Goodbye to an Old Friend

 

I am smiling in this photo, an automatic response when facing a camera, but I’m actually  sad.

Out the door on an April morning.

In my arms I am holding several volumes of the 15th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, leather bound, gold trim, embossed spine. I bought this set in 1980, using royalty money from the publication of my first book, as proof to myself that I was a real writer who would need this fines set of reference books to support my career.

 

 

My then partner and I had recently remodeled the attic in our two-story home, insulating and opening up space for me to have a truly elegant writing studio. It was large enough to do yoga or dance, had a desk positioned to face a window with a view of trees, and shelves for books, journals, and this gorgeous row of Encyclopedia. When sitting at my desk writing and in need of a reference, I would twirl around in my antique leather and oak desk chair and reach for whatever volume contained the answer to my quest and question.

The pages were thin, strong, felt good in my hands, and the first time a volume was opened, there was the smell of the leather releasing and the gold-leaf made a sound I can still hear in the inner chambers of my ears, though I can’t begin to put it into words: gold separating into thinner strands. I licked my finger tip, and partially dried it on the side of my thumb— a practiced hint of moisture to turn the pages searching for the reference in mind.

Sometimes my finger stopped or my gaze rested on interesting bits of information, biographies of the long dead, extraneous tidbits of knowledge that amused my attention. But eventually I found what I was looking for, took notes with a fountain pen on a paper tablet, and with a sigh of satisfaction turned back to my desk, to whatever evolution of computer sat humming there awaiting the next paragraph.

This is how “looking something up” worked before Internet, before Google, before the world changed with the unrelenting rapidity of endless and instant gratification of curiosity currently swirling around us.

Weighing over 40 pounds, I carted the 30 volumes (plus annual appendices) in boxes through six moves. In each new apartment or house, I set them out again—still a writer. Twenty years later, ensconced on Whidbey, with five books under my belt (yes, I know that’s a cliché) and even though the Internet was starting to take over the world, I loved my ritual of twirl, reach, thumb through, find, wander a bit in the vicinity of my destination, and return the book to the shelf and myself to my desktop word processor.

Then in 2007, working on Storycatcher, that ritual fell apart. I needed some information about Zimbabwe, and had to look up “Rhodesia, a colony of the British Empire.” I think this was the moment I tried Googling for the first time. Wow—who typed in all that information? How does it all get linked together? What’s an algorithm anyway.  (All things I’m still wondering.)

I looked sadly at my treasured Britannica. The volumes are beautiful and a huge amount of classical knowledge resides on the pages: certainly they deserved archiving.

In my first writer’s nook, I had made bookcases out of boards and cement blocks… why not make bookcases out of boards and encyclopedias? So, I bought several planks and stacked the books on their sides. Ahhh, preservation, respect, and practicality.

I wrote on, happily accompanied by the knowledge that knowledge was in the room with me as well as on-line. I missed the twirl of the chair, the reach and feel of paper and gold leaf, but at least I still had the Random House Dictionary of the English Language to comfort me in old routines.

Until last week.

We are in a season of simplifying. We’ve sent books to the library for resale, carted unused household items and clothes to the thrift store. We traded out furniture, welcoming a shipment from Ann’s mother’s apartment, selling and giving away what we had. And then we painted the room. The walls that had sheltered the bookshelves now looked so beautiful in their emptiness. What to do with a nearly 40-year old edition of encyclopedias?

I put an ad in the “for sale, wanted, and free” section of our local swap-list: Free to Good Home. A woman called immediately. She’s an upcycle artist, works in mixed media, would love the books. Two days later she came with banker’s boxes and a van. Her first comment was, “Oh my, these are beautiful… I’m a former librarian, I don’t know that I’ll be able to change them…” I watched her getting the feel of her new treasure, running her hands over the embossed leather, stroking the gold edging, fingering the delicate paper.

I smiled with an armload and she took my photo. They will be in good hands. And I will cozy up and write, held in the arms of my mother-in-law’s favorite chair, making new paragraphs in the place where the bookshelf was.

 

Writing on

My father died.

Leo Baldwin was good at living, amazing at aging, determined to continue contributing up to his last days. He remained cheerful and present even while suffering the pain, indignities, and procedures of his final trip through the medical system. He was 98 years old and had never had an illness that he didn’t fully recover from with a little Tylenol and determination. It took him (and me, and us, and his community) a month to admit that his body wasn’t going to carry him any farther: he’d come to the end of his road.  And when he let go, he let go fully and was gone in 28 hours.

I am happy he was able to finish as himself. I am swept into waves of missing him. He was a much loved and respected central figure in our island lives. Ann and I move through a community that misses him as well. We pause and tell each other stories of his influence and friendship.

“A man and his butte,” photo by Becky Dougherty.

