Talk to the Hand

[This story centers on someone whose identity I should protect. So will be using the they pronoun.]

Yesterday on a walk, I passed an elderly white person, warmly dressed, waiting in a bus shelter in Porter Square. (And by “elderly” I mean the same age as me!) A second look and, yes, although considerably aged from when I last knew them, they had been a student I’d met years ago when a counselor at Somerville’s adult learning center. So I stopped and, keeping the required six-foot distance, called out their name.

I’ve aged considerably too, of course, so they took a moment or two to recognize me. “Oh, hi,” they said. Without much energy or warmth. Which I surmised—duh— was because they were terrified. So acknowledged the current situation.

“The virus?” they asked; their Azores accent flavoring their terse words. I nodded.

“Ya know,” they said, leaning forward and almost under their breath, giving me a we-both-know-what’s-really-going- on look. And rubbed their thumb and forefinger together, the universal sign for money.

I wasn’t having it; I was not at all interested in their conspiracy theory: “I’m not listening to this,” I told them, turning on my heels.

“God bless you,” they called after me. Which felt like a curse in disguise.

Who, exactly, did they think was making money off of this pandemic? Stewing, brooding, I walked home. The Chinese government, maybe? Big Pharma? Given the ugliness that crossed their face when they’d rubbed their fingers together, however, I’m guessing that former student might harbor long-standing hatred for those so often blamed in times of crisis. I think they may be anti-Semitic. Maybe.

But, suddenly, stomping down the sidewalk, I remembered a salient fact: They had been an ABE 1 student! (Translation: they’re totally illiterate. Cannot read. At all. Nada.) And, if I remember correctly, they’d dropped out after less than a semester. Which means that, most likely, they’re completely dependent on whatever xenophobic bullS@#* Fox News spouts as “news.”

Personally, I cannot imagine enduring this devastating situation without daily devouring multiple newspaper and magazine articles and Facebook postings from wise friends—and then stopping when I’ve had enough already, to listen to music or read a good book. Can you? You, reading these (pearls of great price) words now? It’s unimaginable, isn’t it.

Had I blown a teachable moment? I pondered closer to home. Had I been so appalled, so outraged by their conspiratorial face, those rubbing fingers, that I missed an opportunity to engage?

Perhaps. But do we not show a form of Love when we interrupt hatred? At a time when the president of the United States referred to COVID-19 as “a foreign virus” or, just today, “the Chinese virus,” I think it’s okay, indeed necessary to say, “Talk to the hand!”

And maybe, just maybe, in their “God bless you,” they kinda, sorta were telling me they got that?

Nah.

 

Cover Your Mouth!

More than forty years ago, when my oldest daughter was in elementary school, we’d lived in Wethersfield, Connecticut’s historic district, its Main Street lined with carefully-restored eighteen-century homes interspersed with newer yet still elegant dutch-colonials and Victorians. (We’d lived in one of the more modest houses squeezed between some real beauties!)

One evening a neighbor, who’d recently moved in across the street, called to demand I come over. Like now. I don’t remember how she’d put it; whatever she’d said must have been compelling because I  went. To learn that her daughter, let’s call her Janice, three or four years younger than my daughter, had been in tears because my daughter and the other girls my daughter hung out with had refused to play with her.

Pre-Quaker, pre-learning how to be a loving, compassionate member of a community, I did not handle this accusation well. At all. Defensive and pissed, I’d lectured about Erickson’s “Ages and Stages,” about the developmental differences between our daughters. This lecture was not well-received. So I’d said something like, “Look, just because we bought houses on the same street doesn’t automatically mean we’ll all be best buddies.” Yup. I said that. I did not say—and was proud of myself for not blurting out, “My daughter and her friends think Janice is a whiny, spoiled brat so even though you have a swimming pool in your back yard they’d rather not spend time with her.”

Ironically, of all the ill-thought-through and nasty things I said that night, the one thing that most offended my neighbor I’d actually intended to be conciliatory: “Can’t we just be civil?”

