Wednesday, December 02, 2009

before I head for my nice warm bed tonight

I need to tell you that it is cold here, nearly freezing, and it is raining outside. The dog is refusing to go out in the weather. And there are people sleeping in tents near the highway on the edge of my town because they can't afford to live in a house or an apartment. And they are there illegally, trespassing on public land, so they are cold and homeless and they are always afraid that the police will come and tell them that they have to leave. It is wrong, and it bothers me, and I don't know what to do. But I thought that I should tell you. It is freezing cold and it is raining and people I know are sleeping in tents near the highway. I don't know what to do.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

30,000 more troops to Afghanistan

Shame on you, Barack Obama, and on all the generals who insist that more killing and more dying is going to help Afghanistan and make us all safer . The big fools. Once again, Pete Seeger speaks for me. God bless Pete Seeger. If he were dead, he'd be turning in his grave:

Monday, November 30, 2009

first sunday of advent

Clear off the table and lay a purple cloth under these words. It is the beginning of our new year. It is our great chance to step into liturgical time and out of this other time that is increasingly ordered by the forces of commerce and delusion. "The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light." My knowledge of Isaiah comes not so much from reading the Bible as from hearing and playing those passages in Handel's Messiah. "Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people,.....make straight in the desert a highway for our God." The words and melodies are part of my biology after all these years of learning them at the piano, rehearsing with singers and choirs. Now the songs are my way in--the entrance to Advent for me. When I encounter the same words in my Bible reading, I greet them as old friends, and they point me deeper into the texts I barely know.

Last night, I pulled the Advent wreath out of storage. It is a plain circle of straw and wire, with four unvarnished wooden candle holders attached to it. I stepped out into the rain and cut a few sprigs of low hanging pine from the tree that towers over our house. I walked over to the old holly bush whose life has been spared for this purpose, the first night of Advent, and I cut a few leaves, not knowing for sure what I was getting in the dark. Inside, I wired the damp greenery to the wreath and added the beeswax candles, thinking of Peter from the Farmer's Market, who rolled the beeswax into candles, and who may have raised the bees, but I'm not sure.

More music in my head, a recording of renaissance music, women's voices in an echoing church: "Gau-de, gau-de, Em--man---u-el, shall come to you o, I---sra-el."

My little family of three gathered at the table and we said the prayers and lit the first candle, light in the darkness.

I love the darkness of Advent-- the anticipation, the preparation, the nothingness. This weekend, visiting my mother-in-law, I picked up one of her National Geographic magazines and opened it to a picture of a group of Orthodox monks holding candles in the dark. The caption said that they regularly rose to pray in the middle of the night because they believe that these are the hours when "the heart is most open." So here we are, at the darkest time of the year, and we too, are offered the gift of open hearts. I am praying to wake up, to not lose this great chance to listen in the darkness, to be open, and quiet, and unafraid.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

repatriating Buddha

The day after my father-in-law died
I saw your familiar head in the grocery store
cast in grey plastic resin and sitting, of all places,
on top of a grass-skirted display labeled "Tiki Bar"

Buddha, they made a joke of you
They put you in a silly, south seas,
party tableau

Maybe you didn't mind, as you are an awake Buddha,
but I am a groggy Christian,
and my Buddhist husband was grieving his father,
and I couldn't bear to see you like that

I did what any good Samaritan would do
for a Buddha left to languish on the Tiki-Samsara highway
I set you carefully in my shopping cart
between the frozen pot pies and the organic bananas

You cast your compassionate gaze on everything
as we traveled past pool supplies and pet food,
through the land of entertainment centers and leather sectionals

There was no inflatable bodhi tree in the seasonal aisle
but we found an empty sofa table that looked like an altar
I placed you in the center of it and made a quick bow.
The man at the seafood counter pretended not to see us

You looked happier there,
bigger than before and more finely wrought
you seemed at peace, finally
after so many years of infirmity

The sea of impermanence rose up and carried me away from you,
toward the check-out and the parking lot,
the evening meal and the funeral home

Attention Kroger shoppers:
Great is the matter of life and death
Thirteen items or less is sufficient
Do not waste this moment

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

all glory, laud and honor

Today's message from the universe comes via Thomas Merton, who writes in Praying the Psalms:

"To praise God! Do we know what it means to praise? To adore? To give glory? Praise is cheap today. Everything is praised. Soap, beer, toothpaste, clothing, mouthwash, movie stars, all the latest gadgets which are supposed to make life more comfortable—everything is constantly being "praised" with the official hollow enthusiasm of a radio announcer. It turns out in the end that nothing is praised. Praise has become empty. Nobody really wants to use it. Are there any superlatives left for God?"

I am talking to my husband about Thomas Merton and praise and reflecting on how much praise he (my husband) was required to accumulate in order to get tenure and keep his job as a university professor. The whole place runs on praise and merit and external validation. It's a Buddhist's nightmare (and not such an easy place to be a Christian either). My husband reminds me of the Rilke sonnet that begins, "Praising is what matters!"

I think about movie reviews and book jacket blurbs and desserts that are "to die for" and singers whose voices are "transcendent, " and I start to wonder if Rilke is right, if praising is what matters, and then I worry that maybe there is a finite amount of praise alloted to each of us, or all of us, and that maybe we are squandering it on all the wrong things. Really, are there any superlatives left for God? Can we take back "awesome" for starters?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

truth and beauty

It appears that I am the last person in North America to hear of Susan Boyle and to watch the youtube video of her performance on Britain's Got Talent, the British version of American Idol. The media loves her story. The words used in the press to describe her are invariably some combination of "frumpy," "spinster," "middle-aged," "never-been-kissed" and "unemployed." The big story they want to tell about her is that this frumpy, middle-aged, unlovable, unemployable, unfashionable person turns out to sing quite beautifully and "astonishes" the judges with her musical talent. We are all supposed to be dutifully chastened by our foolish presumptions and to learn the lesson that you can't judge a book by its cover. We are also supposed to be glad for Susan, who has "risen like a phoenix from the ashes" and been "transformed" by the experience.

Bullshit, and more bullshit, I say. The real story is about our collective ugliness, not hers. And the ugliness is ongoing. The radiant Ms. Boyle, who walked on stage to the derision of the audience and the judges was only redeemed for them by an extraordinary show of talent. Suppose that she hadn't sung very well after all? Then who would she be to us?

A beautiful person. A child of God, that's who. Watch the video again, and see how gorgeous she is before she even opens her mouth. She doesn't need to prove anything to us. Do you get it? A Susan Boyle who can't sing is every bit as miraculous, every bit as deserving of our respect and encouragement as a Susan Boyle who can.

I am fat and frumpy and middle-aged, and I don't sing as well as Susan Boyle. I have God-given gifts just like everyone else, but they don't redeem me, they don't make make me more or less ridiculous than another person, and they are certainly not the price of my admission to the family of humanity. What saves Susan Boyle, what saves you and me, is the simple fact of our place in the universe as children and heirs of the One who is Pure Love.

The degree to which we need a Broadway-level performance to convince us of the beauty and worthiness of a fellow traveler in this world is the degree to which we are small and ugly and mean and desperately in need of the grace of God.

I will tell you this once more (again with thanks to my friend Hysnishah, who told it to me): Our mission in this life is to polish our souls until they shine so much that God's own face is reflected in them. And Susan Boyle, if you look at her, she is shining, even with the sound turned down. She doesn't need anything from Simon Cowell and neither do you.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Fourth and Walnut

I only came across this passage from Thomas Merton in October and was so struck by it. Maybe you have already read it? In any case, it resonated with me strongly. Today at Mass, our dear visiting Jesuit, Father Norm, mentioned this episode in his homily and it made me want to share it with you too:

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. ...

It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake.

I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
-From Conjectures of A Guilty Bystander (1966)

I struggle so much with what I really ought to be doing with my life, with how to be in the world, and the last line of this excerpt really gets me, because that is what I have always wanted to do- to tell people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. Maybe that is why I like it so much at St. Leo’s —the people there seem to have some humble inkling that they are shining like the sun, and they are not afraid to tell each other, or to hear it from someone else.

And my dears, let me tell you what Thomas Merton told me and I know in my marrow to be true: You are shining like the sun. Shining.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Christmas letter

Forgive me, dear friends, for I have sinned. It has been eight years since my last Christmas letter. During that time, I have: become a peace activist, failed to complete my dissertation, become a lapsed peace activist, been a pretty good mother, recognized an incipient internet addiction, started a blog, found a church, lost forty pounds, gained forty pounds, gotten a dog, joined a gospel choir, stayed married, lost friends, and made a few new friends. In my spare time I have been cultivating an awareness of the interconnection of all things, and I recently bought a fixer-upper dollhouse at the Treasure Mart to serve as my meditation space.