His local memorial service was teary and celebratory and the hall was packed with his wide range of friends. His descendants and extended family will gather in Montana next summer to bury some of his ashes in the soil that birthed him and to lift some of his ashes to the prevailing winds around those buttes and valleys.

And when my father died, my editor died.

I am writing a novel based on a fictionalized version of the town where my father grew up in west central Montana. The story takes place during the early years of WWII, when the first generation of homesteaders is ready for their sons to take over—but many of those sons are called into the war. The central story revolves around the Cooper family: an older beekeeper/Methodist minister named Leo and his relationship with his sons and their wives and the community at large.

My father, Leo, was the age of the young men in this story, and the lineage of the Baldwin family—the bees, the homespun ethics of Protestantism and citizenship, and the social justice issues that lay on this land—are a blend of family heritage and fiction. My ability to capture this time before I was born has been greatly enhanced by the spidery handwritten commentary my father added to my first drafts, and by the hours and hours of conversation at his dining table as we went through the story page by page. He found the typos, tweaked the dialogue, and dived into exploring the themes that activate the subtext of the story. He drummed into me his knowledge of bees and beekeeping.

This process was the most powerful experience of transmission I have ever received from another person. Novelist Barbara Kingsolver, in speaking of writing and rewriting said, “It is thrilling to take an ending and pull it backward like a shiny thread through the whole fabric of a manuscript.” We were pulling threads. I was writing my way forward, forging the story as the characters worded themselves into being. I was working the loom of the first draft. He was reflecting his way backward, seeing his life transformed and woven through the voices of the Coopers. It was a mystical interaction we each surrendered to in different ways.

All this past year I noticed him wearing down and wrote as fast as I could. He asked me once, “Does Leo Cooper need to die in this story? Does the father need to step aside to make room for the next generation to fully become themselves?” We talked about it as a literary device. We talked about it in terms of the emotional maturation of the story’s characters.

“I don’t want Leo to die,” I told him. “I love him…”

Blue eyes looking deep into brown eyes, he assured me “I know you have the courage to write what needs to be written.” I wept all the way home, the eleven miles between his house and mine. That was July: we had two more months before he would turn his attention to letting himself depart.

In the story, it is June 1943. The fight against fascism is not won. People don’t know the outcome; don’t know who will live or die, or what will ultimately be asked of them. They may be far from the battlefields, but their lives are fraught with the tension and chaos of a world in shift. A young war bride and her baby are making a place in the valley. Her faraway husband has just been injured in battle. The angry brother is trying to make peace in himself, his family, and the community. Under the hot Montana sun, Leo Cooper has a stroke in his bee-yards.

In my life, it is November 2018. The fight against fascism is not won. We don’t know the outcome; don’t know who will live or die, or what will ultimately be asked of us. The battlefield is everywhere. Our lives are fraught with the tension and chaos of a world in shift.

I rally my writing skills to reach back to then and to them; I reach my imagination into the brokenness and openness of the Coopers to discover the story map that can help me live honorably in our world of dire consequences in which the lives of ordinary people may shine.

Dad and I were on Chapter 42.

I am on Chapter 43.

 

Acts of Artful “Dumbling”

The new movie Paddington2, is about a bear from “darkest Peru” who eats orange marmalade and has stowed himself away to London where a nice family takes him in and tries to help him adapt to life among humans. The movies are based on the sixty-year writing career of Michael Bond, starting in 1958 with the final volume being published in his honor and memory this coming summer. I remember reading several of the early versions to younger siblings, and then to nieces and nephews, and then to grandchildren. On the page and on the screen Paddington gets in trouble—of course. And yet he always bumbles through his dilemmas and somehow changes the world around him for the better in the process.

Himself–the plush toy version.

Paddington employs a social artform that I call “dumbling along.” Dumbling is not really the same as naïveté; dumbling is the art of proceeding as though you do not know you are interrupting negative social norms, and are trying to elicit a change of heart or response. Dumbling is the art of behaving innocently. Paddington’s foundational worldview is: “If we’d all be polite, the world would be right.” The phrase is his Golden Rule. And as Michael Brown, his human father notes, “He looks for the good in all of us, and somehow he finds it.”

Dumbling is a form of charming, disarming nonviolent activism. Paddington’s skill at it makes me wonder if dumbling might help us bridge some of the social divides and isolationism in the US and world today. DISCLAIMER: Dumbling needs to be practiced in largely safe settings, often this is in public or shared space with some allies around to support and protect the “Paddington,” and with a bit of an exit strategy if needed.

When I think analytically about it, dumbling consists of several elements.

  1. Dumbling is the ability to walk into a situation that is loaded with any number of “-isms”—classism, sexism, racism, etc.—and refuse to acknowledge the power of negative energy by turning whatever happens into a positive.

