Lost

Johnny D’s Debris, November 28, 2017

Caught in another traffic jam, my husband and I agreed: “Right this minute, half the people in Greater Boston are sitting bumper-to-bumper, the other half work on the construction projects that block all this traffic.” Today, walking home from East Somerville, I glanced at the horizon and saw a skyline I’d never seen before. Where had those buildings sprung from? Iconic Somerville hotspots like Johnnny D’s? Razed. My auto mechanic’s shop, just down the street, has been usurped by a glitzy new building touting million-dollar condo’s. What? And while I know that it’s normal for people my age to view a changing world with bewilderment and alarm, the disruption and displacement and gentrification happening in my formerly working-class neighborhood right now is not a normal I can accept. Far worse, after what happened on the Senate floor Friday night, I can no longer recognize my country.

Last week my yoga teacher shared this poem with our class. Perfect timing, right?

Lost

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

David Wagoner
(1999)

“I’m Sorry”

 

My first day at my new, Lynchburg, Virginia high school, a classmate confronted me: “You’re a Yankee, aren’t you?”

In a baby-blue shirtwaist, a white cardigan with pearl buttons draped across my shoulders, fourteen-year-old me nodded.

“I hate Yankees,” she snarled—and recited horrific facts and figures regarding Sherman’s march to the sea.

“But I wasn’t even alive, then,” I sputtered indignantly. “That was the Civil War!”

Civil?” she pounced. “There was nothing civil about it!”

Nearly sixty years later, what might I now say to that woman?

“I’m sorry, ” I’d begin, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book underpinning my careful words. “What Sherman did was unspeakable—well, no, that’s the wrong word. Because you and I, we need to talk about that bloody, horrible war. You and I need to talk about how that war was about maintaining a “peculiar institution.” Let’s talk about slavery, you and I. And I need to talk about the unspeakable injustice my Pilgrim ancestors did to the people whose land they stole. We both need to acknowledge our shared history of oppression. We need to own that our forefathers were the oppressors! So, to begin, Carole Fielder*, let me say this: I am truly sorry for what Sherman did.”

And I would mean every word.

*Voted Most Likely to Succeed by the Class of 1962

 

 

 

Between the Lines

A Puddled Crosswalk in Harvard Square; November, 2017

Saturday after sunset, driving back to Massachusetts from Vermont, it began to rain. I hate, hate, hate driving in rain and dark!* But even more, as I explained to my husband—who’d driven the north-bound trip that morning—I hate being “an indolent wife.” So, gripping the steering wheel at 10:00 and 2:00, I pressed southward.

Traffic on I-89 and, eventually, I-93 fairly light, headlights from opposing traffic and beside us provided just enough light to see the white lane lines; definitely a “Light that is given” experience! “All you gotta do,” I coached myself,” is keep the car between those lines as the highway reveals itself, yard by yard.” (And, oh, yeah, keep an eye out for the red tail-lights of night-vision-impaired drivers in front of you going way, way less than sixty-five miles an hour!)

Super-focused, I nevertheless registered a sense of liberation—joy, even—as everything fell away save my one immediate assignment. Everything! Nothing else mattered. I felt held by those lane lines. I felt enormous gratitude for interstate infrastructure!

A couple of times the rain let up, allowing a long-buried memory to surface and to give additional context to my existential experience: When I was a teenager I actually volunteered to visit my town’s church youth groups to tell adolescent Baptists or Episcopalians about my faith. (Why in the world—or, rather, in Lynchburg, Virginia, where my family was living in those days—did I do that?!) A Unitarian-Universalist back then, pretty sure I said something snarky about the Bible because during the Q and A, one of the youth group’s advisors pushed back. “When you go on a road trip you use a map, right?” he said. “So why don’t you use the Bible as your guide?” Pretty sure I countered with something lofty and callow about knowing I could trust a map maker. (And, yes, there was some truth to that man’s question. It’s taken almost sixty years for me to see that!)

Yes, I reflected in the dark. I still trust map makers. Or, in the case of right now, I trust the engineers who designed this wet, noir highway. And I am so grateful for the workmen who laid down these life-saving lines I follow.

I can trust, too, that more Light will be given. Yard by yard. I don’t need to see all of it. I will be given Enough.

 

 

 

*I am not yet a candidate for cataract surgery. But like most people my age, such surgery is in my future.

Being Human

Doors. New Bedford Quaker Meeting, New Bedford, MA

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. 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.

 

 

It Goes On

Harvard Square Sidewalk, Election Day, 2017

Like many “Villens,” Ralph Hergert had dual citizenship: Somerville and Cambridge. So it was not surprising that although a long-time, pivotal, and much-loved Somerville activist, Ralph’s memorial on Saturday was held at Old Cambridge Baptist Church, his spiritual home in his last years. And that his beloved, vaulted church overflowed with OCBC congregants and Villens who’d worked with him and beside him on peace and social justice issues for over thirty years.

Still the pastor of Grace Baptist Church in East Somerville when we first met, Ralph and I had many conversations about how his faith and mine, both predicated on the belief that we can experience The Divine without an intermediary, were so radically different culturally yet, in fact, so very close. Good stuff.

My favorite Ralph story: He and I worked in the same building, he as the head of the Mayor’s Office of Human Services and I as a teacher at Somerville’s adult learning center. One morning as we were both coming to work we met outside the building and, somehow, got to talking about music—specifically, for some reason lost in the mists of time, about “There Is A Balm in Gilead.” (Endlessly kind, he nevertheless pitied my ignorance of liturgical/spiritual music.) We walked inside, he walking up a flight of stairs, me walking down a flight, and when he reached the top of the stairs, he leaned over the railing. He looked down at me. He grinned. And  began singing that wonderful spiritual. His voice filled the stairwell. His voice filled my sin-sick soul.

Ralph struggled with Alzheimer’s in his last years; his disease was referenced, present, many times during his (music-rich) memorial.  Something else was present, too: a sense that The Work continues. I felt it; others did, too. That all that Ralph held dear and had worked so hard for lived. Buoyant. Enduring. Possible.

Good stuff.

Near-Hit*

No, that isn’t a tree growing in our driveway. That’s a Norway maple branch which broke off during Sunday night’s fierce winds and, miraculously, hit no one, nothing as it crashed to the ground. Tilting backwards, that impressively thick branch—and its leafy, smaller branches—then nestled against the building next door. Today, while more than a half-million people in New England are still without power because of other, less felicitous broken-off branches, ours has already been sawed into manageable bits. So tonight, on All Hallow’s Eve, as I’ll pass out Snickers and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, I’ll take time between doorbell responses to consider Life’s tenuousness. And its preciousness.

 

 

 

*Thanks, George Carlin