2008 was a good year. My husband had two pieces played at Carnegie Hall, one of which he performed himself. I was really proud of him, and it was thrilling, really thrilling. I hesitate to mention this in our Christmas letter, because I don't want it to sound like I'm bragging, but it was a Big Deal for our little family and I'd be lying if I didn't say so. Two trips to New York, and new clothes and everyone applauding for E. and his music getting some attention and parties to celebrate, and snow, and skating at Rockefeller Center and E. feeling good about himself and his work, and that was the best part. We got to meet Terry Riley and he seemed kind and genuine, which you don't get so much from your famous composers, and that was reassuring.

I'm not bragging, because I didn't really do anything, except put out a nice buffet for the performers when they were in town to rehearse, but still, this is what happened to us in February. It was so magical that you could almost forget about all the killing in Iraq and the soldiers coming home dead or worse and how we are all responsible for that, every minute.

The wars have been heavy on my mind, but I know that some of you are embarrassed or confused by that, so I compromised last year and the year before that by writing about the wars in my Christmas letters and then not sending the letters out. When the thought of all the senseless suffering gets to me too much, I eat something and I feel better for a minute.

My daughter is nearly ten now, and she is learning things and she is lovely. Again, not that I'm bragging, really. She has her challenges. Still, she is playing sonatinas and dancing jigs and reels, and she has a healthy sense of the absurd and she can clap on beats 2 and 4 when it is required, so I am grateful. I'm scared about what is ahead for her. I worry all the time if we are doing enough to prepare her for adult life in this weird and desperate world.

I am still teaching piano lessons and I've gotten quite good at it, despite my limitations as a pianist. When I have the house to myself I practice the student repertoire I never learned and I play gospel piano in as many keys as I dare. St. Leo's church in Detroit is my heaven on earth and the people there are my heroes and my role models. They shine like the sun. They are hurting for money there, by the way. I'm just sayin'.

I want to wish you a happy new year, I do wish you a happy new year, but for some of you, I know that this will be a sad new year. I know that some of you have lost family members, some of you are depressed, some of you have cancer. I want you to know that I know; that it makes me cry, and that if you are up to a happy new year, I do wish it for you, along with peace in your heart.

I wish we could have peace on earth. I think we ought to all be working toward peace on earth. I think I ought to be working much, much harder for peace on earth. I am a hopeful person, but so far, Obama's appointments have been a disappointment, so I see that it is up to us, still.

That about sums it up, I guess. If you haven't heard from me in a while, I probably miss you a lot, and love you. I don't write so much, because I don't want to offend anyone, and because I am lazy with some perfectionist tendencies.

Happy winter celebration of your choice, happy coming of light, Happy New Year, deep peace.


Saturday, June 14, 2008

Song without words

"Kosovo's parliament has chosen a national anthem during a special session in Pristina.The new anthem is called Europe. It has no lyrics and was written by the Kosovo composer Mendi Mengjiqi. " -BBC News, June 10th, 2008
A national anthem without words for a new country that might be better imagined first without language.

"Gjuha jonë, sa e mirë! Sa e ëmbël, sa e gjerë!"
["Our language, so good! So sweet! So vast!"]

Say something in Albanian and I am five years old again, the oldest granddaughter, sure of my place in a world of aproned women, and cigar-smoking men. "Q' është e bukur!" they say, and pinch my face. It means that I am beautiful. They say it to all the children. Only the Albanian-speakers say that I am beautiful. Perhaps I am only beautiful in Albanian.

Say something, anything, in that language and I'll start to cry, even if I don't understand it. The people who loved me in Albanian are dead now. In my new family, we love each other in American English, a language that lacks the enthusiastic self-regard and co-extensive patriotism of Albanian. For me, English is our instrumental-only national anthem, a little bit bland, but not without possibility. Gjuha jonë sa e ......?

In Kosova, newly independent, the new anthem is unlanguaged, and the new flag is light blue, like the sky. The old Albanian double eagle is missing, flown away in search of the blood-red ground he has always known. On the new flag, and in the new song, there is room for something else, for a new family, for multi-lingual memories. This is right and hopeful. And more than ever, the old language makes me cry.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

New York on five transcendent moments a day

Chapter 1:
In which a charming shoe shine man outside of the Hotel Newton cons me out of three dollars and I am filled with joy and lightness of a surprisingly long-lasting nature...

Chapter 2:
in which my daughter and I enjoy a walk with a Dear Friend in the North Woods of Central Park and come upon an highly amplified hockey rink....

Chapter 3:
in which the music of my true love makes everyone cry and his face is shining...

Chapter 4:
in which the St. Leo's Gospel Choir mysteriously appears on stage at Carnegie Hall during a performance of Mahler's Fifth Symphony and floats over the orchestra briefly before transfiguring to dazzling white and disappearing in glorious and sudden surrender to the Spirit, leaving the audience disconsolate, with only the vision of a tortured Viennese composer and his heavily articulated pain to see them through the next fifteen minutes of their bewildering lives, which, ten seconds earlier, had made perfect sense; had made them want to lift up opened hands and shout "Amen!" as their playbills fluttered down from the balconies to the mezzanine below and the performer bios, program notes, and upcoming events were all forgotten and people in neighboring box seats embraced each other tearfully and laughed out loud at the coming of Peace on Earth, at long last...

Chapter 5:
in which my husband, my daughter and I ride the sixty-foot indoor ferris wheel at the Toys R Us store in Times Square and pretend, for the sake of the child, to be Normal People who are not in the least appalled at anything....

Sunday, November 18, 2007

lone magi

Today after church, we were sitting near the front of the sanctuary waiting for the choir rehearsal to begin. Up walks a man I'll call Frank. He is a sweet man, perhaps mentally ill, or maybe developmentally handicapped. At our church what matters is that he is a beloved regular parishioner. He has a habit of asking an odd question and then walking away abruptly as soon as he gets the answer. When he sees me, he usually points at my daughter, and asks in an urgent tone, "How is she doing in school, is she doing okay?" I always answer that she is doing very well, to which he nods gravely before turning quickly away.

So today, Frank approached this young man in our choir, who we'll call Reggie. Reggie is a good-natured, constantly smiling person. He has a had a difficult life sometimes, from what little I know. Frank bent down until his white beard was almost brushing Reggie's smiling face, and in his formal, serious way, announced:

"I'm looking for Jesus of Nazareth, do you know where I might find him?"

I smiled because we had just finished having mass and we were sitting there in our glorious romanesque sanctuary where Jesus is depicted hundreds of times all around us in the statues, stained glass, and ceiling frescos.

Reggie didn't take even a second to think.

"Look in the mirror."

Frank raised his eyebrows and pointed at his heart.

"He's inside of me?"

Reggie nodded. "Yes he is."

Frank thought about it for a moment and then bowed.

"Thank you."

Then he turned around and walked away in a hurry.

Things happen at my church that defy commentary. I am always wanting to make a poem out of what happens there, but so many moments arrive already full of poetry and then there is nothing left to record but the gratitude.

And I am grateful.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

holy day of obligation

I woke up wanting to go to Mass
until I noticed that the church websites were insisting that today is a holy day of obligation
When the church gets all paternal like that, I become a rebellious adolescent.
In the next moment, I remember that today,
like every day, is a most holy day of obligation.
I'll go to mass tomorrow, when I am not obligated.
There are a million other ways to make this day holy.

Friday, October 05, 2007

God's paradise

From a radio interview with the former doorman of the Plaza Hotel:

"You know, my father told me years ago ... 'Be such a man and live such a life that if everybody lived a life like yours, this would be God's paradise.' And I go by that."

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

stopping the bombs in Oakridge, Tennessee

I came home from Oakridge tired from the sun and two days on the bus and the emotions.

Buddhists from a Zen temple in Asheville, North Carolina, led the march. Their leaders wore saffron robes and they all carried small drums which they played as we walked. Two miles later, at the entrance to the weapons plant, it looked like we were making a Spielberg film. Protesters in colorful, rumpled clothing with handmade signs stood on one side of the gate with the chanting Buddhists. On the other side, fifty feet away, their faces made blurry by the waves of heat in the air, police in flak jackets stared us down from behind their mirrored sunglasses as police cars, SUVs and an armored military vehicle made a another barrier behind them.

I am describing the scene to my husband and my daughter. I tell them how the Buddhists were chanting the entire time at the gate, beating their drums in slow time as their leader chanted a call and the others chanted a response. "But why were there so many police?' my little girl wants to know. "That's a good question." I say. "To protect the bomb factory from the Buddhists, I guess." She laughs out loud. Her dad is a Buddhist. She knows that Buddhists do not harm anyone.

