A Photograph of me without me in it

A Photograph of me without me in it
A photograph of me without me in it

Saturday, November 29, 2014


At Wallingford United Methodist Church, Advent starts today, the fourth Sunday before Dec. 25, but for my mom Advent starts on June 25. If I’m talking to her on the phone on June 25, me in Seattle and Mom in Raleigh, North Carolina, she’ll sing, “You know what today is?” I never know. “It’s six months ‘til Christmas!”

For my family when I was growing up, Christmas was the day when Dad didn’t work, and we three kids stayed home from school and sports. Sometimes my Grandmother Edwards or my Auntie Myra’s family joined us. It was a day when we rose slowly, wore our pajamas all day, ate a tasty turkey linnner (that’s lunch plus dinner, served at 3 pm). On this day, we were present with one another in a way that we weren’t in our busy lives throughout the other 364 days of the year. This was a day to prepare for with joyful anticipation.

Though we attended Pullen Memorial Southern Baptist church regularly, opened the windows on our advent calendars and learned the stories of Mary and Joseph, the angels and the taxes, the humble stable where the baby Jesus was born, and the star that beckoned the wise men to this birth, Advent and Christmas were more about family than they were about church. Though it may sound like this day for us was more about family than about Jesus or God, it was in this genuine presence that we lived in God’s space more than we did any other time of the year. This was our miracle. This is when we lived on God’s time and in Jesus’s spirit. Though this Jesus talk jangles in my progressive ears, I really think of Jesus’s spirit as a spirit for all, not a specifically Christian spirit, and God’s space as universal (pun intended).  

Before Christmas, we bought presents for one another like the other families in the suburbs where I grew up. The gifts were something to scan the Sears catalogue for annually (I never did get that game “Ants in the Pants,” though I asked for it every year). I kept a drawer in my desk where I stored gifts for my family throughout the year: maybe a special pencil or a funny sticker. Christmas Eve night, we kids filled the stockings with our gifts and went to bed early in anticipation of Santa’s arrival.

Christmas day, Dad would get up earlier than we sleepy-heads did, and he’d bang a pot with a spoon to roust us from bed. Bleary-eyed, Sister Jen, Little Brother Matt and I would go to the living room where a giant decorated fir tree had a few wrapped gifts from neighbors and Dad’s pediatric patients waiting on the red and green tree skirt. Each kid had a special gift from Santa: maybe a watch or a necklace or a sweater. One year Little Brother Matt got Atari tapes and cried as he explained to my parents that there was a machine he’d need. Dad said Santa must not have known about the machine. He was sorry. After Santa, we’d have our Christmas breakfast: Moravian sugar cake from the Norris family up the street and Neese's sausage.

Then in the den, we would draw numbers to see in what order we would unstuff our “stockings.” The honorary person would sit on a leather stool, and Mom would bring out a “stocking,” a paper grocery bag stuffed with gifts meant just for us from the people who knew us best. (Mom had hated the waste of all that wrapping paper, so grocery bags were a way to transition away from the waste of wrapping paper.) My Auntie Myra had decorated each bag with a foot that was clearly ours—Dad’s bag, for example, had a foot with a toe poking through the sock because his socks were always in bad repair.

One person went through a stocking at a time. As we pulled each gift from the bag, we would guess who it was from: I always bought my sister Jennifer Gerber’s Baby Plums, because she loved them even when she was too old to admit it. Grandmother Edwards always got split peas. Dad always got socks. One year, Little Brother Matt got the Atari machine after all. That was the year my sister gave me the plaque: “WORK FASCINATES ME—I CAN SIT AND LOOK AT IT FOR HOURS.” Now fifty years old and in my own Seattle home, I keep that plaque with its Christmas label “To Mary from Jennifer” on the back on my desk: its message still applies and sits as a reminder of how well my sister knew me.

One especially creative year, Dad gave Mom, Sister Jen and me matching, monogrammed flannel onesies from The Wall Street Journal. All of us got pennies and a bag of assorted candies, red hots and chocolate covered peanuts, Dad’s favorites. Mysteriously, Dad always got pennies and candy, too. Dad said that was because Santa brought them. My favorite year was the year that Sister Jen had gone through Dad’s bag from the previous year, retrieved the goodies he had never used, and put them in that year’s stocking. He didn’t notice until he got to a calendar from the previous year.

In those days, the gifts were more thoughtful than expensive, and we knew that Christmas wasn’t about these gifts. It was about being together, celebrating family, the people who knew us well and gave us what we really wanted, the people who shared our traditions and sense of humor. It was able taking the space and time to be together in the way that it seemed Jesus had tried to teach us.

