“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

 

 

This Changes Everything!

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[Through a Quaker meetinghouse window: brightly; December, 2015]

When I was a little girl I received a copy of Jack and Jill every month. My favorite feature in that children’s magazine was “I Used to Think” where kids could explain the childish misconceptions and misunderstandings they’d once held before putting away childish things.

I used to think I had mined The Christmas Story for every drop, every ounce, every nugget of Truth and Relevant Metaphor I could possibly discover. But lo, this past Sunday at meeting for worship, a new way to think about this ancient tale!

A woman I respect very much rose and said (basically): The birth of Jesus reminds us that the Sacred is present in the world all around us. (A related idea: Martin Prectell, a super-star in my particular firmament, tells us that a shaman is a person in love with the Sacred.)

Oh!

Shrapnel: a poem

 

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[An Ocean Beach/San Diego garden]

Shrapnel

If my achy joints were all

that mattered I’d

move to Ocean Beach.

I’d abandon this damp and earnest coast and

all that kept me here,

kept me informed

and heartbroken

(Another shooting?)

to water my garden.

(A holy act in parched San Diego)

If I chose to honor the brokenness I’d

abandoned

I’d walk a block or two

 to the fishing pier,

I’d walk to the very end

(which smells like beer-piss and fish) and

wait for

an Army-green ‘copter

or a

shrapneled, long-haired vet

(Vietnam, no doubt)

to whirl by/

 limp past.

(Never a long wait)

I’d feel that concrete pier shudder

from each Pacific wave

I’d watch the surfers and pelicans and

let myself remember.

“What Are You Praising?”

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[Treasures, East Haddam, Connecticut, 2015]

The morning after the horrible news from Paris, I was having tea with a neighbor, a woman I greatly admire and respect—but who, like so many of us, is very, very busy. So although we only live a few doors away from each other, we rarely spend time together.

She was bringing me up to date about many things—like her son. Who’s a teenager, now. A young man growing up in so many fine ways, she told me—although she finds his video games appalling. (“Mom!” he assures her. “I know right from wrong. And I understand the difference between fantasy and reality!”)

“Still,” she mused, sipping her tea. “I wonder, sometimes. ‘What are you praising?’ I ask him. I—”

“Whoa! Back up,” I interrupted. “Did you just ask say that you’d asked your son to think about what he’s praising when he plays a violent video game?”

Yeah.”

“That’s profound! That’s—that’s—Would it be all right if I write about this on my website? Because that just seems to be the most clarifying question anyone could ask. Should ask themselves. Not just teenagers. Anyone. We all should be asking, ‘What am I praising?’ as we go about our day-to-day lives. That just seems brilliant!”

We got quiet for a moment. Were we both thinking about those young men only a few years older than her son who, hours earlier in Paris, had murdered scores of people? What did their act praise? Because in their minds, I believe, what they did, the havoc and terror they inflicted, praised something incredibly powerful for them. [This link and imbedded, long-but-worth-it video by anthropologist Scott Atran sheds some light on this.]

“Have at it!” She smiled.

So I have. Praise be!

Beat Your Swords Into Train Tracks *and* Affordable Housing

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Good news: a new subway station/light rail is probably coming to my neighborhood (Cost overruns are making important people like the governor look twice at the project). More Good News: Many car-repair and other businesses dependent upon the fossil-fuel industry which once dominated my neighborhood are, seemingly overnight, being transformed into housing. In other words, the status quo of living in a world dominated by cars, is shifting. Changing. VERY Bad News: This new housing is NOT affordable housing.

“If you want peace, work for justice,” has been my mantra since the 90s. So on Sunday, instead of attending the International Day of Peace on Boston Common, I am abandoning my Quaker peeps to attend a forum on the future of my community, hosted by Union United, a grassroots organization advocating for, you guessed it, affordable housing!

“Where are All Those Babies Coming from?”

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[Third Rail, Harvard Square T, 2015]

In conversations a couple of times, lately, I’ve heard the word “upriver” used to anchor whatever that person—usually young, usually progressive, usually really smart—is talking about, a shorthand for systemic, overwhelming, we need to look at and deal with the root causes of whatever social ill you and I are presently talking about.

The backstory to “upriver” (Skip this paragraph if you already know.): Upriver references a much-told story I’d heard back in the early 90s; the third-hand way I’d heard the tale, it had been told by Kip Tiernan, a righteous, early-on advocate for the homeless. Kip’s story went like this: Once upon a time there was a village beside a river. One day someone from the village saw a baby on a raft floating by so rescued that baby, took it home, clothed it, fed it, built a crib for it to sleep in, etc. Next day, two babies, two rescues, next day, more and more until the people of that village were doing nothing else but rescuing babies. The story ends, of course, when someone in that village proposes that someone should walk upriver to find out what’s going on!

