Sunday, I found myself on my feet at meeting for worship to praise a “benign, loving, transformative, regenerative force” that I felt so powerfully that spring morning, a force another Quaker in another time described as “a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things.”*
A few more adjectives I might’ve added on Sunday: Non-anthrocentric. Restorative. Grateful. Mysterious.
Yes, mysterious. Because here’s A Thing, as my godson would say: on Monday, after doing several errands, I was walking home and had turned off busy and congested Somerville Avenue to walk along a more quiet side street near my home. A street lined with trees delicately in bloom. And tulips or daffodils or forsythia or flame-colored quince bushes in their full glory.
And, suddenly, I felt that force all-around me and so powerfully it brought tears to my eyes. “Welcome home,” that loving force seemed to say to me. “We’re grateful that you understand how we’re all in this together, aren’t we? We’re all connected. And inter-dependent. Yes.”
When someone deeply listens to you
it is like holding out a dented cup
you’ve had since childhood
and watching it fill up with
cold, fresh water.
When it balances on top of the brim,
you are understood.
When it overflows and touches your skin,
you are loved.
When someone deeply listens to you
the room where you stay
starts a new life
and the place where you wrote
your first poem
begins to glow in your mind’s eye.
It is as if gold has been discovered!
When someone deeply listens to you
your barefeet are on the earth
and a beloved land that seemed distant
is now at home within you.
After listening to WellingUp.net’s podcasts, my daughter questioned an important, fundamental decision: “Why did you begin the story with Rocco’s death,” she wondered. “Wouldn’t it be better to tell the story chronologically?”
“No,” I answered. “I don’t think so.” And recalled a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. biography I’d read that begins with King’s assassination. “I felt like the book was way more powerful because I’d been reminded from the git-go that this wonderful man would be murdered, ” I told her. “And besides,” I continued. “This story is another version of the Jesus and Mary Magdalene story. And what do most people seem to remember about Jesus? How he died!”
I’ve been thinking about that conversation this past week as I read over my 2018 journals, a sobering, humbling end of the year/beginning of the year ritual I’ve performed for a few years, now. What? I did that stupid thing again? And again? And . . . Jeez! Every mention of my mother, who died in October of 2018, leaps off the page. Every conversation. Every health concern. Every interaction with a staff person at her long-term care facility. It’s all so precious.
So many excerpts I could share but here are few moments I’m so glad I recorded:
May 24, 2018 . . . Had a wonderful moment with Mom when she talked about dying and how it won’t be hard because she’s had such a wonderful life—and I told her how lovely it is that she told me that because her leaving will be less painful, knowing that. A sweet, lovely, who-would-have-predicted moment . . .
May 26, 2018 . . . Took Mom down to Black’s Nook where pond life is beginning to thrive. Water lilies, a frog, lots of birds—but no heron or geese—and Mom was pretty lively, herself. Reached over to touch a young man’s arm so she could look at his tattoo more easily. I teased her about touching strange men and she said,”If he’s brave enough to have tattoos he should be able to deal.” Or words to that effect . . . .
June 16, 2018 . . . Mom had lots to say about “A’s” [another resident she’d disliked] sudden death. Guilt, maybe. We talked a little about how, maybe A really was in a better place, not heaven, necessarily, but not in pain or angry or frustrated any more. A talk I again appreciated having with my mother.
[Patsy Cline’s salt and pepper collection, Patsy Cline Museum, Nashville, Tennessee]
A wonderful surprise happened in 2018: I made two new, wonderful friends, both in their seventies, too. Over tea last week with one, a fellow peace activist and feminist, we discovered that although we’d grown up in very different parts of the country, our families’ respective religions differed, and she’d grown up with more siblings than I, in one respect, her parents and mine were exactly the same. She and I, who’d both grown up in the fifties and early sixties, had both taken piano lessons. And ballroom dancing!
We snickered. And agreed that learning how to waltz or foxtrot was not something young people ascribed to anymore. She quoted that famous line: “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did—only backwards and in high heels.” And I shared a story from my thirties, when my then-husband and I—probably chemically enhanced, shall we say?—had crashed a big, fancy, neighborhood party one summer night, a party held in a tent and with a live band. Boldly I’d invited a neighbor I really, really admired to dance with me. Kind of shy, not a dancer, he’d hesitated: “Don’t worry, darlin’,” I’d assured him. “I’ll make you look good.” And I did. Because from my ballroom-dance classes, I knew how to balance my weight on the balls of my feet; how to lightly rest my left hand on my partner’s shoulder in order to sense whatever direction he would go, and in a split-second, feet poised to respond, to accommodate that movement—wherever!