Though my parents still live in that ranch style suburban home, my siblings and I have moved away to live our own adult lives. Sister Jen lives in New York with her husband Todd and their three teenage boys. Her oldest daughter, Isabella, is at Duke for her freshman year. Little Brother Matt, his wife Kristin, and their three kids live in Connecticut, and my partner Ann and I live in Seattle. Each family has had its share of hard times: Sister Jen was in an accident and helicoptered to emergency brain surgery; I had two brain tumors, neurosurgery and radiation, and Little Brother Matt is in recovery from alcoholism and its deadly effects. We’re all getting older.

We no longer gather for Christmas in Raleigh, but every other year, we gather in the New York/Connecticut area to celebrate family again. The grocery bags have grown with the times: there’s more stuff and it’s more expensive. Unstuffing the stockings with so many people and so much stuff takes hours, and the in-laws (Ann, Todd, and Kristin) try to be good-natured about it but clearly suffer through the tedium.

Still, this is the time we anticipate every two years: the time when we celebrate our history and our connections, a family that grows and continues to know us and love us even through hard times. This waiting is our Advent, and I know that next June 25, Mom will sing to me, “You know what day it is?” and I won’t remember. The first day of Advent, six months until Christmas.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Nerd Hip

My partner Ann and I attended the bus poetry launch on Monday night at the Moore Theatre with our friends Ellen, Donna, Rita, and Linda. I am not one for hip anything--much more nerd than hip--but this might have been a hip event. Or at least nerd hip.

As we approached the theatre, Ann took my picture under the Poetry on the Buses marquis. We made our way through a crowd onto a bus parked in front of the theatre. Because we were afraid the bus might take us to Ballard, we exited quickly, but later re-entered to read poems by local writers where advertising usually reigned. My photo was in a collage of sixteen poets' black and white portraits. In the photo, I am looking directly into the camera, my left eye clearly pointed towards my nose, as it has been since neurosurgery to remove a brain tumor seven years ago. (I had told the photographer that I wanted my disabilities to be obvious, so I was happy with this picture.) As my friend Donna pointed out, I am in the upper left corner, an important corner. 

Inside the theatre, I was greeted by a woman at a reception table as "one of our poets." I stuck a name tag to my sweater which read, "Mary Edwards, Poet." From the name tag hung a red ribbon which read "I AM THE POETIC VOICE OF KING COUNTY." Well, really it's me and 365 other poets, including my friend, the poet Kathy Paul. On a balcony in the reception area a band played, and each of the 165 poems rolled, lit, onto the wall. Some folks drank wine. The place murmured with energy.

Ann held my hand, helping me weave through the crowd into the theatre, where we found seats for ourselves and our friends. Fairly quickly, the place filled and I could hear Somali, Vietnamese, Russian and Spanish in the crowd. On stage, my friend the poet Roberto Ascalon approached the lectern to begin the ceremony while the band "Love, City, Love" played. 

Thirty-five poems were organized into five "chapters" that told the story of coming home: coming up the walk, fumbling with the keys, opening the door, stepping inside and dropping my bags, and resting in the place I call home. Poets approached the mic, and each read a poem of less than 50 words--some in English and some in the four most common immigrant languages in the county. Between each chapter, Love City Love played with a poet. 

The first man who read, a man of Indian descent, rolled to the mic in his wheelchair, and I warmed with the welcome of a disabled person. One older woman entered the stage in a golden Vietnamese dress and read her poem in Vietnamese. Afterwards, another local poet who is bilingual read the poem in English. When Roberto introduced Carlos, a boy perhaps in middle school or elementary school, I saw Carlos's head as he stepped out from the curtain. When he saw the crowd, his eyes widened and he quickly disappeared backstage again. Later in the performance, Korvus Blackbird, a very, very tall black man with a stunningly deep voice came on stage with his arm around young Carlos, who sobbed through a poem about fighting with his younger brother.

Some poems were funny, and others made me cry. Some were clever and others earnest. The evening's variety embraced and went beyond the many languages and poetic traditions. One of my favorite poems was a haiku that went something like this:
Grandma loves haiku 
That never make any sense.
Another favorite described cleaning a loved one's home in her absence--perhaps they had broken up--using parts of speech in surprising ways: "I washed your adverbs down the disposal." 

