Talk to the Hand

[This story centers on someone whose identity I should protect. So will be using the they pronoun.]

Yesterday on a walk, I passed an elderly white person, warmly dressed, waiting in a bus shelter in Porter Square. (And by “elderly” I mean the same age as me!) A second look and, yes, although considerably aged from when I last knew them, they had been a student I’d met years ago when a counselor at Somerville’s adult learning center. So I stopped and, keeping the required six-foot distance, called out their name.

I’ve aged considerably too, of course, so they took a moment or two to recognize me. “Oh, hi,” they said. Without much energy or warmth. Which I surmised—duh— was because they were terrified. So acknowledged the current situation.

“The virus?” they asked; their Azores accent flavoring their terse words. I nodded.

“Ya know,” they said, leaning forward and almost under their breath, giving me a we-both-know-what’s-really-going- on look. And rubbed their thumb and forefinger together, the universal sign for money.

I wasn’t having it; I was not at all interested in their conspiracy theory: “I’m not listening to this,” I told them, turning on my heels.

“God bless you,” they called after me. Which felt like a curse in disguise.

Who, exactly, did they think was making money off of this pandemic? Stewing, brooding, I walked home. The Chinese government, maybe? Big Pharma? Given the ugliness that crossed their face when they’d rubbed their fingers together, however, I’m guessing that former student might harbor long-standing hatred for those so often blamed in times of crisis. I think they may be anti-Semitic. Maybe.

But, suddenly, stomping down the sidewalk, I remembered a salient fact: They had been an ABE 1 student! (Translation: they’re totally illiterate. Cannot read. At all. Nada.) And, if I remember correctly, they’d dropped out after less than a semester. Which means that, most likely, they’re completely dependent on whatever xenophobic bullS@#* Fox News spouts as “news.”

Personally, I cannot imagine enduring this devastating situation without daily devouring multiple newspaper and magazine articles and Facebook postings from wise friends—and then stopping when I’ve had enough already, to listen to music or read a good book. Can you? You, reading these (pearls of great price) words now? It’s unimaginable, isn’t it.

Had I blown a teachable moment? I pondered closer to home. Had I been so appalled, so outraged by their conspiratorial face, those rubbing fingers, that I missed an opportunity to engage?

Perhaps. But do we not show a form of Love when we interrupt hatred? At a time when the president of the United States referred to COVID-19 as “a foreign virus” or, just today, “the Chinese virus,” I think it’s okay, indeed necessary to say, “Talk to the hand!”

And maybe, just maybe, in their “God bless you,” they kinda, sorta were telling me they got that?

Nah.

 

Butter-knifing

Here I am, once again, “circling Fort Knox with a butter knife trying to figure out how to get in.”* I know I want to write about loss, about sorrow, and about how, for most of my life, I’ve let anger mask sadness. I want to write about the grief of climate change. I want to write about my mother’s family, its secrets, its tragedies; about transgenerational trauma. I want to write about my moment-to-moment grief and horror to be white and affluent at a time when the ravages of income disparity and systemic racism and growing fascism are more and more real, obvious.

Yikes.

Meanwhile, as I circle, sadness, grief, loss happen. Terrifying headlines reporting another environmental disaster happen. Someone pisses me off happens—and I, self-conscious “apprentice” that I am, try to access the sadness underlying my anger. (And it’s not as hard as I thought.) Meanwhile, I feel all the heartbreaking Feels that I get to do this work at the same time the People Of Color all around me struggle. Meanwhile, I buy myself a copy of The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief  by Francis Weller so I can physically interact with his every word, every paragraph, write in the margins.

Here’s a bit I’ve already starred and underlined and <3-ed (heart-ed):

An apprenticeship with sorrow requires a hands-on encounter in which we are invited to work with the materials of grief, its leaden weight, and the particular demands of melancholy. We can feel it already, just in these few sentences, that this apprenticeship leads us below ground, into the hallway of shadows and forgotten ancestors. Here we find the scattered shards of unattended grief, the pieces of unwept loss, and the shavings of old wounds swept into the corner.

Meanwhile, like someone in recovery, I’m making amends.

 

  • Ann Patchett said this—at a writers’ conference I’d attended—about trying to figure out how to begin a novel.

Apples and Oranges

We talk about “speaking truth to power”; sometimes using just the right words, even if they’re highfalutin’, can be enormously clarifying. Like “false equivalency.” I am loving how, with greater and greater frequency, the media is calling out out the Right’s “Well, how ’bout . . . ”  specious arguments. Which have confounded me for years but, until recently, never had language to understand—and name—this maddening “logic.”