Looking back, I can see that for Janice’s mom, that word must have been a pejorative. Like,  “Keep a civil tongue in your head!” Or something. And that for me, it meant civil/civility, both of us signing a social contract, agreeing to some bottom-line, fundamental guidelines as to how to be members of the same community.  Or something.

As this coronavirus looms, spreads, I remember this testy conversation. And about what form of civility is asked for, now, what the bottom-line social contract everyone should agree to should specify: When we sneeze or cough we’ll cover our mouths. We’ll wash our hands. A lot. if we don’t feel well, we’ll stay home. Etc.

Ironically, now a member of a loving and compassionate faith community, I have less confidence that we’re all going to agree to these simple, vitally important guidelines than I probably would have when I’d argued with Janice’s mother. Yes, I love the people in my Meeting. Yes, I have been brought to tears, welled up many times when, over time, we have struggled together to find unity among us. And did.  But because I have been gifted to be so deeply and intimately connected with so many people, I know, first-hand, how distracted and clueless and thoughtless we humans can be. (Me, too, of course.)

Yes, I believe there is that of God/Light/the Holy/the Divine in each of us. And, yes, I believe I am dependent upon others’ ability to do unto others . . . And that sometimes that’s shaky!

What I’m Taking On For Lent

I’m not giving up anything this year; I’m taking on something. Something I’ve been afraid to take on for most of my life: I’m welcoming everything that happens to me. For, as Francis Weller points out, “This is the secret to being fully alive.” (He also notes how incredibly hard this is!)

Today, Day 3 into this spiritual exercise—which might become a practice—I’m pissed off. Someone I do prison ministry alongside with—well, why go into it? Because, as I remind myself, taking a few, deep breaths, this is capital L Life, right? I am fully alive and still following the leading I began over twenty years ago. I am actually doing what Spirit asked of me! And that is a blessing.

Day 1, at a weekly meeting I attend sometimes, I listened to my community’s immigration-rights activists lament the Supreme Court’s recent, heartbreaking decision on “Public Charge.” And felt myself do what I always do: wall myself off from the pain around the table. Protect myself. “This is the life you are living,” I silently coached myself. “This is that damned Chinese curse, ‘May you live in interesting times.’ For whatever reason, you were born to experience this, now. You are alive to experience this. All of it.”

I am hyperaware that were I daily experiencing non-stop pain and trauma it’s entirely possible I’d be telling a different story. I am hyperaware of my cushy, privileged life. I am hyperaware that my race and class and resultant medical care is why I get to do this soul-work/grief work; why I’m still alive at my age. I am hyperaware that were I a Woman of Color I might not be alive to tell this story.

But, Friends, I am and I can and here’s what happened: I briefly experienced that exhilaration Ray Bradbury’s short story, “Dandelion Wine” so wonderfully captured: “I am alive!” And so, openhearted, was also gifted to hear how my community plans to address this latest assault on our neighbors and friends, an ironically and unexpectedly touching outcome of living in this interesting time: I now know so much more fully how many other people are also working on social-justice issues. Oh.

Does the harsh fact that over the past year my Quaker meeting/my “village”/ my tribe has lost eight people, two of whom I counted as dear friends, focus attention on that word alive?

Yes, it does.

 

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.

Yes, Ma’am

[Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind.]

Take it from me, someone who’d stumbled around post-cataract surgery until I got my new glasses, I am now exquisitely aware of how we’re inundated with written stuff! It’s everywhere. It’s a given. (And when you can’t actually read it, it’s a pain in the neck!)

But when I saw this fancy-font sign in my health plan’s Mammography Department—well, like you, perhaps, I had one of those instant understandings of where the woman—someone working in that a department, right?—who’d posted that sign was coming from. Because she’s witnessed those battles. From the other side of that department’s reception desk window.  She knew. Knows.

And she’s watched us, too, the Lucky Ones. Who blithely stroll in and out once a year. Who may be more sensitive, more patient with, more compassionate about the trials and tribulations of others while we wait to be given the All Clear. But once we’ve received the good news —Phew!—we immediately forget our There But For The Grace of God moment. We forget how inordinately beautiful life seemed while we waited.

We move on. We forget to be kind.

Sign Poster’s knows all about that, too.

Maybe we should pay attention to what she has to say?

