Saturday, at Art Beat, Somerville’s largest cultural festival, I experienced A Moment: The nearby band playing Elvis Costello’s “(What So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding,” an immigrant grandfather, his three grandchildren, and their parents decorated butterfly* pins, the adults as fully engaged in color selection and overall design as the three children. Seated on the opposite side of the table from where this lovely family worked, I thought, “This is how this country can be. This is what it could look like.” And welled up.
Safe. Gentle. Creative. Loving. Welcoming. Collaborative. All-ages. Inclusive. Multi-ethnic. (And, hey! How ’bout that perfect, profound soundtrack!)
Short answer: Those of us who identify as female know all about cognitive dissonance. Indeed, most of us have grappled with this profound and confusing and dizzying disconnect our entire lives. (We know about gaslighting, too. But that’s another story.)
I’ll elucidate: When you’re female, i.e. perceived as prey, it’s open season. No matter how old you are. Because hunters hunt. Hunters prey. Stealthily. With winks and whispers and sly smiles. Tragically, horrifyingly, these unwanted advances can be sexual; bewilderingly, they can also be simply a form of male muscle-flexing. But, nevertheless, still unwanted, still creepy. Believe me when I tell you, guys—believing women: talk about muscle-flexing!—that most females on earth have, in a private and secret and secluded moment, witnessed a well-respected member of our family or community being creepy. To us. Alone.(“Wink, wink.”)
So maybe now’s the time to roll out that useful F. Scott Fitzgerald quote: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Yup. So here’s a Fun Fact: most females possess first-rate intellects since we’ve grappled with This Crap since childhood. Makes you think about Zelda’s mental health issues in a whole, new light, am I right?!
My own story? To my knowledge, I was never sexually abused as a child. Thank God I’ve never been raped. (My novel’s Jewell was, though.) Since childhood, however, I have had countless creepy, bewildering experiences with men. Overly-attentive men. Family members, neighbors, members of our church community. Often, alcohol was involved. (Child of the fifties, I passed around lots of canapés at my parents’ cocktail parties.) Pretty sure that one incident, alone in our rec room with a “Visiting Fireman,” who’d come to our house for drinks and dinner, was egregious enough that my mother and father asked the next day if “something happened.” No, they didn’t elucidate. They didn’t provide useful language, offer guidance about boundaries, touch. But by simply asking that (too-broad) question they tacitly expressed disquiet. Which matched my own. Confirmed my own sense of creepiness when a grown man with Scotch on his breath ardently whispered how pretty I was, how I’d break a few hearts, some day, while my parents were out of the room. (I don’t think he touched me.) My parents’ bumbling question allowed me to begin to trust my own disquiet, my own, wordless Ewww! (As the mother of four daughters, I’ve schooled them to trust their intuition and if something felt creepy, get the hell out of there!)
To drive home my point re perceived prey, I want to end this with another useful quote, this one from Margaret Atwood: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
Sometimes it just hits me: my easeful life is made possible by the labor of thousands, millions of men and women working under conditions I cannot even imagine. Sometimes it just hits me: life is grotesquely unfair. (Yet I will almost always win.) And for hours, days, maybe even as long as a week, that piercing realization informs everything I experience.
But over time, this in-my-bones realization of the enormous disparity between my blessed and privileged life and those “less fortunate” —such a cold and lofty and dishonest phrase! — well, it fades. Lessens. Deadens.
How do I order my life so that this once-piercing realization informs everything I do? A citizen of a deeply connected/ interconnected Beloved Community, how am I to be truly mindful of all its residents?
Sunday morning found me, earrings and bracelets and watch-free, being escorted through the long and eerily empty corridors of the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center. Loathe to say anything that could in any way negatively impact the inmate I was about to visit, I chose to remain silent with my prison-guard escort.* And, too, because I recognized that although I can usually find something to talk about with just about anyone, I had no clue how to engage in a real conversation with someone who worked in a supermax. “So don’t even try,” I coached myself as we waited for another massive, electronically-controlled door to slowly slide open.
