Lean Back, (Lean In)

Who shows up for a climate justice demonstration in Boston’s Back Bay on a Friday afternoon? Its organizers,* students, and old people—like the elderly protestor whose excellent sign said it all: “A fossil for a fossil free future.”

In a critically important time when aging White activists like me are being reminded, again and again, to listen, heed, support, and get out of the way of Indigenous, People of Color and White young people, Friday’s demonstration showed me what “Lean Back”** actually looks like. (Spoiler alert: pretty damned amazing!) A day of action nationally, Boston’s demonstration targeted two financial institutions, Liberty Mutual and JPMorgan Chase. For, as Fossil Free Future, who’d organized these nationwide demonstrations declares: “Climate finance is climate justice.”

Taking the T downtown, a trip I hadn’t taken in almost two years, required “beginner’s mind” and proved an excellent spiritual practice for leaning back.  To discover that, Wait! What? Lechmere’s tracks are gone? To walk past the desolate, empty storefronts on once-thriving Boylston Street? To march past Wait! What? skyscapers that have mushroomed throughout downtown Boston seemingly overnight? I experienced my hometown as if for the first time.

The demonstration began in front of Liberty Mutual and then became a march; organizers, BIPOC, young people go first. Shepherded and protected by much-appreciated marshalls, we fossils chanted and sang and chatted as we all walked from Back Bay through the Theater District to our final destination, Downtown Crossing.

It was here, in front of a Chase branch, when I was eldered by an organizer young enough to be my granddaughter. Two middle-aged White women standing next to me suddenly threw themselves onto the ground; “Join us,” they invited me. Oh, I thought. We play dead at demonstrations, now? Okay. And so I joined them on the pavement.

“Get up!” I was immediately commanded. “You’re part of a large group! Why are you drawing attention to just yourselves? I don’t think so,” the organizer declared before stomping off.

Lean back, Patricia.

*This event was organized by a coalition of Indigenous, youth, and climate groups, including the Native American Indian Center of Boston, United American Indians of New England, Indigenous Environmental Network, MA Youth Climate Coalition, Boston Latin School YouthCAN, XR Youth Boston, Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, Sunrise Boston, Climate Finance Action, 350 Massachusetts, Climate Courage, Massachusetts Teachers Association Climate Action Network, Our Climate, Future Coalition, Tufts Climate Action, Rainforest Action Network and more.

** Advice sometimes given to groups: “If you’ve been speaking a lot, consider leaning back. If you’ve been quiet a lot, consider leaning in.”

An Audience of One

[Snarky Puppy, House of Blues, Boston, May 12, 2019]

Every year between Christmas and New Year’s, I read my journal from the previous year. This year, lying on my couch under a down quilt, the Christmas trees lights on, my belly rounded from a week of rich, delicious holiday treats, this yearly ritual has proved especially poignant.

Because the ate-too-much me on the couch knows how this story-told-in-daily-installments will unfold, right? But the me who’d been earnestly writing every morning in her journal did not. So I feel so tender, so protective of naive, confused me, the me who’d slowly realized, OMG, we’re dealing with a global pandemic!

But a little exasperated, too: “Will I even get to read what I’m writing here?” she’d written in late March, terrified, I guess, that being over seventy-five probably meant she’d die from Covid. How astonishing and gobsmacking humbling it is to now see, in stark black and white, how little I’d understood my own privilege!

As I move into this new year, may I not forget this; all of it: my gratitude to be alive and my deep, painful, never-to-be-denied realization of why.

 

 

Inner Landscape

[Edward Tufte’s Hogpen Hill Farm’s Sculpture Landscape Park, Woodbury, CT; October 12, 2020]

Yesterday afternoon, as it has done for the past couple of years, Friends Meeting at Cambridge held a Called Memorial Meeting for Worship for Transgender Day of Remembrance. Each in their own Zoom tile, a flickering candle nearby, volunteers slowly read off the names of all the transgender people, many of them people of color, many with Spanish or Portuguese names, who have been murdered this past year.

What struck me most this year was how many “Name Unknown”s there were! Every time I heard those desolate syllables I found myself drifting away from the present moment to create stories, scenarios, all of them tragic, horrible, all of them very real, as if I, too, were an unknown victim. Instantly I grokked how each story began, where each took place, what each person had been wearing. I grokked, too, how each story was predicated on racism, violence, sometimes domestic violence; toxic masculinity.

When we find ourselves drifting off during mediation or prayer, both Buddhist and Christian teachings encourage us to come back. To realign. And how it’s that conscious coming back, that stern, inward “No, I will focus on Here and Now—again” that actually matters.