 

Freshly Brilliant

There have been many times over the past month as I either prepared for or recovered from both eyes’ cataract surgery, when I simply sat. Sunblocked, broad-brim hatted, adequately hydrated, I just sat. Earlier in the month I silently mourned for someone; when—Oh Joy!—I learned he was still alive, I gave thanks. Over and over. Sometimes, as my post-surgery vision improved, I marveled at a world now scrubbed clean. (Some shades of blue, like the color of my gas stove’s flame, remain startlingly, astonishingly amazing!) Sometimes, bright light still hurting, I’d wear my “Ray Charles” glasses and, seemingly impaired or disabled or something-not-quite-right-about me, was blissfully ignored as city life swirled around me. Sometimes, sitting on my back deck, I flexed my new long-distance post-cataract lenses to more fully observe a dutiful catbird feed its squawking fledgling or squirrels playing tag. Bumblebees and white butterflies—and at least one monarch—dart over freshly-brilliant-to-my eyes zinnias and black-eyed susan’s. A strand of spider web bending in the soft breeze. I watched clouds from my hammock. Swallows. Con-trails.

One day, my grandchildren in town, I’d arranged for them to meet with Claire O’Neill, a French scientist who is training volunteers to keep count of pollinators in a community garden near my house. But, it turned out, in order for more people to understand what is happening to our world because of climate change, she trains adults, not children—and my close-range vision Not Good, I’d be hopeless at this!

Besides, as I have had ample time to reflect upon over this past month, Just Sitting has gifted me the message Claire so passionately seeks to share with us: observe this precious world, love it; mourn.

From The Smell of Rain on Dust by Martin Prechtel: “Grief expressed out loud for someone we have lost, or a country or home we have lost, is in itself the greatest praise we could ever give them. Grief is praise, because it is the natural way love honors what it misses.”

 

Patterns, Examples

Forty years ago and just beginning to attend Friends Meeting at Cambridge, I’d considered the people I’d worshipped with every Sunday far, far superior to me. Until I didn’t. Over the years, although my fellow Friends have proved themselves to be just as flawed, just as human as I, there is one category amongst my faith community I still revere all out of proportion: older women. So this past Sunday, when a young woman stood up and expressed thanks for the women of our Meeting, I could both be touched by her gratitude and, remembering my own favs, spent some quiet time thinking about the many beloved, older women who, by their example, guided my own aging process. And my spiritual journey. (Which, these days, sometimes feels like the same thing!)

I don’t even know the name of the first older woman I noticed; Sundays, she and I often sat on opposite benches and as the hour progressed, I’d sneak peeks at her from time to time. Because I’d noticed how her lined face changed; how her obvious tension eased, how her taut face softened and, yes, became beautiful.  Hmm, I thought. Serenity as a beauty aid? No, there’s an incentive!

Others offered more substantive guidance. “I don’t do chitchat,” Patricia Watson told me the first time we met at coffee hour. And walked away. Nope. She did something else. She brought a fiercely-just and brilliant perspective to whatever was being discussed. Serving on the Ministry and Counsel committee with her, I’d marvel at her sharp, thoughtful analysis. And noted that rarely would she be the first person to speak on an issue but would, instead, listen intensely, sift through what was being said—and what wasn’t. One of her gifts, I think, was to ask, “Whose rights, whose conditions aren’t being considered as we discern? Who’s being left out? Who’s not at the table?” How blessed I am to have known her!

Other women, too, like Daisy Newman, Anne Kriebel, Emily Sander, Eloise Houghton, Ginny Hutchison. Names that won’t mean anything to you, perhaps, Dear Reader. I just like writing them out and in doing so, acknowledge the many gifts they offered me.

Thank you.

 

Hammered

Sunday night, partly out of curiosity, mostly to accompany my wonderful nephew, I went to Boston’s House of Blues to hear two Brooklyn-based bands, House of Waters and Snarky Puppy. Surrounded, mostly, by intense, absorbed young men one-quarter my age, this seventy-five year old grandmother  cheered, danced, oohed and ahhed at the amazing musicality, the talent, the showmanship I experienced, super-loud, super-close and personal and just feet away from where I stood. (Yes. Stood.)

