“As Good And As Bad As I”

[Kirkland Street Lilacs, Cambridge, MA, April 30, 2017]

Sunday, just as I passed the bushes pictured above—”Somerbridge” boosts thousands of lilac bushes in bloom this week— a car pulled to the curb, its passenger-side window rolled down, and a young, pleasant-looking woman plaintively called, “Can you help me? I’m trying to find the Sheraton Commander and my GPS has me going in circles!”   So I gave her the directions to the hotel. A five-minute drive. At most.

“I don’t think I can do this.” She sounded close to tears.

Reader? Honestly? I was annoyed. Insulted. “I just told you where to go,” I inwardly seethed. “What more do you want?”

But then it hit me: Maybe she’s had no experience remembering First This. Then This. Then This. And, finally this. And you’re there. If you’ve relied on GPS your whole life, taking in, absorbing a series of verbal instructions just might be daunting!

So I played the only card I had: (Empowered) Woman to woman. “You got this!” I cheered. “You can do this! You’re practically there, already. It’s not going to be hard.” I reviewed my instructions. She repeated them back to me this time. I corrected her. I raised my fist in the air. And off she drove.

The prevailing, intoxicating scent of my hometown this week—watching sidewalk passersby inhale my lilacs makes me so happy—and this brief yet touching exchange with a stranger brought to mind a poem, excerpted here, written by a Somerville librarian and journalist many years ago. It’s not a great poem. But apt:

The House by the Side of the Road

by Sam Walter Foss (1858-1911)

There are hermit
souls that live withdrawn
In the peace of their self-content;
There are souls, like stars, that dwell apart,
In a fellowless firmament;
There are pioneer souls that blaze their paths
Where highways never ran;-
But let me live by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.

Let me live in a house
by the side of the road,
Where the race of men go by-
The men who are good and the men who are bad,
As good and as bad as I.
I would not sit in the scorner’s seat,
Or hurl the cynic’s ban;-
Let me live in a house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.

I see from my house
by the side of the road,
By the side of the highway of life,
The men who press with the ardor of hope,
The men who are faint with the strife.
But I turn not away from their smiles nor their tears-
Both parts of an infinite plan;-
Let me live in my house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.

I know there are brook-gladdened
meadows ahead
And mountains of wearisome height;
That the road passes on through the long afternoon
And stretches away to the night.
But still I rejoice when the travelers rejoice,
And weep with the strangers that moan,
Nor live in my house by the side of the road
Like a man who dwells alone.

 

“Pray you, love, remember.”

[Abandoned-Hotel Trash, Sharon Springs, N.Y. 2016]

The more I read Robert Rossner’s The Year Without an Autumn: Portrait of a School in Crisis, the more I realize I’ve forgotten way more than I remember about the 1968 crisis Rossner chronicles. Which is startling! For not only was I was an elementary school teacher at P.S. 120 when the Ocean Hill/Brownsville strike happened, I was a scab. Yes. Until our school’s custodians locked us out, P.S.120’s teachers of color crossed the United Federation of Teachers’ picket line (i.e. an irate group of P.S. 120’s white teachers) for a couple of weeks in the fall of 1968. Two white teachers chose to join those black teachers. I was one of them. You’d think I’d remember more!

So I’m struck by how much trauma and time (and, okay, maybe the druggy haze of the sixties) wreak havoc on remembrance.*

Here’s probably the worst thing I got dead-wrong: I’d remembered that less than ten NYC public-school teachers had been fired by the decentralized, parent-and-community-based (read People of Color) Ocean Hill/Brownsville board. Or so I’ve always thought. But, no, nineteen teachers had been fired by the “local control” folks. A significant number. (So: Forty-nine years later, I almost get why the UFT got so high and mighty about so many of its teachers getting canned. Almost.)

I knew one of those nineteen. He was a total incompetent at P.S. 120 and had been let go. His incompetence made my decision to support the Ocean Hill/Brownsville board’s right to fire him pretty straight-forward: Would I strike to protest his being fired? Hell, no. And so I crossed a picket line.

