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.”

 

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.

 

 

Going Deep(er)

This morning after a long silence I received a text from the man I had been visiting in prison. He’s finally been deported—back to the Dominican Republic. (Red Sox Nation citizens will marvel at his horrible luck to have been sent to DR this week!) For almost two years he and I had been Old-School corresponding via the United States Postal Service so, for starters in this brand-new phase of our friendship, it was pretty sweet to text back and forth! In real time.

As he never failed to do in all his letters and during our month visits, he texted me his thanks for being his good friend. I used to think that his thanks was all that mattered in our relationship; that by his being briefly grateful that he, held in solitary confinement in a series of Massachusetts’ prisons, got to be human in a different way.  Briefly. Very briefly.

But during this long silence after being released by the DOC and then detained by ICE—which meant being sent to Louisiana where, as a soft, Southern, female voice informed me, “He ain’t here long enough to get mail”—I found myself watching myself. I saw myself free. With agency. Able to go wherever, whenever. Free.

How truly precious freedom is!

Some ICE detention centers in Louisiana are prisons-for-profit so, newly cherishing my own freedom, I was also haunted by what that meant for my friend. And imagined that the cruel, tortuous treatment he’d experienced while in “The Hole” in Massachusetts’ Department of Correction facilities would be far, far worse. And that how long he’d be detained in Louisiana would not be about Fair or Right or Just but predicated on some corporation’s bottom line. The longer he’d be detained meant more money for some “Keep occupancy high and costs low” business, right?

But now he’s in violent, drug-infested DR—a country he’d left when he was four. Where, he says, there’s already a price on his head. Where there are 200 murders every month in Santo Domingo. Where he, an ex-offender already dealing with a very complicated re-entry process because of being held in solitary confinement, knows no one and cannot yet suss out who might be a trustworthy friend.

In his recent, viral, heart-breaking essay on climate degradation, Cody Patterson states “I wish I didn’t know.” I get that; I feel the opposite. I am grateful to know what I now know only because of this friendship.

May this deeper knowledge inform my life.

And, more important, may my friend find his way.

 

With A Tender Hand*

Yesterday at meeting for worship, an elderly man struggled to stand and then spoke so quietly that almost no-one could hear or understand him. Yet, like the rest of eighty or ninety people seated in the meetinghouse, although I’d given up all hope of understanding what he had to say, I held my breath. We were all holding our breath, I sensed, we were all listening to words beyond his words; we were, all of us, deeply respectful. Because, as someone noted later, he was so clearly between Being and Not Being. “On the ledge,” someone else put it. Or as I’d noted at some point during my mother’s last months, the veil between his life and death was thinning.

Would that collective, open-hearted receptivity been different had he been a Person of Color, I wondered? This question came to me because I am trying to observe what happens at my Quaker meeting as though I am not the white and privileged person I am. What about if he’d been a scruffy, unkempt street person? Would we have listened so carefully, so tenderly; in prayer?

I think we would. I think that witnessing such a moment is holy. And so, regardless of the messenger from that Ledge, we would be reverent.

 

* “Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand. . .” Isaac Penington, 1667

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.”

 

 

 

The View from Here

 

View From El Yunque National Forest; March 13, 2019

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain

On our way to El Yunque National Forest, Narayan De Jesus Reyes, our excellent tour guide and driver, made a stab at this quote. Our small white bus weaving in and out of Puerto Rican traffic and over the island’s not-great roads, Narayan got Twain’s remarks pretty much right— although he was a little shaky on attribution. (Which happens a lot with Mark Twain quotes, right?)

So many ironies, so many paradoxes, so much to consider and to hold:

That so often, it is only the privileged who can afford to travel!

That, seemingly, travel = selfies these days, i.e. an opportunity, for example, to pose in front of a rainforest waterfall, post your ecstatic face on social media, then climb back onto a tour bus.

That there were so many tour buses! As we moved from site to site—most of the park’s trails are still inaccessible so we mostly stopped at look-out areas—Narayan constantly struggled to find a place to park. Every day, two or three humungous cruise ships visit San Juan; every day those cruise folks book tour buses bound for El Yunque.