EX: A person of color sits next to a white person on a plane. The white person asks the attendant to be moved. The attendant dumbles, and moves the person of color to First Class, apologizing for the inconvenience—to the person of color.

  1. Dumbling actively reframes and “misinterprets” judgmental comments as well-intentioned.

EX:            One teenage boy to another. First one, intending to bully, says, “Man your hair looks like a weed whacked bush.”

Second one responds, “Why thank you! I dig your hair too.” It’s a “drive by comment,” he just keeps going, and remains chipper.

  1. Dumbling crosses social congruence, confusing the receiver, and often bringing them into alignment with good intentions—yours, or theirs.

EX:            “There’s a homeless man sleeping in the lobby of the post office. Isn’t that terrible? We can’t allow that kind of thing.”

“You’re absolutely right—we can’t allow the rich to take so much and for the rest of us to have to divide the pittance that is left. Do you think he’s hungry? Maybe we could take him the rest of our pizza.”

  1. Dumbling actually wakes up our creativity, intelligence, and empathy.

EX:            An email blasts the decision made by a project manager—the sender outlining how useless it will be to the company, a misuse of resources, etc. Of course the project manager is initially hurt or angry—but he holds onto his emotions and dumbles: “Dear John, I have been thinking about you lately and all the ways you are loyal to our company. I appreciate that loyalty and wonder how we might put you and your thoughtfulness to better use. Want to talk?”

Dumbling crosses the transaction. To take this into a longer exchange than those listed above:

A young gay/trans/lesbian/bi-racial/multi-ethnic/cross-religious couple goes to visit the conservative mother of one of the partners; the other partner is dumbling—meaning s/he is just going to step into the scene fully expecting acceptance, and acting as though that’s what is happening, no matter what. S/he brings flowers and chocolate. S/he expresses delight at meeting the mother, even if there’s a frown at the doorway. S/he simply takes a place as though the thought of being rejected has never occurred to her/him. Comments and behavior are determinedly perceived as welcoming, and s/he remains gracious and appreciative. What happens next?

Well, either the mother has to go ballistic, which is not very socially acceptable, and not likely to happen (unless this is a movie). The mother really doesn’t want whatever her son or daughter has said about her to be truer than true. Or in some kind of confusion, the mother crumbles, and comes into alignment with the dumbling persistence that all is well. The neurological pull to come into congruence is strong.

This is a message from the movies that we can take into real life. And if we look for the good in one another—well, maybe, like Paddington, we’ll find it. The “other side” will stop being demons in our minds and we will find ways to create a bridge and meet in the middle of it.

Paddington says, “In London, everyone is different, so everyone fits in.” Guess it’s my job to make sure that happens in my neighborhood and community.

 

 

And then…we change the story!

Story is a map; and the story that gets one person through helps to get the next person through. (C. Baldwin in Storycatcher.)

Winter sunset from my desk.

Scattered across my laptop screen are files that contain opening paragraphs of my autumn’s attempts to write a blog entry. The happy reason for blog silence is my commitment to writing a novel in the creative hours I carve out of a week. An unhappier reason is how easily my attention has been engulfed in our great catastrophes. After awhile I’m not sure what more to say.

When a Canadian friend visited recently I cautioned her, “Crossing into the US right now you are entering a trauma-field of constant media overwhelm. Across a broad spectrum of politics, race, gender, religion, we are aware of the distress we’re in, and how little we seem able to manage it. It’s like the whole country is driving on black ice: we feel the vehicle of our civil life veering out of control. We may have our hands on the steering wheel, but we’re not the ones steering. We may want to hit the brakes or accelerate, but we know that any misaction will throw the car (and country) into total skid. Multi-vehicle pile-ups are everywhere. Most people are just trying to get ‘safely home’—whatever that means—but we are driving through our lives in growing panic.”

Our hearth in winter

I have been hyper-aware how almost every conversation diverts into a downward spiral. Talk about the weather— it spirals into climate change. Talk about sports—it spirals into protests and corruption. Talk about men in public life—it spirals into sexual harassment. Talk about politics—it spirals into despair. There is no “happy place” in these conversations, and I fear we are entrenching ourselves in defeatism.

In my 30’s, I was in a group of several women who met monthly to discuss each other’s dreams. This meant unpacking the imagery, often dialoguing between characters (aspects of self), and sometimes finishing an interrupted storyline, or creating a different ending so that we could imagine a way out of a situation.

Around that time I had a recurring dream of a bear chasing me across my yard. I would make it safely to the house and lock the door and then realize it was just a screen door. The bear would arrive, start to claw at the screen, and I’d wake up. So I finished the dream by dialoging with the bear: “Who are you and what are you in my dream to tell me? Why do you want to catch me? What will happen if I let you in?” I created an ending to the dream: I let the bear in. We danced. Years later, when I was writing Life’s Companion and exhausted during the final chapters, I remembered the bear and called it to my back, leaned into its strength, and typed my way to the final page. Susan Seddon Boulet, who illustrated the cover and inner section pages, drew this image for me.

