Years ago I taught a women’s writing class which met in the cafeteria of a nearby elementary school. Working-class mothers of grown children and longtime residents of Somerville, Suzanne, Gladys, Harriet, and Mary were blessed, as was I, their rookie teacher, that Irene, born and raised in Boston’s North End, showed up on Tuesday nights, too. Tiny, with knowing, amused, button eyes and a wry wit, every week Irene told beguiling, detail-rich stories from her “Little Italy” childhood which, no matter what the in-class prompt, she could instantly scribble. Given Irene’s star power, maybe it wasn’t surprising that when it was Suzanne’s turn to share, she’d begin with “This stinks!”
Except that it didn’t. Mother of eight and grandmother of many, whose unhappy relationship with her adoptive mother and father was strongly hinted at but never spelled out, Suzanne was a sensuous writer. ( I once told one of her daughters that; not well-received information!) Suzanne felt. Deeply. She probed. She mused. She speculated on paper. Like her foggy childhood, what she offered aloud each week was through-a glass-darkly. And brief: maybe five or six sentences to Irene’s scribbled page, page and a half. But true; painfully true, sometimes. Had she enough time—and her own thesaurus (something I’m only now wondering about)—would she have felt more satisfaction with her work? I’d like to think so.
Re-entering my writing life after nearly a year, I’m remembering Suzanne’s self-assessment. Yup. Compared to every gifted writer I’ve ever read, this stinks, too. As I again begin to hone my craft, may Suzanne’s humility and, much more importantly, her integrity inform whatever I can do.
Recently, as bombs continue to hit civilian targets in Ukraine, someone posted this deeply moving video.
The last time I’d sung this version of “Finlandia” had been in 2008, in Cuba. A member of a small group of American Quakers visiting that beleaguered* country, our group joined the Gibara Friends Church congregation to sing this song of peace together—first in Spanish, then in English.
And I shall never forget, as we’d all sung the Spanish words to But other hearts in other lands are beating/ With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine, how one Cuban Quaker woman and I locked eyes. And nodded. And smiled.
THIS IS MY SONG
This is my song,
O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
But other hearts in other lands are beating
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
And sunlight beams on clover- leaf and pine.
But other lands have sunlight too and clover,
And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
Oh, hear my song, O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for their land and for mine.
To the melody of Finlandia — Lyrics by Lloyd Stone
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!
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!
[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.
[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.
Turns out Byron was right. Turns out I just finished a new one I’m very excited about, MissingReels, currently looking for a happy home. Turns out I’ve already begun research on another one. Turns out, Spirit is generous. As in generative. Replenishing. And, like grace, unexpected.
But, although excited about another project, I am not yet ready to, you know, write. Which means more time to catch up with family, spend time with a new friend going through a medical challenge, mull, ponder, noodle. More time to inhabit that place of uncertainty and confusion out of which comes Something. Something that needs time and thought and energy to come to life. More time to think more deeply about how, so often for me, anger is the genesis for a new project—but to actively wonder what might come forth should I delve more deeply into what sadness might produce?
We talk about “speaking truth to power”; sometimes using just the right words, even if they’re highfalutin’, can be enormously clarifying. Like “false equivalency.” I am loving how, with greater and greater frequency, the media is calling out out the Right’s “Well, how ’bout . . . ” specious arguments. Which have confounded me for years but, until recently, never had language to understand—and name—this maddening “logic.”
But that’s so much about East Coast, New Yorker subscriber, writerly me! Who loves words—even five syllable ones. But when I acknowledge that, I am quickly brought up short. Because I find myself wondering how such multi-syllabic language plays on Fox News? And aren’t I being elitist? Aren’t I being snotty about my Red State fellow Americans? Who maybe love words just as much as I? And can recognize apple/oranges just as well as I can?
Palm Sunday I was walking towards Friends Meeting at Cambridge (FMC) when I caught sight of a small procession outside the Swedenborg Chapel. Or, as a little boy walking along Kirkland Street near me exclaimed to his father, “It’s a little parade!” Members of an African-originated faith group, I’m guessing, the singing procession-members wore white clothing and red hats and, waving palm fronds, marched single-file along the chapel’s sidewalk behind one of their members who held a carved, wooden cross a foot or so above his head.