But that’s so much about East Coast, New Yorker subscriber, writerly me! Who loves words—even five syllable ones. But when I acknowledge that, I am quickly brought up short. Because I find myself wondering how such multi-syllabic language plays on Fox News? And aren’t I being elitist? Aren’t I being snotty about my Red State fellow Americans? Who maybe love words just as much as I? And can recognize apple/oranges just as well as I can?

I wonder.

Clutching My [Pearls]

Slowly, slowly, my siblings and I have been disposing of the enormous amount of stuff my parents left behind. That they’d held on to everything they’d ever touched, apparently—when a Tufts undergraduate, my father saved every program from every concert he’d attended at Boston’s Symphony Hall—had been aided and abetted by the General Electric Company which, whenever my father would be transferred, simply shlepped our family’s extensive belongings to the next GE site—like Syracuse, New York, Lynchburg, Virginia, Huntsville, Alabama. Without protest.

Finally, my sibs and I are almost done. A few things remain—including the contents of our parents’ last safe-deposit box. Among the items deemed worthy of such careful storage are my father’s 1970 patent for an electric car (I know!) and a lovely, ivory-bead necklace. A choker, really. And, yes, lovely; its largest, central beads, five of them, delicately carved; other beads a warm brown with age. And so, more than once, I have actually asked myself if I shouldn’t just keep it. Wear it.

How did it come to be in our family’s possession? I am guessing that my great-grandmother’s sister, Isabella Faulkner Ranlett, bought it in China when traveling with her clipper ship captain husband. (She must have been quite the shopper. Lots of Wilds own lots of things she’d brought home. To Billerica, Massachusetts.) So, of course, for 19th century Isabella, this necklace made from an elephant’s tusk had been a guilt-free purchase.

Not so any more, of course. And why, despite how lovely it is, I can’t imagine wearing such a thing.

Well, no, I can. Imagine, that is. Given that last week, a word I would never have imagined being uttered in Congress was spoken aloud: Reparations. Hallelujah. (I know, I know. This is ivory to reparations leap is  quite a stretch. Bear with me.) Does this mean our country is at last ready to address its slavery history? All of it?

If so, how do people like me make clear that we believe it’s about time!? What if “clutching our pearls” or wearing the loot, the plunder our ancestors brought home means: I, the beneficiary of racism, of privilege, of rapaciousness, believe in reparations. Now.

But, meanwhile, I will happily donate this necklace—which actually isn’t worth much—to any cause that can further this reparations initiative. My own money, too.

 

 

Identity Politics

I’m old enough to remember when clothing first became a major form of advertisement, self or Calvin Klein et al. Loathe to become a walking billboard, I’d tried resisting—buying vintage proved an excellent strategy—but over time I reluctantly had to accept that resistance was futile; this branding phenomenon was here to stay. (And that I would continue to buy vintage; Goodwill.)

So I’m not exactly sure what led me to buy, retail/online, a KAMALA baseball cap. But am so glad I did.

Because although I am now, indeed, a walking billboard for a presidential candidate, what’s happening is that my cap, an anti-MAGA statement, is inviting total strangers, many of them People of Color, to chat.

What I’m hearing in these conversations is both excitement that a brilliant, strong Woman of Color just might have a shot at the presidency and the steely, reasoned, cold, hard pragmatism of Let’s Go With Whoever’s Going To Win. So maybe, sigh, one of those Old White Guys and Kamala for Veep?

None of this much matters yet. But then, I’m a Quaker, so I’m comfortable with lots of different ideas, different possibilities, different What Ifs tossed round—and trusting that something worthwhile will eventually emerge. That the Democratic Party will do The Right Thing. Whatever that will look like. Which, admittedly, given the horrors of America’s political reality like special interests and racism and sexism, is probably crazy. Although “Knock Down the House,” which I just saw, certainly gives me hope.

Meanwhile, about Kamala Harris. And me. And why I’m rocking her merch. Because, no, she’s far from my ideal candidate. My understanding, for example, is that she has not signed the pledge to refuse fossil fuel campaign contributions. (Note to KH: “C’mon!”)

No, Dear Reader, as crazy as what I am about to say is, here’s why I hope she wins: Remember during one of the debates, when Hillary was talking and Trump was pacing back in forth behind her? (And as a former TV star, he knew he was in camera view.)

