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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.