A Photograph of me without me in it

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

Friday, December 23, 2016

Would I? Would you?

Last week, Ann and I went to the film Loving, the story of a white man, Richard Loving, and his Black wife Mildred, the plaintiffs in the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia, which invalidated state laws prohibiting interracial marriage.

A taciturn man, Richard speaks only a few sentences in the two-hour film. When asked by an attorney if there's anything Richard would like conveyed to the Supreme Court, he says, "Tell them, I love my wife." 

Pretty simple, really. And yet the two were pulled from their bed, jailed, banished from Virginia for 25 years, threatened with violence, and briefly taken from their children. Hard to believe, but Ann and I were struck by the similarities between their experiences and those of so many GLBTQIA persons. It’s terrifying what fear can drive people to do, and it’s amazing what people can be convinced to blame for their fears. 

With Trump’s election, his appointments, and his ongoing tweets, I am afraid for how vulnerable to fear mongering we seem as a country, and I worry about those who may be blamed for the fears. I wonder where we will find the light in all this darkness.

As a person who goes to church (I don’t often call myself a Christian because of all the connotations that label has that don’t apply to me), I remember the unjust world that Jesus was born into and the ways that he challenged his society. I remember that his parents were immigrants in the land where he was born, that the king wanted to kill him even as a child, and that the state did finally kill him when he was an adult.

In a recent radio story on children’s perceptions, a father told the story of his daughter wanting to know the story of Jesus, so he bought her a children’s Bible, and they talked about Jesus’s birth and his message of love. A few weeks, later, they passed an image of Jesus on the cross, and his daughter asked, “Who is that?” The father told his daughter that he hadn’t told her the whole story of Jesus’s life and told her that, though he was a man of peace, people in power had felt threatened by him and so they killed him. Two months later, she wanted to know about Martin Luther King, Jr., and her father explained that he had been a peaceful man who fought for justice for people of color. She thought about that and asked, “Did they kill him, too?”

Yes, it seems that we people are too likely to kill those who call us to peace with justice, even to kill our world. This is a dark time, and there have been and still are so many other times and places of darkness: Syria, Darfur, Palestine, Germany or countries invaded by Nazi troops in WWII, El Salvador, American slavery, violence against GLBTQIA persons, The Crusades, The Cherokee Trail of Tears, and the list goes on, seemingly endlessly.

The fact that there have been so many other times and places of darkness does not make me feel better about this time and place, and though I read about making peace with the darkness and understand the concept metaphorically and in the long term, the right-now reality of what the darkness holds—death, fear, and terror—worries me.

The potential ramifications of Trump’s election have me thinking apocalyptically, a way that many Americans were thinking as they voted. According to the book Strangers in Their Own Land, the Pew Research Center found that 41% of Americans think the second coming will definitely or probably come by 2050 (and 41% thought it wouldn’t.) If the Second Coming is nigh, I suppose the logic goes, why bother to care for the earth and the people not yet born. Why worry about nuclear proliferation when total destruction will be coming anyway?

The question for me now is what will I do in this dark time? A Jewish woman born shortly after WWII recently told the story of a game she and her siblings played as children: “Who would hide us?” The question keeps echoing in my ear. In what may be a Fourth Reich, the question cannot be rhetorical. Would I? Would you?

My little church is asking itself this question now. A small group of us decided recently not to post a banner welcoming refugees and immigrants until we know what we mean by “Welcome.” Do we mean those afraid and outcast are welcome to have a cookie and a cup of coffee and worship with us, or do we mean something more substantive than that?

Of course, the question of what to do in an unjust world has been before us for some time, perhaps for all time. In a recent Seattle Times article by the self-proclaimed data nerd Gene Balk, Balk estimates that there are 200,000 empty bedrooms in Seattle that might be used right now to house so many homeless on our streets. Ann and I have one of those rooms. It’s right across from our bedroom and would not be a private space for a guest or for us, which makes it inconvenient. After all, we like our life together, just the two of us.

And so, we wonder, “What will we do?”

Friday, November 25, 2016


Monday, I led my last poetry reading session at an assisted living facility. I have been leading the club for 16 months: I have loved it and have loved the elders, but I’m ready for a break. Fortunately, one of the people who works at the facility will now take it on.

Each week I’ve collected poems that I think they might like around a theme of interest to them. This week’s collection I titled, “Giving Thanks” and I included poems that either they introduced me to or I will think about differently because of them. (There are of course more of those poems than we could read in an hour, so I’ve snuck many in the last two weeks, too.)

