Monday, February 18, 2019

A Touching Experience

“If you touch me, you'll understand what happiness is.” Those words are sung by Grizabella, the Glamour Cat, in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats. Growing research suggests that Grizabella is onto something. We need touch to thrive. Dacher Keltner, UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center, says, “…touch is truly fundamental to human communication, bonding, and health." I speak, of course, of healthy, non-aggressive touch--the pat on the back, the squeeze of the arm, the handshake.

And hugs! Hugs are amazing, aren’t they? Have you ever been hugged by someone who puts their whole body and soul into making you feel loved and accepted? It’s a powerful experience. I know many good huggers, but two stand out as exceptional. First was my cousin Alvin. Everything about the experience, from the warm smile that preceded it to the way in which he pulled me close and held me, let me know that I was, indeed, someone very special.

Alvin has passed away, but I get to enjoy an extraordinary hug every Sunday when I’m in church and my friend Ray and I meet. There is no doubt in my mind that Ray's hug is as loving as it is powerful. We both agree it’s the best part of the morning, and an excellent way to pass the peace.

I was reminded of the importance of touch today as I went with our confirmation class to Friends of the Homeless shelter in Springfield with a group from Holy Cross Church’s Sandwich Ministry. Every week this faithful group makes sandwiches to distribute to the homeless of the city. In the twelve years of the program they have made and distributed over 295,000 sandwiches. They also distribute blankets, underwear, clothes, and toiletries.

After the sandwiches were distributed outside, we went indoors where tables were arranged, and bags of underwear were sorted according to size and gender. Then the door was opened, and the grateful men and women came in to collect these essentials. At first I was watching our kids, seeing how they were doing with handing out these donations (quite well). Then I turned to look at the door where Cathy and Will from Holy Cross were greeting every single soul coming through the door with a broad smile, a hug, and a “God bless you.”

The residents were young and old, male and female. Some wore heavy jackets. Some were in tee shirts. Some smiled brightly. Some looked at the ground. Some looked ill. Some looked quite fit. No matter what they looked like or how they acted, each one was blessed and hugged by someone who looked into their eyes and smiled, someone who saw beyond their outward appearance, someone who didn’t look at them as “homeless” but as human beings worthy of being recognized.

Cathy has been doing this for several years. It was clear that she knew many of the residents as she asked for updates on their health or family. She said she began to hug everyone after she found out that the rules of the shelter forbade touching among the residents. Her hug and Will’s might be the only physical touch they received in the week. Some residents had been there for years. Imagine all that time with one touch a week.

Touching another person, even if it’s only a handshake or a pat on the back, seems such simple and ordinary thing, but to be deprived of it can be devastating. I feel blessed to have met Cathy and Will, to have witnessed their selfless sharing and to have gotten a hug from them. Grizabella was right.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Looking Back

Whether it was reading a Facebook comment from a former student, going to a first-person presentation of Harriet Tubman, or seeing Katori Hall’s play The Mountaintop, I have been thinking a lot recently about race and racism, specifically about what and how I came to feel about these subjects.

I realize that, as a middle-class white woman, my perspective is limited. I cannot ever know or experience the world as an African-American. Though I am limited, I think it’s important, especially for Caucasians, to think about how our attitudes about race and racism were formed, about what voices and images stayed with us, and how those voices and images became the lens through which we view the world.

My Sunday School Class 1949
Though I grew up in a diverse city, I lived in a white neighborhood, went to all-white elementary schools, and attended an all-white (except for dear Miss Baker) church. In school my contacts with persons of color were limited to twice a year when all public school students came together: once for field day at Forest Park and once again for a trip to the Springfield Symphony.

Still I had been taught by my parents and my Sunday School teachers that I was to love my neighbor, and that included those I only saw twice a year. I remembered their words and saw how they lived out those words in their actions. But there was something else impressing itself on my young mind. More and more every night on the news I began to see scenes of hatred for neighbors.

When I was only ten I heard about the murder of Emmett Till, only four years older than I was. At twelve I watched the angry white mobs screaming hate at the nine students who would integrate Little Rock Central High School. At fifteen I watched more angry whites attack the black college students who asked to be served at Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. I had never been to North Carolina, but I knew Woolworth’s lunch counter. That’s where my mother and I had lunch whenever we went downtown.

On the day I graduated from high school Governor George Wallace stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama to block two black students from registering. The very next day Medgar Evers was assassinated in his own driveway. In September as I began college Addie Mae Collins (14), Denise McNair (12), Carole Robertson (14), and Cynthia Wesley (14) were killed when the Sixteenth Street Baptist Street Church was bombed. At the end of my freshman year in college Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner were abducted and murdered by the Klan.

