“Noli Me Tangere”: The backstory

[“Noli Me Tangere” by Patricia Miranda, 2005]

It was years ago, in the midst of the random opulence and higgledy-piggledy of Boston’s Gardner Museum, that I fell in love with Mary Magdalen. This one. “I may not yet know how to love Jesus,*” I thought, instantly attracted to Raphael’s redhead. “But, ohmygoodness, will you look at her! Such love!”  For what I somehow understood—oh sweet mystery!—was how Mary Magdalen’s tenderness, her love, her oil-painted kiss embodied agape: transcendent, universal, non-sexual love. A love so powerful it transcended my feminist queasiness to see a woman, any woman, on her knees kissing a man’s foot. Oh, my!

So, back in the earliest, stumbling-around days as I explored how I might share my novel, Welling Up, online, I examined Jesus and Mary Magdalen paintings—both to discover what various artists’ work might teach me and, of course, because, a website needs art!  I looked at lots and lots of paintings. Like this one.

Maybe, if I hadn’t already viewed Fra Angelico’s “Noli Me Tangere,” Patricia Miranda’s painting would not have caught me eye. Maybe. But I think Miranda’s stripped-down to-its essentials version of this biblical, “Touch me not,” moment would have intrigued me no matter what. Yes, knowing its backstory enlarges my appreciation of her work—but will you look at what she’s done?! Those ardent yet non-touching hands stretched towards each other, hands that speak of that same transcendent love I’d been moved by at the Gardner? Those somber, funeral colors coexisting with three robust, verdant trees and Latin written with luminous, gold leaf? That mysterious, white trapezoid off-center yet somehow dominate?

So you can imagine how excited I am that the very first thing you will see when you open up WellingUp.net—to be up and running in a couple of months if all goes well—is this painting. Which I have permission to use. (And, perhaps, you’ll also understand why I’ll need at least one more post to say all I want to say about it!)

Thank you, Patricia Miranda.

* “The post-Easter Jesus” I now know to label.

Wallowing In It

IMG_2055

[Peace Cranes in the Trash; Cambridge, MA, July, 2016]

When I was younger, I believed my activism to be fueled by (righteous) anger. Racism, injustice, violence infuriated me; seething, I did stuff. I showed up, grateful for my rage. My anger kept me going.

Unlike many of my fellow Quakers, I’d grown up in a family where it was okay to be angry. Sadness, however, was stronger discouraged. “Don’t wallow in it,” I was repeatedly scolded when brought low. At an early age I learned how to efficiently acknowledge my sorrow and move on.

Implicit in this childhood training was fear: if you stay in that sadness you will get stuck in it. (For me, the word ‘wallow” conjures mud or some other thick, viscous substance.) Be careful.

Friday night, in a called meeting for worship at Beacon Hill Friends Meeting around the violence and horror of last week, surrounded by like-minded people, I let myself stay in my grief. I felt safe to wallow. And realized—not for the first time— that sadness opens up an unlimited source of guidance and compassion within me.  I reconnect with interconnectedness. I pray for victims’ families and friends and loved ones. I stay with, I hold their pain. I pray for my brothers and sisters of color. I pray for our earnest young people who have inherited this broken, far-from-enlightened world. I begin (ain’t there, yet) to consider the perpetrators of violence and hatred with sadness; as fellow wallowers in this broken world, just as trapped, just as stuck, just as dehumanized by oppression and greed and selfishness as their victims.

So, this week, the words of Bayard Rustin are really speaking to me:

Loving your enemy is manifest in putting your arms not around the man but around the social situation, to take power from those who misuse it at which point they can become human too.

 

 

 

 

“More powers and personalities than are visible”

IMG_1169

[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”

“It’s Complicated”

IMG_1328

[“The Science Behind Pixar” exhibit, Museum of Science, Boston, MA; 2015]

WordPress, which makes this site possible, recently alerted me to a pending comment that had confused its algorithms. And when I investigated I could see why. Because, yes, the source was actually an auto insurance company, i.e. spam. But the comment, re being a white ally, was actually right on: “A slick response to a complicated question,” a wise soul at that company had noted. (Or words to that effect.) Ouch!

So while I decided to delete that self-promoting communication—and its link to a business—I am also reflecting on its accurate observation. Yup. Guilty as charged. Sometimes these posts are facile. Sometimes they are simply recording where I am; more discernment is required. Always. And, always, they are written by a white and privileged and incredibly blessed woman whose assessment of The Big Picture is as limited as that blind man holding the elephant’s tail.

“Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” Jesus coached his disciples. Which I take to mean: While life is complicated and often dangerous, an open, loving, and childlike sensibility is absolutely necessary. Which I also take to mean: pray. “Pray without ceasing,” Paul counseled. Be still and know that I am God.

So, Dear Readers (and car insurance companies), please keep in mind that whatever I write here is, as Quakers love to put it, “the Light we/I am given.” (And more shall be given to you/me.)

Always.

To Slog: elucidated

IMG_0134

[“Quaker Notes”]

As I’ve recently noted to a loyal reader of this blog, I am currently engaged in what I call The Slog, i.e. the process of sending off query letters to agents and publishers so as to find a good home for Welling Up. It’s an apt word, slog, for all its pithy four-letterness, meaning both toil—oh, yeah!—but also to walk “with a slow, labored gait.” Again: oh, yeah!

Etymologically, slog and slug seem to share common ancestry, also apt. Because query letters are, basically, trying to grab super-busy people’s shoulders; getting their attention, hitting them hard: “Hey! You! Yeah, you! Listen up! Do I have a book for you!”

And, yes, I’m braced for those super-busy people to slug me back, so to speak, with indifference or polite, rote phrases: “Thank you for interest but . . . ” Rejection is integral to The Slog. (And this is not my first rodeo.)

‘Course the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting something different. The Slog will not continue indefinitely; Plan B will tap me on the shoulder when she’s good and ready.

But meanwhile, while she’s polishing her nails or getting her hair done or whatever Plan B needs to do before making her grand entrance I plan to slog, to walk slowly and as I’ve been urged to do, cheerfully.*

 

“Walk cheerfully over the world answering that of God in everyone.” George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends (Quakers); 1656

 

 

 

Can We Talk About. . . ?

IMG_0092

 

Sunday afternoon at Friends Meeting at Cambridge, after an excellent presentation on Jobs not Jails, a few hardy souls suggested ideas for this year’s Good Friday leaflet. The theme this year: Jobs not Jails.

It’s always hard to write something collectively, of course. (Especially if you’ve already been sitting at meeting for worship, a potluck, and an hour and a half presentation!) But I’m guessing that for the fifteen or so of us who’d stayed, that we’d been asked to contribute  our ideas had been touching and gratifying. (In the past, this yearly leaflet-writing task has always been the sole responsibility of our meeting’s Peace and Social Concerns Committee—to be added to/amended but eventually approved by our monthly business meeting)

Our collectively-difficult writing assignment was made even harder by how much we wanted to say about the criminal justice system! How much there is to say! Yet how much we yearned to raise probing and engaging questions, to not preach, to not get holier than thou, etc. (Our multi-faceted mission was somewhat simplified by the decision to have a table nearby with Jobs Not Jails info sheets, flyers publicizing the April 26th rally, and petitions.)

So here’s a DRAFT of what I’d hope to include in such a leaflet:

On this somber, reflective Good Friday, we gather here to silently bear witness to the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Today we recall that when Jesus preached for the first time, the text was:  The Spirit of the Lord God has taken control of me! The Lord has chosen and sent me to tell the oppressed the good news, to heal the brokenhearted, and to announce freedom for prisoners and captives. [Isaiah 61:1]

We are moved to ask:

Are not  all people—people of conscience, taxpayers, residents of our deeply interdependent communities, those behind bars and those who love them—oppressed by our unjust, racially disproportionate, and incredibly expensive criminal justice system? Are we not all prisoners and captives?

The United States has 5% of the world’s population yet 25% of the world’s prisoners. What must we do to heal this national brokenness?

Can we talk about getting smart on crime instead of getting tough on crime (especially  since getting tough doesn’t work!)

Can we talk about reconciliation? Can we talk about redemption? Can we talk about forgiveness?

Branded # 7: Amity*

IMG_0613

Last night I attended a reading at Porter Square Books by Debby Irving, an attractive, personable, and righteous Cambridge resident, re her brand-new book, Waking Up White And Finding Myself in the Story of Race.

Reader, I was upset. And jealous. Especially when Irving flatly stated that after taking a course at Wheelock College—where I went, for heaven’s sake!—and awakening to race matters, she couldn’t find any memoirs by white people on the subject! So decided to write one, herself.