Susan Boulet, Woman in Bear Hug, collection of the author.

This is what we need now! We need to end every dive into the nightmare with a new ending: a story that inspires us forward. Talk about the weather— it spirals into climate change—and then we talk about the healing capacities of Earth and our love of nature. Talk about sports—it spirals into protests and corruption—and then we talk about human strength and the wonders of our bodies. Talk about men in public life—it spirals into sexual harassment—and then we speak of the men of integrity we know. Talk about politics—it spirals into despair—and then we imagine a revitalized democracy emerging.

Story is a map. We are at the end of the known story and it is our work now to map our way forward through imagining the possibilities into being. We can change the ending of this nightmare and dance with the bears, transform the dragons, rest in beauty.

Once upon a time… and then…and then…and then.

Original cover of my book, Life’s Companion, Journal Writing as a Spiritual Quest, Bantam, 1991.

 

 

 

 

Cookies and Kindness

My dear partner left for Minnesota for five days and the first night alone in the house I went on a media binge. Up late cooking, with cool evening air coming through open windows, I set my laptop next to the mixing bowl and turned on the news feeds. While making summer soup and muffins for my writing group, and a batch of healthy cookies, I “caught up” with the craziness of the US political scene: daily briefings from the New York Times and Guardian, MSNBC, and late night comic-commentary. It relieves me that smart people are keeping tabs on the tweeting chaos and legislative “multiple vehicle accident blocking all lanes of traffic” that is our current government. Pile up! Only the victims of this wreck are not actually in it, but watching helplessly from the sidelines.

After awhile it dawns on me that while I am  so careful regarding ingredients I put in this food: no sugar, all organic, gluten free flour, etc. etc. what I am putting in my mind (even though I’m feeding off the upper end of information) is nevertheless fairly toxic.

How do I nourish myself in the societal situation we are living through?

As an American and a global citizen, I am committed to remaining aware, informed, and interactive with these larger crises. Yet I find this media immersion exhausting and overwhelming. It disturbs me at a neurological level. I have to manage anxiety, sleep disruption, and mood swings. I do manage. Well, I think I’m managing. I think most of us are managing.

And managing in this situation takes an incredible amount of energy. We are, as a people, worn down by the need to stay tuned and watchful. No matter where we sit on the political spectrum, it’s tense. We’re waiting for the next tweet-bomb, the next act of violence, the next media frenzy: and we don’t have to wait long. We are shell-shocked and not as thoughtful as we might usually be. There is no usually anymore.

So this summer, both in my community and in my travels, I have been asking myself: what can I do, right here, right now, to help ease one another’s way? I can smile and look into a stranger’s eyes. I can put an arm out, stabilizing an elder or a toddler as we walk on uneven ground. I can take time to really listen when I ask someone “how are you?” and they begin to really tell me. I can look for beauty and point it out. I can see a act of kindness and acknowledge it. I can text little notes of love and appreciation.

These tiny gestures take on added significance in times when civility seems to be drastically eroded. Every little gesture reassures me, and those around me, that we are still a kind people willing to look up and look out for each other.  These gestures require mutual engagement: with neighbors who vote or worship differently, with friends terrified of losing their health care, with immigrants trying to find a new sense of home, with strangers at the grocery store, with families straining to stay together.

This is the power of the people: to refuse to be separated, to keep finding ways to hang together, to practice the Golden Rule, to recognize commonalities, to notice that we are still largely respectful, curious; eager to share stories, to be heard and seen.  So I renew my pledge to turn away from the addictive lure of the big catastrophe and spend more time focused on us—the ordinary folks.

It is way past midnight when I take the last of the cookies out of the oven. I turn off the news feeds, quit my email program, disengage the wifi connection, and put the laptop on sleep. Tomorrow I begin anew: waking to nature, waking to the people around me, waking to write in ways that I pray help keep us sane. I have plates of cookies to share with people who don’t expect them. What fun that will be.

 

Where is my mother?

There are several children’s books by this title. Various cartoon animal-children, in search of their animal-mommies, inquire of other cartoon animals, “Have you seen my mommy?” I saw a book like this at the library and it raised the question for me about my own mother, now several months after her death.

My mother’s ashes were divided into four equal parts and given to each of her children. Together we threw some ceremoniously off the ferry into the waters of Georgia Strait on our way back from her memorial service. I put some into a small pouch that I wore next to my heart in the Seattle Women’s March on January 21st. That pouch now resides next to a photo of us, a little shrine near my writing desk. And I recently ordered a dozen “memory stones.” These are beautiful little disks (future talking pieces?) of  blown glass, with ashes that turn to bright, white sparkles. My

Her two favorite colors, and “her” in the center.

mother becomes a tiny galaxy to be distributed to grandchildren and friends.

