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Circling Excerpt 4: Part I (Soaring) — Chapter 1: Geography (Third Section)

September 18th, 2013

This is the last section in Chapter 1, about a wondrous time in my life — teaching Alaskan natives in a boarding school in Mt. Edgecumbe, Alaska.  It was eye-opening (or should I saw “heart”-opening) in more ways than one:

 

 

“In the days when the spinning-wheels hummed busily in the farmhouses – and even great ladies, clothed in silk and thread-lace, had their toy spinning-wheels of polished oak – there might be seen in districts far away among the lanes, or deep in the bosom of the hills, certain pallid undersized men, who, by the side of the brawny country-folk, looked like the remnants of a disinherited race.”

Thirty shiny faces stare blankly at me and then each other. I do the same. Except for the occasional three- or four-letter word, I might be speaking ancient Greek or whatever it was people spoke umpteen centuries ago in Timbuktu. Hell, they don’t even know to snicker at the word “bosom” and probably haven’t heard of “boobs” either.

When I glance again at what I have just read aloud to them (the first line of George Eliot’s Silas Marner), it – despite the dashes for which I share a fondness – suddenly morphs into the worst and most incomprehensible piece of writing that the English-speaking world has ungraciously bestowed on poor ordinary mortals.

But are we “ordinary”?

Oh yes, in many ways we are quite ordinary. We follow the same syllabus as tenth graders in the “lower 48” (the continental United States), so we can rest content with the happy knowledge that millions of public school sophomores are suffering the same ordinary despair that we so keenly feel. But arrayed in front of me are thirty students ranging in age from sixteen to twenty-six with otherworldly faces reminiscent of tribes wandering the steppes of central Asia many millennia previously.

When they realize I am as clueless as they, they respond with warm smiles – which is good because they outnumber me in mass, might, and experience (even if I can pronounce and understand words like “bosom,” “pallid,” and “brawny”). By contrast, their reading comprehension is between second and fifth grade, fully unprepared for George Eliot at her best – to say nothing of her worst.

So I re-read it, describing such foreign things as silk, spinning wheels, lanes, and (God help me – you know I try – “remnants of a disinherited race,” i.e., itinerant peddlers and weavers of which Silas Marner was one). I explain English country life with its classism (which they cannot grasp) likening it to racism (which they can). They respond with more blank stares – although this time with a hint of mischief or chagrin.

It is going to be a long nine weeks.

Along with three other students from Bennington College, I have entered the unhallowed halls of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Mt. Edgecumbe High School, a boarding school created on a small island adjoining Sitka for educating Alaskan natives. Except for this, only the five largest cities – Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, Ketchikan, and Sitka – sport local high schools, effectively disenfranchising those natives who live in remote areas. So the Bureau pays for two students from each village to come to Mt. Edgecumbe to finish their studies. And here they are – Eskimos from the North, Aleuts from the western archipelago, Athabascans from the interior, and Tlingits and Haidas from the south, with a few students from smaller tribes scattered throughout the state.

Bennington College’s Non-Resident Term is an exciting opportunity for the administration to save money on heating and snow plowing during the winter, for faculty to do “real stuff,” and for students to work in museums, prep schools, government agencies, and non-profit organizations in Boston, New York City and other hubs of civilizations. Very few manage to make it west of the Appalachians – to say nothing of 57 degrees latitude (further north than Moscow). But some wonderful person has worked out an arrangement with the BIA to hire four of us as teacher’s aides, and so I (a freshman) and three sophomores show up on January 2, 1966 – exactly one day after the great fire that destroyed St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral, the great landmark of Sitka. More to the point, however, it was on that day that one of the English teachers decided to quit – on the spot.

So, in addition to our planned assignments (orchestra and band for me), Debbie Brown and I are assigned two classes each of tenth grade English. No problem, explains the principal – here is the lesson plan – we go by the same requirements as the schools in the lower 48 – they just finished their year of American literature in which they read Moby Dick, Scarlet Letter, and Huckleberry Finn….

Now standing at the front of the classroom, I mutter under by breath: “No problem for him – perhaps it’s easier for a man to explain bosoms….”