As I was learning American history in school, I was watching it unfold in front of me, and with each new incident of hate and bigotry, I grieved for what was happening to my brothers and sisters—my neighbors whom I was commanded to love. The list of hate-filled incidents goes on, and it continues to be a challenge for me not to be discouraged and to live out these core beliefs, but then I remember Dr.King’s words, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope,” and I go on.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Not-so-cockeyed Optimist

As I grow older, I am appreciating my mother more and more. Among her many attributes, my mother was an inveterate optimist, to the point where I frequently found it very annoying. If a conversation became too depressing or contentious, she would immediately change the topic to something light. I remember my teenage self trying to persuade her that she wasn’t being realistic, that she was in denial about the world around her. To that, she replied that cute puppies were real too.

I came to understand that her optimism was a shield she had developed to survive in a world where she lost her mother at five years old, then was shuffled around from one relative to another. She never had a real home again until she married my father, but even then there was tragedy when her full-term first pregnancy ended with an empty crib. So, she avoided, as much as possible, what was unpleasant or distasteful, and lived to be a happy 96 years old.

I have been very blessed in my life, enduring none of the tragedies my mother did. Still, I am frequently disturbed by what I read and see going on in the world, and as I look at Facebook in the morning, I sometimes despair when I see the children caged at the border, read about the disappearing monarch butterflies, and hear more and more angry, hate-filled speech. I could go on and frequently do, but when I allow myself to wallow in the negative, I become enervated and unable to bring myself to any constructive action.
So, as an antidote, I watch crazy pet videos or James Cordon performing musicals with Lin Manuel Miranda and Emily Blunt. It’s not that I am unaware or uncaring, but I need to remind myself that there are things to smile about, that cute puppies are real too.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Pass it On or Pass Away

Kristin LeMay's book I Told My Soul to Sing:Finding God With Emily Dickinson is one of those books it may take me months to finish, as I read it a little at a time to allow myself to consider the big ideas she's discussing. And, as anyone who's read Dickinson's poetry knows, one of her big ideas is death.

In each chapter LeMay reflects on one of Dickinson's poems. In her discussion of "Behind me--Dips Eternity"  she says, "Yet rather than mourn that we are finite, Emily marvels here that for a few brief moments of this life, we participate in the infinite." Moments of infinity? Now there's something to ponder.

When I stop to think about my mortality, which is not often, I find it hard to imagine. After all, this consciousness in this physical form is all I have ever experienced. To imagine it ending, though logic tells me it absolutely will, is hard to wrap my mind around. 

It's as if having lived on an island all one's life, we are suddenly asked to consider that we must sail away to another place--far off, unknown, and unseen. We've seen others set off in their little boats, more and more every year, but we really never know where they're going or what the other destination is like.

When LeMay talks about moments of infinity, I think she's talking about brief glimpses we may see of it--moments when the veil seems to part and we catch sight, if only for a second, of a vaster, purer reality.

I think I caught a glimpse of that vastness when I was with my friend Jack when he died. I was sad, of course, but at the same time I was awed by the mystery I had just experienced. At one moment he was there; then the next he was not. His heart and lungs had stopped but he did not disappear  from my life. I still held onto his humor, his dedication to issues of human rights, his stories about his work as a campus cop, and his collection of Betty Grable paraphernalia. His body had stopped "being," but he will existed.

The finiteness of Jack or me or anyone is merely the flesh and bone that confines us. The rest--the love we've shared, the laughs we've engendered, the friendships we've kept--those do not die. Even as those who are left with the memories of the deceased die off, something goes on.

I have tried with my family and friends and students to pass on the love that my parents gave me. I know that some of that will be passed on to others. In that way, we do not pass away, but we pass it on.

As LeMay says, " does not end in ashes to ashes and dust to dust, 1830-1886. Instead it moves as a poem does, from miracle to miracle, mystery to mystery."

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Morning Visitor

Her name was Nicole, but at first I didn’t even know she was a person. As I walked up the walk to work, I saw what appeared to be a pile of something covered by a sheet right in front of the door. It was raining, so I thought someone had delivered something and covered it to protect it from the rain, but as I walked closer, I saw the green water bottle on the right, and the flowered bag on the left, then a lock of dark hair escaping from the sheet. This was no pile of stuff. This was a woman sound asleep in front of the door.

I called out, “Good morning” a couple of times until she lifted her head and looked warily at me. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I was sleeping somewhere else, but it started to rain.” She quickly busied herself putting on her slippers and gathering her few belongings.

She was a small woman with striking blue eyes. Around her neck hung a rosary—the same shade of blue as her eyes.—a pale endless blue like a sea that stretched on forever.

She stuffed her sheet and an unraveling skein of green yarn into her bag. “Are you knitting something,” I asked. “Yes,” she replied, “a blanket.” It was a warm late August morning, but cold weather was coming.

“Do you go to the shelters?” I asked. She said she didn’t like them, that she had been managing on the street for two years. Her children—she didn’t say how many—were “with family.” She said she saw them "sometimes."

