Emergent

Saturday I attended the memorial for Paul Hood, a much revered peace activist and former member of Friends Meeting at Cambridge. Paul, who’d moved to Burlington, Vermont in the early eighties, had been an FMC superstar back in the late seventies—just when I first started to attend Quaker meetings. One Sunday, perhaps after he’d spoken during worship, someone whispered to me that he’d poured blood on Draper Labs, an apocryphal  story, probably; nevertheless, as a newbie, I was impressed. (And, certainly, like many other Quakers I have come to know and admire, Paul was arrested many, many times while doing civil disobedience in support of some deeply-felt cause.)

The pamphlet distributed at his memorial provided the genesis for his life-long peace activism: During WWII in the winter of 1944, he consulted with his minister who counseled him that he must serve his country and that it was in accordance with Christian faith; so, at the age of 17, having also obtained his mother’s permission, he enlisted in the US Marine Corps. Shortly after his deployment to Japan, in the battle for Okinawa, a fellow soldier died in his arms and Paul’s shock precipitated an enraged killing spree that, albeit sanctioned by his status as a soldier on the front line, left him horrified and ashamed.

I have heard versions of this story many times over the years; indeed, I have experienced—and written about—a far less dramatic yet still life-changing version myself. So on Sunday, in the quiet of silent worship, I spent time thinking about, you know, Redemption. Transformation. Do-Overs. And that perennial challenge, Self-Forgiveness.

And maybe because on Friday I’d released the four Painted Lady butterflies I’d watched grow from wriggly caterpillars, hourly poking my nose against their netted habitat to observe their latest miraculous development, I realized on Sunday that I was thinking different.

Non-binary, for sure. It’s not “Ocean of Darkness vs. Ocean of Light,” is it. The darkness becomes the light. Transformation—which, surely, is another God word—is always in movement, always in flux, sometimes forward, sometimes back, sometimes imperceptible. (The four chrysalises emanated such quiet strength I could sense their life-force yet nothing visibly moved.)

When I imagine self-forgiveness (Yikes), I’m stuck.

God isn’t.

 

 

 

Least of These

Somerville High School Temporary Ramp, March, 2019

There’s a wonderful cartoon depicting an elementary school entrance after a big snowstorm. A group of winter-garbed children, a couple in wheelchairs, wait at the foot of  the school’s ramp as the custodian shovels the school’s stairs, right next to the ramp. “If you shoveled the ramp first we could all get inside,” a child says.

A couple of weeks ago I remembered that cartoon while attending a memorial for Chuck Woodbury (1920-2018), beloved member of my Quaker meeting. Attentive father and grandfather, noted psychologist, ardent violinist, Chuck was also so hard of hearing that in his last years attending our meeting for worship, needed someone to sit beside him to write down the vocal ministry shared that morning. So it was fitting that at his memorial, people who wished to share a story about Chuck would stand and wait until the hand mic would be delivered. (This mic usage a first, I think.)

Two things happened because of this. Like all those children able to get inside their school, everyone could hear. Like those folks my age who, for now, may be pre-hearing aid—but not for long. Or, as so often happens, when a speaker dropped their voice at the end of a sentence—we all do that—anyone could catch those last three or four words. And because the woman tasked with delivering the mic walks slowly, we all had ample opportunity to reflect on the previous message and on what Chuck’s full, graced life meant for us.

How would this world be if “What will work for everyone?” were our guiding principle?And isn’t asking this question without ceasing another way to be a peacemaker?

 

 

 

Muscle Memory

[Patsy Cline’s salt and pepper collection, Patsy Cline Museum, Nashville, Tennessee]

A wonderful surprise happened in 2018: I made two new, wonderful friends, both in their seventies, too. Over tea last week with one, a fellow peace activist and feminist, we discovered that although we’d grown up in very different parts of the country, our families’ respective religions differed, and she’d grown up with more siblings than I, in one respect, her parents and mine were exactly the same. She and I, who’d both grown up in the fifties and early sixties, had both taken piano lessons. And ballroom dancing!

We snickered. And agreed that learning how to waltz or foxtrot was not something young people ascribed to anymore. She quoted that famous line: “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did—only backwards and in high heels.” And I shared a story from my thirties, when my then-husband and I—probably chemically enhanced, shall we say?—had crashed a big, fancy, neighborhood party one summer night, a party held in a tent and with a live band. Boldly I’d invited a neighbor I really, really admired to dance with me. Kind of shy, not a dancer, he’d hesitated: “Don’t worry, darlin’,” I’d assured him. “I’ll make you look good.” And I did. Because from my ballroom-dance classes, I knew how to balance my weight on the balls of my feet; how to lightly rest my left hand on my partner’s shoulder in order to sense whatever direction he would go, and in a split-second, feet poised to respond, to accommodate that movement—wherever!

