What I’d Do Different Now

[Woolworth’s Sit In, Jackson, Mississippi, May, 1963]

Some years ago I began to wonder: Whatever happened to those two African-Americans who desegregated E.C. Glass High School in Lynchburg, Virginia in 1962? So I found Dr. Lynda Woodruff and Reverend Owen Cardwell, Jr.—and wrote a book about what unfolded because I’d wondered.

These days? Now I am moved to wonder: What would happen if I found one of those despicable young men abusing the Jackson, MS sit-inners? (Surely some are still alive?) Could I possibly sit down with one of them; could I ever listen with an open heart? Face to face with a white supremacist, could I remember to seek “that of God” in the old man seated across from me? Not try to “fix” what I’d hear; offer neither advice nor comments but merely ask questions? (Why do you suppose X happened? How do you make meaning of that? Why do you think Y said that? How did you feel when Z happened? Tell me about how you learned about X? etc. ) And then write a book about what I heard? And learned? Could I?

Not lacking in (compelling, passionately engaged-in) writing projects, I am nevertheless tugged at, nudged to wonder: Where does hate come from? What, in all my studies, all my close attention to race and class and gender and education and all the other variables that make each of us who we are; what have I missed, what have I never understood? What do I need to know?

 

 

Holding All of It

[Damp, Caped Kid; Honk! Parade, October, 2016]

I’m holding a place for transformation. I’m holding a space for Love.

And, apparently, when it comes to the vulnerable, the preyed upon, I’m holding my breath.

This morning, much to my surprise, I realized I’d been holding on to unacknowledged fears—and horror—around the grisly murder of a young woman. (Trigger warning.)

How I came to realize these unnamed, unrecognized feelings isn’t important. This is:

Most men I know, even the most peaceful, loving and compassionate, would find my stirred-up feelings puzzling. They’d point out how rarely something as horrible as Vanessa Marcotte’s murder ever happens—while acknowledging that, yes, other women, alone and vulnerable, are accosted, too. Murdered.(They’re nice guys, remember? Decent.) But then they’d remind me how the media feeds on fear; how I was manipulated by the mainstream press with yet another story of a young and pretty white victim— what about murdered young women of color, transgender women? They’d remind me that the opposite of Love is Fear. Why was I giving in to my fears?

All that is true. But, after acknowledging their right-thinking, here’s what I’d tell them: “Dear ones, here’s what I need for you to understand. I believe that I relate to this horrible story differently from you. I believe I understand vulnerability and being preyed upon differently from you. I am claiming my authority. As a woman.”

Piece. Peace.

[Cabrillo National Monument, San Diego, CA; 2015]

I used to think, if you want peace, work for justice. But during worship this past Sunday it came to me: If you want peace, work for peace. I saw the inter-relatedness of issues I’ve siloed I’m my heart. Affordable housing, climate change, immigration, income disparity, our criminal justice system; they’re all of a piece. Neighborhoods of that Beloved Community.

Fifty years ago* Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood this: When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” (Re that “triplets” metaphor: If you are suddenly curious, as I was, when Easter occurred in 1967, I will tell you. March 26th.)

Easter Week of 2017, it seems fitting to close with this: Peace is my parting gift to you, my own peace, such as the world cannot give. Set your troubled hearts at rest, and banish your fears. [John 14:27]

“Beyond Vietnam” speech,  April 4, 1967, at New York City’s Riverside Church

Wicked Wrong

[Trash Day; Somerville, MA, 2016]

Like everywhere else, Greater Boston has its own rhythms, its own special events—and its residents mark their calendars accordingly. In an area dominated by college students, for example, Moving Day, September First, equals tie-ups all over the city as thousands of rental trucks block traffic on narrow city streets. And residents know that the day before, the sidewalks of Allston and Brighton and Somerville and Cambridge will be, well, trashed. Deal!

But sometimes The Red Sox Nation needs to ask “What the frig?” Like thinking it’s okay that on Opening Day, two F-!5 jets fly over Fenway Park. Right after the national anthem. (The timing’s carefully scripted, apparently) Huh? Why is conflating screaming, Mach 2.5 fighter aircraft with baseball A Thing?

But, maybe, wise, peace-loving souls are behind what certainly looks like normalizing the war machine? Because even though I knew those damned jets were due, I have no words to describe the terror I felt when they actually roared over my house!  Like End of the World terror. Heart-racing. Paralyzing. But also, just for a fleeting moment, a deep-in-my-gut connection with every man, woman and child living in war zones followed by, in the silence that followed, my deep-in-my-gut relief that I live where I do. And then, of course, enormous sadness.

 

 

“Preparing”

[Civil Disobedience Training, Cambridge Friends School gym, 2/4/17]

When I’d told an aging activist I was going to a CD training on Saturday he’d snorted: “What’s to learn? You go limp. End of training!”

