“I Praise”

“Sam,” a ceramic created by Shelly Ann Moore.

“Despairing for the world,” I spotted her just as she about to get off the 85 bus. In a white, lacy, off-the-shoulder blouse and no-nonsense dark skirt, a black, canvas bag touting the name of whatever tech/Kendall Square conference she was about to attend slung over her bared, coffee-brown shoulder, she exuded confidence. Anticipation. Smarts. “Young, gifted, and black,” indeed. ( Need I add STEM-strong, too?) And, suddenly, because women like her lived in this broken world, too, my grief lifted.

A few weeks later, having just bought “Sam” at a craft fair in Ventura, California, I told my husband and brother-in-law that story. Falteringly I tried to put into words why this figurine so powerfully spoke to me.

“You suddenly saw another version of the future and a world you wanted to live in,” my brother-in-law offered.

Close.

Yes, mysteriously, Sam does somehow invoke that lifting, hope-filled moment on the 85 bus.

She does more, though. Weighted, burdened, as all Women Of Color are, nevertheless Sam persists, she stands, bending but unbowed. Because she’s “under the Power” as Shelly Ann Moore, her creator, put it. And, thus, ironically, her clasped hands remind me of a favorite poem by, yes, an Austro-Hungarian man:

O tell us, poet, what you do. –I praise.
Yes, but the deadly and the monstrous phase,
how do you take it, how resist? –I praise.
But the anonymous, the nameless maze,
how summon it, how call it, poet? –I praise.
What right is yours, in all these varied ways,
under a thousand masks yet true? –I praise.
And why do stillnesss and the roaring blaze,
both star and storm acknowledge you? –because I praise.

 

Who’s Looking?

[Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky, June, 2017]

Easily overwhelmed, I’ve learned the best way for me to experience an art exhibit is to slowly and reverently—yet randomly—stroll through a gallery and let everything on display silently surround my senses until That One Work hits me between the eyes. And on Sunday, at the Speed Art Museum’s “Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art,” that’s exactly what happened. When I saw this one. This Carrie Mae Weems photograph that so slyly references Wyeth’s “Christina’s World.” And yet, oh dear lord, declares so much more!

For here, literally in black and white, is witness! Showing up. Using one’s body to powerfully speak Truth. Here is a woman of color owning everything in that photograph. Everything. Those plantation columns; how those overhanging trees frame her body, every blade of grass, the soft, hot breeze, the curve made by her antebellum dress, how her hair is dressed, what aperture to use, the light; The Light. Hers. Carrie Mae Weems. All of it. Hers.

Yes.

 

 

Light Breaks Through

[Through a meetinghouse window, May, 2017]

Having spent the day before with a dear and loving friend, settling into meeting for worship on Sunday I found myself reviewing the kinds of love as if Philia or Storge were ice cream flavors: yum!

My personal New York Super Fudge Chunk? Agape. So, as I reviewed, true to (her intense and transcendent and grace-lit) style, Universal/Unconditional Love declared herself In The House so powerfully I was almost brought to my feet to shout Hallelujah!

But didn’t for the same reason I hesitate to write about this, today. For what came to me was a Bible passage getting a lot of play lately. Some might say THE Bible passage; John 3:18: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. . . ”

As a pre-Easter Christian and a woman of faith who experiences God as a verb and not a male pronoun, I’ve carelessly (and callously?) dismissed this sentence. Until Sunday. When it hit me that I’ve carelessly skipped over that . . . so loved the world that. . . bit, too.

But that’s the thing about Agape. It won’t be ignored. She won’t be ignored. Her powerful Love, a warm blanket to keep you warm or to beat out fires* will not be denied. So she’s asking me to find Love in the second-half of John 3:18. She’s asking me to explore if there’s Something in the post-Easter Jesus I need to experience. She’s grateful I didn’t get to my feet on Sunday; she wants me to try to write this, today,  as carefully and tenderly as I can. Because we both know how much John 3:18 means to others. (Philia is also In The House.)

So I’m listening. Tasting. Testing.

*as a speaker noted on Sunday

 

Holding All of It

[Damp, Caped Kid; Honk! Parade, October, 2016]

I’m holding a place for transformation. I’m holding a space for Love.