These gestures give me peace of heart—but what I am enjoying most are all the other ways and places “she” shows up. Like the small wooden bench that sat for years by the entrance to her patio home, and then on her apartment balcony. Now it graces our remodeled bathroom and we use it every day, admiring its sturdiness and how well it held up from years outdoors before its pampered life indoors.

I am enjoying the fancy dishes, flowery Royal Doulton patterns bought right at the factory in England. When she offered them, I accepted with delight—under three conditions: “1. I’m going to use them every day; they are not going into a china cabinet (no I don’t want your cabinet). 2. I will put them in the dishwasher (though not the microwave), even the ones with gold trim. 3. Before they go into

Four-legged water saving device, prewash service.

the dishwasher, I’m going to let the dog lick them.” She winced, but handed them over. Genius on her part: I think of her every time I reach for them, which is several times a day.

 

Also in the kitchen, a metal garlic press from my childhood that still works better than any “new and improved” press I’ve bought over the years, and I’ve bought a number of them. This family heirloom will go to the niece or nephew who can make the best garlic-laced lasagna. There will be a cook-off before I pop off.

The list grows and shifts as I notice things, so only one more confession: some days I’m wearing her underpants. Silky, with lace trimmings, they are brand new, as she spent the last year of her life in adult diapers. The only drawback: they have a taped nametag on them from the care centre. If I’m ever in that proverbial car accident, it’s going to confuse the paramedics when my driver’s license says Christina Baldwin and my underwear says Connie McGregor.

I’ve been listening to more classical music this winter, wearing her sweaters and scarves and appreciating everything she did to urge along a sense of culture, style, and flair in her tomboy daughter.

About 20 years ago, I invited my mother to join a journal writing retreat I was leading at Hollyhock Farm in coastal British Columbia. She already lived in BC, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. Ann Linnea and I were just settling on Whidbey.

I felt ready to call a circle in which my mother could sit among a sisterhood of writers and I could be the teacher and guide, my book Life’s Companion, would be the text. She was then just a few years older than I am now, newly widowed from her Canadian husband, and her mother had recently died at 106.

So we arrive at Hollyhock. I don’t remember our conversation, but were walking the wooded trails overlooking Desolation Sound. A day of blue sky and matching blue waters, islands dotting the sea, mountains in the distance. I began touching a trailing branch of cedar, “Mother,” I said softly. Then more conversation before touching a moss covered boulder, “Mother.” We walked on. Gesturing into the view I whispered, “Mother.”

I was trying to signal her, before she joined the class, that I had transferred the mother archeypte from her/personal to Gaia/transpersonal. After a while, she began to touch the greenery around us, and whisper with me, “Mother…” Mother Cedar. Mother Boulder. Mother Ocean. Mother Mountain.

Connie in a tree–about this time period.

I do not feel orphaned by her departure. My Mother is the Earth. I miss Connie/mom, think of her daily, and wonder how she is enjoying the whatever-comes-next that so fascinated her. My grief is primarily a peaceful ride. When I can calm my awareness, I look for signals coming through—something I thoroughly expect from her after all those years standing in my shoes trying to receive through the veil from her dearly departeds.

I was her firstborn, her “practice baby,” she said, the one she didn’t quite know what to do with. Our relationship was a long road, and it finished in beauty, peace, and open heartedness. That is sufficient. When I need to have a wee cry, I go down to the beach and nestle in amongst the drift logs and sand and am held. Mother Sea. Mother Sky. Mother Mountain. Mother Trees. Mother in my own heart.

The Search for the Lost Chord

This is my remembrance piece for my mother, Connie McGregor, spoken at her Memorial Service 7 January 2017, at the United Church of Canada in Chemainus, BC, her home community.

Connie, summer of 2016

Connie, summer of 2016.

 

All her life, my mother was looking for “the Lost Chord”—that mystical longing for ultimate harmony.

The story of the lost chord comes from a famous Victorian parlor song about an organist playing idly at the keyboard who suddenly comes upon this chord. He is enthralled with its beauty, but can never find it again, finally deciding he will only hear it in heaven.

Longing for music awakened Connie’s heart. Musical chords were the DNA of her soul. What she couldn’t communicate any other way she poured into music. As a teenager in the Great Depression, in Rapid City, SD, she had a 15-minute weekly recital she played on the radio.

Our earliest memories of her are musical. There are photos of her teaching Sunday school with a passel of 3 & 4 years, our tiny hands full of rhythm instruments while she sits at the piano, toddler Carl in one arm, playing “Jesus loves the little children,” right-hand only, trying to attach our fledgling souls to the power of music.

