“The Stranger Among You”

[Landscaping, Somerville, MA Style, 2016 ]

I live in Somerville, a sanctuary city, and my faith community is located in Cambridge, another sanctuary city. As the xenophobia in this country becomes ever more vicious, I’ve been been examining what this dual citizenship means. Not in terms of my sense of public safety* or, god forbid, to feel smug or politically correct or content; heck, no. But day to day, standing in line at the post office or hearing voices outside my window speak languages I can’t even name, what does it feel like to live into “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”? (Leviticus 19:33-34 ESV**)

It’s a spiritual practice. It’s a moment by moment interaction with The Stranger(s) and to pay attention to what that interaction calls up for me. (Lately? Mostly? Incredible sadness.) To daily encounter brown-skinned people, ever more stressed and scared—living in a sanctuary city isn’t a stress-free guarantee—is to perpetually pray: what am I called to do? (Write this for starters!)

It’s to connect with that “For you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” bit. To know with certainty, with deep and abiding understanding, that The Stranger’s backstory is, in some fundamental way, my own backstory. And that if the folks walking past my house and I were to share our stories, we would find the same themes, the same plot lines, the same unifying beliefs.

But also, these daily encounters are moment-by-moment reminders that my experiences and how I see the world aren’t the whole. Aren’t reality. Aren’t The One and Only. Or, to paraphrase another biblical bit, they’re daily reminders to walk humbly—and lovingly—as I, as we seek to do justice.

*Lots of conflicting studies, lots of rhetoric, but the crime rate in sanctuary cities seems to be lower!

**Slightly amazed I’m quoting Leviticus, one book of the Bible I’ve never connected with!

“Preparing”

[Civil Disobedience Training, Cambridge Friends School gym, 2/4/17]

When I’d told an aging activist I was going to a CD training on Saturday he’d snorted: “What’s to learn? You go limp. End of training!”

But I don’t roll that way. If I’m considering something hard, something I’m scared of, I need to do exactly what I did: I need a class. I need to pay money. (Not a lot; $15.) I need to spend five or so hours with other people contemplating the same action. (There were about forty of us.) I need hand-outs. (9 pages, double-sided, no less!) I need lots of Q & A and roll-plays and earnest conversation at lunch. I need to take turns reading quotes about non-violence aloud. I need to contemplate Gene Sharp’s list of 198 methods of non-violent action. And to study a hand-written flow chart explaining what might happen at a civil disobedience event—and my choices at every step. I need to show up.

And now I need to do my homework, the same homework I always do. Which is to ask: What am I called to do? Is getting arrested—and all I now understand will happen to me should I decide to do so— what I am called to do? I’m not clear.

But I do know this. The day after that training, at my Quaker meeting, when asked to give a one-word description of how I was doing, my immediate answer was “Preparing.”

I Am White/I Am A Woman

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[Willow Sculptures, Oslo, Norway Botanical Garden, October, 2015]

I am white/I am a woman

I am white/I am responsible

I am white/I am not responsible

I am white/I am powerful

I am a woman/I hold up half the sky

I am a woman/I am not powerful

I am white/I am a Quaker (almost goes without saying*!)

I am white/I am old

I am old/I am not powerful

I am an old Quaker/I am powerful

 

*In the USA

“Stay There!”

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Overheard at the Union Square farmers’ market: A young man loudly whined; the young woman beside him muttered “Stay there.” As if to say, “Stay in your petulance! Listen to yourself! Take whatever time you need to remember that you’re a white, American male—the most privileged creature on this planet—and hear how you sound like a spoiled three-year old!”