We read James Wright’s “The Blessing,” a gentle poem about a man’s encounter with horses that will always remind me of Sheila’s gentle nature and love of horses. Next we read the humorist Dorothy Parker’s poem “One Perfect Rose,” a poem that May Lynn introduced me to and fits her literary sense of humor. That poem also reminds me two longer humorous poems from residents: Robert Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” that will always remind me of Geoff, one of the first members of poetry club, a man with a subtle sense of humor; and Ernest Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat,” that reminds me of Frank, a man with a full-bodied laugh who lived eight years in a Japanese internment camp and was one of the few of his regiment to return from World War II.

Then there was a poem from Zelda, “Leisure” by William Henry Davies: “What is this life if, full of care, / We have not time to stop and stare.” I’ll always hear it in her South African accent. Though I’ve known for years Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” I’ve never heard it read so beautifully as by Ada, who at 97 often angers other residents because she doesn’t hear well and doesn’t have much of a social filter. The first time Ada read the poem, the other residents who had often scowled at her burst into applause. To close the session we read Yeats’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” after which I’ll never forget Kaylin exclaiming, “Now that’s a poem!” Finally, I read Charles Reznikoff’s poem of thanks, “Te Deum” and finished with a reading of William Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” a favorite poem of all of theirs which they (and you) may call simply, “Daffodils.” I printed that poem so that they could take it back to their rooms with them. I carry it in my heart with me. I remember a discussion about those beautiful images we carry with us when we are melancholy: light on the water, the swishing sound of a river, and the peeling paint on an old barn. I most remember Frank saying that when he thought of something beautiful and joyful he thought of his lovely wife of 63 years, whom we had all known until her recent death.

Though we have usually ended with a song, and I’ll never forget Pearl dancing to “You Ain’t Nothin’ but a Hounddog,” this week we ended with Judith’s expression of gratitude to me and chocolate cupcakes. Judith has meant so much to me since I met her: she doesn’t deal with the cognitive issues that most residents do but experiences pain from arthritis and ongoing heart problems. I love her feisty spirit: her insistence on those who work there respecting all of the residents for their amazing stories and continuing humanity. Judith is a thanksgiver. This time, she said, “You have changed my life.” About six months ago, she told me, “You have reminded me of a part of myself that I had forgotten.” Frank yelled out, “Bless you.” And others contributed similar blessings. Afterwards, many of the residents came up to say a personal thank you. Earnie kissed me on the cheek: a gentle kiss that will remain with me.

I am a thanksgiver, too, and being thanked means a lot to me.

As I left the room and headed for the stairs, Geoff’s daughter, a bit younger than I am, chased me down (not hard to do as I hobbled with my cane), saying she wanted to thank me for how much this club has meant to her 97 year-old father. She's in a family of thanksgivers.  As she talked, I remembered her mother Anneka, who was sick with cancer when I arrived last June. At that point, Anneka slept most of the day, used an oxygen tank and a walker, kept her eyes closed, and was mostly non-verbal. I only ever heard her speak two words. One day after I’d spent some time in their apartment talking with Geoff about poetry, she opened her eyes wide, and said, “Thank you.”

Though I am tired and ready for a rest, my heart is full of gratitude.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Fixing, Helping, Serving and...

Helping, Fixing, Serving, and…

Last week, a young woman who works at the Assisted Living Facility where I lead a poetry group, told me about an article by Rachel Naomi Remen called “Helping, Fixing, or Serving” and I've been thinking a lot about it. The article's premise is that Fixing and Helping are functions of the ego whereas Serving is work of the soul. It's only three pages if you want to read it: https://www.uc.edu/content/dam/uc/honors/docs/communityengagement/HelpingFixingServing.pdf

I worked in schools for 27 years and always thought of my work as service. When I drafted an application to the University of Washington's School of Social Work four and a half years ago, I used the word "serving" to describe my work "serving students and families living in poverty, many of them refugees from other parts of the world." Every time I used the word "serving," my friend Ellen, who gave me feedback and suggestions, inserted a question mark. I changed “serving” to “teaching.”

The article made me feel good about myself. I was in the habit of serving, but something about it has been gnawing at me. As I think about the article now, I think there's more than service. I think this next step may not be so much about working as about being. Maybe the next step in the soul is in being with. 

The thought brings to mind Albert Camus' oft-quoted words: "Don't walk behind me; I may not lead. Don't walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend" (though I'm pretty sure he said it in French.)

Maybe this explains Trump’s election, an election that baffles those of us on the left who cherish helping and serving (not so much fixing, I don’t think, but maybe I’m wrong.) Maybe those who elected him did so not because they thought he would help, serve, (or fix) them, but because they sought someone who would walk beside them.

Our minister had an informal potluck for church members who wanted to connect after the election. Many in the group had lots of ideas about what to do next. I’m sure there will need to be a lot of doing, but for that moment (and this one), I needed to stop first and just recognize the reality that I have been missing: too many people in our country have not seen themselves mirrored in the federal government: they have not seen people who understand their lives and will walk beside them.