The second paragraph of Silas Marner (arguably the worst of the “great English novels”) poses different challenges:

 “The shepherd’s dog barked fiercely when one of these alien-looking men appeared on the upland, dark against the early winter sunset; for what dog likes a figure bent under a heavy bag? – and these pale men rarely stirred abroad without that mysterious burden. The shepherd himself, though he had good reason to believe that the bag held nothing but flaxen thread, or else the long rolls of strong linen spun from that thread, was not quite sure that this trade of weaving, indispensable though it was, could be carried on entirely without the help of the Evil One.”

I struggle to explain “aliens” and “shepherds” and “flaxen” and even “linen” to the curious faces before me. When I get to “without the help of the Evil One,” I know I am on fragile ground, for truly it must be Satan, in the guise of Silas Marner, who has come to torment me and the winsome students of Mrs.-Steinberg’s-now-Miss-Wright’s first tenth grade English class. The only thing they can understand is “early winter sunset,” for winter comes early in the far north of Alaska (September, to be exact). Here in early January in the southern archipelago area – fondly called the “banana belt,” – we enjoy about two hours of daylight, with an hour of dark twilight on either side. Each day, however, adds about twenty minutes of sun, which means that I and the other three interns can explore and fall in love with this beautiful country and its people.

Religion and education have been historically intertwined in Alaska since 1884, when Congress authorized funds for the Secretary of the Interior to provide free education to Alaskan children without regard to race. Sheldon Jackson was appointed to oversee the opening and operation of schools throughout the territory. He, a Presbyterian, encouraged his church and other denominations to open missions and schools throughout Alaska. Functionally this now means that most children of the North Slope are Presbyterian, whereas Quakers dominate the western coast, and the inland middle are Episcopalian. Scattered among them are Roman Catholics, Mormons, Baptists, and Russian Orthodox. I reflect that Alaska is a miniature of the Christian world, noting how various Protestant denominations prevail in different countries, with Roman Catholic and Orthodox influences throughout. But even with good religious training, my students glaze over at mention of “the Evil One.”  Would that I could do the same.

My father’s father (a mining engineer and world traveler) had warned me that I would never escape the charms of Sitka and its surrounding area, regaling me with stories of his work as a geologist with the National Geological Survey in 1900-1902 to map the area from Glacier Bay and Skagway south to the southernmost tip. He later studied and lived in various places throughout Europe and South America, and so I believed him when he said that Sitka was the most beautiful spot on earth. “You get glimpses of this beauty in western Scotland and parts of Italy and Greece, where steep hills crash into the ocean – but nowhere are the mountains as majestic, or the coves as tranquil, or the color as intense. And, of course, nowhere else are the people as friendly, and nowhere else will you see bald eagles as plentiful as sparrows, and whales, seals, moose, and caribou in such abundance. It is an opera for your eyes and a ballet for your heart.”

Grandaddy is right – about both the terrain and the people. If there is one word that describes everyone we meet – student, teacher, shopkeeper – it is friendly. Sour, surly and standoffish are foreign concepts here. Everyone is nice; everyone seems happy that we are here.

But this only makes the imaginary-but-keenly-felt presence of Silas Marner, a.k.a. Satan, all the more disquieting. The students grasp neither the Victorian culture nor the overwrought language. Forcing this horrific tale on these friendly innocents feels like stuffing them with raw rice followed by gallons of water; I am torturing both them and me. (The sudden departure of the previous teacher begins to make sense.)

Something’s gotta give, but what? The principal gives me carte blanche to devise a better approach while also reminding me that Silas Marner is the approved curriculum and that other teachers have used it without complaints.

What am I to do? From tutoring for several years in the inner city, I know that education needs to be both challenging and playful; it must respect students as they are while also encouraging them to stretch their limits. Here in Alaska, tests and contests would fail, for the students are non-competitive and unwilling (or unable) to show off. Whatever plan I devise must respect a culture in which individual superiority is scorned, and humility and community are celebrated.

