“More powers and personalities than are visible”

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[Chevy Hubcap; San Diego, 2015]

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”

“It’s Complicated”

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[“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.)

Always.

Their, There, They’re

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[“Guitar Shop Sign,” Somerville, MA]

As a writer—and clumsy typist—I generally double-check that my electronic communications are grammatically correct and not misspelled before clicking “Send ” or “Post.” Especially when being judged—like querying a potential literary agent.  But lately on Facebook I’m noticing a trend among some of my FB friends (lovely and intelligent people, of course) who natter on and on about who’s and whose as if getting these words mixed up were A Very Big Deal!

Sure: if you’re submitting your resume and cover letter or writing for publication/public scrutiny, you don’t want to look inept or careless or, God forbid, stupid. Sure, in those situations, spelling and grammar count.  They matter. But when you’re on the T, on deadline, texting, exhausted, trying to get an email off while making dinner, the kids yelling in the next room? Not so much. Moderately.

Sometimes when I read another FB poster waxing wroth re their and there and they’re I get uncomfortable. Because, in this age of texting, in this time when messin’ with spellin’ especially around names (Mo’ Nique, B2K, Curren$y), is so much a part of who we are, now, sometimes I think what I’m actually witnessing is White Entrenchment.

Or, as Tema Okum would put it: “White Supremacy Culture: Specifically: “Worship of the Written Word.”

Here’s a relevant excerpt from her handout (obviously developed for organizations and agencies to think about ):

  • if it’s not in a memo, it doesn’t exist
  • the organization does not take into account or value other ways in which information gets shared
  • those with strong documentation and writing skills are more highly valued, even in organizations where ability to relate to others is key to the mission.

She goes on to suggest these antidotes:

  • Take the time to analyze how people inside and outside the organization get and share information; figure out which things need to be written down and come up with alternative ways to document what is happening; work to recognize the contributions and skills that every person brings to the organization (for example, the ability to build relationships with those who are important to the organization’s mission); make sure anything written can be clearly understood (avoid academic language, ‘buzz’ words, etc.)

Let me VERY clear: My (lefty, Quaker, most of them, ethical, righteous) friends would be horrified to think of themselves as “white supremacists.” Of course!

I’m not saying they are. Here’s what I’m saying: if we really believe in diversity, in equality, in multiculturalism; if we truly believe we can and ought to do a better job of sharing resources and opportunities than those currently in power; if the year 2042 doesn’t make us break out into a cold sweat, then we need to stop sweating the small stuff.

Yeah, there is enormous ignorance out there right now. But instead of judging those who don’t differentiate between its and it’s, let’s remember King’s “content of their character.”

Beginning with our own.

 

I Am Waiting for a Story.

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[Random: Windsor Street, Cambridge, MA]

I’m waiting for an ancient, timeless, forgotten story to find me. How it will come to me will be mysterious, random; I know that much. This story may come via a dream. Or I’ll hear just the right notes in just the right order and played on just the right instrument—tuneless notes, maybe, high-pitched, and sung by my granddaughter—that my heart will hear and whisper, “Yes. Here they are. Here are the vibrations you have been waiting for. Now you can remember.” And then I’ll write that story down.

So I am listening. And waiting with an open heart.

(No post next week; look for a new post in a couple of weeks.)

 

What I Might Have Said

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[A Beacon on a Beacon Street Sidewalk, Somerville, MA, 2015]

A week ago I held a “No War in Iran” sign at a peace demonstration near US Congressman Mike Capuano’s office. Although engrossed, lately, in issues that feel far more immediate and urgent and, yes, that I am called to do, that horrific sound of The War Machine once again revving its powerful, deadly engine compelled me to show up. So I did.

Halfway through the hour long demonstration—on a crowded sidewalk at lunchtime in front of a mall and office building complex—one of the MoveOn organizers passed around a mic and invited the forty or so protesters to say something. One right after another, five or six men made cogent, impassioned speeches.

“Why is it only men?” I marveled aloud. Overhearing me, an older man invited me to speak. Twice.

Reader: Although that kind man’s repeated invitation felt genuine and inclusive, I declined.

Why?

Mostly, Dear Reader, because what I was feeling and what I longed to say aloud wasn’t cogent, it wasn’t linear, it wasn’t about facts about Iran. No, what I wanted to talk about would have been rambling and quite possibly incoherent unless worked on, edited, rewritten, read aloud; my usual writing process.

Most likely what I would have shared would have been about what had JUST happened a few minutes before, when two lovely, young, elegantly-dressed women had come up to me and said, “Thank you. We’re from Iran.” And how I’d grabbed them and hugged them and, probably to their confusion (or, possibly, their horror) I’d called them “My sisters!” And how I’ve been protesting wars for over fifty years but have never actually hugged someone from Vietnam or Iraq or Afghanistan or . . . at a peace demonstration.  And how, having physically touched those two women, I was feeling my deep and profound and chromosomal connection to the women and children everywhere!

But I also could have expressed my impatience, my indignation to once again show up to protest another @#$%^&* war! “I got things to do!” I could have declared, arms on hips—which would have made holding a mic pretty tricky. “Like the rest of you, I’m working on urgent, in-your-face, this system’s broken; roll up your sleeves stuff! Like climate change. Like our broken criminal justice system. We don’t have time for another war!”