What a dated, horrifying story! But it begs me to wonder: Do I still do that? Do I still, in ways I don’t even realize because it’s just what I was trained to do, do I still wait, poised to move in response to someone else? Do I accommodate? Dedicate myself to making someone else look good?
Last week, after visiting a prisoner I see once a month, I was being escorted by a Department of Correction guard back to the prison’s entrance when I found myself engaged in a remarkable conversation!
First, let me set the stage: Imagine a hot summer sun shining on the utter desolation, the eerie quiet of no trees, no flowers, no humans, no birdsong; imagine a football-field sized space with nothing but tall, grey walls and barbed wire and chainlink fences and a long row of exercise cages, each attached to a cell, presumably. Got it?
The guard, having volunteered that he was due to go on vacation soon, prompted me to ask what his plans were. His answer revealed where he lived and, knowing his hometown has a very lively Quaker meeting, I revealed that I was a Quaker in hopes that we might know the same people—something we could talk about.
“Oh!” he responded. And began the Matthew 25: 35 passage “. . . when I was ill you came to my help, when I was in prison you visited. . . ” which I ended with “. . . whatever you do for the least of these you do for me.”
“And how about Isaiah 53?” he asked.
“The planted in—” but he interrupted me. “No, no,” and quoted a bit from that amazing, Old Testament account of The Suffering Servant that most spoke to him. Which he may have garbled; I certainly didn’t recognize what he said. (It’s a long passage containing lots of verses Handel’s “Messiah” fans will recognize.)
Here’s the thing: Isaiah 53 does begin with “He [the suffering servant] grew up before the Lord like a young plant whose roots are in parched ground.” Which I, living in a city with plenty of rain this year but where multiple natural gas leaks are killing or weakening our community’s sidewalk trees, a community whose trees are being decimated to build a light rail extension, find so poignant! In other words, Isaiah is saying: this servant’s sufferings are not his fault. Blame the parched/toxic/inconveniently-located soil. What a metaphor!
Here’s the other thing: Isaiah 53 also contains an incredibly moving passage, the centerpiece for my prison ministry: “Without protection, without justice, he was taken away; and who gave a thought to his fate, how he was cut off from the world of living men . . . ?”
Here’s the last thing: Whatever verses most appeal to us, that guard and I have both been moved by the same biblical passage, the same prophetic voice—who later declares he’s been “sent to bring good news to the humble, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to those in prison.”
I will be on vacation next week so will not be posting. Am hoping that this coming week gifts you with some lovely, summery treat as delicious as these first peaches of the season—especially tasty since, last summer, we had no local peaches because a late frost killed New England’s just-blooming peach blossoms.
[Exhibit, Harvard Museum of Natural History; December, 2016]
What a species we are! We give the exalted name “Splendid Fairywren” to an iridescent, Australian bird—yet kill it and stuff it and put it in a glass case so others of our species may marvel at it! Splendid, indeed!
[“After Supper at Family Camp,” Frost Valley YMCA, 2013]
This is a mull/discern week; whatever it is I might be led to write isn’t fully formed as yet. Instead, I offer this amazing poem which arrived in my InBox a few weeks ago when I’d participated in a poetry chain letter.
Mr. Pate’s Barbershop By Major Jackson
I remember the room in which he held a blade to my neck & scraped the dark hairs foresting a jawline: stacks of Ebonys & Jets, clippings of black boxers — Joe Frazier, Jimmy Young, Jack Johnson — the color television bolted to a ceiling like the one I watched all night in a waiting room at St. Joseph’s while my cousin recovered from gunshots. I remember the old Coke machine, a water fountain by the door, how I drank the summer of ’88 over & over from a paper cone cup & still could not quench my thirst, for this was the year funeral homes boomed, the year Mr. Pate swept his own shop for he had lost his best little helper Squeaky to cross fire. He suffered like most barbers suffered, quietly, his clippers humming so loud he forgot Ali’s lightning left jab, his love for angles, for carpentry, for baseball. He forgot everything & would never be the same. I remember the way the blade gleamed fierce in the fading light of dusk & a reflection of myself panned inside the razor’s edge wondering if I could lay down my pen, close up my ledgers & my journals, if I could undo my tie & take up barbering where months on end a child’s head would darken at my feet & bring with it the uncertainty of tomorrow, or like Mr. Pate gathering clumps of fallen hair, at the end of a day, in short, delicate whisks as though they were the fine findings of gold dust he’d deposit in a jar & place on a shelf, only to return Saturdays, collecting, as an antique dealer collects, growing tired, but never forgetting someone has to cherish these tiny little heads.
