Many Doorsteps

That Doorstep

That doorstep trips you up every time.

Look down, the key is under the bucket.

Look up, watch your head.

Watch, don’t let the cat out.

Look behind, or the screen door will hit you.

Put your bag down; it tips over.

Look down, the key is not under the bucket.

Look up, bang your head,

Hold the screen with your elbow,

Kick the door with your heel. No one answers.

The cat sits between your legs.


The Stoop

The concrete is hot. It must be summer.

The streetlight sputters on. It must be evening.

The Mallory’s slide open their window. There must be a breeze.

Cousin Jimmy has his guitar. There must be no work.

Mom and Mary Ryan sit down to stretch their legs. Dinner must be cooked.

I sit on the bottom step, feet planted on the sidewalk.

A cat between my legs.


The Wheelchair Doorstep

Someone must see it is raining.

Someone must be working the door.

It can’t be long now, can it?

Surely someone will come soon.

I back up, rev up my arms and rush the doorstep.

The tiny front wheels catch the lip and tip me forward.

Surely someone will come soon.

See me in the rain outside

A cat upon my lap.


That Last Doorstep

He’s lain there unmoving,

Waiting for God knows what.

The nurses lied on his chart –

He has not eaten in days.

His eyes have not opened,

His throat has not moaned.

He’s lain there unmoving,

Waiting for .…


He is waiting for the precise moment.

Relax, he’s been waiting a lifetime for this moment.

The exact right moment.

Some sound in his silence,

Listening for that precise breath

To choose to be his last.

Before stepping over.


I nestle under his chin.

Feel my purr echo in this chest.

A Donald Trump of the Mind

A blogger [The Buddhist Christian] described his temporary inability to write by saying he had laryngitis of the hands. Here it is, the day before the Ashfield News article is due. My fingers rest uselessly on the keys. I’ve tried: over the past few weeks I’ve started writing about mercy – “Mercy me!” “Merciful heaven!” “Heavens to mercy!” etc. The article floated to a merciful end. The next subject I tried was about how Trump videos have replaced cute cat videos on Facebook – why IS that? That one bumped to a unsatisfactory close.

Writing this article monthly is a spiritual practice. But what happens when a person’s spiritual practice gets laryngitis?

Someone said that we try to live our lives with our hearts and try to keep our minds from screwing things up. I disagree. Only our minds can illuminate our hearts. Yes, okay, being cut off from our emotions, is bad and very 1950’s. But if we can’t learn from our hearts, our emotions (hearts), what’s the point? My own emotions hit a logjam this month. I haven’t been able to make sense of all my own heart has gone through over the past few years, and now feel a little dumbfounded and dull. I can tell because my sense of humor is a bit dim.

Our minds are great lassos. They lasso emotions to give them shape, to see them clearly, to pull them in, to illuminate them. Unilluminated emotions can be poisonous, or at least irritating. Unilluminated emotions can lead to….well, Trump for example. I am suffering from a Donald Trump of the mind.  A little 1950’s distance is needed to clear up the logjam. Not only in my own psyche, but I daresay, the country’s.

The path to our well house gets clogged with water streaming from further up the mountain. Not a big lake, just enough to make your socks wet and cold. How satisfying it is to take a stick and scoop aside enough leaves to free the stagnant water! Watching it suddenly burst out and rush down the hill is just about orgasmic. My March spiritual practice is to take a stick, gently stir things up, to not stand still in dumbfoundedness.

And to vote for……………

Loss, by Popular Demand

I stepped from plank to plank

So slow and cautiously;

The stars about my head I felt,

About my feet the sea.

I knew not but the next

Would be my final inch,–

This gave me that precarious gait

Some call experience.

—Emily Dickinson

I used this poem in a previous column when I wrote about healing from injuries due to an accident. Reading Dickinson forced me to redefine what healing means, what a wound is. Laurel Turk’s play BREASTLESS made me take a closer look at what a wound is.

In Celtic tradition a “thin place” is a place where the veil separating earth from heaven lifts.  “A thin place requires us to step from one world to another and that often means traveling to a place where we have less control and where the unpredictable becomes the means of discovery.” (Maddox)

Turk takes us on her journey to such a thin place, through pain and discovery and the places we are afraid to go to, where we would never go willingly.

