What’s The Story?

Palm Sunday I was walking towards Friends Meeting at Cambridge (FMC) when I caught sight of a small procession outside the Swedenborg Chapel. Or, as a little boy walking along Kirkland Street near me exclaimed to his father, “It’s a little parade!” Members of an African-originated faith group, I’m guessing, the singing procession-members wore white clothing and red hats and, waving palm fronds, marched single-file along the chapel’s sidewalk behind one of their members who held a carved, wooden cross a foot or so above his head.

As we stood together watching this procession across the street I wondered: Will the father tell his child the story behind this little parade? He did not. So, I confess, I actually considered telling it, myself (Yikes!). But, thank you Jesus, instantly I realized the pair would simply dismiss me as crazy, a zealot, a weird old lady—so kept my mouth shut. And, soon, off they and I went in different directions.

Sitting in deliciously-long silent worship at FMC, I realized that the next time I’d be sitting in that space would be Saturday, April 2oth, at my mother’s memorial—where plenty of Pat Wild stories, celebratory and bittersweet, would be told. (Wilds are storytellers.) And about Story. And about the story I’d been tempted to tell on Kirkland Street. About why I’d been tempted. (More about Story has come since.)

On Sunday I realized a couple of things. My impulse to share the Palm Sunday story had been about my belief that it’s important to listen to the Stories most meaningful to our friends and neighbors. (Such gratitude for Robin Wall Kimmerer and all she has taught me about origin stories.) I shared this belief with my Sunday school students—high school students—when we studied the Bible. “This book, which early Quakers knew very well, remains incredibly important to millions of people throughout the world,” I told them. “Your lives will be filled with references to this book. So whether or not you believe every word,  as world citizens you’re going to need to have at least a cursory understanding. Otherwise, you’re going to miss a lot.”

Had that father not explained why those beautifully-clad, dark-skinned people across the street waved those palms and sang because he didn’t know? Or, perhaps, he did know, maybe better than I, but bore such pain around twenty-first century Christianity that he chose to remain silent? His silence invited me, sitting in silence, to go deeper about that story. And suddenly I realized something.

In storytelling there’s a device known as “a McGuffin”: a thing or a situation important to a character but which listeners (or moviegoers),  who know more about how the story is unfolding than the character does, care nothing about. (The most famous example is the envelope filled with money Janet Leigh steals in Psycho. That envelope is a McGuffin.) Thinking about the Palm Sunday story, I suddenly wondered if, perhaps, Jesus’s triumphant entrance into Jerusalem isn’t a McGuffin.

Because why’s he going there? To celebrate Passover. We tell Jesus’s triumphant entrance with such sadness—because we know what will happen later in the week. We know how this story ends. Jesus didn’t. A Jew, he was observing one of his faith’s most significant rituals by deciding to join his dearest friends to collectively remember The Exodus Story. (And what a powerful Story!)

So, now, okay, here’s where my Wild DNA kicks in; I am compelled to leave this tale better than I found it. Why did Jesus pick Jerusalem to celebrate Passover? Well, because those famous sisters, Mary and Martha, who’d patched up their differences and had agreed to perform the pre-Passover cleansing rituals together, to cook together, and discuss theology with Jesus together while their brother, Lazarus, did the washing up, had invited Jesus and his followers. (Their hometown of Bethany’s near Jerusalem. I looked it up.)

The denouement: As I write this, the world mourns the terrible destruction of Paris’s Notre Dame cathedral, an ancient, wondrous edifice I, like so many, have visited and been awed by—so much so that whenever I despair of my species, I remind myself, “Well, at least humans built Notre Dame.”

Nothing gold can stay,” Frost tells us. Things fall apart. A mighty cathedral can collapse.

But Story stays.

Let’s tell some.

 

 

Was it The Light?

My mother died a week ago.

So many, many things I could and want to say about her; I am moved, this morning, however, to tell this story:

About a week before she died, in terrible pain, she’d said, “I feel as though parts of me are flying away.” Which, as a dear friend no stranger to grief pointed out, is a lot like a wonderful song.

For the past week, much to my sorrow, unlike the sense of my father’s loving and abiding presence after he’d died, I have felt A Huge Void. As so poignantly described by Kathryn Schultz in her New Yorker essay about her father’s death. 

But, yesterday, in Boston’s Museum of Science’s butterfly garden, surrounded by fluttering, beautiful creatures, I felt my mother. I felt a powerful—how to describe it? An energy exchange? Her presence? Her essence? Her soul?

Was it the light? Or The Light?

Why ask.

