White Privilege

The current state of the United States right now––December 5, 2014––is protest. From Ferguson, MO, to Boston, MA, to New York, NY, to Chicago, IL, to Phoenix, AZ, and places in between, people are publicly protesting the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice of Cleveland. What these three persons had in common is that they were unarmed African-American males who were killed by police. The police in the first two instances were exonerated by grand juries, in spite of the fact that Garner’s death had been ruled a homicide.

Maybe it’s time for white folks to dust off Peggy McIntosh’s essay on white privilege, originally published in 1988 by Wellesley College’s Center for Research on Women. An honest and thoughtful reading of this essay can be a consciousness-raising, life-changing experience. You can read the points she raises as she unpacks the backpack of white privilege here.

McIntosh effectively dispels the myth of meritocracy when applied to African- Americans, and challenges white Americans to look at the interlocking systems of dominance in this country, and in our individual lives, whom they exclude and whom they include. With knowledge comes responsibility, and although systemic change takes many decades––that fact borne out by the 26 years that have elapsed since her essay was first published––we can’t turn away.

Recall Martin Luther King Jr.’s saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”  In addition, consider the words of the last verse of a nineteenth-century hymn, “Once to Every Man and Nation,” by James R. Lowell.

‘Though the cause of evil prosper,

Yet the truth alone is strong;

Though her portion be the scaffold,

And upon the throne be wrong,

Yet that scaffold sways the future,

And, behind the dim unknown,

Standeth God within the shadow,

Keeping watch above his own.”

Cheers!

If I were a drinking person, I would definitely be toasting with whiskey the anniversary of the death of my dearest friend in this life: Ethel Pochocki. Whiskey was her drink of choice.

It was four years ago today, very early in the morning, that she breathed her way quietly into the next life. She and I had been figuring she was good for another ten years, but that wasn’t to be. To celebrate her last birthday, her 85th, while in a care facility, she asked for an apple pie instead of a cake. She may have had one bite of it.

Ethel was the award-winning author of many children’s books, some of which are still in print. A storyteller in the vein of Hans Christian Andersen, whose tales she lived for reading over and over, her favorite story was “The Little Match Girl.” The protagonist was a child of the streets at Christmas time, looking through windows at happy families warm and snug inside, while she sat out in the street in her rags, dreaming her dying dreams, seeing her visions in the light of a struck match.

The theme of the outsider was a frequent one in Ethel’s writings. Although she herself had been raised the somewhat pampered only child of a lawyer and homemaker in New Jersey, her soul was large with kindness and compassion, and she easily slipped into another’s shoes to tell their story. That story in turn gave rise to  compassion in the reader, who might be moved to act in a more loving way herself or himself, although that was neither Ethel’s purpose nor intention. Never preachy, she was funny and smart, even wily in her wit and in her writing, all of which writing was true. I believe the deep, human truth of what she wrote is why it affected readers as it did.

She loved dill pickles, coffee, all things Scottish, reading, cats and kittens, her kids, grandkids and great-grandkids, and competitive Scrabble. She had a gift for friendship, and if I surveyed her friends, including her own kids, I think the majority might say, as I did above, that she was the dearest friend they ever had in this life.

Ethel herself is most clearly revealed in her poems, collected in The Women of Lockerbie, published by Sheltering Pines Press in 2005. To give you a sense of who she was, I selected two poems from the collection, the title poem, “The Women of Lockerbie,” and “Recycling,” the poem we read at the time and place of distribution of her ashes.

The Women of Lockerbie

Village women prepare clothes
of crash victims for return
to kin.––TV News Broadcast

their good plain faces
linger briefly on the screen,
sandwiched among dancing raisins
and singing toilets and starving children
beset with flies

gentle sparrows
lifted from obscure nests
so we might observe
their quaint behavior.
“It’s the least we can do
to give a bit of comfort,
you know how mothers are,”
says one.

gathering in the laundered
remnants plucked from shrubs and rocks
and barren Advent trees in fields
where sheep will graze unaware
in spring,

smoothing these last things
blown sweet in the wind,
folding sleeves just so,
ironing precisely pleated skirts,
(you know how mothers are)
as if needed tomorrow

they are the women at the tomb
who pay respects in niceties
of fragrant balm and soothing linen,
who nurture even after death.
I could live in such a land
of valiant women.