But here’s what I must say: All these years later, while I am glad (relieved?) I’d made the right decision, I am humbled by how next-to-nothing I really understood about systemic racism in 1968! I now know how blindly I made that decision! So when I say trauma is a factor to my swiss-cheese memory of this experience, I mean both the scary, nasty bits I have sublimated, paved over but also my present-day realization/horror that, actually, I’d stumbled into doing the right thing!

And, finally, to honor Shakespeare’s injunction to love and to remember: an incongruously-lovely memory; a (self) love story: Somehow, in the midst of being called horrible names as I crossed the picket line or, once inside, tried to teach a few scared children while fire alarms keep going off or, on the subway, getting punched by a young man of color because, why not? Racial tensions were tearing the whole city apart. Yet somehow, in the midst of all of that—and all that I have forgotten—I suddenly stopped smoking. Just like that. I’d learned that the minute you quit smoking your lungs begin to heal. What I had been doing to myself since I was fifteen could be fixed. Hope, possibility, redemption were possible. So I quit.

*There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember.” Shakespeare.

 

Holding All of It

[Damp, Caped Kid; Honk! Parade, October, 2016]

I’m holding a place for transformation. I’m holding a space for Love.

And, apparently, when it comes to the vulnerable, the preyed upon, I’m holding my breath.

This morning, much to my surprise, I realized I’d been holding on to unacknowledged fears—and horror—around the grisly murder of a young woman. (Trigger warning.)

How I came to realize these unnamed, unrecognized feelings isn’t important. This is:

Most men I know, even the most peaceful, loving and compassionate, would find my stirred-up feelings puzzling. They’d point out how rarely something as horrible as Vanessa Marcotte’s murder ever happens—while acknowledging that, yes, other women, alone and vulnerable, are accosted, too. Murdered.(They’re nice guys, remember? Decent.) But then they’d remind me how the media feeds on fear; how I was manipulated by the mainstream press with yet another story of a young and pretty white victim— what about murdered young women of color, transgender women? They’d remind me that the opposite of Love is Fear. Why was I giving in to my fears?

All that is true. But, after acknowledging their right-thinking, here’s what I’d tell them: “Dear ones, here’s what I need for you to understand. I believe that I relate to this horrible story differently from you. I believe I understand vulnerability and being preyed upon differently from you. I am claiming my authority. As a woman.”

Piece. Peace.

[Cabrillo National Monument, San Diego, CA; 2015]

I used to think, if you want peace, work for justice. But during worship this past Sunday it came to me: If you want peace, work for peace. I saw the inter-relatedness of issues I’ve siloed I’m my heart. Affordable housing, climate change, immigration, income disparity, our criminal justice system; they’re all of a piece. Neighborhoods of that Beloved Community.

Fifty years ago* Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood this: When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” (Re that “triplets” metaphor: If you are suddenly curious, as I was, when Easter occurred in 1967, I will tell you. March 26th.)

Easter Week of 2017, it seems fitting to close with this: Peace is my parting gift to you, my own peace, such as the world cannot give. Set your troubled hearts at rest, and banish your fears. [John 14:27]

“Beyond Vietnam” speech,  April 4, 1967, at New York City’s Riverside Church

Wicked Wrong

[Trash Day; Somerville, MA, 2016]

Like everywhere else, Greater Boston has its own rhythms, its own special events—and its residents mark their calendars accordingly. In an area dominated by college students, for example, Moving Day, September First, equals tie-ups all over the city as thousands of rental trucks block traffic on narrow city streets. And residents know that the day before, the sidewalks of Allston and Brighton and Somerville and Cambridge will be, well, trashed. Deal!

But sometimes The Red Sox Nation needs to ask “What the frig?” Like thinking it’s okay that on Opening Day, two F-!5 jets fly over Fenway Park. Right after the national anthem. (The timing’s carefully scripted, apparently) Huh? Why is conflating screaming, Mach 2.5 fighter aircraft with baseball A Thing?

But, maybe, wise, peace-loving souls are behind what certainly looks like normalizing the war machine? Because even though I knew those damned jets were due, I have no words to describe the terror I felt when they actually roared over my house!  Like End of the World terror. Heart-racing. Paralyzing. But also, just for a fleeting moment, a deep-in-my-gut connection with every man, woman and child living in war zones followed by, in the silence that followed, my deep-in-my-gut relief that I live where I do. And then, of course, enormous sadness.

 

 

“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.