Most of all I would have wanted to clutch that mic, stared out at the crowd with earnest, beseeching eyes, and in a tremulous voice talked about how War and Climate Change and BlackLivesMatter and all the other ways we ignore and deny and desecrate our Wholeness and Interconnectedness reveal our collective brokenness. And how, with every breath, we must acknowledge that Wholeness, that Light.  And let it guide us.

(How do you think that would’ve gone over? Yeah. Me, too.)

“Own It!”

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[People’s Climate March, September 21, 2014]

On a cold and rainy evening a couple of weeks I walked to Porter Square Books to hear James Wood, book reviewer for The New Yorker, give a reading. During the Q & A, one woman raved about a novel he’d written years ago. Renowned critic of other people’s novels (his piece on Penelope Fitzgerald means he’s aka as “Household God” to me), Wood pooh-poohed his early-on book. In so many words he said, “I could write a much better novel now. I’m older and wiser.”

What? Huh? Household God’s use of wiser irked me. But because James Wood is someone I revere, walking home after the reading I spent some time thinking about why his word-choice bothered me so. And realized, rain drumming my umbrella, my discomfort wasn’t about him. But about me.

am unable to stand in a public place, fifty or sixty people seated in front of me, and declare that I am wise. have always inserted the mollifying “dare I say it?” before using the word wise when speaking of myself. Always. Unequivocally.

This ain’t false modesty. I really DO not feel worthy. Hoary-headed though I be, I am not yet able to own my wisdom. (Yet I am proud enough of my insightful and wise novel, Welling Up, to endure the rejection and yawny indifference and heartbreak of trying to get it published?!)

My own backstory : a few years ago I bought a fire-engine red, cotton, broad-brimmed hat from Davis Squared. Too broad-brimmed, maybe? I certainly felt conspicuous wearing it; that’s for sure. But when I told the (young and hip and model-worthy gorgeous) store’s owner how I felt she just shook her head: “Own it,” she advised.

Here are two (ahem) wise things I wish to say about owning it, about really embracing my wisdom:

1. This is about gender. Were James Wood a woman I think I would have reacted differently. (A clue: This past Sunday, a man at meeting for worship used the word wise to explain where “we” aging, spiritual people are developmentally. And again I bristled.)

2. This is about time and reflection and prayer. It took me years to write Welling Up. Off the cuff, off-balance, overwhelmed, I am usually ridiculous.

How fortuitous that in Quaker circles I can sit and vacantly stare into space as I ponder whatever’s before the group—collective wisdom is Good Stuff—and only if clear, wipe the bit o’ saliva that may have dribbled as I pondered, and say something!

 

 

 

 

To Slog: elucidated

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[“Quaker Notes”]

As I’ve recently noted to a loyal reader of this blog, I am currently engaged in what I call The Slog, i.e. the process of sending off query letters to agents and publishers so as to find a good home for Welling Up. It’s an apt word, slog, for all its pithy four-letterness, meaning both toil—oh, yeah!—but also to walk “with a slow, labored gait.” Again: oh, yeah!

Etymologically, slog and slug seem to share common ancestry, also apt. Because query letters are, basically, trying to grab super-busy people’s shoulders; getting their attention, hitting them hard: “Hey! You! Yeah, you! Listen up! Do I have a book for you!”

And, yes, I’m braced for those super-busy people to slug me back, so to speak, with indifference or polite, rote phrases: “Thank you for interest but . . . ” Rejection is integral to The Slog. (And this is not my first rodeo.)

‘Course the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting something different. The Slog will not continue indefinitely; Plan B will tap me on the shoulder when she’s good and ready.

But meanwhile, while she’s polishing her nails or getting her hair done or whatever Plan B needs to do before making her grand entrance I plan to slog, to walk slowly and as I’ve been urged to do, cheerfully.*

 

“Walk cheerfully over the world answering that of God in everyone.” George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends (Quakers); 1656

 

 

 

Quality Quality of Life

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[“Wellness Ambassador,” RiteAid pharmacy]

Having just finished Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, heartily recommended, I’ve been giving that “what matters” some thought.

It’s been an excellent week to be asking this question: I’ve been out of town a lot lately so am looking at my home and my life with the eye of the returning traveler. And it’s one of those crunch times when too many important things must happen within a couple of days of one another. And I’ve been both sick and a little jet-lagged so am not really bringing my A game to my extra-long-because I’ve-been-out-out-town To Do list. So need to cull, prioritize. And, of course, the earthquake in Nepal and the headlines re Baltimore—and the headlines about those headlines—both weight heavy on my heart and ask me to look at my life, my choices from a larger, tragic perspective.

What matters? (And will be accessible as I age.)  Here are my Top 4:

1. Silent worship/opening myself to Spirit. Dare I confess that only because I’d agreed to meet someone after mid-week worship at my Quaker meeting yesterday morning* did I find myself sitting in silence with handful of people? (I guess I do.) After about ten minutes I was asking myself, “How come I don’t come here every week?”