But yesterday something very different happened—as if to drift off to create these instant stories was the only and the best way to mourn each “Name Unknown.” As if my soul yearned to fill in the blanks, these yawning, heartbreaking gaps—no matter how fictitious. So I did.

Slough of Despond

Is it slew? Is it slahw-rhymes with cow? Does it matter? No. What matters, Pilgrim, is that you and I stay in this desolate place for a while. We need to spend some time here in this dark, crushing depression. We need to open our hearts to desolation, to intense sadness. We are being called to truly feel this despondency.

While here, you are allowed to wail, “How could seventy million people vote for that despicable man?!” You are allowed to cry out, “I can’t believe this!” If you dare to— this will be very painful, Pilgrim—you may even snicker at the you of last week who’d actually believed that this election would repudiate Trump. Racism. White supremacy. Greed. Blatant self-interest. So go ahead, Pilgrim. Rant and rail as much as you want. Do whatever you need to do to get ready.

Because Pilgrim? We have a problem. It’s fundamental: we Americans share a devastating history. That is an irrefutable fact.   

So when you are ready to move on, when you are ready to take a good, careful look at that history, which so much shaped this election, when you are ready to ask, “What am I called to do to help heal my broken country?” let Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson guide your first steps.

May I join you, Pilgrim? May we stumble forward together?

 

Who’s In The Frame?

Needing to do some in-person banking yesterday (where, wearing a mask, my glasses so thoroughly fogged up I could barely fill our the forms), I walked home from Davis Square along Highland Avenue—a route I haven’t walked in eight months. So maybe this wonderful mural on a Somerville Hospital wall has been there fuh-eva? It was new to me.

These beautiful ‘ville residents “appeared” in my life at a moment when I’m actively contemplating an intriguing concern: I know a lot about a small Virginia city’s civil rights history. I know a lot about the Wild family’s deep roots in this community. But I know next to nothing about Somerville’s civil rights history. I know almost nothing about Somerville’s racial history. And now, when so many Somerville lawn signs rightfully declare, Black Lives Matter, maybe now’s the time to find out?

Who’s in the frame? Whose story gets told? Whose story is ignored? Who’s in the frame but ignored?

I have ignored someone in the frame: In my collection of Wild family photographs is a truly bizarre, 6″ by 8″ photo taken in front of a now-razed carriage house at the corner of School Street and Oakwood Avenue. Featured are my grandfather’s sister, Isabel, maybe four or five, wearing a fur-trimmed, hooded, puffy-sleeved coat and seated on a rotund pony; my father’s “Aunt Isabel” gazes at a soft-eyed, untethered cow a few feet away.

For years, Reader, my gaze has only taken in Isabel’s cunning coat, that incongruous cow,  the beautifully-crafted, two-story carriage house in the background. (On the back of the photo my father noted in pencil: “Carved numbers above [the carriage house] door say 1890.”)

But there is another person is that picture. A dark-skinned, mustachioed man in a fedora and dark suit stands in front of the carriage house, too, about twenty feet from Isabel and eight feet from the cow. His body is blurred, he tilts slightly forward, knees bent; he’s moving.Who was he moving towards? That well-dressed little girl on a pony? Or the cow.

More important: Who was he? And why have I never wondered about him before?

 

 

 

White Rooms

Because decisions get made that reinforce white hierarchies every day, it would be good if the culture of whiteness were marked and made visible to those who can’t see it by those not invested in keeping it primary. Awareness has to happen in rooms where everybody’s white, since those rooms are already in place.

[Claudia Rankine, Just Us: An American Conversation]

On a winter day on Cape Cod a few years ago, I was sitting with my aged and ailing mother in her doctor’s waiting room. Another white woman dressed in a twin set, a plaid wool skirt, thick tights and duck boots sat opposite us. A TV had been mounted on the wall above Mom’s and my heads, its volume turned up.

A news story about Bill Cosby came on; another woman had just come forward to accuse “America’s Dad” of sexual assault. The twin-set woman caught my eye and declared: “They can’t all be lying.”

I’d smiled. I’d nodded my head.Looking back now, I think I’d felt a moment of female solidarity with an older and, possibly, more conservative woman. In her comment I thought I’d heard her recognition that so often women’s accusations of sexual assault have been denied.

But after reading Just Us, I’m realizing that in that woman’s blanket—and illogical— condemnation, I was hearing a horrifying reminder of the centuries of white women who have wrongly accused black men of sexual assault. I was hearing her declare Cosby guilty before being proven guilty. (Don’t get me wrong. Pretty sure “Cliff Huxtable” had been guilty.) I believe what I’d heard was her willingness to believe the worst about Bill Cosby because he’s black.