What a dated, horrifying story! But it begs me to wonder: Do I still do that? Do I still, in ways I don’t even realize because it’s just what I was trained to do, do I still wait, poised to move in response to someone else? Do I accommodate? Dedicate myself to making someone else look good?

Hmmm.

 

 

One Small Thing

El Salvadoran mural featuring Monsenor Oscar Romero by Allison McKeller, December 7, 2007

I am delighted to report that the Friends Journal will publish my “Sweet Baby Jesus” on December 1st!

And that of the four choices I’d offered for the article’s accompanying illustration, they chose this mural! My favorite. Yes, it depicts sweet baby Jesus. (I love that his swaddling clothes are green. As in verdant, growing, life-giving.) And offers a visual tribute to liberation theology, referenced in my piece.

But to look at this mural, the same week asylum-seekers were tear-gassed at our border, is to be again reminded of Oscar Romero’s murder. We remember the upheavals and horrors of Central America—and our country’s role in those upheavals and horrors. We remember why people seek asylum. We remember.

 

Can We Hold All Of It?

Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, San Diego, CA; November, 2015

Can we hold all of it? Can we both honor the war dead and wonder why, dear God, are we still engaged in endless war? Can we both use words like sacrifice and courage and service with conviction and sincerity and compassion while asking ourselves, are there other words I could be saying, too? Illuminating words? Game-changing words? Words that come from a deep and wise and loving place? Can we both grieve and resent that we are?

I’m trying to. And have come to realize that since the death of my mother a month ago, I’ve been practicing this spiritual balancing act. Because, yes, I mourn, yes, I miss her every day, yes, I’m sad, yes, I am grateful for all she imparted; how she’d modeled so many ways to be a strong, fulfilled woman. (Just writing fulfilled, a word she used all the time, makes me smile.) And yes, my relationship with Pat Wild was—and is— the most rich and complicated and challenging relationship I will ever have! So, yes, I am learning to hold all of it. Slowly. And sometimes failing, falling.

Meanwhile: The world just noted the one-hundredth anniversary of the end of “The Great War.” (aka “The War To End All Wars.”) Meanwhile: Veterans for Peace just reclaimed Armistice Day. Meanwhile, my mother’s unambiguous, clear, firm, posthumous message to me: be grateful.

 

Be Peace

Saturday afternoon, I’d gone to the 70th birthday party for a dear, dear F/friend, hosted by her dear, dear husband. Reluctantly. Jet-lagged after a wonderful trip to LA, overwhelmed by my ever-growing To Do List, and, most critically, horrified by the news from Pittsburgh, I wasn’t sure I was up to spending a rainy and chilly afternoon chitchatting.

But there are some friends who are so wonderful, so amazing, you just have to show up for them, right? So I did. And was immediately glad. Her two adult children, who’d gone to First Day School (Quaker-style Sunday School) with mine had come; it was wonderful to see them, again, and to hear about their intriguing, fulfilled lives. The food was plentiful and delicious. I caught up with other good friends. It was a wonderful party. Until . . .

I’d gone into the kitchen to get something to drink and there I met—let’s call him “Bob,” a grey-haired, older man and, like the rest of us, in New England fall weather garb. A neighbor of my F/friends, I’m guessing. And, I’m also guessing, had either been drinking or, sadly, as is the case with some of us over seventy, might have had “cognitive issues”?

Because here’s our conversation went: “You a Quaker?” I nodded. “You look like a Quaker.” And without pausing: “You know what I like about Quakers? I can beat the shit out of [our host] and he wouldn’t fight back.”

“Why would you want to beat the shit out of him?”

“Don’t analyze it!” he scolded.

“Why not?” I retorted. Sharply. “You tell me you want to beat the shit out of someone, I want to know why!”

But apparently Bob, besotted by his presumed freedom to beat the shit out of someone without resistance, wasn’t interested in engaging in meaningful dialogue! At least not with a woman he’d just met and who’d just challenged him. (And, yes, Dear Reader, it did briefly occur to me that Bob may very well be another aging, cis, white male perpetually bewildered and threatened by women like me who, you know, want to smash the patriarchy!) Shrugging, I filled my glass and left.

Here’s the thing: I may look like a Quaker, Dear Reader, but that doesn’t mean that in the moment I’m automatically able to do or say The Right Thing. I may want to “Be Peace” as my license plate holder enjoins. But, sometimes I don’t know how.