I am trying to make it sound ridiculous, because it is. I think that if one of us had suddenly jumped that gate, the police would have killed that person, the protection of the bomb factory being more important than our lives.

As I describe the protestors and the police and the factory officials staring at each other in the 95 degree heat, my husband says, "It makes you wonder who the protest is for." My husband is a composer. He is wondering about the lack of audience.

I know who it is for. It is for those of us whose taxes pay to make nuclear weapons that can destroy all five boroughs of Manhattan in a second. It is for the people of the town of Oakridge, Tennesse, where radioactive waste from this factory of death has poisoned all the water and threatens the health of all the residents. It is for the ones who survived the weapons of mass destruction that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and for those who did not. It is for the pilot of the Enola Gay, who didn’t know better until it was too late for everyone. It is for me, in my helplessness and complicity. It is for anyone who needs to stand in front of the place where they manufacture the potential for mass killing and say to no one, “This is not me. This is not me. This is not the way I am. I am some other way. This cannot be me. “

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

tuesday morning in cross village and schenectady

(my friend sings in public for the first time
in years and I am not there)

Looking west, the distance from this porch
to the lighthouse is about two miles.
To the north, the fields roll out to forest
and the treetops make a jagged horizon.

The world is big enough here,
framed by great lake and great lake sky,
a space in the center for coyote, cranes,
and the deer who watch us and stamp their feet at the house.

Beyond this place could be anywhere,
any language or way of living.

The gravel drive disappears into trees
and I am thinking now that on the other side
of that stand of oaks
(if I could just see ten yards further)
must be the place where
the driveway becomes a path which becomes the sidewalk
which runs past the front of your house.

A humming bird was hovering uncomfortably close to my head
this morning as I drank coffee.
The pair of cranes in the yard were dancing frantically
to chase away the deer.

After two days here, you start to get some small notion
of what has been missing,
what got lost.

You fantasize about disappearing into the woods,
about planting yourself up to the shoulders
in the field next to the apple tree
and waiting for what comes next.

And yet, like I said,
just past the edge of what the senses know,
there you are, an old friend,
as necessary as an early morning coyote sighting,
or a generous length of blue lake,
and as welcome, as far removed from daily life,
weekly life, monthly life.

Come Sunday, I will be home again,
walking the dog on city streets, checking the mail,
listening to a familiar mix of
cardinal calls, construction, busses on the half-hour.

In northern Michigan,
the cranes will be leaping,
the wind will continue to blow the field grass and birches,
and they will make a sound like waves.

At the far end of the driveway there,
past the tunnel of trees,
my old friend will be singing her songs
to a café of well-wishers in upstate New York.
She will be smiling in that way she has,
where she looks like she has just heard
an especially satisfying joke.

I won’t be there exactly,
but from the place I am obliged to be,
I should be able to glimpse the light from the café window,
and to hear her last notes fold into the dark
as they mingle with the rattle of sandhill cranes
and the howl of coyotes,
the soundtrack of what matters.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

long walk

If you had been outside this morning
you would have seen me walking the little dog
and I would have smiled at you,
but I know you weren’t there.
The porches and sidewalks all empty on this sunny day
in my Midwesternville neighborhood.

Which is why we took the rest of our walk in Harlem.
Women sitting together on the stoops say “Good morning.”
Old men in suits nod a greeting as they pass you,
even in the rain.

If you had stepped outside an hour ago,
you would have seen me and the little dog,
moving lonely past tomato plants and wild roses and summer lawns,
toward the subway station at 125th St. and Lenox
and the noise of car radios and delivery trucks
and mothers with babies and young women with fancy fingernails
and people everywhere, alive, together.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The age of reason

(for Gerry Sellman)

Two days past her first communion,
the white dress
a puddle of shiny organza on the floor,
she wants to know
why we never see any women priests
at church, not even one.

Because they’re not allowed, baby.
No women allowed.
That’s why.

I watch the truth seep in like slow poison
until she squints up at me,


Her voice is so strong.

Shout it again, wise child.
Shout it until the force of your disbelief
makes deaf men hear.

Shout it out loud, bright girl
until they let you whisper
in the center of the sanctuary,
arms upraised and face upturned,

Behold the Lamb of God,
who takes away the sins of the world.

Behold, lambie mine,
he will take away this sin.

Where justice begins
there is a word,
and the word is from God,
and the word is


Come Jesus,
free your eight-year-old girls.
Only say the word and we shall be healed,
we shall all be healed.

Monday, May 21, 2007

What would you do

if someone you barely know
someone nice
walked right up to you
and gave you a present
a book about writing
because you needed a book about writing
and so this person
who is a poet, ( a good poet)
whose name you've only recently learned
went to the bookstore just before she knew that she would be seeing you
at the Buddhist poetry reading
and she paid $13.00 plus tax for this brand new book,
(and you know that is a lot of money for a poet)
and she presented it to you with a big warm smile
What would you do?
Would you write a mushy thank you note
(and worry a little about the quality of your writing)?
Yes, you would.
Would you feel good all day, and the next day because now there seems to be one more person in the world who cares about you and your writing?
Yes, you would.
Would you read that book and let the good counsel work on you until you couldn't wait to sit down and write?
Yes, you would do that.
Would you feel a little more hopeful in general, because some people can be surprisingly nice and generous?
Would you vow to become the kind of person who might want to buy a brand-new book for a near-stranger?
yes. You would.
Would you sit down and write and write and write and feel unafraid?
Yes, you would.
you might not post the best stuff on your blog
right away.
or ever.
You might be a little more patient and careful about what you write and when you share it.
You might start to wonder about blogging.
and other kinds of writing.
And what's what.
You might need to wonder a little bit.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

every one of us is every one of us

33 people shot to death on a university campus in Virgina.

The BBC news is reporting that every South Korean is feeling
great shame because the gunman was born in Korea. The reporter says that Koreans in the United States are bracing for a "backlash."

When a Korean kills 33 Americans, Koreans are ashamed.

If a Korean kills 33 Koreans, are Koreans just as ashamed?

If an American kills 33 Americans, are Americans ashamed?

What if an American kills 33 Iraqis? Are Americans ashamed?

What if an American drops a bomb on an Iraqi city and the bomb kills 33 Iraqis, or maybe 33,000 Iraqis? Are Koreans ashamed?

What if an American kills everyone at a wedding in Afghanistan?

What if a young man from Michigan kills all the children at a day care center in Oklahoma City? Are Michiganders ashamed?

What if a dozen or more men from Saudi Arabia kill 3000 people in New York City? Are Iraqis ashamed?

What if a man from Texas orders teenagers from Ohio, West Virgina, Mississipi, North Dakota and Florida to kill thousands of people in Afghanistan and Iraq. Who is ashamed? Are Texans the most ashamed? Should the Dixie Chicks be ashamed?

What if the law did not permit an unbalanced college student to buy a gun that was made to kill human beings in great quantities and at great speed? Would there be any shame in that?

At my daughter's school, the public address system quietly broadcasts the special code words that every adult and child in the school has memorized. At the sound of those words (I can't tell you what they are) the teachers pull down the shades and lock the classroom doors. Then every 5-year-old, every 12-year-old, every Korean-American child, every African-American child, every Christian child, every Muslim child, every soft-cheeked, giggling, fidgeting little boy and girl hides under the trapezoid-shaped tables for the "lock-down" drill. They are learning that they must be prepared for the day that an angry man with a store-bought gun and store-bought ammunition comes into their school to try to kill them, their classmates and their teachers until the gunman himself is shot to death as the surviving children watch.

My God, I am so ashamed.

Monday, April 09, 2007

fair trade first communion

If I were a visual artist (instead of a "Draw Binky" drop-out) this essay would be a photographic collage. There would be sepia-toned shots of earnest, pretty girls in their fussy white first communion dresses. Maybe I would sneak in a self-indulgent picture of my own daughter, dressed like a little bride of Christ. All around those angelic girls would be photographs of the over-worked Chinese women who sew first communion dresses in factories a thousand miles away from the department stores where mothers like me go to buy them for our daughters who will wear them the first time that they are permitted to hold God in their outstretched hands.

It would probably be too much to try to depict the women who risk their health to bleach the fabrics to that unearthly white that my daughter and every other Catholic girl I know have come to associate with the "princess for a day" style of dress that is now a prerequisite for an American first communion.