And, apparently, when it comes to the vulnerable, the preyed upon, I’m holding my breath.

This morning, much to my surprise, I realized I’d been holding on to unacknowledged fears—and horror—around the grisly murder of a young woman. (Trigger warning.)

How I came to realize these unnamed, unrecognized feelings isn’t important. This is:

Most men I know, even the most peaceful, loving and compassionate, would find my stirred-up feelings puzzling. They’d point out how rarely something as horrible as Vanessa Marcotte’s murder ever happens—while acknowledging that, yes, other women, alone and vulnerable, are accosted, too. Murdered.(They’re nice guys, remember? Decent.) But then they’d remind me how the media feeds on fear; how I was manipulated by the mainstream press with yet another story of a young and pretty white victim— what about murdered young women of color, transgender women? They’d remind me that the opposite of Love is Fear. Why was I giving in to my fears?

All that is true. But, after acknowledging their right-thinking, here’s what I’d tell them: “Dear ones, here’s what I need for you to understand. I believe that I relate to this horrible story differently from you. I believe I understand vulnerability and being preyed upon differently from you. I am claiming my authority. As a woman.”

“Noli Me Tangere”: The backstory

[“Noli Me Tangere” by Patricia Miranda, 2005]

It was years ago, in the midst of the random opulence and higgledy-piggledy of Boston’s Gardner Museum, that I fell in love with Mary Magdalen. This one. “I may not yet know how to love Jesus,*” I thought, instantly attracted to Raphael’s redhead. “But, ohmygoodness, will you look at her! Such love!”  For what I somehow understood—oh sweet mystery!—was how Mary Magdalen’s tenderness, her love, her oil-painted kiss embodied agape: transcendent, universal, non-sexual love. A love so powerful it transcended my feminist queasiness to see a woman, any woman, on her knees kissing a man’s foot. Oh, my!

So, back in the earliest, stumbling-around days as I explored how I might share my novel, Welling Up, online, I examined Jesus and Mary Magdalen paintings—both to discover what various artists’ work might teach me and, of course, because, a website needs art!  I looked at lots and lots of paintings. Like this one.

Maybe, if I hadn’t already viewed Fra Angelico’s “Noli Me Tangere,” Patricia Miranda’s painting would not have caught me eye. Maybe. But I think Miranda’s stripped-down to-its essentials version of this biblical, “Touch me not,” moment would have intrigued me no matter what. Yes, knowing its backstory enlarges my appreciation of her work—but will you look at what she’s done?! Those ardent yet non-touching hands stretched towards each other, hands that speak of that same transcendent love I’d been moved by at the Gardner? Those somber, funeral colors coexisting with three robust, verdant trees and Latin written with luminous, gold leaf? That mysterious, white trapezoid off-center yet somehow dominate?

So you can imagine how excited I am that the very first thing you will see when you open up WellingUp.net—to be up and running in a couple of months if all goes well—is this painting. Which I have permission to use. (And, perhaps, you’ll also understand why I’ll need at least one more post to say all I want to say about it!)

Thank you, Patricia Miranda.

* “The post-Easter Jesus” I now know to label.

Numbered

[Shipyard, Gloucester, MA; 2016]

On the thirty-first anniversary of the Challenger tragedy and the same, infamous day Muslims were being refused entry into this country, I saw “Hidden Figures.” That such an unlikely competitor to “Rogue One” has been such a surprising, box office hit for much of January; well, I just had to see it. Especially after hearing what Leslie Jones had to say!

It’s not a great movie. And yet it’s a great movie. “Based on a true story,” there are moments when I thought, “Yeah! Right! Never happened like that. No way.” (The Kevin Costner and a crowbar scene, for example. C’mon!) But hyper-aware of the Trump-era world outside that movie theater, it was easy to forgive Hollywood silliness. Because, dear God, do we need good fables right now! We desperately need stories that applaud, that celebrate grit and brilliance and math and science and sisterhood and the idea that when one of us succeeds, we all do. (Both Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer say this at different times in the movie.) Because, as many brilliant people like Joanna Macy believe, what’s happening right now, as terrifying as it is, is actually the death throes of an Old Order. A new era is coming; I truly believe this (if Orange Fingers doesn’t nuke us all, first!).  And we’ll need uplifting (pardon the pun) stories to guide us as we move into that Brave New World.