Thought and Prayers

As I write this, the day after another September 11th anniversary, a truly terrifying hurricane inexorably approaches the Carolinas. And like those painful days following the Twin Towers attack had felt, this morning I sense a collective pause as millions of us hold our breath. We wait. And, yes, as hackneyed and ill-used as that phrase has become, we pray.

At some point in my life, I was made aware that all over the world were people, many of them women, who spent their lives in constant prayer. Yes. Always. What a joy to discover this!

This past summer I had the good fortune to meet one, Sister Virginia, who lives—and prays—in a convent in France, and is the (biological) sister of my husband’s ex-wife. For me, meeting this aging, slight nun, who radiated Love, who hugged me when introduced as if we were old, close friends, was like meeting a rock star!

Saturday, exploring the Italian section of Gloucester (MA), my husband and I discovered its magnificently decorated Mother of Grace Club. The club, I later learned from Google, had begun during World War II by Gloucester mothers who prayed for their sons serving in the military to return. And they did. (I also learned that Saturday was The Blessed Mother’s birthday. Which explains those amazing decorations!)

But walking past before googling about it, I’d already intuited what that club was about. Sitting on a folding chair just inside its garlanded, ruffled, opened doorway sat an older woman. Praying. And having sat, alone, in my completely empty meetinghouse when, during the week after September 11th, my Quaker meeting has opened its space to anyone who wished to come—although nobody came while I was there—there was something about her body language that spoke to me. Reminded me what it had felt like to pray without ceasing. To be like Sister Virginia and her spiritual sisters and brothers all over the world. To truly and whole-heartedly embrace the power of prayer.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Unidentified Artist”

Detail from “Pieta” by an unknown artist, circa 1470, School of Avignon, France.

My mother isn’t doing well. Despite pain meds and massages and ice packs and the tender, loving care she receives from her long-term-care facility’s excellent staff, she suffers. She weeps. She’s horribly confused. Sometimes she’ll tell me about her conversations with my father (he died in 2010); sometimes she perseverates, “Who’s taking care of him? He’s over a hundred, you know.”!

For most of my life I’ve had a complicated, fraught relationship with my beautiful and brilliant and, until late in her life, unrealized mother. “You know,” she told me years ago; she might have been drinking.”You should have been my mother.” Over time I came to understand why this crazy-weird impossibility was so tragically true. Therapy helped. Al-Anon helped. Having four daughters of my own helped. Getting older—both of us—helped. And for the past three years, being able to drive fifteen minutes to visit her in her private, sunny room surrounded by her own paintings and photographs and books helps. That she receives meds to ease her lifelong anxiety and depression helps. (She pays a pretty penny for this care; an obscenely huge amount. Which she can afford. Until she won’t.)

Yet even on the best of visits, when we’ve “walked” along wheelchair accessible pathways to see how the community gardens’ tomatoes fare, or strolled down to a lovely, little pond to watch turtles and fish and, sometimes, a blue heron; even then, I’d come home and take a nap!

So, last night, worried about her and wiped out by another too-hot, terrifyingly unseasonal day, I lay on my bed, AC valiantly chugging along, and, headphones on, listened to music. I didn’t curate my selections; I just listened to what I love. (Or so I thought.) Like Maria Callas’s “Casta Diva.” Or Faure’s “Requiem” which, the first time I heard it, on my car radio on the way to work, triggered a peak religious experience. Yes, triggered. For having just experienced The Whole, That Which Is Beyond Words, Spirit’s Transcendent Love, all I could think of was “Well, this is highly inconvenient! Right here on Mass Av in Porter Square? Couldn’t I have been in a forest?”

Oh, right, I realized, listening to Faure’s gorgeous mass. Requiem! Ummm, as in death? As in my mother’s tears of pain, certainly, but also her tears of shame and sadness that she’s so helpless and weak; as in her dim understanding of what, possibly, is happening to her? As in, perhaps, that the veil between the living and the dead begins to thin for her; she’s catching glimpses of what I cannot see? Like my father? As in that I am in mourning for my beautiful and brilliant and realized mother; I am in mourning for a Mother Earth who is much too hot, now. (Jeez.)

And that, again, mysteriously, an Unidentified Artist some call Spirit loved me, guided me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being Grammy

Reading “The Granddaughter Necklace” at Grammy’s house, August, 2018

For the past week I’ve been “Grammy.” That this delightful grandma-derivation is both something my beloved granddaughter began calling me one day, but can also mean prize-winning musicality, makes me very happy. Being Grammy makes me very happy— in the same way I feel whenever I am doing what is truly asked of me. Why is that?

What is it about being a grandmother that feels so “in the place just right”? For starters, spending time with the children of my children is a non-stop intimation of mortality! As Grammy, I am ever-aware that, yup; I am going to die. I. Just. Always. Am.