Recycling

when it is time
for me to leave
this old house
I have molded to my comfort,
this outerwear worn
threadbare smooth to perfect fit,
throw a goodbye kiss,
lock it into memory,
level it to ash
in quantity to fill
a mayonnaise jar
and several coffee cans

then on a spring day
of gentle wind, or in October
when the maples blaze gold,
bestow it on the gardens,
the old lilacs and thistle hill,
the wildflower patch on the leach field
and the woods I haunted for berries,
around the horse chestnut trees
and the little house where I wrote poems
and watched the generations of
big fat spiders repeat their mothers’ lives
in the upper right-hand corner of the window,
and every other place I worked and sat
and pondered the mysteries of slugs
and difficult children
and what the Pope really believed
and if Brahms and Clara Schumann
ever consummated their love
and what to have for supper

do this in memory of me
and I’ll come back
in the crisp, feisty pickle,
the scarlet silk of gypsy poppies,
the wild sweetness of blackberry pie,
the chestnut you fondle
and cannot throw away,
the rose that finally
blooms

Why Aelwie Cave?

My experience of the Aelwie [Aillwee, Ailwee, etc.] Cave in County Clare, Ireland, in 1994 was the basis for my choice of that name for this blog. With tomorrow being the first Sunday of Advent, it seemed a good time to explain that choice for the title.

The Aelwie Cave is located in the Burren, an extensive region of over 100 square miles noted for its extraordinary rock formations. At first glance, the region appears barren and lifeless, a kind of lunar landscape. General Ludlow, who led the Cromwellian forces into Clare in 1651 said that the Burren “is a country where there is not water enough to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, or earth enough to bury him.” But below the carboniferous limestone surface lie many turloughs, seasonal lakes which appear and disappear, and the flowers and plants of the Burren have made it a favorite of botanists because of the cohabitation of Mediterranean and arctic-alpine plants. [Information from Fodor’s 90 Ireland]

We find ourselves eating supper earlier these days––by candlelight––and going to bed earlier. It’s that time of the year, the dark time, before the solstice on the 21st of next month, when the northern hemisphere of planet earth begins to incline toward the sun. Not uncoincidentally, the church begins its liturgical year tomorrow, the first Sunday of Advent, and also begins to incline toward the light, the light of the world whose birth we will hail and celebrate on Christmas.

A story I like to touch upon in every Advent season is my experience of what is called absolute darkness. I was in County Clare, Ireland, in 1994, making a pilgrimage of sorts to ancestral homesteads, when I happened upon the Aelwie Cave. At that time the cave had been cleared about a half mile into the earth, and visitors were invited to descend a decidedly rickety footbridge to view, among other things, the illuminated hibernation pit of a prehistoric bear, and an abyss-like cavern within the cave that featured dripping––one drop every five seconds––stalactites and the receptive opposed stalagmites. The relative unsteadiness of the footbridge, which was a mere one-person wide, discouraged any protracted meditation on the natural wonder.

The guide had told us at the beginning of the descent that when we reached the furthest-most accessible point of the cave, she would turn off the jerry-rigged strand of single light bulbs that stretched the length of the walkway. We arrived at the end, and, true to her word, she switched off the lights. Ireland is a country of extremes, viz., just as I thought I knew what the color green was before I saw the green of Ireland, just so had I thought I knew what darkness was before I was plunged into absolute darkness, which is a darkness without even a pin prick of light.

The guide had said that the human being can only bear absolute darkness for about 30 seconds before becoming agitated and anxious. We weren’t simply preconditioned, predisposed by her words; that’s the way it really was. The movement on the bridge as seconds passed was disquieting in itself, considering the seemingly haphazard nature of the construction. Added to that the aforementioned anxiety, and you have a nervous mix of people poised to turn and return to the entrance to the cave. But we needed the light, the turning on of which was welcomed with audible sighs of relief, small talk and the shifting of purses from one shoulder to the other.

That descent into the Aelwie Cave has become a metaphor for me for the season of Advent. We are a people in complete darkness waiting in fear of the unknown for the coming of the light, and, as we believe, that light being the Light of the World, Jesus, the Christ. No more than we can stand absolute darkness beyond 30 seconds can we stand or bear being without God for a protracted period of time, whether or not we know that as the name or label of what is missing, what is sustaining us moment by moment beyond our knowing. Our hope in these days of early sunsets, early suppers and early bedtimes is that there will be light at the end of Advent with the coming of Christ at Christmas. We let that hope build in us and give us the wherewithal to continue in the multiple responsibilities of our individual preparations, from Christmas cards, to decorations, to gift-buying. From cooking and baking, to wreath-making, to singing for our own entertainment and others.’