What might I have said, instead? A couple of ideas came to me the next day, during silent worship, as we collectively mourned the eleven elderly Jews murdered while they had been in worship.

How about “[Your host] is your friend, yes? What else do you like about him?”

How about: “There is so much violence and hatred in the world. Like what just happened this morning in Pittsburgh. I think lots of people, not just Quakers, are looking for ways to not keep adding to it. Don’t you?”

How about “Been drinking, Bob? Off your meds, maybe?” (Okay, so sometimes snarky things come to me, too.)

Here’s the other thing: While I am chagrined I couldn’t be peace, I couldn’t find a way to move the conversation into something enlightened and transformative and nice, I’m not going to feel bad about what I said, either. Because this patriarchy isn’t going to smash itself!

 

 

Thought and Prayers

As I write this, the day after another September 11th anniversary, a truly terrifying hurricane inexorably approaches the Carolinas. And like those painful days following the Twin Towers attack had felt, this morning I sense a collective pause as millions of us hold our breath. We wait. And, yes, as hackneyed and ill-used as that phrase has become, we pray.

At some point in my life, I was made aware that all over the world were people, many of them women, who spent their lives in constant prayer. Yes. Always. What a joy to discover this!

This past summer I had the good fortune to meet one, Sister Virginia, who lives—and prays—in a convent in France, and is the (biological) sister of my husband’s ex-wife. For me, meeting this aging, slight nun, who radiated Love, who hugged me when introduced as if we were old, close friends, was like meeting a rock star!

Saturday, exploring the Italian section of Gloucester (MA), my husband and I discovered its magnificently decorated Mother of Grace Club. The club, I later learned from Google, had begun during World War II by Gloucester mothers who prayed for their sons serving in the military to return. And they did. (I also learned that Saturday was The Blessed Mother’s birthday. Which explains those amazing decorations!)

But walking past before googling about it, I’d already intuited what that club was about. Sitting on a folding chair just inside its garlanded, ruffled, opened doorway sat an older woman. Praying. And having sat, alone, in my completely empty meetinghouse when, during the week after September 11th, my Quaker meeting has opened its space to anyone who wished to come—although nobody came while I was there—there was something about her body language that spoke to me. Reminded me what it had felt like to pray without ceasing. To be like Sister Virginia and her spiritual sisters and brothers all over the world. To truly and whole-heartedly embrace the power of prayer.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

. . . Not A Sprint.

Today, apparently, because of relentless, vociferous, worldwide protest, 45 announced that his pernicious policy of separating children from their parents at our nation’s borders will discontinue.

But don’t get too excited. He has also, in the past 24 hours, used the word “infest” when tweeting about immigration issues. A word to use when talking about rats, bed bugs, cockroaches.

I suggest we allow ourselves to take a brief moment to celebrate the power of collective action/ Love in Action. Praise God! Eat chocolate! Ceremoniously sip a delicious glass of pinot noir! Listen to music that brings you to tears.

And then let’s get back to work. Let’s keep showing up*. (Fascism is relentless, too.)

*Boston-area folks: let’s flood the Moakley Courthouse on July 12th at 2:00!

 

 

“Carved In Stone”

“The Avenger” by Ernst Barlach. Bronze; cast in 1934. On display at the Fogg Museum, February, 2018

Sometimes I visit an art museum as if expecting to be tested. I study everything, read everything, skip nothing, dutifully walk in the direction the exhibit designers want me to go. Other times I randomly stroll through galleries until a color, a shape, a face demands my attention. Super Bowl Sunday afternoon at Harvard’s Fogg Museum, this face stopped me cold.

There’s a touching story behind that mournful face: Barlach, a German nationalist, created an earlier version of this sculpture from clay and plaster in 1914 as The War To End All Wars (ha!) raged. “As the fighting dragged on and disillusionment increased, however, Barlach envisioned war less as a noble sword-bearer and more as, in his words, ‘a hammer wielding butcher.'”* Years later he carved that same figure, this time from wood, recreating that avenger’s face to reflect his disillusionment, then cast the 2.0 version in bronze.

Quakers talk about “continuing revelation;” how Truth might be cast in stone but/and can also reveal itself in new forms, new ideas, new media.

Spirit’s not done with us yet.

*from the museum’s wall description

It Goes On

Harvard Square Sidewalk, Election Day, 2017

Like many “Villens,” Ralph Hergert had dual citizenship: Somerville and Cambridge. So it was not surprising that although a long-time, pivotal, and much-loved Somerville activist, Ralph’s memorial on Saturday was held at Old Cambridge Baptist Church, his spiritual home in his last years. And that his beloved, vaulted church overflowed with OCBC congregants and Villens who’d worked with him and beside him on peace and social justice issues for over thirty years.

