Monday, December 23, 2019

Feeding and Being Fed

The truth is I didn’t want to go that Wednesday. It was dark and cold, and I really just wanted to stay home, have bowl of soup, and take a nap. Then I thought about the people who were already lined up on this wintry day just waiting for us volunteers to distribute the food brought with the Mobile Food Bank.

Sponsored by the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, the Mobile Food Bank comes to Trinity United Methodist Church on the first and third Wednesdays of every month. The truck arrives about 1:15 full of food that has been donated from local farms, stores, and the government. The driver unloads pallets of potatoes, onions, squash, or whatever the fare is for the day. We volunteers take up a station in front of one of the pallets and proceed to pass out the food to the people in the line.

On our busiest days there can be more than 300 people representing a virtual United Nations including Mexico, Nepal, Pakistan, Greece, and Russia. There is no charge for the food, and the people who come are only asked the number and ages of the people in their household.  They come on the hottest days of the summer and the coldest days of the winter. And they wait patiently--very patiently.

On that Wednesday I was handing out beets—4 large beets per person. Quite a few turned them down, but several smiled brightly when I suggested they could make borscht. Once I began dropping the beets in their bags—some flimsy plastic, others more sturdy from Big Y, and some backpacks on wheels—I remembered why I like doing this, even when the weather is not pleasant. Everyone is so grateful. One after one, they smile, say thank you, God bless you, and, in return, I cannot help but smile back.

There are some regulars I recognize like Max who is Russian. I discovered awhile back that he is an amazing pianist. I smiled and asked if he was doing well, “Not good,” he said, “excellent!” Ann usually comes with her youngest child and always greets me with a hug. I am fed by these people who come here for food.

It was a slow day. Maybe people were still dealing with the aftermath of the recent storm. It gave us a little more time to talk to the people coming through the line. When an older man in a gray flannel shirt held out his bag for me to drop the beets in, I could see that he’d been crying. I asked what was wrong, and he just kept repeating, “I’ve lost everything.”

What does one say to that? The words I uttered—I’m sorry—felt insufficient. He told me then that his wife had died of cancer. Then he repeated, “I’ve lost everything.” He moved on to Kathy who was passing out carrots, and I could see that she was tearing up. I gave him a hug before he left. What else could I offer?

I hope we see him again, but I may never find out his whole story. There are so many stories behind all these faces. Most of these people would be labeled poor. To stand in line for hours to receive several pieces of food would seem to support that.But  there is a richness to be had in hearing people’s stories, in touching another human, in sharing smiles on a cold day. 

I was glad I went. I went home feeling much richer.

Friday, November 15, 2019

The October Holiday - a month late

"Dignity" Chamberlain, SD
"There was much discussion last month about what has traditionally been called Columbus Day. Many places have started celebrating Indigenous People's Day instead. As with much these days, it's become a binary choice, one or the other. Instead. I would like to propose we celebrate both.

The more we learn of Columbus, the more we see the cruelty and violence that he brought with him--the enslavement, raping, and pillaging. All true and reprehensible to us 500 years later.
"Christopher Columbus" Providence, RI

The native people had been living on the lands we call America for centuries when this band of Europeans and those who followed them (or preceded--consider Leif Erikson) came with a belief that it was their God-given right to conquer and take what they found.

Today we are quick to label and condemn those years ago who did not live up to our current moral principles. I sometimes wish I could jump into a time machine just to see what behaviors we accept  today as normal, even honorable, that would be condemned by future societies. What if, for example, it were discovered that our great feat of landing a man on the moon had somehow disturbed the cosmos in ways we cannot imagine today? Wouldn't the people of the future be quick to castigate us?

Columbus, like all humans, was complicated. He was motivated by ego and greed, and his actions towards the natives were inexcusable to us. But he was also brave and determined, and led the way for a greater and greater understanding of the planet we share.

Ironically we are also only beginning to discover lessons the indigenous understood--the importance of sharing the earth and protecting it for future generations. These lessons are 
critical to our very survival.

Maybe we should rename the October holiday Discovery Day in which we celebrate what we continue to learn about the Earth and all its people.

Monday, November 11, 2019


November 11, 1918

She was learning to read.
Every day she carried home
new words and calculations--
offerings to the grandmother
who signed her name with an X.

She first heard the news
from the kids at Eastern Avenue School
then from the neighbors.
The Great War was over.
The boys were coming home.

People filled the streets
shouting, banging pots and pans.
It was a noisier than the Fourth of July.
The war to end all wars was over.
Smiles were everywhere.

