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

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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.

Apocalypse Averted!

Reality check: This is 2013, almost 2014 right? U.S.A., right? Every citizen of a certain age can vote, right? An African-American is governor of our state of Massachusetts.  A man with an African father is President. I’ve worked side by side with African -, Latino-, Asian – Americans over the past decades. All true.

So explain to me how high schools in Georgia had their FIRST integrated senior prom this April. Only because a small (integrated) group of students decided segregation is wrong. Up until April 2013,  they had a “black prom” and a “white prom.” Is Georgia kidding?  This year a number of seniors decided to take matters into their own hands and organized their own integrated senior prom. Georgia governor Nathan Deal refused to endorse it.

Recently I heard Julian Bond say that Barak Obama has had more death threats than any president in U.S. history. I had somehow believed that things had gotten better than when I was a kid.

This is the twenty-fifth anniversary of Tracy Chapman’s first album. As I listened to her songs this week I realized that they are as true now as they were a quarter century ago. From her song “Why?”: “Why do the babies starve/ When there’s enough food to feed the world?… Why is a woman still not safe/ When she’s in her home?”  From “Revolution”:  “While they’re standing in the welfare lines / Crying at the doorsteps of those armies of salvation / Wasting time in the unemployment lines … Finally the tables are starting to turn /Talkin’ bout a revolution….” Twenty-five years ago I was so hopeful. But now listening to her songs, I started down the slippery slope to apocalyptic thinking. What happened to that revolution? Humans are on an irreversible downward spiral.

Apocalyptic thinking is popular now, as it was in medieval Europe. The world is so bad, goes the story, it’s got to be destroyed before the Kingdom of God can descend on those who are worthy. What are the signs of the End Time? For conservatives, that means same-sex marriage; for liberals, cutting aid for the poor. Still, the “doomed world” view is the same no matter our political / moral opinions.

Apocalyptic thinking, that is, pessimism and helplessness coupled with an us-them view of humanity, is the poison of faith. And I admit, pessimism often lurks beneath my breast.

Given everything, should I be this discouraged? The Georgia high school seniors received support from Korea, Japan and France. DJ’s offered their services for free; others donated lights for the dance. Their school board stated that in the future all events at the school will be integrated. Tracy Chapman was right all along. They did not stand for injustice.

Teilhard de Chardin,  a Jesuit scientist, concluded that humanity is evolving  along a moral, spiritual path.  I realized this week that my faith is based on that premise, though sometimes events seem to indicate the opposite is true.

Apocalyptic faith is an excuse to not act, but to judge. It takes creating a Kingdom of God out of our hands and delegates action into the hands of a God of destruction.

Alternatively, people are developing de Chardin’s vision of humanity. From the American Teilhard Association:  “…developing fresh perspectives on “Teilhard de Chardin’s remarkable evolutionary vision, often in ways that directly relate to an ecologically and spiritually sustainable Earth community.”

De Chardin said, “Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.

Reality check: Tracy and Teilhard are right. Thank- you,  Georgia students Quanesha Wallace, Keela Bloodworth,  Mareshia Rucker, Stephanie Sinnot.

I Hope They Think I Was Racist

My father, unusually intelligent in most things, thought that suburban living was the pinnacle of civilization, the culmination of centuries of evolution. Though I argued with him, I understood his point of view. My parents and their parents struggled to be able to live in a safe, secure, beautiful place. Leaving behind close family and neighbors, all the things they loved about living in Manhattan, was worth it. In a world with limited knowledge of other cultures, they could not compare Huntington, Connecticut to very many places.

We tend to think that we are the pinnacle of evolution, even more so when it comes to our opinions and attitudes. I hope that when my niece Kate’s grandchildren hear about Aunt Alice, who lived back in 2011, they are SHOCKED by my attitudes.

She lived in a HOUSE when people were sleeping on the street?!”

“She POINTED at Latino people in her classes? How could she insult people that way?”

“She handed a gift to a Thai person with ONE HAND? How racist is that?”

“She lived in a town WITHOUT ONE African-American? Who did she think she was?”

And I feel wonderful relief knowing that they will be upset by things I cannot even imagine now. After they voice their outrage about the attitudes of so-called “good” people in 2011, I hope that Kate takes them to the Harriet Beecher Stowe House in Connecticut. She’s the one who wrote that racist book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly in 1852.  A woman organized a church trip to Stowe’s house in Connecticut as a way of thinking about Black History Month. Stowe has taken an unfair hit on racism. The fictional Uncle Tom is a different, more complex man than the political image of an “Uncle Tom.” However, there is no denying that reading the 1852 book in 2011 is a different experience.

Stowe revolutionized white people’s view of slavery and African-Americans forever. Certainly not every white person is convinced, but enough to bring U.S. slavery to an end much sooner.

In 1972, my grandmother was shocked that our white neighbor married a man who was black. She was older and living with us in Huntington. She’d gone as far as fourth grade in Ireland before emigrating and started work as a nanny around 1912. Now that she was older and ill, she got to read and rest. She spent hours by the front window, reading, thinking, telling stories, mostly thinking. The only house in sight was across the street where the shocking couple came and went to work, went shopping, and worked in the yard. I was reading in the living room one day when she said, “I guess it’s all right, as long as he treats her right.” It took me a moment to realize who she was talking about. I consider that moment an important milestone in the evolution of race relations. If she could change her view of the world sitting at a window, watching, thinking, wondering, I’m sure I can also. Maybe I can knock off some of the unconscious attitudes I have from that future list of my niece’s grandchildren.