Still the pastor of Grace Baptist Church in East Somerville when we first met, Ralph and I had many conversations about how his faith and mine, both predicated on the belief that we can experience The Divine without an intermediary, were so radically different culturally yet, in fact, so very close. Good stuff.

My favorite Ralph story: He and I worked in the same building, he as the head of the Mayor’s Office of Human Services and I as a teacher at Somerville’s adult learning center. One morning as we were both coming to work we met outside the building and, somehow, got to talking about music—specifically, for some reason lost in the mists of time, about “There Is A Balm in Gilead.” (Endlessly kind, he nevertheless pitied my ignorance of liturgical/spiritual music.) We walked inside, he walking up a flight of stairs, me walking down a flight, and when he reached the top of the stairs, he leaned over the railing. He looked down at me. He grinned. And  began singing that wonderful spiritual. His voice filled the stairwell. His voice filled my sin-sick soul.

Ralph struggled with Alzheimer’s in his last years; his disease was referenced, present, many times during his (music-rich) memorial.  Something else was present, too: a sense that The Work continues. I felt it; others did, too. That all that Ralph held dear and had worked so hard for lived. Buoyant. Enduring. Possible.

Good stuff.

Uncontainable

 

Naked Peach. September, 2017

Every morning I begin my day with a cup of coffee, my glasses, my journal, and a pen. Whenever possible, I sit on my deck— even when, as it has been this past week, so cold I need to bundle up under a quilt. (I’ll come inside when the temperature gets below 50 degrees.) Every morning, in the peace of my tiny backyard, accompanied by birdsong and tag-playing squirrels, I make meaning of the day before.

I italicize make meaning to give those words the power they deserve because, yes, over the years, through this daily practice of reflection and prayer I have often found my way. (Or, at least, shined a flashlight in the direction of where I am being asked to go.) But what I am moved to write about this morning is this: given the unfathomable breadth of disaster and pain and horror of this past week, perhaps I should have written “make meaning.” Because how the hell do you “make meaning” of multiple, never-like-this-in-our-lifetime hurricanes and multiple, wide-spreading wildfires and millions of people displaced from their homes, both here and throughout the world, and the obscene cruelty of DACA being repealed and. . .

You don’t. We don’t. I don’t. This is what has come to me. (That realization feels like grace.) It is hubris to expect any human being to take in all of it. We were not made to hold all of it. We can’t. It’s uncontainable.

I surrender to the Uncontainable. Which doesn’t mean, I quickly add, to accept or to dismiss or to minimize or to deny—or to cease asking “What am I asked to do in this broken world?” It merely means I cease believing I can make meaning of today’s headlines. It means I bow my head. it means I recognize that I when I recall Brother West’s “I don’t know what will happen but I do know that If this is The End we will go down swinging,” (something like that)  I silently add together. 

 

 

“I can’t believe I’m still . . . “

[Jean Lafitte National Park, Lafitte, Louisiana]

That arc of history may be long and slowly bending towards justice—but it’s not exactly cruisin’ down I-95, is it! Sometimes that arc moves so slowly its movement is almost imperceptible. Sometimes it pauses, curves back on itself. Sometimes, like a twisty, bendy strangler fig vine, that arc moves backwards. And it feels as though we’re living in one of those retrograde times right now.

But here’s what privilege looks like: For most of my life I’ve expected linear. I’ve expected that arc to move steadily forward. So have been mystified and pissed that, jeez, here we are again? Like so many others, “I can’t believe I’m still . . . “  I mean, didn’t we already do this? Didn’t we settle all these trenchant issues once and for all? It’s so unfair!

So, yeah, I’ve been inwardly whining. Like a three-year-old. And need to take a good, hard look at my expectations surrounding social justice.  To admit that some of my stuff is ego, plain and simple and deadly. (I protested. I marched = I fixed it! Riiiight.) Some of this is about my belief that I have a “right to comfort.” On a really bad day, my resistance to accepting that, yup, Things Suck, Get Crackin’ is about not being twenty-two, anymore. I wonder if  I actually have the strength and energy and fortitude to show up, resist, interrupt. But, mostly, this is about, at the deepest, most profoundly fundamental level, my cluelessness. Again.  Why wouldn’t I, white and privileged, expect that arc to inch forward bit by bit. Slowly, yes. And not a crystal stair, certainly; I was never that clueless. (But close.)

So it is with both humility and fervent hope that I say: I still believe that arc moves toward justice. But it’s going to be much harder and take way longer than I ever before understood.