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.”

“A Sort of Salvation”

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[A Palm Springs, CA decorator’s store window]

 

Yesterday was my 69th birthday. And although I’d just gotten back from a wonderful, restful, super-fun vacation and received many, many generous, thoughtful gifts and sweet phone calls and cards (several hand-made) and e-mails, my natal day was a little hard. Jet lag and probably coming down with something and lingering doubts re my decision to no longer write for First Day Press and, after sorting a week’s worth of mail, to pick up the latest issue of The New Yorker and to absolutely, gut-wrenchingly KNOW that I don’t have enough time left to reach the writing achievement of an Alice Munro or an Adam Gopnik—can you understand why it was a little hard?

But as the late afternoon sun began to fade, I received another gift: a visitation from my Muse. Just like William Stafford’s experience,my Muse reminded me that I have my own way of looking at things. Unlike Stafford’s drama queen, however, my Muse chose to gently,  lovingly fill me. No belled-forth voice, no buzzing glasses; no. Just a sense of Light deep within me and a small, still voice whispering: “Keep pluggin’.”

* When I Met My Muse

I glanced at her and took my glasses
off–they were still singing. They buzzed
like a locust on the coffee table and then
ceased. Her voice belled forth, and the
sunlight bent. I felt the ceiling arch, and
knew that nails up there took a new grip
on whatever they touched. “I am your own
way of looking at things,” she said. “When
you allow me to live with you, every
glance at the world around you will be
a sort of salvation.” And I took her hand.

“Where the Words Come From”

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And afterwards feeling my mind covered with the spirit of prayer, I told the interpreters that I found it in my heart to pray to God and believed if I prayed right he would hear me, and expressed my willingness for them to omit interpreting; so our meeting ended with a degree of divine love. And before the people went out I observed Papunehang (the [Native-American] man who had been zealous in labouring for a reformation in that town, being then very tender) spoke to one of the interpreters, and I was afterward told he said in substance as follows:” I love to feel where the words come from.” John Woolman, 1762

 

I do, too. And in this season of thanksgiving, sing a joyful hymn of praise to that Source.

But:

Although that Source is infinite, my abilities are not. Specifically, winnowing what’s Good and True from Ego and Coffee-Buzz and “pink-cloud”* delusions takes time and prayer.  So I am no longer posting weekly for First Day Press.

I’ll let Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler elucidate:

Claudia said, “But, Mrs. Frankweiler, you should want to learn one new thing every day. We did even at the museum.”

“No,” I answered, “I don’t agree with that. I think you should learn, of course, and some days you must learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything. And you can feel it inside you. If you never take time out to let that happen, then you just accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you. You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them. it’s hollow.”

Next week, I shall take some time to let the things inside me swell up. So my next post will be December 3rd.

May you, in the coming weeks, find boundless—and unexpected?—things to be thankful for.

* A Twelve Step expression, meaning the high someone in recovery experiences in the early days of sobriety.  While not in recovery, myself (although we’re ALL recovering from something, right?), I truly understand this phenomenon. And how critically important humility is!

 

 

December 2, 2010: About Repeats

As I see it, the two most important things about repeats are so absurdly obvious that their implications can be easily overlooked. The plain but pregnant facts are, first, that a repeat allows a piece to be heard twice; and second, that it makes the music twice as long.

Hearing the music twice is an advantage if the piece is complex, subtle, original, profound and at the same time terse.

John Gibbons, liner notes, The Goldberg variations of Johann Sebastian Bach.

A terse writer, I copied out this passage years ago because I loved the string of adjectives preceding it.