This fundamental realization immediately prompts a couple of questions: Okay, then, Grammy. So how do you want to spend this time with this child? And what do you want this child to remember about you?

So, yes, I am probably My Best Self as Grammy but, honestly? The role—which, for me, blessedly, also means being retired—allows that. Having cleared my calendar of all but the most essential duties and responsibilities when my grandchildren come to visit, Grammy time is pretty leisurely. You want to dawdle over breakfast, spend all morning in your jammies? No worries. (I could go on and on about this! But won’t.)

And what do I want this child to remember about me? My stories. Stories about when this child’s mother was a little girl; yes. Of course. But stories, too, about when I was a child; how different the world was, then. For I learned from my own, gifted, story-teller Grandma what a blessing it is to look at one’s own life as the next installment of an ongoing, mysterious, amazing story. To understand how we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.

And, yes, looking into the eyes of my beloved grandchildren, I know I am looking into The Future. And ask myself: what am I, Grammy, called to do?

 

 

 

 

Show not Tell:

Enemies Should Know That Syria Will Never Fall—Assad/Syria Will Never Fall—Assad” by Nazgol Ansarinia, 2012.

A newsprint collage currently on exhibit at the Katonah (NY) Museum of Art’s current exhibit: “Long, Winding Journeys: Contemporary Art and the Islamic Tradition. (I took these pictures on Friday.)

A closer look at Ansarinia’s collage, created from two different newspaper articles cut into tiny, geometric shapes. (The geometric pattern she has used was inspired by the Shah Cheragh mosque’s mosaics, Shiraz, Iran.)

About those articles: Both newspapers had written about the same event from differing perspectives; the Iranian artist has interspersed her mosaic pieces so as to make the newsprint unintelligible.

Easily found in Ansarinia’s profound reflection on truth, however, is a head shot of Syrian President Bashar-al-Assad—presently being accused of gassing his own people. Again. (He denies this.)

Thank you, Nazgol Ansarinia.

 

So Much Greenness!

Country Road, Hamden, Connecticut, July, 2017

“The green!” my husband noted as we drove along the leafy country roads of Wyndham County towards our summer rental. “Look at that soft, pale green. Why is that?”

It took us a couple of days for a couple of city dwellers like us to understand what we were seeing: the aftermath of a devastating gypsy moth infestation. Which must have been something!  For, once we knew what to look for, we could track the widespread damage those foliage-munching caterpillars had wreaked. Acres and acres. And began to notice how all along the roads, beneath the wayside ferns and wildflowers and weeds, lay huge, tree-limb segments. Everywhere. Had those thick limbs been chain-sawed off to save the rest of a tree?

So, we realized, in fact, what we were seeing was new growth. The tender shoots of renewal, rebirth in the middle of summer. (A wet summer. That certainly helped).

There were butterflies, too. Hundreds. Some in colors I’d only seen before on the end of a pin. So many butterflies, so much soft, spring-like greenness! As if to make clear: transformation happens.

Once home and once again in worship inside, on a bench in a Quaker meetinghouse, I reflected on those acres of pale green, those butterflies. “Is there more?” I wondered inwardly. “Am I to go deeper than ‘Transformation happens.’?”

But that seemed to be enough.

 

What Love Will Do

A pro-affordable housing rally, City Hall, Somerville (a Sanctuary City) MA; May, 2017

We may be cooked. Even The Boston Globe, whose editorial policy regarding climate change reportage is sometimes mystifying—and often infuriating—featured a front-page article this morning admitting that things look grim.

It’s taken me a couple of years to let this horror sink in. And maybe that’s okay. Because, denial/magical thinking/distractions to help me to forget/bargaining; all the crazy stuff we humans do when faced with Bad News have, over time, brought me right to where I am supposed to be: accepting my humanity. Humbly.

And to ask myself: What am I asked to do? (Besides, of course, doing everything I can possibly do to sharply bring down global emissions.) And although a dear friend says mine is “Pollyanna thinking” (and she may very well be right!), here’s what I’m dedicating/rededicating my life to from now on: lovin’ the hell out of everyone. If my species is doomed, let me affirm what is best about being human; our ability to love.

May my life continue William Penn’s experiment: “Let us then try what Love will do.”

Whatever Works

 

When I learned that Nelson Mandela had found great strength in Invictus, I made copies of that William Ernest Henley poem and mailed them to two men I correspond with, currently behind bars.

