“Why Is This Okay?”

[Green Line tunnel]

Recently, driving to the Minneapolis airport for the first time, my husband and I arrived at the wrong terminal. This error turned out to be not a big deal, however, because we’re both fierce and devoted players on the Get To The Airport Super/Crazy Early Team.
Our obligatory journey from Terminal 1 to Terminal 2 involved a quick—and delightful—trip on a Twin Cities light rail. Um . . . wait! What? Public transit can be quiet?
To be fair, greater Boston’s Red Line, one branch of “the T,” is quiet, efficient; pleasant. But, as of March of this year, my Union Square neighborhood is now serviced by the T’s earliest branch: The Green Line.
Which isn’t.
Maybe because I’ve so recently been apprised of what light rail transportation could actually look like, sound like, or maybe because I am worn down by sorta-post-COVID diminishment so bearable urban woes have become less bearable, or maybe I’m becoming a cranky old lady. Whatever the reason, I am shocked, shocked to look around at my fellow passengers still scrolling their phones every time our car makes the slightest turn.”Why is this wretched screeching okay?” I long to ask them.
But here’s the thing: Before the Green Line was extended to my neighborhood, it had been funky, affordable, inhabited largely by students, artists and working class families. Now, tragically, my fellow passengers are people who can afford to live in Union Square!
So for all the wrong reasons, reasons dealing with race and class and entitlement, I have great hopes for a new and improved Green Line!
Jeez.

I’d Like To Think So

[Stairs, “The Boiler House,” MA MoCA]

In the early 90’s, because the adult learning center where I worked had received a federal grant, I began teaching in what we’d called homeless shelters back then. And as stipulated in that grant, every quarter, all the Massachusetts programs receiving that same grant’s personnel were required to meet. So I’d dutifully shuffle off to Worcester or Roxbury or, once, to North Adams, a hellish drive—where, we were told by a local activist, amazing and wondrous things were about to happen. A modern art museum, to be housed in one of North Adam’s long-abandoned factories, was in the planning stage. This massive and exciting undertaking, he predicted, would have an enormous, positive impact on that post-industrial city’s economics. And, therefore, he’d intimated, the struggling, unhoused people of North Adams would benefit.

Oh so long ago, did I snort at his preposterous words? Did I mutter, “Yeah, right!” I’d like to think so. But the truth is, I’d probably experienced that small, vague, subtle, uneasy stop I can only now, decades later, acknowledge; identify. It’s the same stop I now pay attention to as I reread a passage I have just “finished,” for example. “Something’s missing,” I realize. Or “Something’s not right.”

Had I experienced the horrifying gentrification happening right now in my own post-industrial, aging New England city neighborhood, my disbelief at that activist’s naive and patently wrong predictions would have been well-informed—and vocal! But I had yet to live that clarifying experience. I had yet to more fully understand that them that has, gets.

But here’s the thing: Saturday I visited MA MoCA for the first time and after taking a brief moment to acknowledge the younger me who only saw through a glass, darkly, fell in love with the museum’s rusted, industrial aesthetic, its enormous and expansive spaces. I loved all of it. But especially The Boiler House and  Kelli Rae Adams’ “Forever in Your Debt.”

Will my admission fee, what I paid for a delicious, hand-squeezed lemonade or the lovely gifts I bought in MA MoCA’s gift shop “trickle down”? No. Am I uplifted, moved, inspired from that experience? Yes. Will my experience somehow inform my ministry? I’d like to think so.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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.”

 

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.”