Here’s what I’m pretty sure Kamala would have done. She would have stopped. She would have turned around. She would have said something like, “Donald? You are losing votes right now. Every woman who has ever been bullied or imposed upon or threatened by a man—and that’s all of us—is watching you right now. And deciding not to vote for you. And every Person of Color who has ever experienced a white man claim a space to be his property, his turf—and that’s all of us—is thinking the same thing. Sit Down.”

 

 

 

“Where To Begin?”

A Katrina Leftover, New Orleans, 2017

In the process of retrieving a much-needed toy from my granddaughter’s stroller parked on my front porch, I’d stepped outside to discover a white, curly-haired, slightly chunky young man about to ring my doorbell. Grandma on a mission, I think he told me he was soliciting for WGBH— but I could be wrong. I really wasn’t listening. For sure he launched into a spirited spiel lauding NPR; he even listed several programs and, to his credit, having taken note of the stroller and the toy in my hand, made special mention of  “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.”

“I know what NPR is,” I muttered.

“Then I’m sure you want to support it,” he countered.

Approaching the front door I turned to face him. “I truly believe in what NPR does but, no, I can’t.”

“May I ask why?” he demanded and, to my consternation, took on an offensive pose, widening his stance, inflating his chest. (My guess? He played football in high school.)

Ahh, dear reader, what a teachable moment! How I would have loved to explain to that young man that for aging Quakers like me and my husband, living on retirement funds, charitable giving is incredibly complicated. Babies starve in Yemen, there’s relief money desperately needed all over the world because of climate change, and, locally, the Somerville Homeless Coalition always needs money; so does the Welcome Project. Every year my husband and I receive thousands of nudges and tugs and polite requests and the occasional solicitor at our door. Yes, we believe in God’s unlimited love, yes, we believe that “There’s enough” but, sadly, yes, our ability to support every worthy cause— I’m not even getting in political contributions!—is definitely limited. (And, sadly, because of inflation and rising health care costs, especially medications, actually shrinking.) How I would have loved to tell that young man that it took my husband and me almost two years to come up with a careful, thoughtful formula for giving. So, sorry, young man but NPR didn’t make the final cut.

But his belligerence on my own front porch—his aggressive posture triggered something very primal and territorial—meant I was Done. And besides, I was still Grandma on a mission!

“Where to begin?” I asked, stepping inside. (Sorry, young man. That’s all I got.)

And firmly shut the door.

 

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!

 

 

Sitting This One Out

Summer Rain, July, 2018

Sometimes I just want to sit on my front porch. Sometimes I don’t want to read my emails or The New York Times. Sometimes I don’t care what Jennifer Rubin has to say. Or Bill McKibben. Or Naomi Klein. Sometimes, especially after a grueling heat wave, I just want to sit on my front porch and gratefully bless every precious drop of rain as a heat-wave-ending thunder storm begins. I don’t even need a glass of lemonade; I just need to be drowsy-grateful. Quiet. Alone. Did I mention grateful?

Ah, but as those “Could Do Better Work”* voices in my head constantly remind me, opting out, sitting this one out, there’s your White Privilege is action, lady. (Okay. Inaction, if you want to get technical about it.) “You’re not going to be deported or sent to jail, are you, Patricia? You are not targeted by this administration’s racist, Nazi-Germany nightmare.** And hey! What about climate change and the terrifying future your grandchildren will inherit? Huh? Sure, gratitude is nice and all but TIME’S A-WASTIN’ AND THERE’S WORK TO DO!”

Here is what I am learning to whisper to those nagging voices: Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” – From The Talmud, 303.

And, dare I add, taking time out just to be grateful and to recharge your batteries is A Good Thing, right?

(Just don’t make a habit of it, okay?)

 

 

 

*What my teachers invariably wrote on my reports cards

** Not yet, anyway. But, to paraphrase, those who don’t read history are doomed to be horribly surprised when they discover they’re next on the Target List.

 

Layers

Demolition Site, Downtown Worcester, MA

This will be brief: Due to technical difficulties which required the much-appreciated help of a dear f/Friend, Jonathan Vogel-Borne, I have been unable to post anything for a month! So this morning I am very grateful to finally be able to write my 501st post!

This month-long, technically-enforced silence has allowed “great openings”* as George Fox would say—and many as yet unanswered questions about being a Public Quaker.

Please stand by.

 

* “I had also great openings concerning the things written in the Revelations. . . ”    [The Journal of George Fox, chapter 1]

“Right There I’m Sort Of Glued Together”

Last week, doing warrior pose in yoga class, I remembered how, right after Trump had been elected, my usual teacher,  Annie Hoffman, was out of town—so we’d had a sub that day. A wonderful teacher, the sub had prepared a themed class; a series of poses and movements readying us to become women warriors. “Cool idea,” I thought; my body felt differently. Moving slower and slower as if weighted down, I finally stopped altogether.