2. Spending dedicated, unobstructed, no-distractions time with the people I love. Duh.

3. Nature–even the urban version I see and hear through my kitchen window. The wind through my wind chimes, watching clouds or a sparrow at my bird feeder matter. They feed me.

4. Writing. If I am not working on/mulling/stewing over a writing project I get very, very crabby. (And, strangely, anxious, too. Not sure why that is).  Good to know, right?

What would be Your Top 4?

 

* Don’t get the wrong idea; we did not discuss spiritual matters. But rather how to self-promote now that I’ve just finished a book. Hmmm.

What do you see?

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This past rainy, rainy Sunday, I had the great joy to visit the Brooklyn Museum in the company of three daughters, three sons-in-law, three grandchildren and one husband. Keeping that large a crowd, two under the age of six, together, engaged and not touching the art–sometimes the adults were as bad as the kids—was a challenge but (mostly) we did fine.

This was my second visit to the museum; I was eager to again experience two features of the museum: that it attracts a diverse crowd (sadly, most of my museum experiences in Boston have been pretty much Whites Only) and, oh, yes, Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party,” pictured above. (Immediately after taking that picture I was gently scolded for using a flash. Oops.)

My Brooklyn-based daughter now takes school-aged kids through the museum every week so at some stops along the way, she would ask family members open-ended questions to further help us to appreciate what we were seeing.

So, inspired by her There Are NO Right or Wrong Answers probing, here are a couple of questions about the above photograph:

What do you notice about the plates?

Why do you suppose, of all thirty-nine places at this dinner party, the photographer chose to feature Virginia Woolf and Georgia O’Keeffe?

Why do you suppose the artists who made the embroidered runners chose those particular colors for those particular women?

Who do you see in the background? Why do you think that woman is carrying that child?

 

 

TTP

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“Trust the process,” a dear elder of my Meeting counseled years ago. (She was NOT talking about this year’s mid-term elections.) She meant the slow and meandering and often exasperating process Quakers go through during decision-making deliberations.

I’d like to add another couple of words to slow and meandering and exasperating. They’re the two words my writer friends and I use to describe when we’re in all-over-the-place yet in-the-dark, when we allow ourselves to become totally non-linear and illogical, to vacantly stare at our computer screen or a sheet of paper or the ceiling for whole minutes at a time to then, maybe, jot down one or two words or—Oh, Wow! —an entire idea and then to immediately delete whatever we wrote and jot down something else. Something completely different.

Noodling around.

Trust noodling around as a part of that decision-making process, too. Trust messy moments when right brains and left brains tussle. Trust that when your committee or group of business meeting seem to be going circles, that just maybe something quite amazing is about to emerge. (Or, yeah, you ARE just going around a circles! So trust good clerks or facilitators to make good judgments.) Trust that Spirit can be in those moments, too.

Trust the process.

Yearning for Light

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Yesterday, with much help from my patient and ever-helpful husband, I moved my writing desk to the third floor—and away from the phone and the distractions of email and the Internet. (Yes. The draft I’m currently working on I’m writing by hand.) To further simulate a writing space where Jane Austen or George Sand might have composed, a brass, wind-up clock I’d bought at a yard sale sits on my desk, too, its gentle ticks calming me as I work.

My desk just fits in a little alcove under a skylight. So when I’m stuck—which happens every five minutes or so—my eyes travel upward to watch clouds or circling swallows or the wind move through the tops of trees across the street. At one such stuck moment yesterday, I noticed a tiny green bug hurtling itself against the skylight screen. The next stuckness; there that bug was, again. Preoccupied with my work—What does this character want? What’s motivating this character?—it took me a few such stucknesses to realize that the bug was trying to get out. Throwing itself against that screen again and again. Moving towards light.

As is, I realized, my character!

Thanks bug. Thanks, Light.

“The Deepest Thing Inside”*

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Last Saturday I took the 83 bus, which was running late, to an all-day workshop on restorative justice circles** in Cambridge. Seated across from me was an elderly, well-dressed African American man; he was also blind. When the bus approached the intersection of Beacon and Washington Streets, he pushed the call button indicating he wanted to get off. The bus maneuvered towards the bus stop but was stuck in heavy traffic. So I had plenty of time to notice a young, heavy-set African-American man in a denim jacket and jeans, clearly agitated, who paced the sidewalk maybe ten feet ahead of the bus. “What’s his story?,” I wondered. (And, yes, my Flight or Flight was definitely triggered—not bigtime—but I was a little wary, shall we say?)

When the bus stopped, as the blind man, guided by his cane, slowly and carefully walked from his seat and approached the opened bus door, the agitated man brightened and quickly moved to the left side of the door so that when the elderly man stepped off onto the curb, the young man gently and tenderly took his arm and the two began walking slowly towards the corner.

“Why don’t more people tell stories like that!” I wondered as the bus pulled away.

So I did.

Naomi Shihab NyeNaomi Shihab Nye

* “Kindness”

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.Before you know kindness as the deepest thing
inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

 

**Because as my F/friend Lynn says: “If we’re going to change the criminal justice system we have to come up with an alternative.”