Uncountable nights of our childhoods, finally getting all four of us to bed, she would ignore her 1950s “housewife” chores, sit down at the piano and pour out Debussy, Chopin, Ravel, Vaughn Williams, Rogers & Hammerstein, and favorites from the Methodist Hymnal.

1952--such a period piece photo

1952–such a period piece photo

Connie also longed for social justice. In 1940, while studying at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, she was profoundly influenced by the university president, Carl S. Knopf (after whom our brother is named). Knopf was a theological pacifist and urged the world to consider alternatives to war and violence. Shared pacifism was an early bond between our parents.

Our father, Leo, became a conscientious objector and after their marriage in 1942, Connie and Leo served together in the Civilian Public Service Corps throughout WWII. In recent years, when the contributions of pacifists are finally being recognized, Leo is quick to point out, “The women served too and deserve equal credit.” During this time, Connie played in the camp orchestra, worked as a secretary in federal prison, and started early pre-school programs for the children of women employed in the war effort.

My parents during the war years while in CPS in the Northwest.

My parents during the war years while in CPS in the Northwest.

After the War, while Leo went to graduate school, 1946-48, Carl and I were born less than two years apart. In Indiana, a few years later, when Becky was a baby, they sponsored refugee families from Germany and Poland. In the early 1960’s, now with Ricky completing the family, and our relocation to suburban Minneapolis, Mom took us downtown to African Methodist churches, to interracial youth groups and play dates. When the Vietnam War broke out, she fiercely supported both my brother in the Army in DaNang, and me in the peace movement in San Francisco.

In 1990, with her Canadian husband, Don McGregor, she moved to Vancouver Island and after his death in 1995, began what was probably the most satisfying period of her life. Here in Chemainus, she read peace poetry on Remembrance Day, at Waterwheel Park, setting up a lectern and standing by her convictions. In Ladysmith, in her Strata, she stood up against a financial injustice occurring there and would not be intimated or ostracized into changing her vote. She called her neighbors to accountability.

She donated to many causes, especially Amnesty International, and filled envelopes with $20/bills that she slipped anonymously to folks in need at Christmas time.

Longing for spirit, Connie lived faithfully within Christian tradition, but kept the church door of her heart open to many sources of insight. She attended whatever church best met her needs for community and open-mindedness: Lutheran, Methodist, Unitarian, Congregationalist, Spiritualist, UCC. She demanded that people think through their theology, not just sit in the pew and accept doctrine. She led book discussions, prayer and Bible studies, and she read Martin Buber, Carl Jung, CS Lewis, Simone de Beauvoir, Joseph Campbell, Marcus Borg, and John Spong. Many people have been influenced by her ever seeking mind… we, her children, certainly have.

C'sbks copy

Her bookshelf in her apartment.

It was not always easy being around this insatiable curiosity, but it was always interesting. To be Connie’s family or friend, you had to learn to define (and defend) yourself, to chart your own path, to articulate and stand by your beliefs. She didn’t want agreement—she wanted mutually rigorous engagement. Her search for belonging, on one level a huge desire to find “like kind,” was also a huge desire to be met, intellect-to-intellect.

Still curious and in awe of the world in 2014

Still curious and in awe of the world in 2014

The last few years were hard on her—and on all of us who loved her. Her short-term memory left great gaps—not dementia of the usual sort. Until just a few months ago, she could still be roused to talk about theology or conscious dying; she could play piano; her humor would come forth like the Dormouse waking out of the teapot. She just couldn’t remember that we’d come to visit or what she’d had for lunch. When she entered the Chemainus HC Centre, she told the director, “I am still a woman of intellect and I expect to have a voice in my care.”

Last January, on the last night in her Nanaimo apartment, my sister Becky and I had a kind of mother/daughter sleepover with her. We sisters were having a glass of wine when Connie, who barely sipped alcohol, asked for some. “Do you want wine?” I asked her, “or do you want communion?”

“Communion,” she said. So we entered sacramental space. We offered one another the cup of life. We broke out crackers and fed each other holy bread. We took her favorite perfume; a fragrance called “Happy,” and anointed one another. “Is something big about to happen to me?” she inquired.

“Yes. You are moving into care, mom. This is your last night among the beauty of your things. You need nurses and aides who can help you and keep you safe. You are going back to Chemainus. You are trading things for community. Can you do that?”

She nodded. “What will be my job there?”

“Your job will be to let love all the way in, and to send love all the way out.”

As I think about the blessings embedded in this year of deterioration—I am so grateful that she took on this final job. She got there. She died whispering “I love you…” she died listening to us whisper “I love you, too.”

Her search was over.

She became the lost chord.

 

 

2016 Nov 5 Connie last piano copy

Playing piano on her 96th birthday, 20 days before she died.

 

The Elephant & the Safety Pin

The end of November, we went to Phoenix, Arizona for American Thanksgiving; into a part of the family where we’re pretty sure Clinton voters were a minority. Our hint—well this guy showed up in the backyard!