That woman’s verbal eye-roll* reminds me of an oft-quoted Quaker story:

There is a widely told, entirely apocryphal, story that at one time George Fox and William Penn met. At this meeting William Penn expressed concern over wearing a sword (a standard part of dress for people of Penn’s station), and how this was not in keeping with Quaker beliefs. George Fox responded, “Wear it as long as thou canst.” Later, according to the story, Penn again met Fox, but this time without the sword. Penn then said, “I have taken thy advice; I wore it as long as I could.” Though this story is entirely unfounded, it serves as an instructive parable about Penn’s Quaker beliefs. (From Brief History of William Penn)

Of course, Penn’s individual sword-wearing-until-he’d internalized-Quaker-beliefs is one thing; the hatred, the racism, the violence we’re witnessing as countless white Americans act out in this time of incredible and radical and inevitable transition—and possibility—is truly terrifying! Right now, staying there is scary.

(And sad. I get that. I understand the sadness beneath the violence.)

And, given climate change, none of us have much time to ponder, to contemplate, to leisurely make peace with that sword. (Talk about incredible and radical and inevitable!) So let’s get to it. Now. Let’s do whatever’s needed, with love and with compassion and grace—whine, acknowledge our shame, our guilt, mourn, grieve, make reparations, accept; whatever—so we can embrace that Big Change that’s gonna come.

Together.

 

*Thanks, Anna

 

PS: One day later, I’m not comfortable with what I’ve said, here. There’s too much more that needs to be said. So, Dear Readers, please consider the words above as a Work in Progress.

To be continued (and prayed over) . . .

 

 

April is The Cruelest Month . . .

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. . . and this year, ridiculously busy! Yet despite my too-long To Do list, I’ve been led to organize a “thank you note” party at Somerville Community Growing Center in honor of Arbor Day—and my beloved community’s trees!

A little background: Somerville is the most densely populated community in New England, with lots of people and buildings and cars and parking lots; trees and open spaces? Not so much. So whatever trees we do have that have managed to survive development and pollution and gas leaks and neglect certainly deserve our entire community’s hearty thanks! Especially since, given our heating-up planet, this summer promises to be, as New Englanders say, “A Skawchah.” (translation: Scorcher, i.e. hot as hell.) And with both an interstate and several major thoroughfares transecting our 4.209 square miles, we need every leaf from every tree to help mitigate all that heavy traffic!

So, Friday evening, weather permitting, we’ll write “thank you” in many languages on hanging-style names badges, decorate them, too, and then hang our grateful creations on trees all over the city!

A problem: that huge To Do list! Which means, dear friends, that I haven’t actually done much to get the word out that this little event’s even happening. Especially to those people, many of them poor, who live along the I-93 corridor and whose health and well-being is so compromised by where they live and what they breathe. A definite FAIL!

But as we also love to say here in New England: “Wait ’till next year!” (Actually: yee-ahh)

Family Business/Family Secrets

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[1800’s Chinese rice-paper painting of a “cloud couch” (used for smoking opium) in a Chinese home : a Wild family heirloom.]

Saturday, I drove to Bristol, Rhode Island to spend some precious, one-to-one time with my twenty-year-old nephew, a student at Roger Williams University. My first time there, he showed me around the campus; touring the glitzy Global Heritage Hall, he referred to Bristol’s slaving trade history—in the way only a principled young man can bring up such a charged subject: with pain, horror, and outrage behind his widened eyes. Global heritage, indeed!

And I immediately remembered “Traces of the Trade: A Story of The Deep North,” an excellent documentary I’d seen years ago re the DeWolf family and its incredibly lucrative slave-trading “family business,” a film so powerful and eye-opening that my own horror—and realization that many New England families were very much complicit in this national shame—is still with me.

What hadn’t stayed with me was the name of the DeWolfs’ hometown. So while driving through the charming and well-appointed seaside village of Bristol before arriving at the Roger Williams campus, I had not thought: this wealth is the result of slavery! But going back into town for lunch, I saw that waterfront resort through informed eyes.

Which begs the question: what about my own New England family? Were Wilds (and Horries and Coghills and Miricks  and Faulkners and . . .) complicit? And it seems to me that the Truthful/spiritual answer is: of course! In some way, large or small, all 18th and 19th century white families in New England were complicit, tainted; all had benefitted by slavery in some way. Family business, family secrets, indeed!