Still stewing, I came home to find an e-mail from my dear friend, Delia, with this link. “Apparently I’m not the only one who’s been thinking about this poem first thing in the morning lately!” she wrote. As Delia knows,  Robert Hayden’s incredible “Those Winter Sundays” introduces Chapter 2 of my memoir re awakening to race in this country. How grateful I was to be gifted with such loving—though inadvertent—support of a dear friend when I needed it! How lovely to again contemplate, “What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?” !

My memoir’s entitled Way Opens: A Spiritual Journey. That journey continues. So when, ahem, I woke up this morning, I realized I’d heard something else last night: How there’s another, little-known narrative in this country about people of color and white allies. (And, yes, although although our record has been definitely checkered, Quakers have historically been counted among those allies.)

Post Way Opens, here’s where Spirit had led me: To be, as best as I am able, a criminal justice ally. And here’s what I believe I am led to explore: how best I can support Jobs Not Jail. (Not completely clear; need more discernment for sure.)

Reader: care to join me?

PS: Upon reflection, I realized that the above was clumsily written. Let me be clear: I commend Debby Irving and the wonderful and important work she’s done. There can’t be too many books on this incredibly important and difficult subject!

* “Friendship, peaceful harmony; mutual understanding and peaceful relationship.” My alma mater runs a National Center for Race Amity; who knew?!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Branded #6: “The drop becomes the ocean.”

IMG_0469

 

A peak-religious-experience moment at New England Yearly Meeting [see “Bread for Home”]: Jay O’Hara was showing pictures of the coal-burning plant at Somerset, MA; one pic featured a veritable mountain of coal—and someone commented on its enormity.

“Oh, yeah,” Jay said off-handedly. “It gets really tall in the summer.”

As Quaker scholar, Michael Birkal, would put it: “The drop became the ocean.” That mountain became what makes my air conditioner work. I knew this, I felt/saw/experienced the whole damned thing, from mountain-top-removal in West Virginia or Kentucky to pushing my AC remote control power button—totally and whole-heartedly.

Other faith traditions, of course, also speak of and practice this mindfulness, this Consciousness*, this perpetual connectivity, this grokking The Whole. And, of course, drugs do the trick, sometimes. A friend I’ve sadly lost track of, once told of a similar peak-experience moment when he was super-high so scribbled down something, ya know, profound. The next morning he couldn’t wait to look at what he’d written: “Everything is everything.” (Yup.)

Being a Quaker’s my faith tradition, however; here’s where I’ve landed. So as I continue to join others working on climate change, that mountain-top to mountain-top to my bedroom moment will feed me, sustain me, my very own, inner power button.

 

A Garden Beyond Paradise

Everything you see has its roots
in the unseen world.
The forms may change,
yet the essence remains the same.

Every wondrous sight will vanish,
every sweet word will fade.
But do not be disheartened,
The Source they come from is eternal—
growing, branching out,
giving new life and new joy.

Why do you weep?—
That Source is within you,
and this whole world
is springing up from it.

The Source is full,
its waters are ever-flowing;
Do not grieve,
drink your fill!
Don’t think it will ever run dry—
This is the endless Ocean!

From the moment you came into this world,
a ladder was placed in front of you
that you might transcend it.

From earth, you became plant,
from plant you became animal.
Afterwards you became a human being,
endowed with knowledge, intellect and faith.

Behold the body, born of dust—
how perfect it has become!

Why should you fear its end?
When were you ever made less by dying?

When you pass beyond this human form,
no doubt you will become an angel
and soar through the heavens!

But don’t stop there.
Even heavenly bodies grow old.

Pass again from the heavenly realm
and plunge into the ocean of Consciousness.
Let the drop of water that is you
become a hundred mighty seas.

But do not think that the drop alone
becomes the Ocean—
the Ocean, too, becomes the drop!

Jelaluddin Rumi, “A Garden Beyond Paradise”,
A Garden Beyond Paradise: The Mystical Poetry of Rumi
(translated by Jonathan Star), Bantam Books, NY, 1992, pp. 148-149

“Bread for Home*”

IMG_0359

 

Refreshed and renewed**, now back home from New England Yearly Meeting (NEYM). A wonderful experience this year—year by year, YM wildly veers from incredibly great to incredibly horrible for me—especially the Bible Half-Hours. Michael Birkel gave a rich, accessible, often hilarious series of talks linking the writings of early Quakers with passages those early Friends basically lifted, often verbatim, from the Bible. That these Biblical passages referenced relevant Biblical events, i.e. George Fox writing a letter to imprisoned Quakers employing Bible passages written to Old Testament exiles, made clear that, yes, those early Quakers knew their Bible in a way I can greatly appreciate. And their writings were, I now see, layered. “Echoes,” Michael kept saying. Those early Friends echoed the voices of Isaiah, of Jeremiah, of John et al; those yearning to express their experience of The Divine—or the Kingdom of God—in words. (How do you “explain” the inexpressible/beyond words in language?)