House of Waters, who opened, were a delightful surprise; my nephew declared he’d actually like them better and I have to agree. The magical sound of a hammered dulcimer? The most amazing bass player I’ve ever heard? (And I was once a huge Jaco Pastorius fan.) A relentless, preternaturally cheerful drummer?   What’s not to like?

Well, to be honest, I felt too close; my aging body too rattled by the powerful, constant thump of the bass drum. So if I do this again I won’t stand so close to the stage.

Here’s what I loved most: to feel all that young, intelligent, appreciative energy all around me. “Dude!” the tall young man next to me kept shouting at a particularly intricate modulation or a virtuoso solo.

Exactly.

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.”

 

 

 

Small Thing/Great Love

Snow Squall Outside, Peace Cranes Inside

Yesterday was disquieting. Morning snow squalls were quickly followed by heavy winds, so strong the house shook and windows rattled. Some in greater Boston lost power, some lost chimneys; many trash cans and recycle bins ended up in neighbors’ yards or in the street. The light-rail service known as the Green Line was disrupted because of downed trees.

was disquieted, again disturbed by fears around not doing enough/should I do more/what is God asking me? And in this uneasy, soul-searching time, found myself, um, sorting earrings? Yup. I don’t want to brag but I even developed a new system for dealing with the remaining earring of a beloved but now one-missing pair. (I know, I know. Pretty impressive, huh.)

Let me elucidate: The little dish I throw my earrings and bracelets into at bedtime was full of all kinds of stuff and so, of course, in the midst of another spiritual crisis, I had to fix that. By dumping everything that had been in that little dish onto my bureau top. After dealing with the fore-mentioned singletons and putting earrings I seldom wear in my jewelry box and the loose change in my coin purse, the top of my bureau was pretty much bare. Except for a tiny, arrowhead-shaped piece of dark grey metal: a “widow’s mite.” (Or so it was touted on the piece of cardboard it was once attached to and, no, I have no idea how I got it.)

An answer! Right there on my bureau. About proportionality. (And Biblical scholars are free to argue about my take-away from this touching story from Luke.) Jesus points out that rich people contribute money generously because they can. But the poor widow’s puny offering of almost-worthless coins (to God) represents her “her livelihood.” Or, as I prefer to frame it, her modest contribution represents her enormous, generous, loving spirit.

Could I be doing more? Of course. Is what I am now doing “fixing” systemic racism or climate change or whatever else ails this broken world? Of course not. Is what I am doing done in a spirit of joy, generosity, love? Yes. Is it proportional; does it represent all I am asked to do?

Hmm. I’ll have to get back to you on that.

 

Tea For Two Or More?

May I be a boring old woman who talks about her health? 

Thank you.

Because what I’d like to say just might be helpful to you:

Like many people my age, my cholesterol’s not been great and, like many people my age, I’ve been told by both my primary care provider and my cardiologist I should go on statins. But I’ve resisted. Mostly because I’ve heard many things about statins’ nasty side effects—muscle cramps being the one I’d feared the most—and would prefer to not wonder, with every other ache or pain, “Is this the statins? Or something else?”

But a dear friend’s stroke this past summer forced me to look at my own mortality more honestly—so I succumbed. And started taking this new medication in late September. The day before the Kavanaugh hearing. And during that hearing, had a violent, horrific reaction!

Was this the statins? Or my body’s revulsion at what I was watching unfold in a United States Senate chamber? I guessed both —but mostly the meds. So stopped taking them.

Here’s where my story gets weird. Because at this same time I was also reading The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, a novel about China, mothers and daughters, and puerh tea. Towards the end of the book, one character references Alice Waters (a household god around here); Waters states that by drinking puerh tea, she cut her cholesterol in half! Hello!

So I made a deal with my cardiologist. For two months I would drink a mug of this tea, a tea which quietly invites me to sit, to ponder, contemplate, savor with others, every day. And then I’d have my cholesterol tested. 

Dear reader: It’s working! In two months my cholesterol has lowered enough so that it is not longer flagged as a health concern. 

You’re welcome.