These other tour buses proved a personal struggle. I resented all those fossil-fuel-powered vehicles—like the one I rode on; like the plane I flew on—and was grateful that this still-recovering-from Hurricane Maria paradise might benefit from all those tourists’ dollars. (That our mainland money might actually benefit Puerto Rico was a major reason why my husband and I had chosen to go there.)

That, according to Narayan, a good third of the rainforest’s trees had been destroyed by yet another climate-change-era superstorm. And, as one of the park’s rangers later told us, its famous, endangered parrots were seriously impacted by such devastation and now seem to have disappeared. The kicker?  I only know this because I can afford to take a guided tour to this holy place in a fossil-fuel-spewing bus!

About that holy place: For our last stop, Narayan had arranged for us to bathe in a delightful swimming hole surrounded by rich, tropical foliage and fed by a rainforest-generated river. Think of it!  As I sat on a volcanic rock at the bottom of a small, gurgling waterfall in bright sunshine listening to birdsong and the soft, gentle murmur of three young women nearby, I felt wholly blessed. Annointed. Utterly grateful. “My people believe El Yunque takes care of us,” Kenia, who served me breakfast the next day, explained. “That’s what you were feeling.”

Oh.

 

 

 

 

Bending That Arc A Tad (Maybe)

Yesterday afternoon I had the extraordinary good fortune to show up at two trials at the Moakley Courthouse, both trials dealing with immigrant justice. A former journalist, I would have preferred to offer a carefully-written, researched and cogent report about my experience. But for a number of reasons, the chief one being that at the first trial, the young attorney representing the defendant, Donald Trump (Yup!), spoke so rapidly and so frequently dropped his voice at the end of his rapid-fire sentences as to make his arguments incomprehensible. (He seemed to have a bad cold, too. That didn’t help.) Also, duh, I’m not a lawyer. So, sorry, Readers, the best I can offer is impressions and “feels,” as my daughter, Hope, says. ( I can offer some hope, too.)

The first trial was held in Courtroom 11 which was packed, so standing-room-only that one of the immigration-rights lawyers asked the judge, a Woman of Color, if those people standing out in the hallway might be allowed to come inside and sit where a jury might ordinarily sit. She, someone whose own ancestors had for years been denied a jury of their peers or, if attending a trial, had been shunted off to sit in segregated seating, agreed. Thus a group of brown and black-skinned men and women from Haiti, El Salvador, and Honduras silently filed into the courtroom to fill the two rows of jury seats. The “optics” couldn’t have been better!

And what was this first trial about? It pitted a coalition of immigrant-rights lawyers/plaintiffs against a defendant who’s decided to send Temporary Protection Status (TPS)  people back to their countries of origin. And, no, everyone seemed to agree, these people were probably not a national security threat. “Why are you pursuing this?” the judge asked MotorMouth at least twice. (He’d presented first.) If he had a cogent answer as to why the president has rescinded TPS, I didn’t hear it.

But his “brothers” at the next table offered an explanation: (The opposing lawyers referred to each other as “brothers.” The all-female-attorneys at the second trial called the women on the other team “sisters.”) “Racial Discriminatory Animus,” the immigration-rights lawyers declared more than once, pure and simple and appalling.  Trump has made his abhorrent feelings/animus toward immigrants crystal-clear. Which is why he’s the defendant in this case.

There was lots more, of course. Numerous references to other cases; how the defendant has misread the original TPS law—and what “intervening events” really means; lots about procedure and jurisdiction and (I sure hope I got this right) how the president willy-nilly changed a law without proper notification and allowing the public to comment on this New Rule. And how He Can’t Just Do That! (If, indeed, I understood this correctly, it gives me shivers. Because I’m pretty sure this is what happened in Nazi Germany when, incrementally, things slowly changed without fanfare.)

The trial ended precisely at 3:00 with the judge promising to consider all she’d read and heard. So stay tuned.

The second trial—which I only found out about because I’d gotten on the wrong elevator and someone I know was on it and urged me to join her—featured a law firm of young women representing a Brazilian mother who’d entered this country in Arizona  and who has been separated from her nine-year-old-son for forty-three days. The mother’s lawyers demanded that the government reunite this mother, currently in Massachusetts (although I don’t know how or why she’s here), and her son, currently in a detention center in Texas!