This elephant was too big to fit in the room--it took up half the back yard!

This elephant was too big to fit in the room–it took up half the back yard!

So who are we? Sincere, loving family members, most of us white, with an adopted Asian daughter, two sons-in-law who are Hispanic and African-American, five interracial children racing among the blue-eyed blonds. All of us were coming together to celebrate Ann’s mother and honor long-held family traditions. Thirty-one folks, ages nine months to 90 years, three turkeys, and way too much food.

Full of bouncing children--and a few daring parents.

Full of bouncing children–and a few daring parents.

We did not speak directly about politics or voting, but Ann and I were wearing safety pins that provided entrance to story. “What does that mean, that pin?”

“It’s a symbol that we’re part of a social safety net—that we will not tolerate hate talk, racial slurs, or bully behavior in our presence, that we will take action to maintain community and caring around us.” We told a few stories we’d read on Face Book: the Muslim woman asking an Anglo woman how to make stuffing; or several women on a subway car who befriended and escorted a woman wearing a hijab who was getting harassed. We talked about acts of kindness and reaching out. “It’s not a sign of who we voted for, it’s a signal of who we are. It’s a statement that we are going to continue to take care of one another.”

There have been some challenges to this safety pin idea, educating people to not be naïve in violent situations, and criticizing the lack of a bolder commitment, that it allows white people to stay in their comfort zone. Yes—and—it’s a beginning that fosters waking up and questioning how the world has changed. Mostly, wearing a pin is about looking up from the phone screen and into the eyes of people around us, noticing that this moment contains the possibility for outreach and mending the tears in our social fabric. Like in the family, standing in the back yard, looking for stories that help us stay connected.

The next day there was a special luncheon for our gentle, shy matriarch. Each grandchild present (adults in their 30s) took a moment to speak to her. Every one of them delivered a message of gratitude for the sustaining values she and Ann’s dad passed down the generations. Loyalty to family and friends, respect for nature, respect for God, civility, social consciousness, community, protecting children—not the political slogan version of these ideals, but living them in the realities of their young lives. Living them while coping with the larger world around them, the things they cannot figure out how to make better.

So they voted. They took the rhetoric, the pornography, the false and true scandals, the rumors, the historic moment, fed it through the mesh of these values and went into the little booth. And they voted Republican, Libertarian, Democrat.

Watching them talk to their grandmother, hanging out with them in the backyard, I don’t understand how the same values source could lead to three different voting choices, but this I trust: most Americans are like this family.

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Most Americans are values-based human beings who want to lead lives they are proud of, and want to imagine their children having opportunities to live decent and productive lives. They do not overreact, pull out guns, threaten strangers on the street, “unfriend” cousins on Face Book: they hang in there with one another. They may not wear safety pins, but they are safety pins.

My role here, as the stepmom, grandmother, aunt, and great aunt, is to hold a circle around us all, to create space for story, to love one another and listen, and call forth what is good, true, and beautiful in each of us. This I do with fierce hopefulness that we the family, and that we the people, will hold together through these times.

What is dying, Nina?

Cool sunrise over a fake lagoon in Chandler, AZ, oasis in the desert. A November day here will turn hot and we will go jump in the community pool. I have brought my teacup and journal to a little veranda to write and think about my mother who lies dying in the nursing home that has tended her this past year. I am in Arizona. She is in British Columbia.

My reverie is sweetly shifted by the arrival of my six-year old granddaughter. She is watching me closely this week as I am tracking with my sister & brother who sit at our mother’s side. In the vacation rental house where we are all staying during a reunion and family Thanksgiving, there is a flickering candle altar with photos that honor my mother and also her Uncle Brian who died three years ago. In this same three-year period she has also lost her great-grandfather and her other grandmother, her father’s mom.

altar2

She is twirling my hair, sitting on my lap. “What is dying, Nina?” she asks. “People get dead and then they’re gone.” I take a breath, she’s trusting me to give her something she can understand.ns

“People have two parts that make us who we are: the soul, and the body. I recognize you because I know how you look, and sound, and feel. And I recognize you because who you are shines out from inside you. When you are in your mommy’s womb, the body and the soul come together and you are born in one piece that is both physical and spiritual.

“Then you live your life—one beautiful piece of body and soul. Dying is when those two parts separate again. The body goes back to the earth, and the soul goes back to spirit.”

“Is that heaven?”

“Yes, heaven is one name for where the spirit goes.”

“Why is your mama dying? Is she hurt? sick?”

“She’s dying because she’s so old her body is tired and her soul needs to be free again. I am happy that she is going to be free, and I cry when I remember all the things we’ve shared and learned from each other.”