“The World Will Be Saved by the Western Woman.”*

[Venice Metal Worx, Venice Beach, CA]

In high school Latin we’d been taught that “E pluribus unum” had actually been a Roman salad recipe! So in this time of great transition (and fear) I’m wondering what our country’s salad bowl looks like. How out of Many is there One? What holds (or stitches) us/US together?

My Number One response to that question? American Women. Can I get an Amen, Sisters?

*The Dalai Lama

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

Showing Up

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[Bumper Stickers on a Somerville Volvo, 2016]

Sometimes Spirit merely whispers, “Do it.” Period. Sometimes reasons are not given. Sometimes we’re supposed to simply be faithful to that Still Small Voice. But sometimes, when it’s pouring rain and you’re wondering if you’re really meant to march in a parade, you wish Spirit could be a wee bit more articulate! (Or as Bill Kreidler is reported to have said: “You want me to do what?”)

Sometimes, however, when we, indeed, Do It/ Show Up, reasons are supplied.

Reason #1: Sunday morning, wrestling with my umbrella, sheathed in long underwear, multiple layers, and L.L.Bean-sturdy rain gear, I was nervously approaching the parade-launching area when a bumper sticker caught my eye: “If it’s not fun why do it?” Oh! Right! This is A PARADE! The Honk! Parade! With marching bands! And wacky costumes!  And Somerville and Cambridge police blocking traffic so all of us, activists and street bands, can dance down Massachusetts Avenue! Oh, right: even in the midst of God-in-the-Hard-Places, there is Joy.* (Damp Joy, for sure. Bedraggled Joy. Many bands canceling because the rain threatened their instruments. But those of us who Showed Up did get to dance.)

Needless to say, the crowds lining Mass Av were pretty thin this year. But one spectator, huddled under a store awning, did Show Up despite her age and the terrible weather—and became Reason #2.  An environmentalist before most of us, she’s now retired and a widow. To see her face light up as our Mothers Out Front group marched past made my day. Because she saw young women with their families showing up. She saw, embodied, the work she’s done being carried on. She saw Sisterhood in action. With banners and red capes. (We were SuperMoms this year.)

There are some who dismiss Honk! as merely college-educated-white-people-being-(publicly)-weird. And there’s some truth to that. This year, though, just as the parade was almost to Harvard Square, Reason #3 joined us: Harvard University’s  striking kitchen workers and their supporters. What a thrill to see that long line of protesters claim Mass Av as theirs!

Thank you, Spirit!

*For me, when grappling with pain and brokenness, the joy comes from knowing that at that moment, there is absolutely nothing else I’d rather be doing than looking deeply into that “Ocean of Darkness.” (And asking myself: What am I asked to do?)

“I Accept the Universe.” (Margaret Fuller)

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First time I read this well-known Margaret Fuller quote, my reaction was probably the same as yours: “Duh! Of course you do, Maggy. You don’t have any choice!” But pretty much the same thought has come to me, lately.

First, some context: Transcendentalist, feminist, universally acclaimed to be brilliant, widely-read author and skilled editor, Margaret Fuller was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1810. (She died, at age 40, with her infant son, when their ship shipwrecked off the coast of Fire island, New York.) Which means, of course, that the Universe she accepted included both slavery, an American evil most (not all) transcendentalists vigorously condemned and fought, and sexism.  Northeast-based for much of her short, fully-lived life, the horrors of slavery may very well have been an abstraction for Margaret; not so regarding sexism. That form of oppression she knew first-hand. She was denied an education at Harvard, for example—although later in life she became the first woman allowed to use the prestigious college’s library. (To rectify the abominable education most women of that time received she later conducted “conversations” for/with other women.) In other words, Margaret Fuller’s Universe “ain’t no crystal stair.”*

Neither is mine. So when I say I accept a Universe of climate change denial and racism and Donald Trump and the Kardashian family and unending war and the Zika Virus, I am saying, “Yes. I am mindful of all of it. My acceptance means humility. And embracing complexity. ‘It is what it is.’ All of it. I accept that I am to ask: What am I called to do? And who do I can cheer on from the sidelines as they do what they’re called to do? And to embrace all of it; to let my acceptance be joyful.