Wounds are thin places. They cause great pain and grief, not just for the wound-carrier, but for those around her. Healing starts when the wound begins to lift the veil between ourselves and the world, ourselves and our hidden selves, and “a terrible beauty is born.” (Yeats)

Laurel Turk wrote the play BREASTLESS about her experiences with cancer, with a double mastectomy. As the shows continue, the audiences get larger. The play moves so many people, not just because her words and movement are about cancer. The play is about about fear, trauma, wounding, and all the care and revelations those things awaken. Turk forces us to see that the unimaginably painful is not simply bearable, but tender, humorous, open. Turk, and the audience, begins to imagine a world shifted into one more alive, more livable.

“…recognizing that loss is a part of life…” says one character when describing a dream of a future world. We prefer to ignore loss, pretending we’re “just fine with it,” getting over it. When a play like this looks closely at loss and grief with an unblinking eye, and a rare sense of humor, it is a gift.

This is why after over a hundred years we still spend time deciphering Dickinson’s cryptic verses. And why, by popular demand, BREASTLESS will go on tour.

All Things Counter: A Subdued Christmas


This is the time of year that I usually enjoy looking back over the Christmas Wars: reporters speculating on what race Santa really is, fundamentalist atheists demonstrating, once again, that while the Nativity scene may not be historically accurate, Grinches are real. (See “Delicious Christmas Controversies”) The War was very subdued this year. Much spittle flew over the President and First Lady wishing the nation Happy Holidays, but that was fleeting. The only real bright spot was the wave of Pastafarians winning the right to have their license photos taken with colanders on their heads.

However, Pastafarians are gaining acceptance for wearing colanders while Muslims are attacked for wearing hijab. I’m not finding the humor in that. Screaming at refugee Syrians, picketing children from Central America, some Americans are celebrating The Slaughter of the Innocents. One woman screamed at a bus of children on its way to a refugee camp, “Jesus would obey the law!” I consider this proof positive that there are two opposing versions of the New Testament, the one our church uses and the one that woman uses.

Our country has an ugly history of immigrant-hatred. We just can’t seem to shake it: Chinese, Italians, Irish, Japanese, Puerto Rican, Syrians, and always front-and-center, African Americans. (I’m skipping over the irony that African Americans were kidnapped and brought here by white folks.) This Christmas season the never-ending trend is gaining political traction.

This year the war on Christmas seems real.

Usually the bracing cold of this time of year helps me snap out of this discouragement. Now I’m weighed by damp warmth. Christmas Day, Kate Stevens told us to remember the resources we use to fill the hole of discouragement. The resources do not solve problems, but give us the strength to face them. I’ll pass along my joy to you, a gift from Gerard Manley Hopkins:

“Glory be to God for dappled things –

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;

And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.”

Kitten Anti-Terrorism with Shingles


I’m miserable. Everyone who has ever had shingles, raise your hand; you know what I’m talking about. This is the fourth week of skin torture. I’m writing this after taking a pain med, but before it knocks me out for a blessed four hours. This is my “able to think about something other than shingles” hour.

Usually I scroll through Facebook while drinking morning coffee, a non-threatening way to start my day before facing Huffington Post or BBC News. Now I appreciate FB even more. I don’t have a lot of “friends” on FB, but the ones I have post great inspiring, thoughtful, hilarious things. Gets my mind off my rash. This morning I read about cute kitten anti-terrorism.

Authorities in Brussels asked the public to stop tweeting information that might reveal where police are working because ISIS could use the info. So Belgians began flooding #BelgianLockdown with cat pictures: cute ones, funny ones, cats in police uniforms, filing their nails, Darth Vader kittens, all to make it harder for terrorists to sort through while looking for information about police movements.

It’s hard to feel pain while looking at a Salvador Dali-like picture of a cat’s head poking through a Belgian waffle. It’s hard to whine while watching a country respond to a call for anti-terrorist cooperation with wit and humor.  It’s satisfying to think of hate-filled people being forced to scroll through cat pictures hours on end. Reportedly, a news photographer come up with the idea. It might be too much to nominate him for a Nobel Peace Prize, but maybe not. [Remember, I’m on drugs.]

A number of people on FB (and in the real world) remind us that the opposite of terror and destruction is creativity and union. Poets vow to keep writing,  teachers recommit to teaching, care-givers continue to give care, parents hold up their children with pride and love. Jeannine is working right next to me now to bring the play “Breastless” to Ashfield, teach drama at Whole Children, prepare to direct “The Crucible”.

Anti-terrorism work surrounds us.

I’d decided not to write a column this month because of the difficulty of thinking straight with a wicked case of shingles. Then I read about the people of Brussels and changed my mind. I may not win a Nobel Prize for literature, but I showed up.