The actual visit? Wonderful. Rich. Moving. We told stories. We laughed. We got sad. We talked about our families. We explored why he’d ended up where he was. He described the dimensions and the fixtures of his segregation cell. At some point, as he was animatedly explaining something, his arms waving in the air, his eyes lit up, I was gifted with something one of the Sharing Circle had said last week: “This circle lets me be human.” ( I can’t write about this without welling up.)
“That’s what is happening here,” I realized. He’s remembering how to be human as he sits in this cinderblock cubicle shouting his words to me through a metal grill in a plexiglass window. Every second, here, is precious. (Duh!)
Finally, our time was up, signaled when my new escort unlocked the door to my side of that cubicle.
“I’d been locked in?” I sputtered indignantly.
“Sometimes inmates work as janitors on this floor,” the guard explained wearily. You-were-locked-in-for-your-own-safety, he shrugged as we began our trek back. Along the way we passed another guard. “Howya doing?” he asked my guy.
“Not good,” MG responded through clenched teeth. “But I know how to fix that.” (Or words to that extent.)
“I can use this silence to pray for him,” I decided. I can hold him—and whatever is plaguing him—in the Light. I can be human in this self-imposed silence. I can pray. I can put my earrings and my bracelets and my watch back on as if performing a ceremony to commemorate my return to Normal.
And here I am.
*The young man I was on my way to see is in “seg,” i.e. segregation, i.e. solitary confinement. Seg visits happen in a different section of the prison from its visitors’ room. That’s why I required an escort.
“I am here because somebody loved me,” Cornel West declared at last week’s Harvard Divinity School convocation. And I’m sure I wasn’t the only person hearing his words who didn’t immediately conjure up sopping-wet, helping hands reaching out to someone in need in Houston. Many of us, I’m guessing, silently acknowledged life’s ever-present disasters*—and yet here we all were, safe and dry and ALIVE because, despite their inadequacies, the someones in our own lives had gotten us through.
Talk about inadequate! My words to describe how Brother West‘s declaration moved me will only hint at what I want to say! But here goes:
I felt not just the love of West’s parents and the congregants of Sacramento’s Shiloh Baptist Church and all the loving people in his life—like his teachers; he spoke their names with reverence— that brought him to that (fancy) HDS podium last week, I felt eons of Love. I felt its enormous, glorious Power. I felt every single compassionate and loving act that every single member of our species had ever bestowed, shared, offered to another! Talk about welling up!
In the coming days and weeks, may you, may we find whatever ways available to us to connect with that Power. (We’re going to need it.)
*Some of them, like Hurricane Harvey, man-made. (Which makes them that much more devastating, right?)
Sunday morning, waiting to cross Massachusetts Avenue at Cambridge Street in Harvard Square, I overheard two tourists, standing behind me, also waiting for the crosswalk sign.
“It’s not square,” one woman commented, looking at the hodgepodge of intersecting, bustling streets before us, Cambridge Common, green and leafy, across the street.
“No shape,” agreed the other. She paused, as if at a museum, to carefully assess what was before her: “There’s no plan, really.”
Oh, but there was, I wanted to say! Look again. Directly in front of you, not a quarter of a mile away, is a river. The Charles River. Below your feet, beneath all this concrete and paving, are springs. These multi-lanes streets were once pathways leading to sources of fresh water, the best places to fish, higher-ground land that would not flood in the spring. The indigenous people who once inhabited Harvard Square knew every inch of where we’re standing. They had a plan.
And that Commons, I could have gone on. That was the communal place where early settlers pastured their cows. We greater-Bostonians joke that our meandering, confusing, non-gridded streets were once cowpaths. What we don’t acknowledge is that our semi-historic factoid neglects who’d originally created those paths. And why.
Water is Life, I could have extolled, church bells ringing from the other side of the Commons. That’s the plan. Are you ready?
One evening last week, after a full day of swimming and story-telling in the hammock—just she and I—and playing with her cousins, my granddaughter crawled into my lap.
“Show me a video,” she asked.”Please?” (Here’s one we both love.)
I thought a bit, Dear Reader, for, truth be told, as a Facebook/don’t own a TV kinda grandma, I watch a fair amount of videos! And then I showed her this one. “Blue jeans!” She loved it.