Recently saw “Choice,” a wonderful new play by Winnie Holzman, which asks us to consider: What is a soul? (That the playwright has the most boring and least powerful character of the play pose this question—whereupon he/his question are immediately snickered at and then ignored—strikes me as a brilliant piece of writing!) So I have.
And as these things work sometimes, while searching for something else, stumbled across this ancient poem which attempts to answer that boring man’s poignant, probing, right-on question:
Song of the Soul, by Shankarachary
(788-820 CE, mystic saint of India)
I am neither ego nor reason, I am neither mind nor thought, I cannot be heard nor cast into words, nor by smell nor sight ever caught: In light and wind I am not found, nor yet in earth and sky – Consciousness and joy incarnate, Bliss of the Blissful am I.
I have no name, I have no life, I breathe no vital air, No elements have molded me, no bodily sheath is my lair: I have no speech, no hands and feet, nor means of evolution – Consciousness and joy am I, and Bliss in dissolution.
I cast aside hatred and passion, I conquered delusion and greed; No touch of pride caressed me, so envy never did breed: Beyond all faiths, past reach of wealth, past freedom, past desire Consciousness and joy am I, and Bliss is my attire.
Virtue and vice, or pleasure and pain are not my heritage, Nor sacred texts, nor offerings, nor prayer, nor pilgrimage: I am neither food nor eating, nor yet the eater am I – Consciousness and joy incarnate, Bliss of the Blissful am I.
I have no misgivings of death, no chasms of race divide me, No parent ever called me child, no bond of birth ever tied me: I am neither disciple nor master, I have no kin, no friend – Consciousness and joy am I, and merging in Bliss is my end.
Neither knowable, knowledge, nor knower am I, formless is my form, I dwell within the senses but they are not my home: Ever serenely balanced, I am neither free nor bound – Consciousness and joy am I, and Bliss is where I am found.
I’ve been thinking about the words beneath the words. About how sometimes what is not spoken aloud is, “I’m sad.” or “I’m scared.” or “If you knew my backstory, you’d understand me so much better! Forgive me. But I can’t/won’t tell you why I am the way I am. Although I wish with all my heart that I could.”
And I’ve been thinking about something a dear Friend, Cathy Whitmire, once told me: “Everyone’s doing the best they can.” ( I immediately replied, “No, they’re NOT!”) But I am slowly coming to believe she was right. Slowly.
forgiving my father
it is friday. we have come
to the paying of the bills.
all week you have stood in my dreams
like a ghost, asking for more time
but today is payday, payday old man;
my mother’s hand opens in her early grave
and i hold it out like a good daughter.
there is no more time for you. there will
never be time enough daddy daddy old lecher
old liar. i wish you were rich so i could take it all
B.K.S Iyengar, a beloved and inspired teacher, and credited by many as the person who brought yoga to this country, died last week in India at the age of ninety-five. According to my teacher, Annie Hoffman, Iyengar’s first East Coast yoga “novitiate” was Patricia Walden—my first teacher. And who has studied—and continues to study—with Patricia? Annie.
So, maybe not surprisingly, I’ve been thinking about lines. About how my connection to a present-day spiritual leader has been elegantly straight and simple. And about how the line between me and, say, Jesus, ain’t. (More a “tangled web,” I’m afraid.) And about how blessed we are whenever we can experience the depth and the wisdom and the Truths of another person in person. Soul Time, not “facetime.” A straight and direct line.
*An ancient Sanskrit greeting still in everyday use in India and especially on the trail in the Nepal Himalaya. Translated roughly, it means “I bow to the God within you”, or “The Spirit within me salutes the Spirit in you” – a knowing that we are all made from the same One Divine Consciousness.