Yes, mysteriously, here it is. The Story we’ve all been sleepless over, told again in a federal courtroom in Boston, Massachusetts: violence and domestic abuse and the threat of drug trafficking to be foisted upon the child in a “country of origin,” a difficult journey, detention, and side-by-side cages on a concrete floor and a wailing child and a mother unable to soothe her son.  And a government official, in this case a young woman lawyer wearing a white jacket, spouting nonsense. White Jacket Sister “justified” this separation because—are you ready? Our government has separated thousands of children from their parents and it would be, what? Unfair? Unseemly? Just wrong somehow if this child should leapfrog (her word) over all those others. As if the mother and child had cut the line at the deli counter. (She offered other justifications, too. This leap-frog nonsense was the most egregious.)

And it elicited a spirited response from the lead lawyer who sputtered something to the effect of how the United States government has caused this horrific situation and why should this child be held hostage because they’d f**cked up?!

And again, the judge, this time an aging white man, promised he’d carefully consider all he’d just heard and read. I pray he does so quickly.

I’d promised hope. Here are three hopeful take-aways:

  1.  Many amazing, brilliant people, many of them immigrants, many of them lawyers, are working feverishly to counter Trump’s racial discriminatory animus. And where there’s (amazing, brilliant) energy there’s hope, right? (Organizations like Centro Presente need our support BTW. Spiritual and financial.)
  2. There are fifty federal courthouses; many of the immigration cases cited yesterday happened in other states.The future of justice in this country vis a vis the Supreme Court may give you nightmares right now but it’s not the only game in town. I chose to believe that, case by case, something will shift. (But start praying anyway. Just in case.)
  3. Both courtrooms were SRO with TPS folks, aging lefties, community activists—and many, young Women of Color in black suits. Law students. Who will bend that arc even more. God bless them.

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.

 

. . . Not A Sprint.

Today, apparently, because of relentless, vociferous, worldwide protest, 45 announced that his pernicious policy of separating children from their parents at our nation’s borders will discontinue.

But don’t get too excited. He has also, in the past 24 hours, used the word “infest” when tweeting about immigration issues. A word to use when talking about rats, bed bugs, cockroaches.

I suggest we allow ourselves to take a brief moment to celebrate the power of collective action/ Love in Action. Praise God! Eat chocolate! Ceremoniously sip a delicious glass of pinot noir! Listen to music that brings you to tears.

And then let’s get back to work. Let’s keep showing up*. (Fascism is relentless, too.)

*Boston-area folks: let’s flood the Moakley Courthouse on July 12th at 2:00!

 

 

In Plain Sight

“Dead End.” Street sign seen through my window during Nor’easter # 2 (of 3, so far.) March 8, 2018

New England weather such as it right now, I’m reading more. Needing to replenish my books-to-read queue, between storms I stopped by The Book Rack, a funky, used-bookstore in Arlington, MA. Perusing its chock-a-block “Classics” section, I spotted a paperback edition of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and, vaguely remembering something about its feminist pedigree, gladly paid a whopping $3.00 for Chopin’s “masterpiece”—as declared by its faded, blue, time-worn cover.

The Awakening was first published in 1899, shocking Victorian readers with its frank acknowledgement of female sexuality. So there’s that. Kate Chopin, born in 1851, is a stunningly beautiful writer. So there’s that. The Awakening details how wealthy, New Orleans-based Creole families vacation pre-air conditioning. So there’s that.

There this, too:

Madame Lebrun was busily engaged at the sewing machine. A little black girl sat on the floor, and with her hands worked the treadle of the machine. [Madame Lebrun] does not take any chances which may be avoided of imperiling her health . . . The sewing machine made a resounding clatter in the room; it was a ponderous, bygone make. In the lulls, Robert and his mother exchanged bits of desultory conversation.  (p. 38, AVON BOOKS, 1972.)

What are we to make of this? Is that sarcastic remark regarding Madame Lebrun’s delicate health meant to elicit sympathy for the little black girl producing such resounding clatter? Maybe. A child performing a function most contemporaries of Madame Lebrun—who owns the resort where these Creole families vacation—would have performed themselves? Perhaps. So is Chapin slyly asking us to consider that child?