Words are my tools so am intrigued by the possibility of more fully embracing the beauty and the poetry of the Bible—judiciously. (Like many former UUs/current feminists, the Bible infuriates me, too.) “Sustain me with raisins, refresh me with apples; for I am faint with love.” (Michael teased that “The Song of Solomon” is the only book of the Bible Quakers take literally!)

Among New England Quakers this year there was much talk of our shrinking numbers; several sobering conversations re our fading from existence, how we are, perhaps, fated to become extinct. And, indeed, if you look at numbers, there is cause for alarm.

BUT: Check this out: When Quaker environmental activist Jay O’Hara talked about his witness against a coal-poison-spewing power plant near Fall River, Massachusetts (“Walking Cheerfully into the Arms of the Police”) at YM this year, I felt that tingly, goose-bumpy Connecting-The-Dots Thing between Michael’s ‘echoes” and what I was hearing: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me.” (Isaiah 61) Jay didn’t say that! I heard it. I experienced it.

Quakerism is dying out?  If I’m to believe that I’m asked to believe that the powerful, prophetic “echoes” of the Bible and Rumi and Margaret Fell and . . . no longer speak.

And I can’t.

 

*A Quaker expression shared by Michael Birkel meaning an inner awareness gifted during a meeting for worship NOT spoken aloud but meant “to be brought home,” so to speak.

**In the spirit of this year’s Bible Half-Hours, am footnoting this quote from NEYM’s Faith and Practice queries: “Are your recreations consistent with Quaker values; do they refresh your spirit and renew your body and mind?

Branded # 4: “Trust the process.”

 

IMG_0196

 

 

 

 

 

 

[Our apple-cheeked Friend rests on a Bible; beside him are a couple of others: Tim Wise’s White Like Me,Wendell Berry’s The Hidden Wound, Cornel West’s Race Matters.]

I had jury duty today, the first time I’ve been asked to serve in the thirty-four years I’ve lived in Massachusetts.

In the deliciously long silence of meeting for worship this past Sunday, I had plenty of time to reflect on this lofty, civic duty. I was already pretty clear that, unlike some Quakers, the raising of my right hand and swearing to uphold—whatever—was not going to be an issue. (I already knew that the “Place your hand on the Bible” thing doesn’t happen any more.)

More deeply, however, I realized that, in truth, (or as my mother used to say, “deep down inside”) I’d prefer not to put my life on hold, thank you very much. And realized that I’d been imagining that my Quaker principles would somehow automatically exclude me from selection. But realized that, really, short of magic-markering “I am a Quaker” on my forehead, there wasn’t any real way, no space on the “Juror’s Confidential Questionnaire” form to declare my religious affiliation. (Which is as it should be, right?) Further, I realized—with alarm and embarrassment—that actually, I’d been planning to use my principles to get out of jury duty!

An interesting challenge: How can I be a person of integrity and truth-seeking without using those principles to avoid something inconvenient?

I prayed over this for a long time. And it came to me: Trust the process. Two weeks ago, for example, as I watched the jury selection process for another case [see “Seeking That of God”], one of the questions those jurors were asked to respond to was, basically, Do you trust the testimony of the police over the testimony of someone else?

Hmm, I thought, anticipating today. Now there’s a question I’d have a hard, hard time simply acquiescing to.

So on Sunday, I decided that I would simply trust that were questions such as this raised, I would answer truthfully.

And they were and I did and was promptly dismissed.

Driving home, I had second thoughts. Maybe I should have kept quiet so that someone with lots of experience cheering and supporting defendants could have served.

But that’s not exactly “fair and impartial,” is it?

So I think I did the right thing. Do you?

 

 

 

Branded # 2: Easter Parade

IMG_0138

On Friday, David and I took the T to Park Street to join other Quakers at the Good Friday vigil on Boston Common. “Busy about the work of the earth,”* I hadn’t really considered this upcoming event until I caught sight of my reflected self in the T’s window: “Oh, right. I am about to become a Public Quaker. Better get my pious face on.”