Life Depends upon a Sentence

Mom’s head lay on her pillow underneath my arm. I lay half on my chair, half on her bed as her breath grew fainter. I held her hand until her skin reacted uncomfortably to any touch; then I rested my hand next to hers on top of the sheet.

I don’t read much fiction. Fiction is made-up stories about people who never existed. I walk down shelves of fiction at  bookstores, past thousands of pages of things that never happened. Yes, some are written simply for entertainment: the neighbor’s sister murdered the minister’s child, the invasion of planet Earth failed; someone’s witty butler gets his employer out of a jam. Read them and pass them along to a used bookstore or a jail or the church yearly tag sale.

Non-fiction, such as History or Biography, is an attempt to tell what really happened at some time. The attempt will be flawed, but the author is accountable. “That’s NOT the way it happened,” says the neighbor’s sister; “The Earth was not really invaded by aliens,” says Orson Wells; “My butler was as dumb as a rock,” says the gentleman. So instead writers write fiction. How easy to arrange events to their liking, how unaccountable to anyone!

My mother’s family is a family of storytellers. Thanksgiving dinners were a raucous telling and retelling of stories from decades, lifetimes ago. Or just a few years ago. After my cousin Philip died, at each Thanksgiving dinner someone mentioned how much he’d loved canned cranberry sauce. Then the cranberry sauce became something more than cranberry sauce; we passed Philip’s smile around with the small bowl shimmering with red sauce, plopping the smooth jelly next to the stuffing as another story would begin.

After Mom died, the family had a large dinner at an Italian restaurant in New York. I leaned over and told a story to my end of the table: two of Mom’s sisters and a cousin. I told the story of the time my mother was working late at a Western Union office in Manhattan when a burglar came in demanding money. My  aunts, who must have heard that story a thousand times, listened and laughed yet again. My cousin laughed; she’d never heard the story. She agreed that story showed just what Dorothy was like.

My mother once told me that all my grandmother Kate could remember of her mother, Margaret, was her brushing my grandmother’s hair. And an aunt once said that my grandmother Kate remembered her mother pulling her hair when she got impatient. Those two sentences create two realities, two personalities for Margaret. Because there are few other stories about Margaret, much depends on a sentence.

As Mom’s head was cradled under my arm, I saw in her face all the stories that made up her life, that made up Dorothy. Stories we listened to over again, perhaps noticing how they changed a bit according to the teller; then we told them to others. No one corrected anyone. We listened.

One family member went back through records to find the History of our grandmother’s life, and so much is illuminated. Puzzle pieces slide across the picture finding places to fit. The stories catch fire again. And so the story continues.

This week I borrowed a book by Alice Hoffman and one by Anne Tyler. I will not settle in to read, but sit up straight to read stories that come from somewhere and create us.

Then I will read “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien because he said, “That’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.”

-Dorothy A. [Hackett] Barrett, December 3, 1922 – October 6, 2015

Continuation Day, June 17, 2015

Our friend, Kate O’Shea passed away on July 17.

On our birthdays, Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to say “Happy Continuation Day!” The day we are born is not a totally fresh beginning of new life, but a continuation of life. Not just inherited genes, but the web of the families who raise us, they all are reborn at our birth.  When I look in the mirror, I see Mom and Dad; sometimes I hear Dad’s words coming out of my mouth; unfortunately I sing like Dad, not Mom. The people who passed their lives to me were/are kind, loyal, racist, people who speak out against prejudice, full of life, lazy, alcoholic, generous, at least one thief, brave, funny, cynical, affirming, cold, calm, hot-tempered, loving. And they are just the ones I know about. Which seeds will I water?

As Jeannine’s mother was dying, her mother muttered, “Push, push…” as if giving birth.  As if she was being reborn. Jesus’ life story begins with a list of the generations he sprang from; it ends with Resurrection. Buddhist call this insight of Christianity, and of Jeannine’s mother, “No Birth, No Death.”

June 17th is Kate O’Shea’s new Continuation Day. She passed from our known to the unknown, leaving the trail of her soul for us to follow.

On June 17, we witnessed another Continuation Day. Not of an individual, but of a community. The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, “Mother Emanuel,” carries the lives of her congregants down generations. In 1822, one of her founders, Denmark Vesey, attempted to start a slave rebellion. Denmark was executed, and black churches were burned down. The congregants rebuilt their church; after which all black churches were outlawed in South Carolina. So the people worshiped underground. All of this history, as well as their worship, their service, faith, their music, flow through Mother Emanuel.