I would want the piece to be subtle, not preachy. I would need to obscure in some artful way the bald reality that a lot of misery gets sewn into the clothes we wear. People suffer and get sick and live away from their families so that American children can have closets full of cheap, flashy clothes. You just can't hit your viewers over the head with that information. They will turn you right off. You've got to dance around the truth, have some compassion for your audience.

So, a collage. Well-fed, laughing girls in tiaras and shiny white satin, posing with well-fed priests, and well-fed aunts and uncles and bewildered, well-fed parents, who seem saddened by how very natural their daughters look dressed as brides, even at eight years old. Add a few bits of lace; we'll call it mixed media. And then the garment workers. Thousands of them, no, millions of them (maybe I need to re-think the dimensions of this piece). Grainy photographs of thin, dark-haired women and teenagers crammed into small rooms. Let them stare down the camera. How to show that they work seven days a week and cannot sleep or use the bathroom when they need to? Maybe a picture of the cots in the dormitories where they live and bathe and rest during the few hours when they are not sewing sequins on my daughter's clothing? Can I say that they make less per month than I spend on my daughter’s piano lessons? Or that some of them are living as indentured servants? This is asking a lot from a collage.

My daughter will make her first communion next month. She will hold Jesus in her hand. Body of Christ, the priest will say to her. Amen, she will say, just like they told her to in rehearsal. My father will take a picture of it, even if they tell us no pictures.

My mother wanted to buy her a first communion dress. She wanted to give my daughter a special shopping trip where they tried on a dozen dresses and my daughter chose The One, the very best One and whirled around admiring herself in it and said, oh thank you Nana, it's beautiful. I wanted that too, I suppose. But the collage wouldn’t stop taking shape, and my innocent, dewy daughter's face kept getting juxtaposed onto other, less innocent, less hopeful, but still beautiful faces.

I said to my girl, "Sweetie, you know the first communion dresses that you see at the store, well, a lot of them are made by people who don't get paid enough money to live, and who don't have a safe place to work, and have to work way too much, and..."

and she interrupted me and said,

"..and if we buy those dresses, it's like we're supporting it. "

That made me proud, I won't lie. I guess she's been paying attention. I started looking for a first communion dress that was not fashioned from the mistreatment of poor people--people who, Jesus says in the Bible, are really just him in disguise. The irony of it is about as subtle as a hit in the head, no?

I found a nun in Cleveland who trains women from poor parts of the city to sew organic clothing and to participate in a worker-run cooperative called Esperanza Threads. She said they used to make fair trade first communion dresses that didn't hurt anybody, but nobody wanted them because they were not dazzling white and shiny and poufy like every girl's Barbie fantasy first communion (okay, I added the Barbie part, but that's what she meant).

Then I called my brother, who works at a Catholic church and I said let's find a source for fair trade first communion dresses and we'll get all the churches on board because who wants their kid to receive the body of Christ while she's wearing sweatshop clothes and,.... and he said that no congregation he knew would be willing to make that kind of shift in their thinking, even if they understood about the sweatshops and the bad karma in the dresses, and how the workers can't go to the bathroom and maybe I should think about more practical kinds of clothing.

And so I found myself staring at a website that specialized in first communion dresses--dozens of shiny, poufy, sparkly, shimmering, lacy, dreamy dresses and it said that some of them were made in the USA. I wrote to the company and asked about how they treated their workers and where in the USA did they make their dresses? They wrote back assured me that their non-imported dresses are sewn in their well-lit facility in Idaho, and it is heated in the winter and cooled in the summer and the workers make above minimum wage and the family of owners works right there too and everybody is happy happy happy. I don't know if this is true, but I wanted it to be true, and my daughter needed a dress.

Of all the fancy dresses pictured on this website, my daughter was only allowed to choose from the ones that were manufactured in the United States. That reduced the pool considerably, but she found one she liked. It had a name. It was called Shaylee. Shaylee cost twice as much as the same kind of dress from J.C. Penney. My mother is going to pay for it. As best as I can tell, the women who worked on Shaylee were paid an hourly wage that is probably not great, but not shameful. I am assuming that they were able to use the bathroom when they needed to and to return home at night to their families. That's what I think, but I'm not sure. Someday I’ll visit them in Idaho and see for myself, and I’ll say thank you for your fine work on these lovely dresses and I’m wondering, can you tell me, which way is the bathroom?

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Tabhair dom do lámh

In the ‘hand-winding’ system of the Irish sean-nós, a sympathetic listener grasps the singer’s hand; or, indeed, the singer may initiate first contact and reach out for a listener. The singer then might close his eyes, if they are open (sometimes he might grope for someone, like a blind man) and appear to go into a trance; or his eyes, if open, might focus on some remote corner of the room, as if his gaze could penetrate the fabric, and take him to some antique, far-off happening among the stars.
- Ciaran Carson from Last Night’s Fun: In and Out of Time with Irish Music

I won't pretend to understand how Irish sean-nos (old style) singing works, but I saw it once, the real thing, I think, in a pub on an island in the west of Ireland. This pub was full of tourists and regulars, all settled in for the afternoon with their pints and sandwiches and nowhere better to go. I remember songs being sung, and perhaps some dance tunes being played. Maybe two couples got up and danced a set to the tune of Sally Gardens. One particularly extroverted singer was holding court in the center of the room. He wore a sequined baseball cap and an expectant grin. He sang a short, silly song about never counting your chickens "when you're dealing with the women." I think a lot of us were singing along on the chorus, but I can't be sure now.

When he stopped singing, the pub quieted down and attention began to focus on a shy-looking woman seated in a nearby chair. She looked uncomfortable and mildly distressed, as if she were suffering from some temporary affliction. She closed her eyes and stretched one arm into the air behind her head, reaching out for comfort, or courage (it seemed to me). The hand of another woman found hers and the winding began. The woman standing behind the singer began to turn the singer's hand slowly, the way I imagine you used to have to turn the crank on a victrola to make the music happen. Slowly, slowly, the turning brought the singer around to the song, or the song around to the singer--a song that would not be released until a sympathetic hand helped to wind it out and around us fortunate listeners. Fifteen years later I am still grateful to that singer for her song, and to the woman standing behind her, the owner of the turning hand.

Sometimes our songs won't come out. Maybe we get wound up too tightly and we need a gentle hand to unwind us. Or perhaps it is that every creative act, every song sung, every poem set down is a collaboration among the turned and the turning. We grope blindly for the hand that will pull us of out of ourselves, reconnect us with a community, give us a reason to sing the song we carry in our innermost core and to believe that it is sufficient for something. And we are all turners of hands, bearing the responsibility for the safe passage of one another's songs.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

intermission, with red sauce

(gentle readers: the events surrounding the exile of my pastor last month have apparently been traumatic enough to knock the creative wind out of me, temporarily. While I am getting my groove back and unmixing my metaphors, here is something I wrote last year. It was a response to the wonderful Recipe Narratives of A. Massey, and in that way it is really about interdependence as much as it is about spaghetti sauce.)

Red Sauce Stories (for Massey)

Waiting for the red sauce recipe that is the Meaning of Life, I remind myself of my own little stories:

Story No. 1: The story of how quickly the feudalism, Italian words, Albanian words, poverty, separation, loss, struggle, war, humiliation, alienation are erased and forgotten by the very next generations until all that remains is the food and memories of food. And a very few songs.

Story No. 2: Once upon a time there were no recipes. There was The Way We Do It. And there were many wrong ways, all of them outrageous and deliberately provocative and shameless in their wrongness.

Story No. 3: By your sauce shall you be known. What kind of people are we? We are Not the kind of people who: Put sugar in their sauce. Put carrots in the sauce. Put wine in the sauce. Put anything less than two kinds of meat in the sauce. Sicilians put sugar in their sauce. We are not Sicilians. But we liked the Godfather. But we're not like the Corleones. They probably put sugar in their sauce.

Story No. 4: The story of the gallons of sauce in my grandmother's freezer that my parents rationed out for a year after she died, so that on any given Sunday at their house you might find yourself still being fed and loved and fussed over by my beautiful dead grandma. Bonus story: On the day we buried her, a hundred or so people gathered afterwards for lunch and on every table there were baskets of sweet bread that my grandmother had baked and kept in her freezer to give to people she loved.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

on losing more than Bishop Gumbleton

First they came for the homosexuals, and they threw them out of the seminaries. No gays need apply. Got a complaint? Go get in line over there with all those women who want to become priests. And I wondered how I could remain Catholic in the face of such bigotry.

Then they came for the heterosexuals, but just the ones using birth control, which would be most of them under the age of 50, including me. And they said, stay out of the communion line. Just sit quietly in the pew with your gay friends, because Jesus’ body and blood is only for people having unprotected straight sex or no sex at all. It says so in the Bible, or at least in some document we recently made up.