But I don’t roll that way. If I’m considering something hard, something I’m scared of, I need to do exactly what I did: I need a class. I need to pay money. (Not a lot; $15.) I need to spend five or so hours with other people contemplating the same action. (There were about forty of us.) I need hand-outs. (9 pages, double-sided, no less!) I need lots of Q & A and roll-plays and earnest conversation at lunch. I need to take turns reading quotes about non-violence aloud. I need to contemplate Gene Sharp’s list of 198 methods of non-violent action. And to study a hand-written flow chart explaining what might happen at a civil disobedience event—and my choices at every step. I need to show up.

And now I need to do my homework, the same homework I always do. Which is to ask: What am I called to do? Is getting arrested—and all I now understand will happen to me should I decide to do so— what I am called to do? I’m not clear.

But I do know this. The day after that training, at my Quaker meeting, when asked to give a one-word description of how I was doing, my immediate answer was “Preparing.”

It Begins

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[Deck Chair from the Titanic, Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax, Nova Scotia]

Friday night I went to the Huntington Theater to see “Bedroom Farce.” (I have season tickets; that’s why.) And noticed, as the audience filed in, that the elderly man seated in front of me had dropped his program when he’d sat down. So I reached under his seat and handed it to him. Ceremoniously. With person-to-person eye contact and a warm smile. As if to say without words, “Hello” and “I see you” and “I assume you are in pain. I share it.” This random moment felt weirdly familiar; “When did I experience this intentional, ceremonial, stranger-to-stranger kindness before?” I wondered.

And remembered: “Of course! The days immediately following 9/11. When we were all tender and careful with one another.” Remember?

Here’s where I am six days after the election: Given Trump’s alt-right agenda, simply being kind, as critically vital as that is, might not be enough. Hugging our friends, connecting with family, reaching out, as heartening as that is, might not be enough. Wearing a safety pin, without clarity—and a plan—as to what that symbol of solidarity actually asks of us, might not be enough.

What will? What am I called to do? My anxious heart and not-centered behavior at times tell me that I am still too disheartened to be able to discern.

Meanwhile, as I struggle, I hug my loved ones.  I write notes on my best stationery. I have tea with people I’d lost touch with. I become friends on Facebook with my next-door neighbor, a woman I’d scarcely talked to. And take enormous comfort from this Scripture quoted by Hillary Clinton in her concession speech: “Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season, we shall reap if we do not lose heart.”

Thank you, Joanna Macy:

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Comic Book Store Window, Park Slope/Brooklyn, NY; June, 2016]

“When you make peace with uncertainty, you find a kind of liberation. You are freed from bracing yourself against every piece of bad news, and from constantly having to work up a sense of hopefulness in order to act—which can be exhausting. There’s a certain equanimity and moral economy that comes when you are not constantly computing your chance of success. The enterprise is vast, there is no way to judge the effects of this or that individual effort—or the extent to which it makes any difference at all. Once we acknowledge this, we can enjoy the challenge and the adventure. Then we can see that it is a privilege to be alive now is this Great Turning, when all the wisdom and courage ever harvested can be put to use.”

(from World As Lover World As Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal, p.143, 2007)

Rewriting the Past

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[ a (Defiled) “This Changes Everything” poster, Somerville Ave, 2016]

Years ago at an anti-war demonstration—Vietnam, this time—poet Allen Ginsburg made a startling announcement from the podium: “If the United States government can illegally declare this war,” he shouted, ” I can declare that it’s over! Yes! I declare that this illegal, horrible war is over! Bring the troops home! Peace at last!”  And the crowd cheered and wept and hugged and released balloons (it was the 60s; we brought balloons to demonstrations back then.)

I cheered and wept and hugged, too. And for four or five seconds I celebrated Ginsburg’s fantasy. I believed it. More important, that brilliant poet had given me, had offered all of us a brief, delicious taste of What Might Be. Could Be. He’d allowed us to experience how it felt, ever so briefly, to live in a country not at war. Imbedded in that contrived moment was an incentive: “Your heart lifted, sang just now? And you were filled with hope? Nice, right? Then keep on keepin’ on. Keep protesting.” So we did.

Sometimes, these days, as my Loved One remembers less and less and my actual childhood is being rewritten to resemble a fairy tale: “. . . and they all lived happily ever after,” I don’t correct her.  Just as I don’t correct her when she confuses times or names or other pesky facts. I don’t remind her that, actually, our relationship was “fraught,” as my father would say. No, instead, like that balloon-releasing moment of unadulterated joy, I briefly savor a childhood that never happened but is filled with love—the same love I now see in my Loved One’s eyes. And, like Ginsburg’s “peace,” possible.

(I guess it’s true: it’s never too late to have a happy childhood.)

Sawing away Making God-Awful Noises

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[Trondheim, Norway]

“Life is a public performance on the violin, in which you must learn the instrument as you go along,” says E.M. Forster. It’s that “public performance” that most moves me. The sad, cold, hard fact is that sometimes, while we saw away making god-awful noises we’re on stage, in rhinestones or tux, a horrible disappointment to our audience and ourselves. Flop sweat soaking our evening wear, grimly we work through our repertoire. No one claps.