“What’s going on?” the teacher asked.

“I’m not ready to be a warrior yet,” I realized. “I’m still too sad.” ( So she Immediately set me up in a restorative pose. Where I cried. And felt my muscles twitch and relax.)

Since the tax bill vote I’ve been in a funk. (Yes, today’s news from Alabama is definitely lifting my spirits!) After a year of being a warrior, though, I no longer deny my occasional need to crawl under my quilt for twenty-four hours. “Re-covery,” my yoga teacher quips.

When in this melancholy state, a favorite Rilke poem, “Title Poem” from The Voices, always comes to mind (Eerily apt vis a vis that tax bill, yes?) :

It's OK for the rich and the lucky to keep still, 

no one wants to know about them anyway. 

But those in need have to step forward, 

have to say: I am blind, 

or: I'm about to go blind, 

or: nothing is going well with me, 

or: I have a child who is sick, 

or: right there I'm sort of glued together. . . 

And probably that doesn't do anything either. 

They have to sing, if they didn't sing, everyone 
would walk past, as if they were fences or trees. 

That's where you can hear good singing. 

People really are strange: they prefer 
to hear castratos in boychoirs. 

But God himself comes and stays a long time 
when the world of half-people start to bore him. 

Foundational

Sounding Board, New Bedford Quaker Meeting, New Bedford, MA. September, 2017

Years ago, for about a year, I was my Quaker meeting’s First Day School Coordinator, i.e., the principal of a pre-K—12 school open one hour a week and taught by volunteers. Dimly, very dimly, I understood that, for example, when I met with newcomer parents, I spoke for not only my meeting but, in a sense, the entire Quaker world: its history, its faith, its practice. (Yikes.) So, silly as it sounds, now, when a peach-colored scarf mysteriously appeared on my coat rack one day, I decided that I’d use that scarf to, ahem, ordain myself. If called upon to, indeed, be A QUAKER, that castoff scarf became my stole or vestment. Praying for guidance, praying for the right words, praying to listen with love, praying to be open to Spirit, I ceremoniously draped that scarf—which, luckily, went with everything I wore—around my neck. (Writing this, I still feel its soft cotton warmth against my skin.)

More recently, when my Quaker meeting offered training to become a “pastoral caregiver” I was, at first, not interested. “Why do I need training to do what I am already doing?” I thought. (and, yes, frankly, am doing pretty well!) But, again, dimly, I intuited that this seventeen-hour training, created by The Community of Hope International, was exactly what I was supposed to do.

How right I was. For not only do I get to explore delicious—and challenging— subjects like pastoral care and Benedictine spirituality and humility and healing (and lots, lots more) with others from my faith community but when, girded and guided by this training, I do pastoral care, every month I will have the opportunity to talk with others about “God in the Hard Places.”

Yum.

 

Speaking Truth—or Redemption—to Power?

Blockade Fencing, Irrepressible Tree, Somerville, MA; 2017

In March, at the request of X, a Massachusetts inmate I have been writing to for the past three years, I send the letter excerpted here to the Parole Board:

 . . . A member of my [Quaker] meeting’s Prison Fellowship Committee, I’d learned through people connected with our prison ministry that X would appreciate receiving letters. So I volunteered. From his letters I have learned that he is a thoughtful and caring person, a gifted artist, and, most importantly, a compassionate, steadfast care-giver to and for his fellow inmates.

X has asked me to explain to you what kind of support I can offer: For the past ten years, Friends Meeting at Cambridge has hosted a weekly meal and sharing circle for the formerly incarcerated. During the meal, useful information re re-entry issues such as housing, jobs, navigating public transformation, etc. is discussed; during the circle, members talk more freely and openly about personal issues. X will be welcomed and supported by our circle.

Tomorrow afternoon I will appear before the Parole Board; I’ll have three minutes to explain the sharing circle and to answer questions. Tonight, writing this, I wonder if I’ll be moved to say more. Pretty sure I will say something about the deep friendships, the care, the love among the circle members I have witnessed for ten years.  Pretty sure I’ll say something about how, over and over, circle participants talk about how sitting quietly around flickering candlelight and speaking about what is in their hearts lets them “be human!” But will I feel compelled to say something about redemption? Something about transformation? To say those precious and, for all of us who have attended the circle, real, embodied, in the-flesh words aloud?

I hope so.