And by the way, they said, if you disagree with us on any of the big doctrinal stuff, you know, like ordaining women, or homosexuals in the priesthood, or how to reduce the abortion rate, then once again, the communion table is closed to you. We invite you to shut up and go sit down with the gays and the selfish birth control users and re-think your position. Don't make us come back there and excommunicate you.

And as bad as I felt, as mad as I felt, I also felt relieved because at MY dear little open-hearted Catholic parish, I knew that my homosexual brothers and sisters felt welcome. I knew that no one there would be checking my purse for Trojans or worrying that I had been thinking for myself again. What I knew I would find at the front of the communion line was my pastor, Bishop Gumbleton, smiling at me as if he were seeing Jesus himself, and calling me by name: “Suzanne, the body of Christ.“ Amen. I knew that I would hear from my pastor the same message that he preached every week: that we are called by Jesus to transform our lives in order to bring about God’s kingdom on earth,--a kingdom where all of God's children live through peace and in peace, where all are treated justly and with dignity, and where no one wants for the basic necessities of life. That kind of vision can keep a person in the Catholic Church.

And then they came for my pastor. The official Church told him to get out of our parish. They kicked him out of the little room he lived in at the church too. Problem? They said? What problem? Just normal procedure. You’re just too old, nearly as old as the pope. Thanks for your fifty years of service. Good luck finding an apartment, and, uh, we’ll certainly call you if we ever need a priest who talks about serving the poor and stopping war and healing the victims of sexual abuse. It’s a good shtick, really, but it’s so, um, Vatican II, so forty years ago, so Oscar Romero, so expensive.

And now there is nowhere left to go, nowhere to hide from the reality of what the Catholic Church is becoming. Bishop Gumbleton says that we (including we homosexuals, we married people using birth control, we victims of sexual abuse, we women who want full participation), WE are the living body of Christ. He says that we need to remember this now more than ever. He doesn’t say to leave the Church. He doesn’t say, get a clue, can’t you see how unwelcome you are, how they keep trying to push you out? He says that the hierarchy is not the Church. He says that all of us are the Church. At least that’s what he said the last time he was allowed to stand in front of us and preach the good news of Jesus.

We lost so much when we lost Bishop Gumbleton at St. Leo’s Parish in Detroit. We lost any remaining trust we had in the compassion of the church hierarchy. We may lose the beloved community that has formed over the years around Bishop’s message of peace and justice. We lost a wise and caring guide on the path of Jesus. I pray that we do not lose the soup kitchen we run in our poor neighborhood. Like Bishop Gumbleton, we have lost our home. For some of us, St. Leo’s was the only place left to go, the only place where we could worship and grow as progressive Catholics, where we felt accepted the way that God made us, where we could pray for an end to all war and be challenged to stand with the poor as Jesus did. There may be other places like St. Leo’s, and there may be other pastors like Bishop Gumbleton, but the message from the official Church is clear: They do not want our kind.

They didn't even give us a replacement pastor. They gave us a part-time administrator priest with another full-time job. The whole thing was probably an ugly surprise to him too. For the next two months, we will have a parade of visiting priests to say Mass. I thought that the church leaders would be content to crush Bishop Gumbleton, but it appears that the archdiocese wants to quietly destroy our parish as well. Those of us in the pews may indeed be the real Church, but at St. Leo’s, we are a hurting, broken church with an uncertain future. For some of us, it got a lot harder to be Catholic last week, to be the Church we feel called to be, and it was already pretty hard.

Friday, January 26, 2007

on losing my pastor

Jesus says in the gospel of Luke that " A prophet is not welcome among his own people." I always wondered about that passage. It used to feel to me like Jesus was indulging in some uncharacteristic whining. Today, I am thinking that Jesus was giving us some pointers on how to identify the real prophets among us.

On Sunday, my parish, St. Leo's in Detroit, found out how very unwelcome our beloved pastor, Bishop Gumbleton, is among his own in the Catholic Church hierarchy. The Cardinal of our archdiocese, apparently acting on orders from the Vatican, has forced Bishop Gumbleton to leave St. Leo's against his will and against the will of his parishioners. You can read about it in the New York Times today or in the National Catholic Reporter. The bishop is apparently being punished for his advocacy for sexual abuse victims, although the official line from the Church hierarchy is that Bishop's forced removal is just the way they normally treat healthy, dedicated inner-city pastors who reach retirement age and want to keep serving their parishes.

St. Leo's is a poor, but spirit-filled parish. We operate a soup kitchen that serves nearly two-hundred people a day. (You may want to pause at this point and reflect on the fact that there are two hundred people in the neighborhood of my church who need to come to a soup kitchen.)

The decision to remove Bishop Gumbleton from St. Leo's puts the very existence of our church and the services we provide in jeopardy. St. Leo's is an unusual place. There are parishioners from the surrounding neighborhood; there are families who have a long history with St. Leo's and return from the nearby suburbs to maintain those ties, and then there are many of us who were initially drawn to St. Leo's by the strong message and example of Bishop Gumbleton, but who ended up staying for the extraordinary community and spirit-filled liturgy we found there as much as for Bishop's challenging and timely teaching.

We are a wonderful anomaly among Catholic parishes--we are economically, geographically, and racially diverse. We have chosen to be together. We learn from each other. We eat meals together. We sing loudly at Mass. At the sign of peace, we move through our beautiful sanctuary and we greet each other like the family that we are. It takes a long time. Our mutual obligation, as Bishop has given us to understand it, is to work for peace and justice in order to bring about the reality of God's kingdom on earth--the kingdom where God's children live through peace and in peace and where no one wants for the basic necessities of life.

Today is Bishop Gumbleton's birthday. He is 77 years old and in excellent health. We have known, of course, that we could not keep him forever. We are also aware of the priest shortage. (Apparently it is hard to get enough priests from that narrow pool of straight, conservative, Catholic men who are willing to take a vow of celibacy). But this wasn't the way my Bishop's relationship with St. Leo's needed to end. We wanted to get old with him, to keep learning from him for as long as we could, to care for him as he cares for us and then to find our own way to keep the parish alive. Maybe we would have found a priest from another parish who was willing to pastor us as well and to continue Bishop's work with us. Maybe the parishioners could have taken more responsibility for running the church and the liturgies. Maybe, maybe, maybe.... but for some reason that no one will tell us, there was an urgent need for Bishop to leave us, to leave the cold little room where he has lived for 23 years and to get out immediately.

Here are the two things that hurt the most: First are the official lies and half-truths from the archdiocese (the archdiocese I support with my tithes, the one that represents my Church) that suggest that this is all very normal and that every bishop is forced to retire and give up his parish, even when there is no new pastor available (we are getting a new "administrator" who apparently will not be saying Mass for us regularly.) The second is the feeling that none of us at St. Leo's are really welcome in the Catholic Church anymore, that this trauma we are experiencing is inconsequential to our leaders. They were willing to hurt us to hurt our pastor. Some of us are still reeling from that realization. What kind of Christianity is this?

My Catholic Church has impoverished herself needlessly by rejecting Bishop Gumbleton and his message. I don't know how to respond right now except for this: I will continue to make the long drive into Detroit on Sundays with my daughter to pray and to worship with my beautiful St. Leo's community, (see the love letter to my church choir below to read how gaga I am for their contribution to our celebration) and I will try harder to be the follower of Jesus that Bishop asks each one of us to be. In the absence of my Bishop, I will do more to imitate his example.

Bishop Gumbleton is still my teacher. Canon law has no jurisdiction over my heart or conscience. Happy Birthday, dear Bishop. Thank you for everything you have given me and my family. God bless you and keep you close as you continue to show us all how to live like Jesus.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

when the power went out

the house got very cold, and I got sad, and I couldn't sleep,
and I worried about the coldness of my daughter's head and the lack of fat and fur on our little dog
and about how we would all get through the second night when the warmest room in the house was at 41 degrees and falling
and eventually, we took the dog and the child and got the hell out.
But that isn't what I want to write about.
I want to write about before that,
about how our house, which in another century
had been comprised of one large room with a fireplace,
returned to its origins and we moved everything important
(not very much)
into that one room and we settled on the floor in front of a smoky fire
and huddled under blankets
and the dark came early and candles burned on the mantle
and three people and a dog kept each other warm
and my child's face became even dewier and curvier and much too beautiful in the firelight and the world narrowed agreeably down to that makeshift bed, my three beloved beings, and a lukewarm cup of tea made in a thirty-two-year old fondue pot.
For a few hours, it was enough. It was a feast.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

on not being allowed to receive communion anymore

Well, this time it's personal. The American Catholic bishops have been after homosexuals for the last couple years and have barred them from the priesthood and from heaven and from communion, and have done everything but lock the doors of the church against them (unless they promise never to have sex, ever, and to repent of ever having had sex) and of course I have been outraged and ashamed. Still, solidarity is one thing, and shared misery is another. Now the bishops, who are clearly thinking way too much about sex, are telling us that if we use birth control, or if we have a serious disagreement with the church on doctrinal matters, that we should not receive the body and blood of Jesus in communion, because, I guess, Jesus was a little more picky than we thought about who could come to his table.