But once inside, she found
her grandmother in tears.
She tried to tell her the news--
today's lesson to share,
but Grandma had already heard.

She knew the fighting had stopped
that soldiers were coming home.
Her tears were for the others--
the boys lost far from home
and the mothers still waiting.

At six how could she understand
a mother's grief over a lost child?
This illiterate woman who remembered
the baby drowned back in Ireland
was well schooled in suffering.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Before Chopped

As I watch the Food Network’s Chopped where four chefs compete to create three courses from separate baskets of strange ingredients, I am reminded of my mother who put together so many meals—sometimes standard, sometimes unique, but almost always delicious.

There were the formal Sunday dinners where the roast would be in put in the oven before we left for church, and upon our return, we would each set to our duties. My job was to set the table in the dining room using the good dishes (purchased at the church rummage sale) and the best glasses (which originally had held Big Top peanut butter). My brother helped to fold the napkins. After the roast was removed from the oven, my mother would set about making gravy from all the wonderful drippings in the roast pan. My father usually mashed the potatoes and cut up the roast. There were vegetables, of course, warm rolls, and usually a relish tray.

On regular week nights, dinner was simpler. We ate at the old oak table in the kitchen with the everyday dishes and glasses. Perhaps my mother made meatloaf or chicken or spaghetti, but towards the end of the week there were always the leftovers to deal with. My mother had two methods of dealing with those.

Sometimes she would take out the large Revereware frying pan, fill it with water, and assign each morsel to its own custard cup and place it in the pan to warm. Then we would bring our plates to the stove to select from the “buffet.”

But my favorite nights were when she did her own version of “Chopped” and created something new from whatever was in the refrigerator. She worked her magic mixing together what had never been combined before. The results varied, but many times they were exceptionally good, and we would rave about her original creations. To which she would always say, “Don’t ask me to make it again.” It was a one-of-a-kind, once-in-a-lifetime creation.  

I’m thinking now that there should be a spin off of Chopped where the chefs get plastic containers of leftovers to work with. My mother could have won that contest easily!

Friday, July 5, 2019


Along the border between my neighbor to the north and me, a chain link fence marks the line between his neat, flat lawn and my wild collection of clematis, milkweed, cone flowers, day lilies, and a varied assortment of weeds. All but the clematis arrived here thanks to either birds or winds that pay no heed to fence or border.

My challenge today was to clear out the weeds that I have been avoiding. Sunny, the woman who lived north of the border when I moved in here 37 years ago, explained to me her definition of weeds: anything that’s growing where you don’t want it. So, though I never planted it, the milkweed stays. Besides its lovely fragrance in June and those parchment pods full of magical white stars in the fall, it provides essential food for the Monarch butterflies, and I love butterflies. Cone flowers tend to attract them as well. The day lilies stay too. They were here when I moved in, and I admire their tenacity and the splash of orange.

With my sturdy garden gloves on, and armed with clippers and trowel, I head out to extract the wild grasses, the thistle, and that sturdy, winding bittersweet that weaves itself around anything nearby, especially the galvanized steel mesh of the chain links. Most of the regular weeds come up easily, but the bittersweet is a challenge. It involves un-weaving its tiny branches from each diamond of chain link and frequently clipping a small piece of branch with one hand while catching the piece with the other hand lest it land on my neighbor’s lawn.

As I am doing this, I think about Sunny and the fence between us. A delightful woman and an inveterate gardener, she was 93 when I moved in. Every square inch of her tiny city lot was planted with some variety of edible or flower. She even had a tiny koi pond in the middle of the back yard.

Back then the fence was covered with pink roses that she encouraged me to pick. She would frequently come to the fence with a gift from her garden or some wise piece of advice for the new homeowner. She taught me much about plants and nature. “If you plant a garden,” she said, “you’ll always have something to look forward to.”

Our friendship grew because she saw the fence as a place to meet and share—both flowers and wisdom.

Friday, June 7, 2019

My Kids

I find it hard to believe that I have been retired from teaching for 17 years. Of course, when I see my former students on Facebook showing pictures of their grandchildren, it brings me back to reality. That’s one of the things about Facebook I most enjoy—seeing those “kids” now grown up and doing well. For some of them, I wasn’t so sure it would turn out that way.

Most teachers I know are invested in their students, want the best for them, worry about them, try to encourage them. So when you have a class load of 120+ kids, that’s a lot of worrying. I was reminded of that worry yesterday when I was volunteering at an event for fourth-graders.