A Prayer: May that acknowledgement light my way.

A final note: That accompanying rice painting is one of a set of three hand-painted Chinese scenes that had been given to me by my Aunt Amy ( Prescott Wild Zlotnick) in 1980; they’ve hung on a hallway wall for years and years. But one day, prompted by that opium pipe and “Traces of the Trade,” I became curious: did my family have another, more explicit dark secret? Did we have anything to do with the opium trade? The rice paintings had been brought back from China by Isabella Faulkner Ranlett, the wife of a clipper ship captain, Charles A. Ranlett, Jr. Belle, who died in China, had been the sister of my great grandmother, Amy Faulkner Wild. Had Belle’s husband’s clipper ship, The Surprise,* delivered opium? Had Belle known?

Answer: It seems not for 2 reasons: a) the dates when that ship sailed the China seas and the (again, incredibly lucrative) period when the British and Americans sold opium to the Chinese do not align [see Jay Dolin’s excellent When America First Met China for an excellent account) and b) probably not since, unlike other New England families of that era, like the Delanos and the Forbes and the Cabots, my family isn’t that rich!

  • This link, re the Delano family aboard The Surprise, briefly and covertly acknowledges the source of their wealth!

 

 

 

 

Their, There, They’re

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[“Guitar Shop Sign,” Somerville, MA]

As a writer—and clumsy typist—I generally double-check that my electronic communications are grammatically correct and not misspelled before clicking “Send ” or “Post.” Especially when being judged—like querying a potential literary agent.  But lately on Facebook I’m noticing a trend among some of my FB friends (lovely and intelligent people, of course) who natter on and on about who’s and whose as if getting these words mixed up were A Very Big Deal!

Sure: if you’re submitting your resume and cover letter or writing for publication/public scrutiny, you don’t want to look inept or careless or, God forbid, stupid. Sure, in those situations, spelling and grammar count.  They matter. But when you’re on the T, on deadline, texting, exhausted, trying to get an email off while making dinner, the kids yelling in the next room? Not so much. Moderately.

Sometimes when I read another FB poster waxing wroth re their and there and they’re I get uncomfortable. Because, in this age of texting, in this time when messin’ with spellin’ especially around names (Mo’ Nique, B2K, Curren$y), is so much a part of who we are, now, sometimes I think what I’m actually witnessing is White Entrenchment.

Or, as Tema Okum would put it: “White Supremacy Culture: Specifically: “Worship of the Written Word.”

Here’s a relevant excerpt from her handout (obviously developed for organizations and agencies to think about ):

  • if it’s not in a memo, it doesn’t exist
  • the organization does not take into account or value other ways in which information gets shared
  • those with strong documentation and writing skills are more highly valued, even in organizations where ability to relate to others is key to the mission.

She goes on to suggest these antidotes:

  • Take the time to analyze how people inside and outside the organization get and share information; figure out which things need to be written down and come up with alternative ways to document what is happening; work to recognize the contributions and skills that every person brings to the organization (for example, the ability to build relationships with those who are important to the organization’s mission); make sure anything written can be clearly understood (avoid academic language, ‘buzz’ words, etc.)

Let me VERY clear: My (lefty, Quaker, most of them, ethical, righteous) friends would be horrified to think of themselves as “white supremacists.” Of course!

I’m not saying they are. Here’s what I’m saying: if we really believe in diversity, in equality, in multiculturalism; if we truly believe we can and ought to do a better job of sharing resources and opportunities than those currently in power; if the year 2042 doesn’t make us break out into a cold sweat, then we need to stop sweating the small stuff.

Yeah, there is enormous ignorance out there right now. But instead of judging those who don’t differentiate between its and it’s, let’s remember King’s “content of their character.”

Beginning with our own.

 

Water: The New Oil?