During the discussion, I kept thinking about the mantra of so many conservative Christian teenagers about ten years ago: WWJD? “What would Jesus do?” they asked. I’m asking that now.

I can’t figure the answer, but I do remember that one of the names for Jesus is “Emmanuel,” which in Hebrew means “God with us.”

Maybe God understands that we crave someone walking with us, and maybe that’s something we need to understand about ourselves.

I’ve learned this lesson before. Perhaps I learned it first in a health project in Michoacan, Mexico, in my twenties where other Americans and I dug latrines but the real meaning was in the connections with people from another culture. I learned it again in Guarjila, El Salvador, where Salvadoran friends thanked us for being with them and told the story of an American who was with them for a time in Honduran refugee camps. Because she was always working and never stopped to laugh with them, they knew she would only be there for a short time. And again I learned it in SeaTac, Washington, where I tried to walk with students even as I taught them reading and writing. Indeed, walking with them might have made the teaching possible.

One of my favorite moments at that school did not occur at the school: it occurred on a march down Seattle’s streets as I shouted for immigrant justice. A student who marched ahead of me and who would soon disappear from my world looked surprised to see me, waved his hand for me to join him, and put his arm around me, inviting me to walk with him. Come to think of it, his name was Jesus (pronounced “Hey Seus” in Spanish).

Don’t get me wrong: bigotry and discrimination are not ever okay. But I wonder what I need to be listening to right now.

For now, I’m replaying words from Pablo Neruda’s poem “Keeping Quiet” (originally in Spanish—here are two stanzas translated by Alastair Reed):

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

The last stanza reminds me of a sign in front of an ocotillo in the desert Southwest: “Dead or Alive?” Though the ocotillo looked at the time like dead sticks in the sand, I later saw that with a bit of water those sticks would flourish with a gazillion little green leaves and a bright red flash at the end of each stick. What looked dead was in fact alive.

So perhaps there will be a resurrection, a return to living, if I can learn to be silent and listen: not silent about injustice, but silent in order to listen.

How will I know when to be silent and when to speak, when to act? I just don’t know. As my Irish taxi cab driver said to me years ago: “Aye. There’s a conundrum.”

Wednesday, November 9, 2016


Last night, Ann and I watched early, disturbing results from the national elections, and then we took a break to have dinner. It was clear that it would be a long night. Before we ate, we held hands and said our nightly blessing: “Dear God, Remind me that all of life is grace. Let me respond in gratitude.”

Usually, this prayer takes me to my heart’s home, the place where I remember all that is lovely in the world. Last night, however, I remembered this prayer after my first brain tumor diagnosis: the thought that “all of life is grace” felt like an admonition to one who is doubting, and—now as then—a knot formed in my throat.

After dinner, we returned to the television. Results continued to worsen. I could hardly stand it, so Ann agreed to watch an episode of the show “Friday Night Lights” with me. Things weren’t going well for Coach Taylor and his players, either. We returned to the election reporting.

As the election results rolled slowly in, I couldn’t just sit and watch like my partner Ann. As we watched together, we sat close and held hands, but when I couldn’t stand it anymore, I had to get up, go away from the television, and seek words of comfort.

The first time, I went to Facebook, and alternated responding to friends’ posts with a sad face and an angry face. The second time, I went to my friend Becky and her pastor’s “completely unorthodox devotional guide,” What’s a Nice God Like You Doing in a Place Like This? Becky wrote the first devotional about spotting God during a dermatological exam. Her gentle and amusing details, like the doctor examining her fingers in the same way her son Ben did when he was young and bored at church, gave me respite. We went to bed with the likely scenario that Trump would be our next president and woke up to its confirmation.

This morning, after an awful election season and last night’s stunning results, I am still seeking solace. As I woke, I was thinking of two poems: one, Pablo Neruda’s “Keeping Quiet”; the second, Yeats’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.”Perhaps they’ll give you solace, too:

Neruda’s poem I always read on September 11 in memory of that awful day in 2001 when planes flew into New York’s twin towers. The call to stillness reminds me of all the pain in a world that is too active and in its activity, too destructive. It calls me back to being and breathing. I don’t think it’s in the public domain yet, so I’ll just provide a bit and you’ll have to find the rest by yourself
And now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
. . .
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
. . .
Now I’ll count up to twelve,
and you keep quiet and I will go.

The second poem, Yeats’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” my elders and I read together in our poetry club yesterday. Elders commented on the longing in this poem, the seeking for a home that resonates with the deep heart’s core.

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

I hope to feel at home again in my country, and I wonder if Trump won because too many people were not feeling at home in their country. How will this become home for us all when it seems to me right now that for some being at home means making sure that others aren’t there—or at least aren’t visible in all their humanity? I’m guessing I will be reading a lot of poetry over the next four years.