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)
One of my neighbors teaches at Harvard Divinity School, a fifteen minute walk. So I often see him pass by on his sidewalk commute. Yesterday morning and, again, today, he walked past slowly, head bowed, his tall, gangly body folding into itself, into his grief. Yes. His grief. You know and I know what news he woke up to yesterday. You know and I know what is breaking his heart. We know what crushes him. It crushes us all. Again? Again? Dear God.
Just before my turn to speak at a parole hearing last week, a story came to me; a story I hoped might convey what I wanted to say. So, after telling the parole board after my meeting’s Wednesday night sharing circle, I concluded by saying something like this:
“One of the founders of our circle, OG*, often comes late. He does construction so it’s hard for him to get to the sharing circle, which begins at 7:00, until it has already started. So, because he’s so important to our community, we always put out an extra chair. Now, you might say “That’s OG’s seat.” You might say “That’s Elijah’s chair.” Or you might say that every week, our circle is saving the space for redemption, for transformation.”
Honestly? From where I sat, only one bit of all that verbiage resonated: That OG did construction! I could see the parole board take that (seemingly minor) detail in. Nod their heads. “Ah, yes,” those nods seemed to say. “Returning citizens do construction. That’s how the world works.” And, those nods also seemed to say, “This white-haired Quaker is connected to people like OG. Who is real. So this circle she’s describing seems to be real. And an actual possibility for X, if we decide to grant him parole. Oh.”
So, no, those precious words, redemption,transformation? They didn’t carry the water. A seemingly insignificant detail did. Oh.
“Words, words, words, I’m so sick of words,” wails Eliza Doolittle. Me, too, sometimes. For no matter how well-chosen or apt, sometimes words are merely background noise while whatever truth welling up within us finds language to make itself understood.
Saturday night, for example, was the “staged reading” of a play I’m working on, i.e. a performance solely dependent on the words the actors read aloud. No sets, no costumes, no bits o’ business, no lighting; no stagecraft! Just words. Lots of them. As four actors holding three-ring binders sat in front of my Quaker meeting’s meetinghouse.
At intermission —or “halftime” as my husband says—a member of the audience came up to me. “I think this is a play about how we know things,” he said. (You could almost hear the capital K as he pronounced “know”) “That’s something I’ve been thinking about, lately.”
And, yes, my play did offer several examples of just what he was talking about. But, clearly, he’d heard an echo of a question he’d brought through the meetinghouse door that night. A profound question—and alive for him right now. So he heard what he heard.
How do we listen in tongues? How do we hear beyond/beneath/(in spite of) what we know? That’s the question alive for me right now.
This summer, I am pretending to be the Jane Goodall of swallows. I sit on my deck sipping iced coffee and watch their silver underbellies dart and circle above me. I note swallows’ different altitudes on different mornings and hypothesize why. I note clouds, weather, what’s in bloom in my back yard. I plan to make meaning of what I watch.
But, you say, why don’t you simply go online, go to the library? You could read what the real Jane Goodalls of swallows have already observed; everything you don’t understand, all swallows’ peculiarities and behaviors will be nicely explained for you!
Yes, I know. Not seeking others’ info is the whole idea! Imbedded in that “I plan to make meaning” statement are a whole bunch of adverbs. Like “Haphazardly.” Like “Randomly.” Like “Sketchily.” Like “definitely not Type A-ishly.” And, most important, “Reverently.” (And let me just note how indulgent it was to write out that string of adverbs—which I tend to avoid because they are considered the sign of a second-rate writer.)
What liberation to let my own eyes and ears—and heart—be my primary source!
I was ten years old the first time I saw “Friendly Persuasion”— at a small-town movie theater in upstate New York.* Surrounded by classmates and friends, devouring, sating myself on an entire box of Welch’s Pom Poms, I watched lots of movies at that movie theater. Kids did that in those days.
Later in my life, after I had become a Quaker, I watched that 1956 movie again and was pretty horrified by this schmaltzy version of Jessamyn West’s best seller. But by then I’d understood enough about child development—and movie making—to realize that this “In Magnificent Colour” feature, with its simpy theme song sung by simpy Pat Boone and its other Hollywoodisms, had nevertheless made a real and lasting impression. About war. About the challenges of living out one’s faith. And, to some degree, about what it means to be a Quaker.
So last week, when I spotted a used copy of Jessamyn West’s short stories for sale at my Quaker meeting, I eagerly bought it, curious about this Quaker writer who may be better known these days as a distant cousin of Richard Nixon than as an accomplished writer in her own right/write. And as a Quaker writer, myself, I was also curious if I’d discover overt or covert references to her faith in her writing.
What a beautiful writer! For the past week I’ve been sating myself as if devouring Pom Poms again. A fairly frequent visitor to southern California, I have especially relished her exquisite descriptions of Inland Empire wildlife and small-farm family life as it once was.
But, no, I haven’t come across much “Quakerly” writing—but perhaps I’ve missed them. Because, as you will see, West was a SLY Quaker writer:
“My God, my God,” Mr. Fosdick said.
Mr. Fosdick used the name of God, Christ, Jesus, heaven, hell, the devil, and damnation very often. I wouldn’t exactly call it cursing. It was more as if he felt himself the resident of a universe where there were more powers and personalities than were visible, and that this was his courteous way of letting them know that he was aware of them and was trying to include them in his life. (from “Up A Tree”)
*Think “Bedford Falls”—which was actually Seneca Falls, NY—from “It’s A Wonderful Life”
[“The Science Behind Pixar” exhibit, Museum of Science, Boston, MA; 2015]
WordPress, which makes this site possible, recently alerted me to a pending comment that had confused its algorithms. And when I investigated I could see why. Because, yes, the source was actually an auto insurance company, i.e. spam. But the comment, re being a white ally, was actually right on: “A slick response to a complicated question,” a wise soul at that company had noted. (Or words to that effect.) Ouch!
So while I decided to delete that self-promoting communication—and its link to a business—I am also reflecting on its accurate observation. Yup. Guilty as charged. Sometimes these posts are facile. Sometimes they are simply recording where I am; more discernment is required. Always. And, always, they are written by a white and privileged and incredibly blessed woman whose assessment of The Big Picture is as limited as that blind man holding the elephant’s tail.
“Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” Jesus coached his disciples. Which I take to mean: While life is complicated and often dangerous, an open, loving, and childlike sensibility is absolutely necessary. Which I also take to mean: pray. “Pray without ceasing,” Paul counseled. Be still and know that I am God.
So, Dear Readers (and car insurance companies), please keep in mind that whatever I write here is, as Quakers love to put it, “the Light we/I am given.” (And more shall be given to you/me.)