We look across the lagoon, and there is the metaphor made visible. “Look at the palm trees, Sasha… see how they are reflected in the water?” She nods. There is the tree that we see growing on the ground, and there is the tree that is reflected upside down in the water. The standing tree is like the body, the reflected tree is like the soul.”

Body & soul.

Body & soul.

“Oh… okay. Can I draw the picture in your journal?”

She takes a pen and begins to draw palm trees and us on the veranda. The day moves on. My mother still breathes. We wait in vigil, both near and far.

PS: The afternoon of this posting, November 27, 2016, my mother Connie died peacefully with my brother and sister present. Now she knows the “big secret”of what is dying. Hallelujah.

Half-mast in sunlight

Friday afternoon in my little village by the sea. Second Street is closed for a summer market: flowers, vegetables, crafts, bread, the stalls are lined up and people stroll through. Dogs on leash are everywhere. Two friends have a new puppy they are carrying in arms. Sunshine and a refreshing breeze off the water.

My father and I are sitting at a patio table in front of the Commons coffee shop chatting about his upcoming 96th birthday. He wants a pizza party on our patio with his four children, three in-laws, a friend or two. He wants this—all this: a village around him, a street full of familiar faces, people waving to us, some stopping to say hi, to bring their own story into the ones we are telling each other. He wants this—his daughter, his daughter-in-law at the next table talking with friends from our decades of work and travel. We all want this—peace amongst acquaintances, friends, strangers, the earth’s abundance spilling over our shoulders. Ice cream cones and coffee. Our corgi, Gracie, wanders back and forth under the two tables seeing who might be eating something, who might have a dog biscuit to share or a cookie crumb. Safety. Peace. A couple of young musicians playing acoustic guitar and familiar songs about love.

It is a moment of complete refuge and beauty.

On the other side of us a group of several women and a man are finishing ice cream cones. One gives her waffle-tip to Gracie to finish. The man asks, “May I pet your dog?” Gracie snugs her back up to his legs and he begins massaging her: both of them blissed, his fingers in her luxuriant fur. A few minutes later when they are ready to stroll, he speaks to me again, “Thanks for letting me pet her.”

We really look at one another. I reach for his hand, strong brown fingers, in this moment his eyes bright with ease in a dark face. I am a seventy-year-old Caucasian woman: he is a middle-aged African-American man. We are in the village together. There is sunshine. Refuge. Beauty. I say back to him, “She loved it. You take care, now. Have a good day.” We smile. He’s gone.

My father and I look at each other. Tears rise in our eyes. What is happening in our country? In the world? In the unspoken chamber of my heart, I want to shelter this friendly stranger, be ready to push him under the table, wrap him in my white skin. “Don’t put your hands in your pockets. Don’t make any sudden moves. Don’t drive too fast or too slow or with a tail-light out. Don’t get shot.” In various ways, my father has worked for social justice all his life. My first memories are of living in downtown Indianapolis where he was a social worker in what was then called a “neighborhood house.” It was the early 1950s, Negroes were streaming North from the rural South looking for work and needing to learn the ways of the city. My brother and I, at four and two, unaware of race or skin tone or poverty, were just kids on the block, racing around in summer heat, days like this. Eating ice cream cones, our mother would strip us down to our white carter spanky pants so that she could just hose us off afterwards, not have to do a load of clothes. Little half naked kids, vanilla and chocolate, all sticky chested.

The seed of my gesture, white hand and brown hand, resides in those days. So do the seeds of our current violence. We talk about then, and now. I am facing the end of my work life. He is facing the end of his life-time. We have done and are doing all we can.

IMG_6408We walk slowly through the middle of the market toward the post office. The flag is at half-mast. Orlando?—where 49 died and 53 were injured dancing at the Pulse? Istanbul?—40 dead and 230 injured? Baghdad market?—where nearly 300 die from a truck bomb? This week’s police murders of black men: Baton Rouge? Suburban St. Paul? The sniper murder of five police in Dallas? The flag is at half-mast. My heart is broken for the world.

Social trauma at this scale is incredibly hard to hold. We are surrounded by problems for which there are no resolutions. How do we help one another not go mad? Not get utterly lost in despair? Find moments of sweetness such as this summer afternoon?

These moments exist in every life: when we trust the friendliness of public spaces, when we pet one another’s dogs, smile at one another’s children, hold one another’s gazes, smiles, and hands. This is what I call a stackable moment: a choice to remember something, to stack it into our memories. We can stack trauma: we can stack healing. We can stack violence: we can stack love.

I choose to stack this moment, to savor it, roll it around and around in my mind until I can call it back to sustain me. There was sunshine. There was my father alive in his stories. My beloved was next to me. There were friends. Dogs. Fruits and flowers. There was a kind man who trusted to put his brown hand in my white hand. We were in the weave together and the world was whole and holy.

The flag is at half-mast. My heart is broken—and open. This is how I stack the day.