[Fresh Pond, Cambridge, MA]
Sunday afternoon as my Loved One napped, I took a delicious post-snowstorm walk around Fresh Pond. (Loved One’s long term care facility sits on the Fresh Pond Reservation, 162 acres of open space and nature trails protecting the 155 acre, fenced-in, Fresh Pond Reservoir, the City of Cambridge’s water supply.)

Until Sunday, my relationship with Fresh Pond had been mixed: YesI’d always relished joining the parade of dog walkers and bicyclists and strolling couples and joggers circling the pond. (It’s about a 2 mile walk). In fact, walking around Fresh Pond on New Year’s Day has become a hallowed tradition in my life, a contemplative (and usually freezing) way to begin a new year. Yet, inevitably, as a Somerville resident, I have also resented that in order to enjoy this urban treasure, I have to drive to Cambridge! Where, as a non-resident. I might easily get a parking ticket.

No more. My car now neatly parked in Loved One’s facility’s parking lot, Fresh Pond is mine!

So, on Sunday, instead of muttering “Why can’t Somerville have acres and acres of unobstructed space—maybe beside the Mystic River? Nature trails and woods and community gardens as far as the eye can see? Huh? Huh?”* or stressing about a possible parking ticket, I was able to appreciate where I actually was. To be present. To grok.**

So, of course, walking past Cambridge’s water supply, I thought of Flint, Michigan. And how black lives didn’t matter when it came to making viable, decent decisions regarding that struggling city’s water supply. How inexpressively outrageous! And how, more and more, we’re seeing water as A Thing. A commodity as precious as oil. (and, like oil, a liquid to spill blood over.)

So as I walked listening to the pond’s gentle lap lap with newfound gratitude, I was also sobered by a water-scarce future suddenly more clear and more fraught than it’s ever been.

“Is Clean Water The New Oil? “What am I called to do?

 

*So many things to love about my community but its long-term commitment to open space is not one of one.

** A verb meaning to really, really get it and used in that 60s classic, Stranger in a Strange Land—in which for the protagonist, a human raised on Mars, “sharing water” was a Huge Deal.

Beat Your Swords Into Train Tracks *and* Affordable Housing

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Good news: a new subway station/light rail is probably coming to my neighborhood (Cost overruns are making important people like the governor look twice at the project). More Good News: Many car-repair and other businesses dependent upon the fossil-fuel industry which once dominated my neighborhood are, seemingly overnight, being transformed into housing. In other words, the status quo of living in a world dominated by cars, is shifting. Changing. VERY Bad News: This new housing is NOT affordable housing.

“If you want peace, work for justice,” has been my mantra since the 90s. So on Sunday, instead of attending the International Day of Peace on Boston Common, I am abandoning my Quaker peeps to attend a forum on the future of my community, hosted by Union United, a grassroots organization advocating for, you guessed it, affordable housing!

“They Are Our Kids”

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[19th Century Young Girl’s Grave, El Campo Santo, San Diego, CA, soon after Dia de Muertos, 2014]

Don’t get me wrong: I love my daughters, I love my grandchildren. I loved sitting in my Quaker meeting this morning watching Meeting children happily search for Easter eggs outside. I love Christmas, I love birthdays, I love making any child happy by buying just the right gift.

Here’s what I don’t love: The disparity between children like my grandchildren and those happy children I watched this morning and the poor children of this country. As a recent “New Yorker” article put it: The American dream is in crisis, [Robert Putnam, author of Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis] argues, because Americans used to care about other people’s kids and now they only care about their own kids. But, he writes, “America’s poor kids do belong to us and we to them. They are our kids.” 

Here’s what deeply moves me: That on October 31, 2014, someone placed those plastic necklaces and those two dolls on the grave pictured above. A Mexican-American child decorated that child’s grave for Dia de Muertos, I’m guessing.  She swept the dirt, she arranged those bricks as best she could, she threw away—God knows what that child discovered in that gritty, surrounded-by-bars-and restaurants cemetery in the heart of San Diego’s Old Town. That generous child is very likely one of those “poor kids” Putnam wrote about.

My kid. Our kid.