On the 17th,  a terrorist killed nine of Mother Emanuel’s children. Mother Emanuel knows exactly which seeds she wants to water. Mother Emanuel mourned her lose, and forgave, and demands our whole nation shake off hate and turn to justice. For a start, she demands that the Confederate Flag, banner of a slave-holding regime, be removed from government buildings.

Nikki Haley, the governor of South Carolina, called for the killer to be executed.The continuation of a misguided belief in the “justice” of retaliation.

And a nation has “Continuations of Values ,” passing down hate, powerful faith, retaliation and true justice.

Which seeds do we water? I know which Kate O’Shea would choose.

Uganda and Ireland, or The Irish and the Gay People

When I asked Jeannine for an idea for this month’s article, she said, “How about the Irish and the gay people?” It sounded like a special presentation of the SyFy Channel. But it’s true: on May 22 Ireland held a referendum on marriage equality. It is the first country to legalize gay marriage by public vote.  Can this be the same Ireland I love in spite of everything? Will I have to drop the “in spite of everything”?

Long ago I read a book titled: “Saints, Sinners and Schizophrenics, a study of mental illness among Irish bachelor farmers.” Surely I should have seen this vote coming.
Oscar Wilde, Nuala O’Faolain, Emma Donoghue, Elizabeth Bowen, Brendan Behan are among Ireland’s favorite writers. I must have been blind not to have foreseen it.

Regarding the upcoming vote, the Archbishop of Dublin said, “I have no wish to stuff my religious views down other people’s throats….” Just as I read this quote, a chick-a-dee feather blew in our window and knocked me over.

Meanwhile, here in Massachusetts:
On December 14, 1957 Scott Douglas Lively was born in Buckland. In 1986 he became a born-again Christian and in March 2009, Pastor Lively and two other evangelical Christians gave a series of talks in Uganda. “The theme of the event, according to Stephen Langa, its Ugandan organizer, was ‘the gay agenda — that whole hidden and dark agenda’ — and the threat homosexuals posed to Bible-based values and the traditional African family.” [New York Times]
In November of that year, the infamous “Kill-the-Gays” legislation was submitted to the Ugandan parliament. Lively was unhappy that the bill called for the death penalty; he simply wanted homosexuals to be put in jail for life, that’s all. The law also called for prosecution of individuals, corporations, organizations that support gay rights, as well as of people who don’t turn them in to authorities. The law was signed into law (sans death penalty) on February 24, 2014. On August 1st the Constitutional Court of Uganda declared it unconstitutional because of a voting technicality. The government is appealing that decision.

In the meantime, beatings, “corrective rapes”, forced marriages, and murders of gay people have been rampant. Newspapers listed the names of gay men and lesbians along with “tips” for identifying gay people. One paper put the words “Hang Them” on the banner. The picture of one LGBT activist, David Kato, was printed on the front page. He was subsequently murdered.

In May, four asylum seekers from Uganda came to the First Congregational Church, not too far from Buckland, to help celebrate the anniversary of marriage equality in Massachusetts. Harold, Carlton, Florence, Jingo told us their stories. After finding their way to the U.S., asylum seekers are not allowed to find work. Their families often refuse to harbor them because of their sexual orientation and they end up sleeping in bus stations, on the street, with no resources, financial or legal.

Good news: In June 2008 the Worcester UCC Hadwen Park Church founded the LGBT Asylum Task Force to support the basic needs of people seeking asylum in the U.S. The Force has helped people from 80 countries where homosexuality is a crime, including Jamaica, Cameroon, Lebanon, Zambia, Uganda, Nigeria, Palestine, China, Morocco, Costa Rico, Iraq, and Turkey.

More good news: Scott Lively, now a pastor in Springfield, is on trial for crimes against humanity.

Even better news: The LGBT Task Force has so many asylum seekers to help that they are in desperate need of funds. And anyone with $5 can help! And they take PayPal!
So easy! Just go to
Ireland legalized divorce in 1995. This is not the most up-to-date country with regards to marriage rights. Until now. In less than 20 years it turned to openness and acceptance. Anything can happen anywhere. Harold, Carlton, Florence, Jingo carry justice on their back to our country. Time to help them.
And “Éirinn go Brách!”

An Embarrassing Hero

I saw Dorothy Day at a Mass one afternoon. She sat in a front pew with her head bowed in prayer. I had the same contradictory reaction to her that I do now, forty years later.