Having returned her few possessions to her bag, she apologized once again, then walked off toward the street.

I wish I had invited her to join me for breakfast, to hear more of her story. How did this tiny woman end up sleeping on the doorstep? What circumstances in life took her away from her children or the family they stayed with? How does someone so frail looking survive two years outside?

I am left with many questions and the memory of those eyes. I see them still.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Visiting Anne Frank's House

I was 28 when I first traveled to Europe. Our first stop was Amsterdam. I was excited about visiting the Van Gogh Museum that had just opened the month before. I looked forward to visiting Delft and picking up a piece of Delft Blue earthenware, but maybe more than anything else in the Netherlands, I wanted to visit the Anne Frank House.

I was born after the war in Europe was over, so what I knew of the Holocaust was limited. Two things, however, had affected me deeply--an image and a sound. The sound was that wailing siren in the 1959 movie The Diary of Anne Frank. Even after the closing credits, as I was coming to grips with Anne’s ultimate fate, that piercing sound of the siren kept screaming in my mind, continuing to echo for years afterward.

The image was much closer to home, just two houses away, in fact. That’s where the old rabbi and his wife lived so they could be within walking distance of the synagogue. At that time there were two Orthodox synagogues in the neighborhood, and it was common to see families walking up and down Sumner Avenue going to services on Friday nights or Saturday mornings.   One day as I happened to pass the rabbi and his wife going to services, I noticed it—the tattooed numbers on her arm. I knew immediately what they meant: my neighbor, the kind woman in the white house now walking peacefully to shul, had been branded, imprisoned, and designated as less than human. The only difference between my neighbor and Anne Frank was that my neighbor had survived.

I thought of her as I arrived at the Anne Frank House. Built in 1635, just a year before the city of Springfield was established, it is a four-story house, and like the other houses on Prinsengracht, is nudged in between two other similar houses facing the canal.

We followed our guide into the house and up a narrow stairway, then through a narrow passage, and past the faux bookcase that hid the entrance to the annex. Here Anne, her mother, father, sister Margot, the Pels family, and Fritz Pfeffer had hidden for two years. Through this passage Miep Gies and others risked their lives day after day smuggling in food and news until August 4, 1944, when the Gestapo arrived, arrested them all, and took them away to their ultimate fate.

The rooms seemed empty and stark, that is until I went into what had been Anne’s room. Here on the wall of her room she had pasted pictures from movie magazines: Sonja Henie, Ginger Rogers, Greta Garbo. I immediately remembered myself at 13, how I loved reading Photoplay and hearing about my favorite stars, especially Debbie Reynolds. Then I remembered cutting out her picture from the newspaper when she married Eddie Fisher. And I remembered pasting it in my scrapbook, just as Anne had pasted these pictures on the wall here. 

From that moment on Anne Frank was no longer a name in a history book. She liked to write. She liked to read about movie stars. She was someone like me. Had I known her we might have been friends. 

That's when I heard the piercing siren again.Who were they coming for this time?

Monday, February 19, 2018

Monday, February 19, 2018, Presidents’ Day

Once upon a time there was Lincoln’s Birthday on February 12 and Washington’s Birthday on February 22. Growing up in Massachusetts, we only got Washington’s Birthday off from school, but when I started teaching in Connecticut, we also got Lincoln’s Birthday off. These holidays were celebrated on the presidents’ actual birthdays.

I’m not sure when the two were blended into one day and labeled Presidents’ Day, or when the apostrophe disappeared. (Being a stubborn old English teacher, I refuse to give up on the apostrophe, but that’s another story). Somewhere in the past fifty years the holidays were merged and moved to a convenient Monday, and here in Massachusetts, anyway, merged into February vacation.

When I think of Washington’s Birthday when I was young, I think of my grandfather who came to live with us after my grandmother died. He was a quiet, kind, and hardworking man—a warm addition to our home. At my grandparents’ home on Allen Street he had had a large garden. There he planted according to the seasons, never putting in tomato plants before Memorial Day (always May 30 back then) when the chance of frost was over.
Our yard was much smaller, but he made the most of it, planting vegetables that we enjoyed throughout the summer. But what I remember about Washington’s Birthday was that that was the day on which he pruned the golden delicious apple tree. Regardless of New England’s fickle weather, he knew that late winter was the best time to get the trees ready for the new season.

My grandfather died in 1953 before vacation considerations or marketing strategies moved holidays around, also before global warming changed the seasons themselves. Even the gardeners at Washington’s own Mount Vernon recognize that the trees that used to become dormant in December no longer do so.

I wonder what Grandpa would think today of all these changes—the calendar, the climate. Even his garden on Allen Street was split in two when Sumner Avenue was extended. Still the memories don’t change of this quiet, faithful man putting on his boots, picking up the saw, and heading toward the apple tree, getting ready for another fruitful season.