So it's a new feeling to have joined the ranks of the non-communicants. I've been very sad about it until just now, when I realized that I am in good company. Practically the whole darn church has now been banned from receiving communion. The party has clearly moved outside. And, now that I think about it, given a choice between standing with the outcasts or hanging with the brocade-clad in-group, where would Jesus want to be?

I've got it easier than most Catholics. I think that I am still welcome at communion at my funky, happy, defiant church. It's an unusual place. The pastor there thinks that Jesus welcomes everyone. I think he read that in this book he's always carrying around. At other churches, though, where they listen uncritically to the bishops, even when the bishops are spouting dangerous, cruel, divisive nonsense, I will either have to stay in my pew during communion, or be a liar and and a hypocrite. It is going to be a tough choice. I think Jesus will miss me. I will miss him. Luckily, he always seems to know where to find me. It is really hard to lock up Jesus's body and blood and to keep him away from his followers. I read about that in a book somewhere.

Friday, November 17, 2006

sandhill cranes

Something about those birds got to me. They were quiet and brown, and apparently lacking in worldly ambition. They didn’t move when it started raining. They stood there like it was their true vocation and calling to be standing on a pile of dirt getting wet for the whole afternoon. There was something going on inside those birds, but they weren’t going around shouting about it.

There are singers in Ireland who have one song they sing. Just the one. It doesn’t come out often and it doesn’t come out easily; you’ve got to be there at the right time, and the air in the room has to be just right and then you’ve got to be paying attention, because it only happens once and when it is over, it is like it never happened at all

That’s how it was with the cranes. I was looking out the window and they were brown birds in the rain, barely moving. Then one of them spread his great long wings, fanned the air a few times and leapt several feet off the ground. Just the once. It was a dance. It was the honest-to-God crane dance and I saw it from my window. It was just for a moment, and not really for me, but I saw it.

They’ve got a song, too, those cranes, and it’s really loud. After I heard it for the first time, I spent a week trying to make the same sound. I harbor certain small ambitions like that. I am plain and brown and quiet, but I do not keep my secrets as well as a crane. I will not hesitate to sing you my crane song, even if it embarrasses us both.


I can do the dance, too.

Friday, November 03, 2006

love letter to my church choir

St. Leo’s Choir, I love you. It’s time I told you. I carry you with me everywhere. Yesterday, I thought I heard you singing in a parking garage downtown: “WALK in the LIGHT/ the beaut-ti-ful LIGHT/come where the dew-drops, of MER-cy shine BRI-IGHT/oh—ohh—oh--” It was all I could do not to clap my hands and shout out loud as I walked to my car. Maybe I even did. I get like that when I think about you.

St. Leo’s Choir, you make our church into an honest-to-God Place. You take our beat-up, divided-up souls and sing them back together. You put me right with God and the world each and every week. God and I are very grateful to you. I am not kidding. St. Leo’s Choir, you stop looking at me like that. I mean it.

I’m always wanting to give you something, but I never know what. You sing like you have everything. I hear you reaching down past places of pain, of grief, of hope, of disappointment. I hear the loud, defiant, transformation when you exhale and the sound is joy, the sound is unbroken life, the sound is Jesus, and the sound is moving fast and it is moving outward and it catches me up in its unhesitating embrace.

St. Leo’s Choir, do know about Qawwali Sufi rituals in Pakistan? There is no reason why you should, except for this: When the devotees are particularly moved by the music and the words of the sung mystical poetry, they express their gratitude to the musicians by showering them with paper money. You should see the faces of those business-suited men as they throw their money into the air and let it rain down on the heads of the musicians in a show of joy and gratitude and release. They look ecstatic. Because they are. Ecstatic. Like me. They are in a place of oneness, of no-separation and the musicians are the ones who got them there.

Here is a secret, St. Leo’s Choir. Every week, when I am at Mass, and you are singing, my heart goes on overload and my soul leaves my body. A transparent version of me floats right up toward the front of the church, right up to the keyboard and the guitar and the microphones. In each hand, my transparent soul-self carries a large, fanned-out stack of dollar bills. I don’t know where she gets all that money. She is smiling. The transparent me looks you in the eye, and as the verse ends and the bring-it-on-home chorus comes around again, but louder, those dollar bills fly up over your heads and flutter down around you like a thousand legally-tendered thank you notes.

Blessings on your heads, St. Leo’s Choir. Blessings on your throats, blessings on your hearts, blessings on your joyful noise. Now you know.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

happy birthday to me

Not today. A different day in the recent past. I know four other people who share my birthday. This year, on our birthday, I woke up thinking about all of them at once. We were all born in different years. We are composers, singers, peace activists, nurses, parents, married, single, old, young, bald, not bald, grandparents, writers, clarinetists, pianists, visual artists, Japanese, American, New Yorkers, Michiganders, students, teachers. One of us is a warm, gentle peace activist who has a son who is blind. One of us is a selfless and hard-working nurse who is helping to raise her grandchildren. One of us is a deeply talented composer who recently had a Famous Musician refer to him (admiringly) as a "bad-ass motherfucker." One of us is a beautiful artist who fell in love with a dreamy man from another continent and left everything familiar to be with him. One of us likes to make meaning out of coincidence.

Here's the thing: Everyone is connected. You can hear that over and over and you can read what Chief Seattle said about it and you can go to a Christian church and hear that we are all brothers and sisters with the same divine Parent and you can believe with the Buddhists in the essential unity of all things.... but sometimes, it helps to take a bunch of nice people who all share your same birthday and invite them to an imaginary party in your head and then sit there with them. Sit there and wonder what it means to have the same birthday, and wonder what else you have in common, and realize finally that you have everything in common---that there is an immense and orderly web of connection that is shimmering and alive, but mostly invisible, and, while a shared birthday is maybe not such a big deal, it still illuminates one slender, joyful filament of something much larger and more complex, the invisible secret of our interdependence. Happy birthday, dear ones. We are all bad-ass motherfuckers. In the best way.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Separate but miserable

The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.

Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.


The city of Toronto has a beautiful motto: "Diversity our Strength." It almost makes me want to move there (until I remember what February is like in Toronto) --not just because it is home to people of diverse backgrounds, but because the city actually recognizes this convergence of colors, ethnicities, and perspectives as a source of power.

In my home state, Michigan, an out-of-state millionaire has brought his money here to wage war on affirmative action and any other public program that would provide outreach or aid to a particular ethnic or racial group, or to any one gender. He and his followers think that a constitutional amendment banning any sort of race-based or gender-based programs would make things more "fair." What it will really do for me, of course, is to make things more "white"-- things like: my town, my university, and my daughter's public magnet school (where the ongoing efforts to attract more families of color would be made illegal by this amendment).

This sort of color-blind "fairness" only looks fair if you use the most severely limited lens--the one that does not see the past or the future or even the present reality where, clearly there is nothing "fair" about what has happened or what continues to happen to people of color in the United States.

I want this awful anti-affirmative action proposal to fail spectacularly. I need affirmative action for selfish reasons. I am white. (I would say that I am caucasian, but I have a dear friend from Azerbaijan and she is an honest-to-God Caucasian, but people often see her curly hair and broad features and think that she is part African-American and the whole thing just makes me feel silly about calling myself "caucasian.") My daughter and husband are white. Most of the people in my town are white. "Lack of Diversity Our Weakness." We could engrave that on the city hall. Still, my small town is more "diverse" than most, and more welcoming of diversity, when we have the chance.

I grew up in Cleveland, where lots of African-Americans live, except that I never saw them, unless you count whoever I could see from the inside of a locked, fast-moving car. The Cleveland of my childhood was one of the most segregated cities I have ever seen, and people there were afraid of each other. I lived in Cleveland and several of its suburbs for most of my first eighteen years, and I never spoke to an African-American person during that time. I never saw an African-American child at any of the huge public schools I attended.