And to be grateful as I keep climbing on.

 

* Langston Hughes’

Mother to Son 

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor —
Bare.
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now —
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

“Own It!”

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[People’s Climate March, September 21, 2014]

On a cold and rainy evening a couple of weeks I walked to Porter Square Books to hear James Wood, book reviewer for The New Yorker, give a reading. During the Q & A, one woman raved about a novel he’d written years ago. Renowned critic of other people’s novels (his piece on Penelope Fitzgerald means he’s aka as “Household God” to me), Wood pooh-poohed his early-on book. In so many words he said, “I could write a much better novel now. I’m older and wiser.”

What? Huh? Household God’s use of wiser irked me. But because James Wood is someone I revere, walking home after the reading I spent some time thinking about why his word-choice bothered me so. And realized, rain drumming my umbrella, my discomfort wasn’t about him. But about me.

am unable to stand in a public place, fifty or sixty people seated in front of me, and declare that I am wise. have always inserted the mollifying “dare I say it?” before using the word wise when speaking of myself. Always. Unequivocally.

This ain’t false modesty. I really DO not feel worthy. Hoary-headed though I be, I am not yet able to own my wisdom. (Yet I am proud enough of my insightful and wise novel, Welling Up, to endure the rejection and yawny indifference and heartbreak of trying to get it published?!)

My own backstory : a few years ago I bought a fire-engine red, cotton, broad-brimmed hat from Davis Squared. Too broad-brimmed, maybe? I certainly felt conspicuous wearing it; that’s for sure. But when I told the (young and hip and model-worthy gorgeous) store’s owner how I felt she just shook her head: “Own it,” she advised.

Here are two (ahem) wise things I wish to say about owning it, about really embracing my wisdom:

1. This is about gender. Were James Wood a woman I think I would have reacted differently. (A clue: This past Sunday, a man at meeting for worship used the word wise to explain where “we” aging, spiritual people are developmentally. And again I bristled.)

2. This is about time and reflection and prayer. It took me years to write Welling Up. Off the cuff, off-balance, overwhelmed, I am usually ridiculous.

How fortuitous that in Quaker circles I can sit and vacantly stare into space as I ponder whatever’s before the group—collective wisdom is Good Stuff—and only if clear, wipe the bit o’ saliva that may have dribbled as I pondered, and say something!

 

 

 

 

My Hillary Conversion Experience

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[Granddaughters; The Dinner Party, Brooklyn Museum]

They’re hard to put into words, these beyond words, transcendent moments, aren’t they? And sometimes happen when least expected or convenient. I clearly remember being both  gobsmacked by Faure’s “Messe Base” on my car radio yet annoyed that I was on Mass. Ave. during rush hour. “I don’t want to be having this religious experience here and now,” I complained to the Universe, tears running down my cheeks. “I’m on my way to work. This isn’t a good time.” (Apparently the Universe had other plans.)

Yadda yadda yadda; back to Hillary. So there I was, a couple of days ago, in the “12 Items And Under” check-out line at the Market Basket. And in a hurry. And the young, check-out woman had apparently made a cash register mistake with the customer ahead of me so needed her (female, slightly older, also Spanish-speaking) supervisor to rectify the error—and, it annoyingly turned out, to receive some slow and patient on-the-job training as well.

Did I mention I was in a hurry? But before I could begin The Loud Sighing While Waiting Thing, I suddenly was gifted with: I am watching a young woman being coached by another woman so she can do her job better. So she can KEEP her job, maybe.

And suddenly I saw this scene both as a Yay, Sisterhood feminist and as if I were an impatient, self-important Anglo who just wanted to get the hell out of there. Yup. As a man. BUT this impatient man knew he now lived in the same, post-Hillary’s “I’m getting ready to . . . video reality. So he had to be patient. He had to remember that, sadly, the Market Basket is one of the very few “careers” available to many women. That one woman taking time to help another woman might very well have been about Survival. So he had to suck it up.

Yup. Hillary, someone savvy enough to have green-lighted that clever bit o’ branding video, is running for Prez. It is a brave new world. A world in which, maybe, it could be okay for one woman to coach another woman in public.

Maybe. (Conversion moments aren’t necessarily predictive.)