I didn't perform at this celebration, though I did get to perform at a bar during Lit Crawl a few weeks ago. Friends came that night, too, and it was powerful to hear the audience's response, its exhalation when I read the last line of my poem:


Like catfish at the
MLK and Cherry corner:
Grits and y’all,
lightning cracked the skies.
on the #3 I bounce:
Benaroya to Harborview
To home.
Riders board:
A tourist without change,
Ladies in sun-dresses and leather boots,
Gents plugged-in and tuned-out.
Me, with my bus pass:


One aspect of this experience that I love is the current trend of removing poetry from academia and returning it to the voice of the people and the places where the people, we commoners, gather. 

The poet Richard Blanco, who was Obama's 2012 inaugural poet, also calls for a national movement where poetry is embraced as the language of the people and the great poets are honored as they are in Cuba, the land of his birth. 

My winged words box, a postal box painted by my friend Karen with images of birds and butterflies, into which I place poems for passers-by and sometimes they leave poems for me and for one another, is a part of this spirit. 

You can read some of these poems on the rapid ride buses in King County. You can also read a new poem every day for a year at http://poetryonbuses.org and you can read the poems you've missed at http://poetryonbuses.org/poem-archive/ You can read my friend Kathy Paul's poem on April 3. Mine you can read (well, you just read it), and see my portrait and hear me read on June 15.

Don't worry. I'll remind you. 

Sunday, November 9, 2014


These days our church services end with the congregation singing in a round: "Shalom chaverim, shalom chaverim. Shalom. Shalom. Lehitraot, lehitraot, shalom, shalom." In case you're not up to speed on your Hebrew, that's, "Farewell, dear friends, stay safe, dear friends, have peace, have peace. We'll see you again, we'll see you again, have peace, have peace."

Yes, let's have peace, you and me. But how? I really don't know. This unknowing was one of the meanings of Pastor Karla's sermon, "Unfinished Business" today. The sermon drew on the story of Moses, the Israeli leader who took his people into the wilderness on a journey to the promised land of milk and honey, a land of peace. Though Moses was a good guy throughout the journey, maintaining his commitment to God when others were seduced by praying to a golden calf and hording food, and though Moses even met God face to face, Moses got to wander in the desert for 40 years and got to see over the river into the promised land, but did not get to enter that land. He had to die instead. That's a long journey to take without having the satisfaction of arriving at the destination. Pastor Karla's admonition: Shalom is the pursuit of peace, the pursuit of the dream. Our reward may be in the living, not in achieving the goal.

The sermon brought to mind some of my favorite words from a martyr for peace and justice in El Salvador, Oscar Romero:

It helps now and then to step back and take a long view. The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
 it is beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction
 of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
 Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of
 saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one
 day will grow. We water the seeds already planted
 knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects
 far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of
 liberation in realizing this.
 This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
 It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
 a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's
 grace to enter and do the rest.
 We may never see the end results, but that is the
 difference between the master builder and the worker.

Oscar Romero did not live to see peace and justice at the end of his spiritual journey. There is not yet peace and justice in that land where my friends live. And yet, I wouldn’t say he lived or died in vain. He lived for what was right, in a way that was right, like his forerunner Martin Luther King, Jr. leading the dream for peace and justice in another land that had not yet become a land of peace in his time and has not still. Martin Luther King’s words ring with truth like Oscar Romero’s. MLK said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Similarly, Pastor Karla exhorted us, “Don’t give up on the dream. Pray for it.” That is, we may not reach the goal—if it’s a big goal (and it is and should be)—in this life. In fact, she didn’t say this but I will: this world may never reach that goal of a land of milk and honey, a land of peace and justice. But our call is to live in the way of peace, in the way of shalom.

The lesson reminds me of my mantra, words to myself in my final year of teaching: Do the right thing, even if it doesn’t make a difference. The difference, it seems to me, is in the living. The rest is up to God, or the spirit of peace, or the Oversoul, or whatever you want to call it.

In those days when I get too busy with my projects, I am forgetting this call to peace. I am forgetting to walk humbly with my God. I think it’s up to me to make the world God’s world. Then I forget that God made the world already, a gift, and my most important response is to breathe and to feel the crash of the ocean in each exhalation. My most important response is to live in peace and to live for justice. And to know that I am small on the world’s timeline, that I am biggest in the way I live with those around me and in the way I live for a more just world. Not because I’m going to make a peaceful and just world. Because that is the way to live.

Which is another way to say, live every moment. Breathe every breath. Hold every hand that comes my way. Open my heart.

"Farewell, dear friends, stay safe, dear friends, have peace, have peace. We'll see you again, we'll see you again, have peace, have peace."