My experience, many years later, is that this de facto, but aggressively enforced segregation (and the fear and bigotry it inevitably produced in all of us who were affected by it) has left me with a profound and constant feeling of grief--the same grief of separation that Rumi says draws us toward union--union with the divine, union with all things, union with all beings, union with all people.

I became aware of this grief only when I started to feel its absence; when I was finally given the opportunity to meet and to care about people who were not white. I noticed after a while that what I felt, and what I feel every week when I go to my beautiful church with its congregation of many colors, is relief--relief to cross the divide for a while, relief from my segregated life, relief from separation, the joy of union.

There are plenty of reasons we need to keep reaching out to and helping people who have not historically or presently been given the same help and opportunities that white men have always had, but I am thinking today about my own selfish reasons. I am thinking about the unfairness of it all. I am thinking that I grew up surrounded by a rich African-American culture and all I got was fear and ignorance. I am thinking that my daughter deserves better. My daughter deserves the strength that comes from diversity. I don't know why an out-of-state millionaire wants to take away her chance to live and study with people who are not just like her. It doesn't seem fair. To anybody.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

impossible gardens, part 2

I live in a three-bedroom house next to an old cemetery. Beyond the cemetery are some very small condominuims which used to be low-income housing, until affordable housing started to disappear and gentrification set in. Beyond the condominiums, further down the street, is a big apartment complex. I used to live there. The apartments are generic. White walls and brown carpeting. The management takes good care of the grounds, which are landscaped with highly-fertilized sod and identical, low-maintenance, non-flowering plants at the entrance to each building. When I lived there, there was no sense of community, except for the one time the power was out for four days and one of the older neighbors invited everyone to a barbeque at which he served all the meat that had thawed in his freezer.

There are no balconies or patios attached to these apartments, and no private green space where a person could set a chair or a potted plant. It is clear from the layout of the buildings and the parking lots which they overlook that one is expected to go from one's car to one's apartment and to do all of one's living inside the apartment or Somewhere Else.

So you can imagine that the garden that appeared there last night seemed quite miraculous. We were walking past the apartment complex on the way home from the river when we spied it-- an oasis of vegetables and flowers and herbs growing like crazy in dozens of lovingly-tended pots amidst a desert of asphalt and beige brick. There should not have been space for a garden there, but somehow there was. It was so audacious and so wonderful. We laughed out loud and moved in to get a closer look. We found the gardener, trimmers in hand, hidden by tall fronds of happy greenery. He told us how he had started all the plants from seeds in the middle of winter, tending them under grow lights and giving over most of his small apartment to the project. He described how people would stop by on their way into their apartments to help themselves to a tomato or two. We left with a baseball-sized kohlrabi and the feeling that something good was happening around us.

Maybe every garden is an act of hope, and these days, an act of resistance. More gardens. More growing things.

Monday, July 31, 2006

I want to know the names

of the children who died at Qana yesterday. If you look on the web, you can find the names of people who died when the same town was attacked in 1996. You will find eight-year-old Ibrahim, five-year-old Zeinab and her sisters, three-year old Haneen and one-month-old Maryam.You will find the young brothers Ali, Fadi and Mohamad, as well as seven-year-old Hamza, and little Fatima. They've been dead ten years now.

I want to know the name of every mother, father, son, daughter, cousin and neighbor who died yesterday and was pulled out of the rubble created by American-made bombs. Most of all, I need to know the names of the children. I am in mourning. I want to know how tall they were when they were alive and what they were wearing and how many teeth they had lost up until yesterday and what kinds of jokes made them laugh. And then I want someone to tell me if 34 more dead children is enough yet to call for a ceasefire, or if it is strategically necessary for a few more children to die this week. I want to know those names too, the names of the children who will die tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. And this: How tall are they now, and how many teeth have they lost? What color eyes do they have? By what endearments do their parents call them?

My daughter is seven years old. I call her "beautiful child," "dolly," "baby," "darling girl," "lovey," and a dozen other tender and silly names. She will tell you proudly that she is 52 inches tall. She has lost six teeth. Her eyes are brown. Her name? To me and her father, it is the most beautiful name in the world. The best one we could imagine for her. Like music. Like love. Like Zeinab...Haneen...Maryam...

Sunday, July 30, 2006

I will take every chance I get

for a glimpse of Dr. King's "beloved community." That is why I drive forty minutes into Detroit to be part of the celebration at my extraordinary church every Sunday. Rich people, poor people, Black people, White people, Asian people, Hispanic people, trying to be Jesus for each other and clapping and praying together. "This is what heaven's gonna be like, " someone told me once during the service. I hope so.

And that is why I will be standing at yet another peace vigil tonight in my town. This one is to call for peace in the Middle East and an immediate cease-fire. I could get depressed at the seeming futility of a few hundred lefties in a liberal college town preaching to the choir. I could wish that the message of the organizers were stronger and included a demand that the U.S. stop arming all the countries in the Middle East (or the world). The chances that this one vigil can change anything seem small, while the possibility that those of us standing out there on a Sunday night are going to look silly and self-righteous seems pretty good. But I'm going. I am going to stand for peace and I am going to go see some peacemakers and I am going to go get a booster shot of hope and if there are some people there with a positive vision for the future, for a different future than the one that our leaders have in mind, then I will help them to hold it and I will take it home with me. I am going because driving five minutes to attend a peace vigil in my safe, priviliged town is the least I can do. Literally, the very least I can do, but probably better than doing nothing. And if someone starts singing some old sixties protest song, i am going to belt it out with them on Main Street and we'll see if we can't summon the beloved community to appear for a moment or two. I ain't gonna study war no more, I ain't gonna study war no more, study war no more.

Monday, July 24, 2006

How many more children?

Shame on anyone, in any position of governmental power, who is not using every available microphone and legislative channel to call for an immediate cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah. Shame on the United States for proposing a 30 million-dollar humanitarian aid package to Lebanon while AT THE SAME TIME expediting shipments of bombs to Israel in order to ensure the continuation of the destruction on all sides. The unfathomable hypocrisy of this act vies with its futility. Shame on me and on all of us who pay our taxes to this corrupt and immoral U.S. government. Children are dying in the most horrific ways and we are footing the bill for most of the carnage. Those bombs have our names on them. Most of the dead are children. Children. Like my child. I am ashamed and heartsick. And I am very very sorry. How do we practice peace as if our lives depend on it? How do we practice harder?

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Your mail was bounced

It was tossed repeatedly in the air until it squealed with delight.
Your mail was then folded tenderly in a quilted blanket and rocked to sleep.
Your mail was sung to, fussed over and adored.
Your mail has never known such playful, joyful affection as it received today.
Your mail is being returned to you.
It is undeliverable, but not unlovable.
An error occurred.
It was no one’s fault. It was serendipity, really.
It was our pleasure to host your mail when the intended host was unavailable.
Here is your bounced mail.
May all its paths be peace.
May it know the compassionate heart at the center of every qualified domain.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Even when you are living a seemingly unremarkable life I seemingly am, small events that happen in quick succession will occasionally communicate with each other--argue with each other, even--until their conversation feels like another event itself. Several small things from this week seemed to want to be about each other. Three of them were e-mails:

1. a loving e-mail gift from my friend Catherine, which offered a link to a website called "May you be blessed."

2. another loving e-mail gift from another friend, which provided a link to an NPR site that included photographs of gardens made by people living in horrible conditions--Japanese internment camps, war zones, Nazi-controlled ghettos in Poland.

3. an e-mail was from a third friend whose daughter is reading a book in school entitled "How to be Perfect in 30 Days" My friend was flabbergasted because one of the parents of another child in her daughter's class has forbidden her child to participate in the reading project because "only Jesus can make someone perfect" and therefore the book must be immoral.

4a. my husband's ongoing, but increasing concern that our old house is literally falling apart due to age and neglect and his concurrent ongoing, and increasing frustration with its old-house features: lack of closets, low doorways, a wild and muddy yard.

4b. a visit to see some friends who have a lovely new house in a new-ish subdivision.

It all started with the e-mail from Catherine. I love Catherine- I admire her life experience and her wisdom, and I wanted to love this website, which was a series of blessings set against photographs of a pristine natural world. As I began to read it, though, I found myself bothered by a couple of the blessings, particularly one that read:

"May lack and struggle be always absent from your life"

I wanted to talk back to the serene photograph and the super-imposed type-face. I wanted say, "No thank you. I don't know why, but I think I need whatever portion of lack and struggle I'll be getting."

We've been trying to teach my daughter that happiness has much less to do with what happens to you than with how you respond to what happens to you (and around you).