Her uncompromising belief in pacifism inspired everyone I worked with in the Catholic Left, activists who worked for the end of the American War in Vietnam, and for a shift in America’s attitude toward war. She is best known for her work with desperately poor people, opening Houses of Hospitality to feed and house the most marginalized in Depression America, and after. She constantly confronted the Catholic hierarchy in their neglect of the Christian message of social justice. Her stand for pacifism was absolute. Christians, she said, had no other choice.

That afternoon, what I saw in her bowed head was a piety and submission to authority that made me cringe. She once said that if the Cardinal told her to stop printing her Catholic Worker newspaper, she’d shut it down immediately. The idea of totally obedient and will-less devotion to a religious authority is a destructive medieval hold-over. It is an infantile approach to church. She was devoted to that obedience.

However, to categorize Dorothy Day as totally obedient or will-less or infantile verges on the ridiculous, and counter to everything we know about her life. So Dorothy Day, enigma, paradox, embarrassing hero, haunts my spiritual life.

This year, when a pastor was arrested for feeding homeless people outdoors in Fort Lauderdale, I swear I could see her right there. She goes to Palestine; she’s in jail for acts of social justice. She is working at the Food Pantry. She is insulating walls to protect the creation she loved. She is striking with fast-food workers for a living wage. She is an unfailing guide for social justice.

But, a spiritual guide? Yes: “How can you not believe in God when there are so many beautiful things?” she asked her lover. Her beliefs about the sanctity of voluntary suffering? No. Her rigidity about women’s roles and about divorce? No. Her humbleness before church authority? No. Her humbleness before God? Yes.

I gave up this year. The only way to deal with a ghost is to face her. I’m reading what she wrote and what is written about her. I’m sitting next to her before God. The result: her paradox is becoming more pronounced – not what I was hoping for. Now the paradoxes in my own soul are clearer to me. Wandering in the celtic knot of Dorothy’s life is making me recognize the knot of my own life. Celtic knots are mysterious and beautiful, however unsettling to live with.

Leggo My Jesus!

I was meeting a friend at a coffee shop in a very large bookstore which shall remain unnamed. From afar I saw a bright, shining cloud. I was drawn to it as if I were ascended, only horizontally. There, on the shelf of bibles, was one I had never seen before. Glowing, as if barcoded from heaven: the Lego Bible in a box. The penultimate of American Christian art! A reflection of how devout bad taste can be! And the combo set of Old and New Testaments with moveable figures for only $29.95!

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the many bibles available to Christians now {The New Color-Coded Bibles]: the Green Bible, with lines highlighted in green to show us how often dirt is mentioned; the Justice Bible, highlighted to show that God cares about the poor and oppressed “a lot,” and my then-favorite, the American Patriot’s Bible with George Washington on the cover (let the French write their own damned bible).* But this…..
On the cover, I kid you not, DaVinci’s “The Last Supper” with little Lego people. Awestruck, I knelt before it to look closer. I have looked closely at DaVinci’s version, the faces, the expressions, bodies. I’m sorry, but it does not compare to this version: cube heads, blank expressions, little plastic bodies with somewhat moveable arms, primary colors only. So easy on the eye.

Revelations of biblical scenes appeared before me: Jesus knocking all those money-changers off the table onto the floor where the dog can chew them up, a barbie-sized Goliath smiting a teeny tiny David. Are pebbles supplied for stonings? Or do we have to supply our own? I wondered how they would depict Peter cutting off the Roman soldier’s ear since Lego people have no ears.

Turns out, I am years behind the times. The original version came out in 2001. “The Brick Bible,” as it is called, was pulled off the shelves at Toys-R-Us and Sam’s Club because someone noticed the sex scenes. The Brick Bible includes, you guessed it, graphic Lego sex scenes. (This whole blog was worth writing just to be able to use that phrase.)
The creator, Brendan Powell Smith, was astonished at the censorship. The depictions in his bible were nothing compared to the Bible bible’s sex scenes. Why didn’t they ban the original? I’m not sure how his version ended up on the shelves again. Perhaps the graphic Lego sex scenes were removed.

At the unnamed store, my fingers coveted that Brick Holy Book, that igniter of imagination, that simplifier of all things miraculous, the pure Americanism of it, the graphic Lego sex scenes in it, but I resisted. However, Christmas is only eleven months away… (a hint for those who have ears to…. oh, never mind).