What would have happened in that white space if, instead of smiling and nodding, I’d said something like: “You know? Maybe you’re right. Maybe every single woman who has come forward is telling the truth. Which is pretty outrageous, right? That’s horrible! But let’s not forget that too many black men have been lynched in this country because too many white women weren’t telling the truth. So let’s hope our criminal justice system, which is notoriously unfair to black men, is indeed just.”

What would have happened?

 

Excerpt 2: Strands

[Here is an excerpt from a memoir I’m working on—Strands.]

Grief does not appear solely through tears; it is also expressed through our anger and outrage. *

Maybe twenty years ago, Kevin, a friend of color, said to me, “Patricia? You know what you’re like? You’re like a cook on a slave ship.”

And I had been furious! Wasn’t I an ardent anti-racist? Weren’t my woke credentials impeccable? Wasn’t I steadfastly showing up at Boston-area trials highlighting racial profiling? Didn’t I blog, again and again, about my privilege, my cluelessness, how hard I was working on issues about race and class? Hadn’t I, just a few years before Kevin had said these devastating words, sung “We Shall Overcome?” with Jerry Falwell in a Lynchburg church built by ex-slaves? (True story.) Hadn’t I written Way Opens about all of this?

But Kevin had been right. It has taken a global pandemic and George Floyd’s murder for me to take in the horrifying truth of what my friend wanted me to understand. Embedded in this black slave and white cook narrative, despite my yearning to move past Us/Them, despite my bone-deep belief that we are all equals at the table, lies a binary I must acknowledge.

Briefly, very briefly, when working on Way Opens, I’d sensed an opening on this essential and undeniable binary which I failed to truly look at, absorb, take in. So am only telling this story now.

While doing research for my book, I’d talked with Lynchburg resident Chauncey Spencer, former Tuskegee Airman and son of Anne Spencer, Harlem Renaissance poet. Back in Jim Crow days, Anne Spencer and her husband, Edward, hosted many notable people of color when they’d traveled to segregated Lynchburg; their house guests included Mary McLeod Bethune, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thurgood Marshall. The Spencers’ lovely Piece Street home and garden is now a museum located across the street from Dr. Robert “Whirlwind” Johnson’s home—and tennis court. On that court, now gone, the Lynchburg doctor, who’d earned his nickname on collegiate football fields, instructed the young Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe—and many others.

More about history from Way Opens:

On one trip, on a steamy summer day, I visited Harlem Renaissance poet Anne Spencer’s charming garden not far from the little house where she wrote. Although I had once lived a few miles from her home on Pierce Street, I had never heard of the Lynchburg poet, passionate gardener, and friend of Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson.

I understood, of course, that in the years I’d lived in segregated Lynchburg, our paths would have been prohibited from crossing. And I understood that even had Lynchburg not been a segregated community at that time, the elderly Anne Spencer might not have chosen to spend time with an adolescent Yankee transplant who liked to write. Still, sitting in her lovely garden, I cried as I contemplated how racism, this “hidden wound,” diminishes my life.

When doing my homework for this leading, what I was learning often made me angry. Like Audre Lorde, furious when she discovered how limited her supposedly excellent education had been, I’d become incensed “about the history I had learned” or hadn’t been taught. Other accounts, other history lessons were simply heartbreaking: narratives related by slaves who had lived in Lynchburg and told in Negro in Virginia, or a description of the dangerous working conditions for Lynchburg’s tobacco-processing hands, to name but two. But like that moment in Anne Spencer’s garden, there were times when the depth of my ignorance made me weep. Often, like that moment, I was discovering something about Lynchburg’s history, something I’d been denied learning, something that had happened just a few miles from where I had once lived or gone to school.

Dazed to be in his presence, where Chauncey Spencer and I met remains a blur. I do remember a cool, shades-drawn, old-fashioned parlor where we’d talked. And how, as the son of a famous mother and dashing, history-making airman, he’d obviously been interviewed many times. Almost by rote this former World War II pilot told me how he’s always wanted to fly; methodically he’d schooled me on the history of segregation and told how, in part because of his military service and subsequent, impromptu conversation he’d had with Harry Truman on Capitol Hill, in 1948 Truman enacted Executive Order No. 9981, stipulating equality of treatment and opportunity in all of the United States Armed Forces.

As out interview began to wind down, something prompted me to say something I had not expected to say. Maybe he’d used the word colorblind and I’d heard that word with fresh ears. Maybe this had been a graced, inbreaking moment. Whatever it was, I heard myself say something like, “I think it’s important, though, to acknowledge your experiences as a Black man growing up and living in racist America and how that has shaped you. Aren’t you, in many ways, who you are because of Jim Crow?”

He’d grinned: “I never heard anyone say that before.”

  • From The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief by Francis Weller

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.