Because her parents were apparently content to let her keep watching and Youtube being Youtube, she and I watched other such videos, conveniently grouped and accessible: the first time a mother hears her son’s voice. The first time a blind child sees his mother’s face. The first time . . . And in every single one, tears. Copious tears. “It just wells up, doesn’t it,” notes a Brit technician to a weeping young woman who has just experienced sound for the first time.
What else I want to say this picture: Those rusted bars only hint at the horrors of incarceration. But my intention for using this dangerously-close-to-prettifying photograph is to illustrate a prison conversion story—I am not trying to educate the general public re prison conditions. So, reluctantly, I chose what I chose out of thousands of gritty, heart-breaking, online choices.
(But, must say, I will be writing to my prison pen-pals with renewed care and tenderness from now on.)
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!)
“Words, words, words, I’m so sick of words,” wails Eliza Doolittle. Me, too, sometimes. For no matter how well-chosen or apt, sometimes words are merely background noise while whatever truth welling up within us finds language to make itself understood.
Saturday night, for example, was the “staged reading” of a play I’m working on, i.e. a performance solely dependent on the words the actors read aloud. No sets, no costumes, no bits o’ business, no lighting; no stagecraft! Just words. Lots of them. As four actors holding three-ring binders sat in front of my Quaker meeting’s meetinghouse.
At intermission —or “halftime” as my husband says—a member of the audience came up to me. “I think this is a play about how we know things,” he said. (You could almost hear the capital K as he pronounced “know”) “That’s something I’ve been thinking about, lately.”
And, yes, my play did offer several examples of just what he was talking about. But, clearly, he’d heard an echo of a question he’d brought through the meetinghouse door that night. A profound question—and alive for him right now. So he heard what he heard.
How do we listen in tongues? How do we hear beyond/beneath/(in spite of) what we know? That’s the question alive for me right now.
As a Wheelock College sophomore, I was required to take “HGD” (Human Growth and Development) for an entire year. Aka Ages and Stages, the course ended at adolescence. Yup! When you turned twenty-one, HGD implied, you, me, all of us were done! Finished. Realized. (Really?)
Luckily, in 1976, eleven years into my own (developmentally vague and misunderstood) adulthood, Gail Sheehy published Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life—and rocked my world. Sheehy gave me a whole new set of ages and stages I could imagine myself moving through. Someday I’ll be middle-aged, I realized. Someday, perhaps, I’ll be a grandmother.
And so, the other day, when I got into a suddenly-deep, suddenly touchingly-honest conversation—re “adulting”— with a fifty-year-old father I’d just met, a part of me was able to step back from the conversation to silently acknowledge: he and I are in very different places developmentally. I have already lived through what he’s now experiencing. (I won’t repeat what he told me. It’s his story to share, not mine.) Surely, to remember such adult ages-and-stages is yet another way to listen in tongues.
So it didn’t surprise me when I told him my latest adulting/being-a-grandmother story—and he didn’t get it. (He blinked politely. But he didn’t get it.) For what it’s worth, here it is: Last Monday, just for a moment, as my four-year-old granddaughter put her heart, mind, and soul into lifting her vintage Radio Flyer (Lord knows why!), I saw in her determined, little face the woman she will become. And I was both grateful to see that vision and welled up realizing I might not live long enough to see my actual, over-21 grandchild.
Such preciousness and such mindfulness in that teary moment!
This past week my family vacationed on a quiet, spring-fed pond in New Hampshire; indeed, one spring welled up precisely where swimmers would stand if using the dock’s ladder to enter or exit the velvet water: always a brisk and bracing surprise!
Having grown up on spring-fed ponds, that sudden chill was familiar. Familiar too, yet still mysterious, wondrous, was the subsequent thrilling moment when I contemplated from whence cometh that water. To imagine water coming forth from out of the ground and beneath the water thrilled/s me. Welling Up—it’s a construct about The Source that speaks to me.
Last evening, back in Somerville, I went to a cook-out hosted by a dear, new friend—and a member of the Saint James Church’s choir. Most of the crowd milling in her back yard were also in the choir or members of her beloved church. So, naturally, before we tucked in, everyone sang “The Doxology”: Praise God from Whom all blessings flow / Praise Him All creatures here below.
Does it matter how we imagine where all blessing flow from? You say “From On High,” I say “From Within”; let’s call both crude approximations, shall we?