I wish I knew. Definitively. Because I so long to believe that this ground-breaking novelist saw her sewing room scene with woke eyes. But that Chopin supplies that little, black girl with the plainest of adjectives—I mean, c’mon! The sewing machine got fancier labels—but no name tells us something, I think. And that one family’s nanny is simply the quadroon says the same thing, too, I’m afraid.

But here’s the thing. Once I understood that a (probably very hot and thirsty and exhausted) little girl was in that sewing room, too, she participated in every paragraph I read. That nameless child started when, suddenly, Robert, a young man in his twenties, loudly whistled out the opened window to his brother, three stories below. Silently she took in Robert’s and his mother’s conversation—and, perhaps, gauged whatever they discussed in terms of more hardship for herself? She may have even noticed what Robert’s mother did not: that at the mention of Mrs. Pontellier—whose sexual awakening is what this book’s all about—the besotted young man blushed, maybe. Got flustered, maybe. (Chopin merely had him suddenly leave.)

I see you, little black girl. I see you, quadroon.

 

 

 

 

(Almost)-Spring Cleaning

A Rainy Day at Castle in the Clouds, Moutonborough, N.H.

Sunday, chilled, rainy, very windy, I’d almost wished there’d been a fireplace fire in the meetinghouse fireplace. Surely a hearty blaze would brighten my spirits?  But, no, I realized. If there were to be any cheering up going on that gloomy morning, it would have to come from within!

And I remembered something someone in my yoga class had said on Thursday. (Actually, this was at our pre-yoga class, when we discuss a poem someone has brought in, or the Sutras, or a piece of writing our gifted teacher wishes to share.) One woman talked about sadness, hard times, grief and loss; how we’re sometimes too eager to be happy. “There’s good reasons to feel sad,” she said.

So I let myself sink into despair. Not to “wallow in it,” as my father always cautioned when anyone in our family dared to be sad. (You were allowed to be sad in my family for about five minutes. Then you had to get over it.)  But to be honest! To honor the countless reasons we all have to feel sad.

And, mysteriously, after way more than five minutes of sitting in silence and letting myself “feel the feels,” as my daughter, Hope (!) says, Something happened. As if something inside me had been decluttered, de-cobwebbed, dusted or lemon-oiled or rearranged. As if I’d cleared a space within me to hold this sadness. And it was okay. More than okay. It was exactly what I was supposed to do.

What Joy when we do what we’re supposed to do!

“Excellent For The Times”

Radcliffe College Alumnae Questionnaire; filled out by my grandmother on November 9, 1939

Yesterday, spurred on my my oldest daughter’s curiosity about my beloved “Grandma,” I spent a couple of hours in the Schlesinger Library perusing Florence Moulton Mirick Wild’s alum folder. (Some people go to spas for self-care; I go to the Schlesinger!) A “Special Student” at Radcliffe College from 1897 until 1899, Florence never graduated but, apparently, felt warmly enough about her college experience to at least continue filling out alumnae forms.

[Before taking a brief look at two ah-hahs from yesterday, a warm, hearty Shout-Out to the Schlesinger! Thank you, insightful and wealthy people, for realizing that the lives of women are important. And that women’s letters and ephemera and papers et al. should be preserved. Yes.]

Number of servants.” Not sure what surprised me more; that Radcliffe College wanted to know—or that my grandmother reported in 1931, at a time of great financial struggle for millions of people, that the Wild family employed one servant. I am guessing that servant was female, young, Irish, “right off the boat,” as her son, my father, would say. And I wonder: where is this nameless “One”‘s story preserved? (Sadly, I think I know the answer.)

Excellent for the times“: In my grandmother’s breezy response to a question about how much she earned as “Supervisor for Public School Music” (for the Webster and then the Worcester, MA school systems, 1907 -1912) I detect both her WASPy squeamishness to talk about money and her justifiable pride. How horrified my grandmother would be that in 2018—her first grandchild now a Grandma, too—when it comes to women’s incomes, there still is no parity.

(What would Grandma make of today’s #MeToo movement?)