Several years ago, my friend Stephanie and I took our children to a toddler music class where we were all supposed to sing this song at the end of each session:

"May there always be sunshine/May there always be blue skies/May there
always be Mommy/ May there always be me. "

At that time, our husbands were in the middle of the journey that would lead to each of them taking the precepts to become Buddhists, and so both of our households were very much steeped in Buddhist training and thinking. One thing we knew to our bones is the first noble truth of Buddhism: There is suffering.

Stephanie and I were both terribly bothered by this song, and Stephanie ended up trying to talk to the teacher about changing it. (No dice. The teacher was completely baffled) We felt like we were lying to our children- there would Not always be mommy, and there would not always be them, either. We felt that this was rather fundamental and essential information (of course this did not stop me from reassuring my daughter, when she was very little that, yes, even though everyone dies, that Daddy and I would live to be very very old)

So I was struggling with how to say to Catherine (who values directness and honesty) "Thank you so much for the nice blessings, and would you mind terribly if I exchanged one or two of them for something that fits me better?" when the e-mail about the gardens arrived. And the e-mail about perfection in thirty days. And we went to see our friends and we rejoiced in their happiness in their house which is just exactly right for them while I worried that my husband might be secretly coveting the clean new surfaces and the nice high ceilings and the non-crumbling foundation, and the attached garage and the smooth sidewalks that ran to the horizon along the neatly-edged sod.

And we came home and suddenly they all started talking to each other- the gardens, and the blessing and the impossibility of "how to be perfect in 30 days" and the problem of rigidity in religious thought and the neat lawns and me explaining to E. that I hoped he was not too jealous of that pretty, well-designed house because I really needed our unsteady old house in our messy old neighborhood. I know that most houses and yards are meant to deny the fundamental chaos and peril of human existence, but my heart leans toward mud and inconvenience, an absence of ninety-degree angles, a tiny trace of acknowledgement that our world is ultimately quite beyond our control, with depths of wildness and danger that will not be tamed by whatever surface order we attempt to impose.

And that's when those war time gardens raised their voices over the din to explain why they are glorious and moving and important: they are not denying the chaos and suffering around them- they are defying it at the same time they are embracing whatever beauty is to be found in their particular horrible situation- and that transforms the world. Looking at those pictures certainly transforms my world. Those gardeners appear to be blessed with exactly the things that Catherine's blessing would bestow on me and her other fortunate friends-joy, victory, beauty, order,assurance of a higher power-- and their gardens are a physical manifestation of grace that bless us all by their existence, however brief or distant.

Monday, May 01, 2006

St. Stephen Colbert

At the White House Correspondents Association Dinner. This is one of the bravest things I've ever seen:

After you watch it, you can send Stephen Colbert a thank you note here:

Monday, April 03, 2006


Found on e-bay while searching for something else. Written by an internet merchant who sells silver jewelry and other Thai exports:

"Hi, all. between 3 may 2004 to 3 july 2004 I am offline

I'm going to be monk

i'm going into monkhood. According to Buddism beliefs, mothers whose sons stay in monkhood for a few month will go to heaven after death.

I'm going to become a monk for a brief period. According to Theravada Buddhism teachings, a rite of passage, once a boy reaches manhood, is to become a monk, at least for a short time. He does this to create alms (good karma) for his mother because she herself cannot become a monk. This is one of the filial duties of a good son."

You can tell it is a good poem because it holds up to so many readings, from so many perspectives. Read it as the young man going into monkhood for a while and then returning (perhaps) to sell silver trinkets on e-bay. Read it as the mother who cannot become a monk herself, but is fortunate to have a clever and dutiful son. Read it as the Buddhist teacher who finds himself faced with endless waves of temporary monks who miss their cell phones and their computers and their e-bay customers. Read it as any woman of any religion who doesn't know why certain privileges and sacraments are only available to men. Read it as someone who wonders about the translation of the word "alms" as "good karma." Think about how your own country might be different if all the young men had to take a three-month sojourn into monkhood in order to cross the threshold to true manhood and to assure their mothers a place in heaven.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

war stories

There were a few moments after the planes hit the world trade center when we were permitted to indulge our collective shock and grief. Then the sad songs got abruptly switched off, and we were asked to turn our energies toward the dropping of bombs on people who were very much like us, only poorer. I figured that there would be a lot of people around me who would rise up and say, "No, absolutely not; we don't see the sense in multiplying 3000 deaths by several thousand more. "

I wrote an e-mail in those pre-blog days and I sent it to everyone I know. I don't have it anymore. The subject heading was "We are not a vengeful people." I suggested that the blood of more fathers, mothers, sons and daughters would not heal our deep wounds. My father wrote back and called me an appeaser. A friend who had grown up in Germany wrote back and compared the upcoming war to the fight against Nazism. I waited to hear from friends in the academic community where I live so that we could pool our resources and decide on the most effective response. When I got tired of the silence, I decided that maybe people here were just waiting for someone to take the lead. (There were community people organizing, but didn't know it and I couldn't find them. They were not connected to the university. )

So I organized a protest. I had heard that this is how you stop a war. I invited everyone I knew. No one came, so I went and stood on a corner alone with my sign. I don't remember what the sign said anymore. Something non-violent. Something anti-war and pro-peace. Nothing nasty or personal about anybody. I did not feel self-righteous about it and I don't now, only lonely. I knew that one person on a corner in a college town could not stop a war, and I knew that I was standing out there for myself, so that I would not lose my mind and so that I could tell my daughter that when the war came I was on the street saying no.

I stood on the corner every week for a year, usually with company. After the first week a few friends came when they could to stand with me. One friend brought her new baby until it got too cold; another person wasn't sure if she was against the war or not, but she was in favor of me and so she stood out there, unbelievably, out of friendship.

One day, perhaps our third time standing out there, an old grey jeep came around the corner and a red-faced young man stuck his head out the window. He looked panicked and fearful. There was a small child on the seat next to him. He screamed at us and shoved his middle finger in the air, "Fuck you! Fuck you! Don't you think they want to nuke us?! Don't you think they want to get a nuke and nuke us?! How many more people do you want to die?" I was paralyzed and struck dumb, which was a good thing, in retrospect. He was waiting for an answer, breathing very fast and turning redder. I stared at him. My friend, F. looked at him from across her baby's stroller and said quietly, " Zero people. We don't want any more people to die. "

He sped off shaking his head and we stood there feeling a little more vulnerable on our corner.

We were back the next week and so was the jeep. This time, he slowed down, his face fuming, and he grabbed the hand of the little boy in the passenger seat. He forced the small fingers of that child into the "fuck you" sign and pushed his little hand up against the window. I felt sick to my stomach and continued to feel sick all week thinking about that little boy.

As the weeks went by, the protest evoloved. New people with new agendas discovered us. I learned about Israeli and Palestinian history. I met long time activists. The signs changed. F. and I prayed for the man in the jeep, mostly as a way to manage our fear. December came and it got too cold for F. and her baby to be outside with us anymore. My other friends were no longer able to come either, but new people filled in, and the man in the jeep continued to drive by every week. After awhile he stopped giving us the bird and we just waved an acknowledgement at each other. Sometimes he smiled at me, for whatever reason. There were weeks when he did not show and then I missed him.

We had been standing out there every week for a few months when he drove by right on schedule and got stuck at a long light. I ran over to the jeep, my big sign flapping in the wind and slowing me down. He rolled down the window. I didn't know what I was going to say. I pointed at the little boy. "I have a daughter about his age. So we have that in common." He nodded. He started talking fast like he had imagined this conversation ahead of time. " I think you're really naïve, that's all. I wish the world could be the way you think it is, I really do, but it's not. I just think you're really naïve." I didn't have anything to say to that. I don't argue with people at protests. I shrugged and said. "Well, I'm glad to see you every week." "Oh," he smiled expansively at me like we were sitting together in the sunshine at a little league game, "my son and I enjoy it. "

I don't know what the moral is. I was a peace activist for two years. I am ashamed that I am not one now. At some point I realized that we couldn't stop the war in Afghanistan, but I thought that if a lot of us worked really hard, we could stop them from dropping bombs on a city full of children in Iraq.

I'm just really naïve, and I wish the world could be the way I think it is. I really do.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

What if you were an organization

—maybe a good guy, non-profit kind of organization, and you had a mission statement and this was it:

"To polish my soul until it is shining so that God can see his beautiful face reflected in it " *

What are the strategic objectives that support your mission statement? What are the roadblocks that prevent you from fulfilling your mission? Are there grants available to help? What specific projects does this mission statement suggest? Have you been using your resources toward this end, or does there need to be some re-evaluation and re-organization?

*with gratitiude to my friend Hysnishah, who knows the meaning of life and will tell you about it while you drink coffee, if you go and see her.