While all of these activities are part of the preparation for the 12-day holiday season, the most important preparation is of the individual heart. Once we get past our fear of the darkness associated with the season and the wider darkness that it connotes, which is actually what can frighten us, once we get past that we can focus on the four weeks of Advent preceding Christmas as being like the 40 days of Lent preceding Easter, a time of penitential reflection.

This time of getting ready is a time to think about what rooms need cleaning up, cleaning out, before the coming of the Lord. If there’s a hidden room under your inner staircase that hasn’t been opened in years––unforgiveness, for example––and you know that the dust and grime has built up over the years, dare to open the door with the help of the Spirit of God and apply the cleaning tools of reflection and repentance. And tears. Nothing washes clean like tears. Clean up the mess before the baby comes.

Readiness is all. I want to be ready. Don’t you?

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The Red Tent

Last night fourteen of us sat around a candle-lit table in the 7 o’clock darkness of the approaching solstice here at the end of a dirt road in rural Maine. As we have been doing for the last 10 years, for two hours we shared our lives over food and drink, in laughter, and in prayer.

From the earliest stages, the group called itself The Red Tent, borrowing the name from Anita Diamant’s 1997 best-selling novel of biblical times (learn more about that here).

From a core of five or so choristers from the local Catholic Church, who wanted more to eat and more to drink of their own shared spirituality than they were able to partake of at Mass, the group has grown in diversity and numbers. Most of the original group of “petitioners” have continued to attend church, are still in the choir and continue to identify with the “tribe,” the family, as one of the women termed their relationship with the church.

We women have worked through the years at home and in the communities in our area, have become widowed, endured life-threatening illnesses, have cared for and lost parents, have raised children and now have grandchildren. Our ages range from 40 to 82, and religious expression ranges from active Catholic, to agnostic, to completely unchurched, but most, having had infant baptism and subsequent adult choice, consider themselves Christian.

One recent addition to the group, a white-haired grand- and great-grandmother who came for the first time after the sudden death of her middle-aged son, wrote a succinct summary of what The Red Tent means to her and which she read to us last night. To wit:

Under the tent my sisters all sit.

Some of us wear jeans, some of us skirts.

Some wear make-up, and some do not.

Some are dark-haired, some are not.

Some can sing like angels, and some can even whistle.

But under it all we are one, in our love and sisterhood, always there for one another.

The support we have for one another is unconditional and respectful and above all, loving. In January 2015 we will mark 11 years together with a pot luck supper, opened with prayer, and closed the same way, by passing around a cup of wine in a vintage tea cup that belonged to the mother of two of our sisters, from which we all drink. The thought behind the ritual is that the essence of everything we have shared at the meeting––prayer, talk, laughter, tears, food and drink––is distilled and contained in the cup we pass, one to the other in peace and love.

Beginning

Sometimes it is in disobedience that true obedience is uncovered, the way cleared only when we can let go of tightly gripped partial truths about God, about ourselves, about the world.

At my last experience of sacramental confession in the Roman Catholic Church, I was filled with joy as I confessed the sin of idolatry, a sin against the first commandment: Thou shalt have no strange gods before me. The strange god was one of presumption, that I knew how to worship God, through all the ages-old liturgies of the church, especially the Mass.

What became clear to me by the grace of God was my own ignorance. I knew nothing and came to rejoice in the not-knowing. Lip service to mystery, even the acting out of it in mediated worship was not enough. Recognition of the relationship between Creator and creature wanted addressing. God made a way for me to begin again, that One having pulled the prayer rug out from under me.

The following poem was written during that period.

My Retinue

Raise up the story of your grave past

from beneath the stone foundation

of your first house

where blocked in living cement

you lived like an anchoress

attached to a church

closed in and fed

by an unseen hand

through an opening in the wall.

You survived the enclosure

until the iconoclast of your own desire

dismantled that wall

stone by stone

and you stepped forth

finding yourself full grown.

From stones of stories set aside

build a foundation for another house,

where I will come and keep you, my retinue.

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