And instantly felt, well, sheepish! (Sheepish perfectly describes how I felt—and given the season, is also conveniently pascal, isn’t it!)

Most Good Fridays (and I’ve been showing up for these vigils for over thirty years), standing in a silent line with fifty or sixty other Quakers is holy.  But not this year.

This year I felt like a freak show: “Oooh. Look at the real life Quakers!” This year, I felt as if I served as a fleeting distraction for crowds of tourists “entranced by the sight of distant goals.”* (goals, I gloomily surmised, that involved serious SHOPPING.) This year I felt as though I was reluctantly participating in a Quakercentric activity, well-meaning, to be sure, but grossly ineffectual, and more about making me feel righteous than about real witnessing.

Fine, I thought, standing there. If this vigil is, indeed, really about me, let’s use this time effectively: What is it I’m supposed to glean from this?

Lots.

1. Strategy matters. I have shown up—in courtrooms, for example or when visiting legislators—where my mere presence did have an effect. But being a Public Quaker on Good Friday on Boston Common as hundreds of tourists and people on their lunch hour scurry by? Uh uh. NOT effective. Not strategic. (As close readers of this blog will certainly remember [see “Bling”] being strategic is now a huge part of my “What am I asked to do?” discernment.)

2. Only engage. How I wished we could have engaged with the parents and children who walked past us, the children whispering: “What are they doing?” Such wasted, teachable moments. Which leads me to:

3. Engage 2.0: This year’s vigil pamphlet, written by FMC’s Peace and Social Concerns Committee and distributed to passersby, was about gun violence. If we peacemakers want to truly inherit the earth, maybe we ought to be engaging with those with whom we strenuously disagree? Like the  NRA?! Now THAT would be real witnessing. (and, yes, as I stood in silence I, of course, remembered Rufus Jones and Hitler. Talk about speaking truth to power!)

And today, this:

4. Rituals matter. This morning I walked into a living room filled with the smell of our Easter lily to instantly remember childhood Easters in Bridgeport, CT at my grandmother Lil’s house, the rituals around dying eggs and lilies and too much candy and getting all dressed up on Sunday morning—another kind of being-public experience. (A self-aware child, I didn’t feel the least bit sheepish about knowing how nice I looked all dressed up!) And realized that for many dear, dear Friends, the Good Friday Vigil is an important ritual which obviously speaks to their condition. So I need to sit down with these good people to discover why they faithfully show up every year.

And then, together, we figure out how to engage with the NRA?

 

“To arrest, for the space of a breath, the hands busy about the work of the earth, and compel men entranced by the sight of distant goals to glance for a moment at the surrounding vision of form and colour [sic], of sunshine and shadows; to make them pause for a look, for a sigh, for a smile—such is the aim [of a writer], difficult and evanescent, and reserved only for a very few to achieve.” —Joseph Conrad, 1897—

 

 

Branded #1

IMG_0095

Last night I had a wonderful phone conversation with a Harvard student investigating service projects for herself and her classmates. Through another Kennedy School student, she’d heard about Friends Meeting at Cambridge’s Prison Fellowship Committee and our Wednesday night sharing circle —so arranged for our phone call to learn more.

Early on I’d warned her that I’d have lots to say. And I did. But, bless her, she hung in there. So I blathered. Oh, my, did I!

At one point I heard myself reference the early Quakers and their historic interest in prison reform since they’d spent a fair amount of time in gaol themselves. I even mentioned Elizabeth Fry.

This morning, as I often do post-blather, I wondered if my (way too many) words had been well-chosen. Specifically I wondered what right I had to claim this history as mine.

But Quakers’ penal reform history is much a part of the brand as The Peace Testimony, right? (And, of course, we mustn’t forget that that history also includes Quakers’ well-meaning but misguided belief that sitting in penitent silence with, perhaps, a Bible, i.e. in penitentiaries, was a good idea.) “And this is our testimony to the whole world.”

The brand. A concept I both loathe and am intrigued by. (So why this post is a I; there’ll be more, I’m guessing. Especially since positioning a Quaker Oats container in other settings could be such fun!)

I am confused re brand but do know this: Prison ministry means a version of mindfulness that has enlarged my life.

PS: During that long-winded phone call, I also referenced “The House I Live In.”