The Big Picture (Or As Much of It That’s Currently Available)

What I’m about to write may seem ridiculously obvious. And political—not spiritual. And yet this Ah Hah feels Spirit-given:

Yesterday at a meeting on immigration justice, we were bemoaning the current administration’s latest attack: drastically raising the fees to apply for citizenship.

“It’s all about the money,” a member of our group bemoaned. And I found myself pushing back.

“With all due respect, this isn’t about money,” I countered. “This is about the Republican Party knowing it can’t win if people of color vote. So it’s doing whatever it can to disenfranchise brown and black-skinned people. We see this in Georgia around voter registration. We see this around ex-offenders not being able to vote. And, of course, we see this in our current immigration policies.” And, I might have added, “. . . scripted by a white nationalist.”

Where is Spirit in this? To see this Big Picture, however imperfectly I am able to grasp this, is mysteriously empowering. (Not yet clear why.)

I do know this though: There is Enough.

Just The Facts, Folks

In order to be very, very careful, I must leave out most of the salient details that would make this post come alive. Pop. For the safety of the person I want to write about, I’m leaving out most of this story. Their story.

The facts are these: Every day for the past couple of months, I have been made aware of one of my neighbors. Who has no clue that their existence has become a regular—and deeply moving—part of my life. Every day I hold that person, who I suspect is undocumented, in the Light. (That’s Quakerese for pray. Close to it, anyway) Every day, as I do so, I feel the disparity between their life and my own. And more recently, every day, I think about how this situation is exactly like the extraordinary movie, Parasite—only in reverse. I, the privileged one, know one or two important things about them. I know they exist. Close by. They know nothing about me. I don’t exist.

But we both know that something fundamentally wrong is going on. That this person lives in the shadows. And I don’t.

Out Of My Comfort Zone

[Set, “King Lear,” Actors Shakespeare Project, Chelsea Theatre Works, Chelsea, MA]

One of the many reasons my husband and I subscribe to ASP has been that their (brilliant and well-acted) productions are staged in under-used spaces throughout greater Boston. We shlep. We explore. We have pre-play meals in parts of town we’ve never spent time in before.

A couple of weeks after seeing ASP’s excellent production of “King Lear,” do you know what continues to haunt me? Two things. One, this reflection from Doug Lockwood in his “Director’s Notes”: Familial Love is indeed at the core and pain of “King Lear.” Harold Bloom writes that ‘Love is no healer in “King Lear.” Indeed, it starts all the trouble and is a tragedy in itself.” I found myself thinking about this throughout the play. [Note: If you wish to accompany me to a play, please be prepared to get to the theater in plenty of time so I can read these illuminating notes, okay?] And about my own confusing and complex family dynamics. And how love is not the whole story, sometimes, is it!

And the second? How, despite being engrossed in the action on stage, how so much of my attention was drawn to what was happening above the theater: plane after plane after plane taking off from nearby Logan Airport. So loud! So near! So constant!

“People live with this, 24/7,” I thought. “This is what they have to endure in order to be able to afford housing in greater Boston for themselves and their families.”

Puts a whole, new spin on “Oh, brave new world,” doesn’t it?

Somewhere With No Service

[Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery, Old San Juan, Puerto Rico]

It’s been almost three weeks since I last heard from the friend I used to visit in prison, recently deported back to trouble-torn Dominican Republic. “They’ll kill you for a pair of $25 sneakers over here,” he told me a week or so after he’d arrived. “I think I’m destined for a violent death,” he’d said not long after that. And now: silence.

“Maybe he lost his phone,” my husband has offered. “You said he was moving—maybe he’s somewhere with no service.” Maybe he’s still alive, my husband is trying to say. Maybe.

The last time we talked, I’d had the chance to comment on something he’d said a couple of days before: “Remember how you’d said there are more bad people than good people?” I reminded him. “I’ve been thinking a lot about that. And I’m pretty sure that if I’d been born into your family, I’d think so, too.” And over these past three weeks, I’ve thought about him, how bright he is, how full of promise, about his violent life, about trans-generational trauma, about poverty, about racism, about The Jail Trail,  about all the good things I’ve always hoped were in his future. I think about his word destined. I think about what, in a perfect world, he was destined to be.

And in this three-week silence, the obscene disparity between my life and his has become as close to me as the air I breathe. Waiting in a spotless, equipment-filled examination room for my well-trained, courteous doctor to come in, I am reminded in a new and piercingly painful way of his world-view. Of course!

“I feel as though I have joined a gigantic group,” I’d told my husband. (I feel as though I have learned another way to be human, I might have said.) “It’s made up of all the millions of people who have ever lived or who are living now who don’t know what happened to someone they love.”