One girl made an impression on me. She was small, with short dark hair and big dark eyes. As she reached for another cookie, she explained that she was getting it for her grandmother. We chatted for a while, and I was impressed with her composure, her conversational skills, and I guessed that she was an older sister to one of the fourth-graders in the group. When she had left, I asked her teacher how old she was. Ten! I couldn’t believe how mature she was for such a young age.

Then her teacher began to tell me her story. She and her brother were living with their grandmother because her mother was “drugged out.” Now, however, her grandmother had been diagnosed with stage four cancer. “What will happen to them?” I asked. The teacher just shook her head. I could see the pain in her eyes.

Then she turned to speak to a boy who had been running around disrupting the group. “He’s so smart,” she said to me, “and he tests me all the time.”

Suddenly I was back in front of my students, worried about the sweet young woman who was being abused by her step father, frustrated by the so bright young man who was channeling all his energies into gang activities. So many students with real problems that I could do little about.

These are the kids that break your heart as a teacher, the ones you want to take home and nurture, the ones you pray for, the ones who you hope will show up on Facebook someday with happy stories.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Dream a Little Dream With Me

If daydreaming counted as exercise, I would have no need of diet plans or gym memberships, and I would be quite fit, thank you very much!

I enjoy these short excursions into fantasy or nostalgia. Are they any different from delusions that comfort?  My mother in her last years loved to tell about how she had walked the fifteen miles to visit my brother and her grandsons; all the while she remained in her room at the care facility. There was no arguing with her. She knew it was difficult, but believed she had indeed accomplished this. Maybe the advantage to the delusion is that you don’t have to come back to reality.

In my daydreams I go back to places I've been like the Bay of Naples or the deserts of New Mexico, and the advantage of doing all this traveling in a reverie is that you don't have to pack, or worry about the TSA, or finding your luggage on the carousel, and it’s free! It's off to faraway places in just the flash of a memory, and then in another flash you're off somewhere else.

Daydreams summon back mother, father, grandparents, and friends whom I can no longer see with waking eyes, and I can go back to happy memories over and over again like playing on the swings in the rain with my roommate Pat, tasting my grandmother's vanilla pudding with orange slices, or watching the stars fly off the grinding wheel as I stood next to my father at his tool bench.

Maybe I'm in denial of the sharp intrusions of reality, and even if it doesn’t take the place of physical exercise, daydreaming will remain part of my regimen,.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

My Churches - Yet Again

I first posted this in 2013, then again in 2016. This week after the painful reports back from the special session of the United Methodist Church General Conference, I feel the need to post it again, if only to remind myself that the first of these churches hasn't changed and is still the warm and welcoming place I know.

My Churches 
December 2013

On Christmas Eve after the presents are opened, the dishes loaded into the dishwasher, and the guests have left for home, I will sit for just a minute and look at the tree. Then I will bundle myself up and travel down the road to the candlelight service at church. This is always a highlight of my holiday. The beautiful music, the warm candlelight, and the familiar story of wanderers finding crude shelter where their baby will be born amid the animals all remind me once again of what this season is about.

When I speak here of church, I am speaking of the church I attend nearly every Sunday—Trinity United Methodist Church in Springfield, MA. The stone cathedral structure next to Forest Park is quite recognizable to anyone in the Springfield area. It is a beautiful building, but when I refer to the church, I am really talking about the people there. Everyone from the toddler playing peek-a-boo from two pews up to the man from AA who comes in silently, then leaves. Trinity is a warm and welcoming place.

This is why it pains me so when I hear about the other church—that larger church we are a part of—The United Methodist Church. That church has been in the news lately and not for being warm and welcoming—quite the opposite. That church has tried and convicted one of its clergy for violating church law—a law that forbids clergy from marrying couples of the same sex. In effect, that church has punished one of its members for showing love and compassion.

I struggle with being a member of these two churches, and I know I’m not alone. Can I go along worshiping and working in the church that ministers to everyone while, at the same time, being a part of that other church that excludes, judges, and condemns? I don’t know.

A couple of Christmases ago as I entered Trinity for the candlelight service, I saw one very bright star alone in the sky right over the church. I thought, of course, of the Magi who were guided by the star. This Christmas I will pray for that light to fall on both of my churches.

My Church

This is my church - doors open to the noise of the city
This is not my church - doors safely closed

This is my church - hands stretched across barriers
This is not my church - hands rigidly folded

This is my church - a harmony of diverse voices
This is not my church - a monotone of narrow doctrine

This is my church - hearts warmed by love
This is not my church - love limited by decree

My church -
not the closed inn doors
but the welcoming stable.

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.