 

This Old House

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Years ago, before I moved to (then) working-class Somerville, I lived in an historic district in central Connecticut; most of my neighbors lived in lovely, expensively-preserved, eighteenth century homes. I did not. But even though I did not own an old home  I somehow absorbed enough knowledge of Old School architecture to be able to spot historic houses in my new, gritty, densely-populated neighborhood.

Back in the day, I could also easily spot whenever one of my Somerville neighbors did any kind of home improvement. It was easy! Just as carefully as my historic-district neighbors worked very hard and spent lots of money so as to not reveal that anything about their historic house had been changed and that every colonial detail had been carefully preserved, my new neighbors made darned sure everyone knew when a window or porch had been replaced by not making the slightest attempt to match style or color or materials. “I’m brand-new!” these home improvements seemed to shout.

Nowadays, Somerville is upscale—which means, among other things, that plenty of people with deep pockets have bought homes in the ‘ville and, you guessed it, have spent oodles of $$ to restore their homes to look like what they’d looked like when they were new. (In most cases, the 1860’s) And, yeah, It seems I’ve retained an authentic and historically accurate sensibility from my Connecticut days because, I admit it, I admire what these folks have done.

But: there’s an old, old house around the corner from me, probably built about 1825, that is currently being renovated and, I’m guessing by the sloppy workmanship—leaving windows open or broken for weeks, propping sheets of plywood against holes in the walls, for example—is owned by people with not much money and who’ve spent no time at all researching that house’s history. (I could be totally wrong about this, of course.) And those homeowners will, I’m guessing, put in fancy new windows and doors, paint it in a color never seen in the 1825, make it into the home they want, a home that reflects their 2014 taste. (Or, perhaps, what they imagine will sell in the current super-hot real estate market in this neighborhood right now.) So who cares what it looked like when it was new?

But maybe that history—American history—never did and never will mean much to these homeowners. Besides, history does not equal holy. Let’s not forget that when that house was built, for example, slavery was the status quo. Indeed, a block away from that house is “Bleachery Court,” now a park and skating rink, but in 1825, that land was covered with a factory that bleached, yes, cotton. (The North has plenty of slavery-related history, of course.)

So, yes, I’m sad that an historic house has been gutted and its charming roofline radically altered and its story, to to speak, silenced. I’m sad that a daily reminder of the people who lived in my neighborhood so many years ago has been destroyed. I think reflecting on that past every time I walked by that house made my own life a little richer. I also know how expensive preservation is. And that holding on to the past simply because it’s the past is nuts.

So I’m hoping that, like a pay phone turned into an art installation, something just as delightful as that historic house will take its place.

(But I’m not counting on it.)

 

 

 

 

 

“Dear White People”; Part 1

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[Climate March, NYC, September 21, 2014]

An overheard conversation between two white college-aged men in Davis Square Friday night after a protest march re the Eric Garner and Ferguson grand jury decisions—an eight-mile, thousand-people-strong march organized by Tufts students: “Yeah, well, if you’re going to be an ally, be an ally!” Exactly!

Last week, thousands of Americans took their collective grief and rage at this nation’s pervasive, insidious racism to the streets. And the media/social media responded. On Friday night, for example, four news-channel helicopters whirled over Somerville and Cambridge taping the march! Four! (Although maybe one helicopter held the police?) Today’s New York Times features a photo of a “die in” at NYC’s City Hall. Tweets? Facebook posts? Hell, yeah.

Okay: Let’s talk about what happens after these protests are no longer the flavor of the month. Let’s talk strategy. And, dear white people, let’s talk about being allies.

Okay, so here’s the moment when I risk being: a) Preachy  b) Patronizing  c) Smug  d)Holier than Thou  e) All of the above plus other unattractive and off-putting characteristics so much a part of who I am that I can’t even see them

Here’s what I want to tell other white people about being an ally:

Be humble. Prepare to be horrified at how often you’ll mess up, no matter how much you try, you care, you’ve read and discussed and understand.