As we stood together watching this procession across the street I wondered: Will the father tell his child the story behind this little parade? He did not. So, I confess, I actually considered telling it, myself (Yikes!). But, thank you Jesus, instantly I realized the pair would simply dismiss me as crazy, a zealot, a weird old lady—so kept my mouth shut. And, soon, off they and I went in different directions.
Sitting in deliciously-long silent worship at FMC, I realized that the next time I’d be sitting in that space would be Saturday, April 2oth, at my mother’s memorial—where plenty of Pat Wild stories, celebratory and bittersweet, would be told. (Wilds are storytellers.) And about Story. And about the story I’d been tempted to tell on Kirkland Street. About why I’d been tempted. (More about Story has come since.)
On Sunday I realized a couple of things. My impulse to share the Palm Sunday story had been about my belief that it’s important to listen to the Stories most meaningful to our friends and neighbors. (Such gratitude for Robin Wall Kimmerer and all she has taught me about origin stories.) I shared this belief with my Sunday school students—high school students—when we studied the Bible. “This book, which early Quakers knew very well, remains incredibly important to millions of people throughout the world,” I told them. “Your lives will be filled with references to this book. So whether or not you believe every word, as world citizens you’re going to need to have at least a cursory understanding. Otherwise, you’re going to miss a lot.”
Had that father not explained why those beautifully-clad, dark-skinned people across the street waved those palms and sang because he didn’t know? Or, perhaps, he did know, maybe better than I, but bore such pain around twenty-first century Christianity that he chose to remain silent? His silence invited me, sitting in silence, to go deeper about that story. And suddenly I realized something.
In storytelling there’s a device known as “a McGuffin”: a thing or a situation important to a character but which listeners (or moviegoers), who know more about how the story is unfolding than the character does, care nothing about. (The most famous example is the envelope filled with money Janet Leigh steals in Psycho. That envelope is a McGuffin.) Thinking about the Palm Sunday story, I suddenly wondered if, perhaps, Jesus’s triumphant entrance into Jerusalem isn’t a McGuffin.
Because why’s he going there? To celebrate Passover. We tell Jesus’s triumphant entrance with such sadness—because we know what will happen later in the week. We know how this story ends. Jesus didn’t. A Jew, he was observing one of his faith’s most significant rituals by deciding to join his dearest friends to collectively remember The Exodus Story. (And what a powerful Story!)
So, now, okay, here’s where my Wild DNA kicks in; I am compelled to leave this tale better than I found it. Why did Jesus pick Jerusalem to celebrate Passover? Well, because those famous sisters, Mary and Martha, who’d patched up their differences and had agreed to perform the pre-Passover cleansing rituals together, to cook together, and discuss theology with Jesus together while their brother, Lazarus, did the washing up, had invited Jesus and his followers. (Their hometown of Bethany’s near Jerusalem. I looked it up.)
The denouement: As I write this, the world mourns the terrible destruction of Paris’s Notre Dame cathedral, an ancient, wondrous edifice I, like so many, have visited and been awed by—so much so that whenever I despair of my species, I remind myself, “Well, at least humans built Notre Dame.”
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.
I am writing to express my opposition to this proposed rule change.
[Okay, fine. That’s the standard stuff. But what should I say? “Write from your place of strength,” an immigration advocate coached a group of us letter-writers recently.
What’s mine? Do I note that because of the fear these proposed changes are causing, providers of greater-Boston health care services note a 5 to 10% drop in people coming to their clinics? So, for example, people aren’t getting flu shots? And how that makes me very nervous to get on public transportation or shop at my neighborhood supermarket? Or how I am fearful how these changes, designed to instill fear and insecurity, will adversely effect the wonderful, upbeat people, most of them from other countries, who work at my mother’s long-term care facility?
Absolutely not! Public Charge isn’t about white, privileged me or my white, privileged family! It’s about the Trump Administration rewriting Emma Lazarus‘s poem to read, “We only want you if you’re young, healthy, wealthy, and speak English.”
No, my place of strength is the same place as so many of those who these proposed changes would exclude: I am a grandmother. I know how my family needs me. I know how my family relies on me. I know how the stories I tell my grandchildren, my “These are some of the men and women who came before you; here’s what they thought was important” narratives anchor my family. I know how grandparents’ (free) childcare makes it possible for both parents to work. Grandparents cast a long shadow in ways I can speak to. Grandparents make this country work in ways few understand or acknowledge.
But I better get to work. These letters, which can be as short as 250 words, are due by December 10, 2018.]
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)