( I can still remember the first time I was in a high school play how, after months of rehearsal in a large and empty and drafty auditorium, that at our first performance I’d walked on stage to feel all those bodies’ warmth—and to hear their rustling anticipation/impatience.)

But what if we brought tolerance into that auditorium with us? What if we took our seats as if at an ongoing Suzuki recital? What if we whispered, “Wow! Last time he/she played that last bit he/she was much, much worse! What an improvement!” What if we cheered and clapped without ceasing.

We could note our own improvement, too. What if we whispered to ourselves as we strode onstage, our hands already sweaty: “I’m learning this as I go along.” And forgave ourselves for not being Perfect.

 

“Stay There!”

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Overheard at the Union Square farmers’ market: A young man loudly whined; the young woman beside him muttered “Stay there.” As if to say, “Stay in your petulance! Listen to yourself! Take whatever time you need to remember that you’re a white, American male—the most privileged creature on this planet—and hear how you sound like a spoiled three-year old!”

That woman’s verbal eye-roll* reminds me of an oft-quoted Quaker story:

There is a widely told, entirely apocryphal, story that at one time George Fox and William Penn met. At this meeting William Penn expressed concern over wearing a sword (a standard part of dress for people of Penn’s station), and how this was not in keeping with Quaker beliefs. George Fox responded, “Wear it as long as thou canst.” Later, according to the story, Penn again met Fox, but this time without the sword. Penn then said, “I have taken thy advice; I wore it as long as I could.” Though this story is entirely unfounded, it serves as an instructive parable about Penn’s Quaker beliefs. (From Brief History of William Penn)

Of course, Penn’s individual sword-wearing-until-he’d internalized-Quaker-beliefs is one thing; the hatred, the racism, the violence we’re witnessing as countless white Americans act out in this time of incredible and radical and inevitable transition—and possibility—is truly terrifying! Right now, staying there is scary.

(And sad. I get that. I understand the sadness beneath the violence.)

And, given climate change, none of us have much time to ponder, to contemplate, to leisurely make peace with that sword. (Talk about incredible and radical and inevitable!) So let’s get to it. Now. Let’s do whatever’s needed, with love and with compassion and grace—whine, acknowledge our shame, our guilt, mourn, grieve, make reparations, accept; whatever—so we can embrace that Big Change that’s gonna come.

Together.

 

*Thanks, Anna

 

PS: One day later, I’m not comfortable with what I’ve said, here. There’s too much more that needs to be said. So, Dear Readers, please consider the words above as a Work in Progress.

To be continued (and prayed over) . . .

 

 

“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”

“Its Hardship is Its Possibility”

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[“Upheaval”: Arlington, MA sidewalk, 2016]

So many stories! There’s the story of an orange-haired, petulant racist we’re forced to hear again and again. And, oddly, there’s another story, the Feel the Bern story, notable for not being told—or gets “stealth-edited” within hours! (“Get me Rewrite!”) There’s an ancient, horrible story we lament this morning about innocents losing their lives in war, this time in Brussels. There’s another story many tell this week, the Holy Week story, that begins with strewn palms and hosannas and ends with betrayal and death.

I am trying to listen to another timeless story. It comes out of the earth. You can hear it in birdsong and the soughing of pine tree branches. (A wind chime will do.) It’s told every spring when the Northern Hemisphere tilts towards the sun. It demands we listen when a blizzard or hurricane or tsunami strike.

But because so many of us are not listening to this timeless story, it’s editing itself. And not by stealth, either, right? Superstorms, record-breaking temperatures, drought; undeniable plot twists.

Troubled by this edited story, fearful it is doomed to end tragically, grieving for Mother Earth and for my grandchildren’s future, I turn once again to Wendell Berry. (No, not “The Peace of Wild Things” this time.) This one:

A POEM

If we will have the wisdom to survive,
To stand like slow growing trees on a ruined place,
Renewing, enriching it,
If we will make our seasons welcome here,
Asking not too much of earth or heaven,
Then a long time after we are dead
The lives our lives prepare will live here,
Their houses strongly placed upon the valley sides,
Fields and gardens rich in the windows.
The river will run clear as we never know it,
And over it the birdsong like a canopy.
On the levels of the hills will be green meadows,
Stock bells in noon shade
On the steeps where greed and ignorance cut down the old forest,
An old forest will stand, its rich leaf-fall drifting on its roots.
The veins of forgotten springs will have opened.
Families will be singing in the fields.
In their voices they will hear a music risen out of the ground.
They will take nothing out of the ground they will not return,
Whatever the grief at parting,
Memory, native to this valley, will spread over it like a grove,
And memory will grow into legend,
Legend into song, song into sacrament.
The abundance of this place, the songs of its people and its birds,
Will be health and wisdom and indwelling light.
This is no paradisal dream. Its hardship is its possibility.

Wendell Berry