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.

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.

Who Gets to Say What’s True?

[Friends Meeting at Cambridge, January 1, 2017]

Saturday I saw “Fences.” And one line from the Denzel Washington (Troy) and Olivia Davis (Rose) movie, set in Pittsburgh in 1957, hit me just as hard in 2016 as had the same line in the staged version—which I’d seen in 2009. Troy and Rose are arguing about their teenaged son Cory’s future. Troy wants Cory to get a trade; Rose believes if he goes to college on a football scholarship he’ll be able to make his way. So she says something to the effect of, “You’re just being stubborn, Troy. Things are different (for people of color), now. There are more opportunities.” But as the story unspools, and we’ve spent some time within Troy and Rose’s shut-off-from-opportunity world, even the most clueless white person has to admit: Nope. Troy’s not being stubborn. Oppression was real in 1957. And, sadly, in 2017.

Which makes the Pew Research Center’s Study on Race and Inequality required reading. For my white brothers and sisters.

Hold ON!

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[Flag Football Game, Yauch Park, Brooklyn, NY, November, 2016]

We’re deep into it, aren’t we? Joanna Macy’s “Great Turning”? I, mother of Hope, choose to believe we are. (Can I get an Amen, Pantsuit Nation?) Yet clearly, painfully, horrifically, we’re smack-dab in the middle of The Power That Be’s resistance to this revolutionary change! Some days that blowback breaks your heart, right? Like Standing Rock? Sweet Jesus!

As a woman of faith, deeply connected to and sustained by people and organizations dedicated to social justice, to peace, to saving the planet, “deep in my heart, I do believe, that we shall overcome.” Some day.  I do. The centre can hold.* I know this is in my bones.

Yet. But: There are moments, headlines re women wearing hijabs or transgender women of color attacked, a picture of a swastika or the N-word scrawled on a wall, and I sink into either numbing sadness—or Mama Bear rage!

Saturday, in that numbed-sad state, I saw the highly—and rightfully—acclaimed “Manchester By The Sea,”  a film about white, straight men. Not my favorite demographic, post-election. (With notable exceptions.)

Two things: Some glancing momentsome barely-seen image, some bit of dialogue, how some actor held his shoulders or pronounced a certain word; something very brief yet, apparently, triggering flashed on the screen to instantly produce a deep, neglected, abandoned sadness to well up. I was in tears, inexplicable tears; I had no words, no label, no flavor, no scent, no memory to attach to those tears. What I had, though, was boundless gratitude for whoever had written/produced/acted/lit that moment. Some white male, no doubt. Because I suddenly knew that my neglected and abandoned sadness had been experienced by someone else. Thank you, Ken Lonergan. Thank you, Matt Damon. Thank you, ancient Greeks!

And how cathartic to sob on behalf of those straight, white males! It felt good. It felt right. It felt like their anguish just might allow me to look at my present, Mama Bear rage and to imagine—maybe—letting a little compassion in. Maybe.

*William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)
THE SECOND COMING

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

 

 

 

 

 

Thank you, Joanna Macy:

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Comic Book Store Window, Park Slope/Brooklyn, NY; June, 2016]

“When you make peace with uncertainty, you find a kind of liberation. You are freed from bracing yourself against every piece of bad news, and from constantly having to work up a sense of hopefulness in order to act—which can be exhausting. There’s a certain equanimity and moral economy that comes when you are not constantly computing your chance of success. The enterprise is vast, there is no way to judge the effects of this or that individual effort—or the extent to which it makes any difference at all. Once we acknowledge this, we can enjoy the challenge and the adventure. Then we can see that it is a privilege to be alive now is this Great Turning, when all the wisdom and courage ever harvested can be put to use.”

(from World As Lover World As Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal, p.143, 2007)

Is There A Theme, Here?

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[Broken Mirror on Sidewalk Self-Portrait, 2016]

A getting-to-know-you lunch with a yoga classmate, Muhammad Ali’s death, my 50th college reunion, a late-afternoon lobbying session (with other, WAY more informed people) to discuss an upcoming energy bill with my state rep; is there a theme, here? (besides the fact that I’ve simply noted some highlights of this past week?)

Why, yes, there is!

Let’s put it this way: at my Wheelock College reunion Saturday, someone asked a group of about thirty Class of ’66 members who’d read Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. Most of us had.

Being mortal/growing old: for me, Ali’s death has proved a telling benchmark, a very real, very concrete measurement marking how vastly different the young me of the mid-sixties, who’d regarded Cassius Clay/ Muhammad Ali with fear and scorn and, yes, confusion, and the seventy-one-year-old me who marvels at, celebrates his witness* against racism and oppression and war!

So, yeah, I’m no longer pre-intimation of mortality. I’m mortal.

We all are. Which is why I went to lunch with that yoga classmate, a delightful woman who usually places her mat next to mine. The classmate who used to put her mat there (and who often said she and I should get together but when it came time to actually set up a date . . . ) died. Tragically. And why I, ever-mindful of the urgency of addressing climate change, showed up at a 4:30 meeting to discuss an energy bill. Because who else can show up during working hours? Activists and pensioners!

*In Quakerese: to stand up, to show up, to speak out about, to get arrested for some injustice you’ve been moved (“led”) to protest.