Here’s the thing, though: Even though you or I can think upriver about, say, why it’s hot as hell right now in the Northeast although the calendar’s saying it’s early fall—another day in the 90s expected today—or why, right now, close to 60 Million People have been forcibly displaced worldwide (Take whatever time you need to take in that obscenely astronomically number), such thinking doesn’t alleviate our pain, does it.

May our ability to connect dots, to be mindful, to think systemically, to acknowledge root cases, may such mindfulness lead to a precious moment for each of us to hear the answer to our question: “What is it am called to do?”

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.)

Red in Tooth and Claw— and Feathers

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[“Clawfoot Bathtub, Scrap”, Somerville, MA]

After the violent winter we had, one of my greatest pleasures these days is to sit on my deck with a cup of coffee and my journal and to wake up slowly to the bustling, preening, greening world of my back yard, my tiny patch of “the grace of the world”:**

A couple of days ago, though, my backyard was anything but pastoral or gracious. In a Norway maple, hidden by leaves, feathered warriors squabbled over territory—or, perhaps, a female bird. What drama! What a ruckus!  When those birds finally decided to do battle in the air, not one, not two, but THREE brightly plumed cardinals took flight. I wish you could have seen how magnificent they were!

And I remembered a bit from a recent New Yorker article in which American novelist Nell Zink, an avid bird-watcher who lives in Europe, had this to say: “I saw a cardinal when I was in Brooklyn and I was almost moved to tears.” What stirred her was the fact that a creature so brilliant could survive in plain sight. “I was, like, I can’t believe this thing is legal. I can’t believe this thing is in the wild. How did this happen, how has someone not killed them all? They’re so conspicuous. They’re gorgeous. How can they still be alive?”

She’s right. It’s a miracle—and a blessing.

*“THE PEACE OF WILD THINGS”

by Wendell Berry

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the middle of the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

 

“They Are Our Kids”

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[19th Century Young Girl’s Grave, El Campo Santo, San Diego, CA, soon after Dia de Muertos, 2014]

Don’t get me wrong: I love my daughters, I love my grandchildren. I loved sitting in my Quaker meeting this morning watching Meeting children happily search for Easter eggs outside. I love Christmas, I love birthdays, I love making any child happy by buying just the right gift.

Here’s what I don’t love: The disparity between children like my grandchildren and those happy children I watched this morning and the poor children of this country. As a recent “New Yorker” article put it: The American dream is in crisis, [Robert Putnam, author of Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis] argues, because Americans used to care about other people’s kids and now they only care about their own kids. But, he writes, “America’s poor kids do belong to us and we to them. They are our kids.” 

Here’s what deeply moves me: That on October 31, 2014, someone placed those plastic necklaces and those two dolls on the grave pictured above. A Mexican-American child decorated that child’s grave for Dia de Muertos, I’m guessing.  She swept the dirt, she arranged those bricks as best she could, she threw away—God knows what that child discovered in that gritty, surrounded-by-bars-and restaurants cemetery in the heart of San Diego’s Old Town. That generous child is very likely one of those “poor kids” Putnam wrote about.

My kid. Our kid.

 

Strangers in Strange Lands

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[MCU Park, Coney island; home of the Brooklyn Cyclones*]

You know how, sometimes, you can spot a face in the crowd and suddenly, that one stranger is the only person you see? And how, because the expression on his or her face is so revealing, so nakedly truth-telling, you feel as though you have a reasonably good chance of knowing what’s going on with that person? Me, too.

Two days after the attack at the satirical magazine, “Charlie Hebdo,” office in Paris when twelve people were murdered, on a bitterly cold night in Davis Square; that’s when I spotted him. Maybe Ethiopian, maybe Eritrean, maybe Muslim, his distress, frustration, anger were palpable. He wore a blue, embroidered ski hat, the kind that hangs over your ears and could be tied under your chin—only nobody does—and a suitably warm jacket. “Well, at least he’s dressed for this horrible cold,” I thought. At least.

Okay, maybe he’d just had a fight with his girlfriend. Maybe his boss had given him a hard time. Maybe his distress centered on the cold. Why wouldn’t it? But I tend to think that he, a stranger in a strange land, was feeling his alienation—as in being an outsider, a dark face in a sea of white—with every cell of his being. And that his loneness infuriated him.

To catch the briefest glimpse of that man’s lonely, painful fury (if, in fact, that’s what I saw) was, for me to contemplate the Kouachi brothers, who’d murdered 12 cartoonists two days before, and the Tsarnaev brothers, the Boston Marathon bombers. 

Don’t get me wrong: I am not condoning murder. And I am not saying that every immigrant is a potential murderer. Absolutely NOT! I am merely saying at for a fleeting moment on a cold winter’s night I may have spotted the same pain and alienation that has generated so much pain.

* That man in the white cap and T shirt stood for the entire game although repeatedly asked and begged to sit down.