Nice gesture, right?  But pointless. I see that now. Somehow, mysteriously,  a Victorian, “stiff upper lip,” Brit poem (i.e. language of his oppressors) spoke to Mandela. He discovered that rereading “I am the master of my fate” every day reminded him that his strength was with him. He chose that particular poem; he let it speak to him. Through him. And it worked.

Each of us has to chose our own Invictus. One poem can’t fit all. But whatever works for you, oh Lordy, I hope you’ve found it, find it!

Here’s what’s working for me these days: a cheesy* version of “How Can I Keep from Singing?” It sounds an echo in my soul, indeed!

*A word about cheesy: From an interview with Patty Jenkins, director of “Wonder Woman” (New York Times, June 1, 2017):

This may be a cheesy question, but what do you want people to take away from this movie?

Did you say cheesy? Cheesy is one of the words banned in my world. I’m tired of sincerity being something we have to be afraid of doing. It’s been like that for 20 years, that the entertainment and art world has shied away from sincerity, real sincerity, because they feel they have to wink at the audience because that’s what the kids like. We have to do the real stories now. The world is in crisis.

I wanted to tell a story about a hero who believes in love, who is filled with love, who believes in change and the betterment of mankind. I believe in it. It’s terrible when it makes so many artists afraid to be sincere and truthful and emotional, and relegates them to the too-cool-for-school department. Art is supposed to bring beauty to the world.

“Profound, Deep Work”

[Captured (Rosy-Fingered) Ray from Setting Sun; Alfred, Maine, March, 2017]

Sunday I had the privilege to hear Dr. Amanda Kemp talk about “holding the space for transformation.” Wow. Just. Wow. Or, as my late, beloved friend, George Preston, used to say: “Good stuff!”

So I invite you to acquaint/reacquaint yourself with Dr. Kemp. Good stuff.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Sweet the Sound

[Jesse in the Groove, Honk!, Somerville, MA 2016]

When you’ve traveled around the sun as many times as I have, and been blessed, as have I, to know a host of lovely people, you’ll want to send off a LOT of Season’s Greetings* cards, right? I do. And, because I am human and, this season, easily overwhelmed, by Hour Three of writing and addressing cards on Saturday, I hit the wall. Only up to the H’s in my address book, I questioned my sanity; I doubted that a pretty card touting “happiness”—ordered  in sunnier, cheerier, pre-election August—was even the right thing to mail!

But, you know, Grace happens. Sometimes. Sometimes we are given, willy nilly, an opening: Suddenly I saw my-way-too-facile-cards and the United State Postal Service and the water warriors of Standing Rock and Sanctuary Cities and activist lawyers and the Muslim owners of a restaurant in London that invited the homeless and the lonely to come eat for free on Christmas Day and good people everywhere; millions and millions of people profoundly and intrinsically and powerfully connected together. What a vision! What an opening! I saw how perhaps-silly-but heartfelt acts of reaching out, connecting with those we love, can be a simple yet significant act of solidarity, reassurance, kindness; support. Yes!

But, wait, there’s more. I heard it. That ginormous web. Just for an instant. I heard its hum. Like the sound I remember from my teaching days when my writing students silently, happily settled into their individual work.

Yes. I heard that sweet “Mmmmm.” I’ll end by offering another sweet sound:

“The secret of the mountain is that the mountains simply exist, as I do myself: the mountains exist simply, which I do not. The mountains have no “meaning,” they are meaning; the mountains are. The sun is round. I ring with life, and the mountains ring, and when I can hear it, there is a ringing that we share. I understand all this, not in my mind but in my heart, knowing how meaningless it is to try to capture what cannot be expressed, knowing that mere words will remain when I read it all again, another day.”
― Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard

*Although I celebrate Christmas, many people do not. I respect that. It’s that simple. End of discussion.

“There Is Mystery”

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[Post-It on the E Train, 2016]

Sunday was “extended worship”at my Quaker meeting, a two-hour-rather-than-one meeting for worship which began an hour early. (We do this from time to time.) Only a handful sat in silence for that first hour. I was one of them.

Here’s The Thing: Somehow the presence of a scattering of people in a commodious meetinghouse* for that first/extra hour altered that space in some profound and mysterious way so that when the bulk of worshippers arrived at their usual 10:30 arrival time, they stepped into a room “”that felt different.” (Someone told me this later.) And worship felt deeper, more grounded, too. Why?

Part of me wants to dissect this phenomenon, to explain it—so that it can be replicated! But a larger part of me wants to give over, to let go of my need to put words to this mystery. And to simply and to gratefully celebrate That Which Is Beyond Words.

 

* Factoring in its balcony, the Friends Meeting at Cambridge meetinghouse can easily seat one-hundred fifty people; two-hundred scrunched together.