comes to mind (Eerily apt vis a vis that tax bill, yes?) :

It's OK for the rich and the lucky to keep still, 

no one wants to know about them anyway. 

But those in need have to step forward, 

have to say: I am blind, 

or: I'm about to go blind, 

or: nothing is going well with me, 

or: I have a child who is sick, 

or: right there I'm sort of glued together. . . 

And probably that doesn't do anything either. 

They have to sing, if they didn't sing, everyone 
would walk past, as if they were fences or trees. 

That's where you can hear good singing. 

People really are strange: they prefer 
to hear castratos in boychoirs. 

But God himself comes and stays a long time 
when the world of half-people start to bore him. 

Between the Lines

A Puddled Crosswalk in Harvard Square; November, 2017

Saturday after sunset, driving back to Massachusetts from Vermont, it began to rain. I hate, hate, hate driving in rain and dark!* But even more, as I explained to my husband—who’d driven the north-bound trip that morning—I hate being “an indolent wife.” So, gripping the steering wheel at 10:00 and 2:00, I pressed southward.

Traffic on I-89 and, eventually, I-93 fairly light, headlights from opposing traffic and beside us provided just enough light to see the white lane lines; definitely a “Light that is given” experience! “All you gotta do,” I coached myself,” is keep the car between those lines as the highway reveals itself, yard by yard.” (And, oh, yeah, keep an eye out for the red tail-lights of night-vision-impaired drivers in front of you going way, way less than sixty-five miles an hour!)

Super-focused, I nevertheless registered a sense of liberation—joy, even—as everything fell away save my one immediate assignment. Everything! Nothing else mattered. I felt held by those lane lines. I felt enormous gratitude for interstate infrastructure!

A couple of times the rain let up, allowing a long-buried memory to surface and to give additional context to my existential experience: When I was a teenager I actually volunteered to visit my town’s church youth groups to tell adolescent Baptists or Episcopalians about my faith. (Why in the world—or, rather, in Lynchburg, Virginia, where my family was living in those days—did I do that?!) A Unitarian-Universalist back then, pretty sure I said something snarky about the Bible because during the Q and A, one of the youth group’s advisors pushed back. “When you go on a road trip you use a map, right?” he said. “So why don’t you use the Bible as your guide?” Pretty sure I countered with something lofty and callow about knowing I could trust a map maker. (And, yes, there was some truth to that man’s question. It’s taken almost sixty years for me to see that!)

Yes, I reflected in the dark. I still trust map makers. Or, in the case of right now, I trust the engineers who designed this wet, noir highway. And I am so grateful for the workmen who laid down these life-saving lines I follow.

I can trust, too, that more Light will be given. Yard by yard. I don’t need to see all of it. I will be given Enough.

 

 

 

*I am not yet a candidate for cataract surgery. But like most people my age, such surgery is in my future.