At some point, seemingly out-of-the-blue, Divine Inspiration or the Muses of Literature and Education come up with a solution: I tell them to read as much of the novel as they can stomach, giving them a one-page summary in simple English and swearing them to secrecy. Then they can honestly state that they “read” Silas Marner.

For the next two months, they work in pairs as each writes a simple “how-to” instruction. “How to prepare whale blubber, how to sew a sealskin parka, how to construct an “umiak” (Eskimo boat), how to roast a duck or make caribou stew – or whatever – try to be as thorough as you can – write it for someone like me who is totally ignorant [I make a stupid face and they laugh] – and use simple, clear English.”

After writing, they exchange with their partners and discuss both “essays.” They can rewrite as many times as they wish, and when their partner understands what they have written, they each get an “A.”

We spend the first half of each session writing and discussing the essays. Some are overly spare: “Take boteandspeer [boat and spear] anfindawale [and find a whale] killitantakehoam [kill it and take home]. Missing are punctuation marks and spaces between words – to say nothing of detail. Others are challenging in opposite ways, e.g., a run-on sentence that lasts three pages. And some are quite wonderful, worthy of Hemingway at his best. For the second half of the class, I put samples of their writing on the chalkboard, explaining basic spelling, syntax, and grammar. I find examples of both good and unclear writing, always keeping the authors anonymous. Not as charming as my father, nor as steely as my mother, my “can-do” style is birthed in a military high school in Germany and a Native American one in Alaska.

Or would it be more accurate to say smug and solipsistic? Despite the respect I had for the gentle demeanor and communal culture of the students, I am equally impressed by my own Yankee ingenuity – with its full measure of attendant arrogance. Would I ever learn? Would the heady joys of being helpful and successful in a land filled with beauty and kindness ever reap their rewards?

Looking back many years later, I realize that I shared both Dad’s innocence and Mom’s toughness. (Sadly, I mastered neither Dad’s easy charm nor Mom’s brilliant manipulative skills.) Until I was thirty, I approached life like Dad, presuming that if I were friendly and moderately responsible, nothing unpleasant would happen to me.

My head and my heart were constantly dueling, and yet I presumed a happy outcome where both parts would win.

I had so much to learn.

 

 

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Observations and Memories from 9-11-11 at the World Trade Center

September 11th, 2013

I’m taking a break from “Circling” to revisit the first days and months after 9-11.  It was life-changing.  I was part of a large corporate training team working at the Port Authority in the summer of 2001.  I would have been there on 9/11, but I was one of the few who knew the “old system” of SAP and was reassigned for two weeks to Dow in Newark, NY.

Then I was asked to return to Port Authority in October, and I witnessed the kingdom of God up close and personal…  Here’s what I wrote at the time.  We deplore the horror AND celebrate the courage of the American people.

 

Felicity Wright:  Notes from working at Port Authority just after 9/11:

Although I had been assigned to a different project for the first two weeks of September 2001, I had spent the previous summer working at the Port Authority in the north tower of the World Trade Center (the first one hit and the last one to fall).  After the bombing, I was honored to be one of three people (out of an original group of nearly forty) that were asked to help the agency regroup.  Here were my observations at the time:

 

Week 1:  October 8 – 12, 2001:

I spent last week helping people at La Guardia airport manage their way through the new computer system.   All of the documentation and training materials for the system (which we had developed over the summer) had been available on the internal web site, but the servers were destroyed in the WTC bombing.  So most of the airport folks had not yet gone to class on the new system, and the training materials and procedures were non-existent.  Those who had gone through training had no brain cells left after 9/11 and couldn’t remember a thing of what they were supposed to do.  But bills were beginning to pile up, vendors needed to be paid, and equipment (including new security scanners) needed to be purchased.  So I was asked to help mentor them.  Here’s what I found:

The Manhattan skyline from Queens looks very bland — like most of the people I’ve met.  Even those who were nowhere close to WTC are still in shock, and the stories from the survivors are truly mind-numbing.  I spent two days with one woman who had been working in the WTC when it was bombed 7 years ago.  She got a promotion and was transferred several months ago to La Guardia, but she had gone back for training on the 78th floor of WTC1 (the same room where I had been teaching all summer).  She made it out, along with three others from La Guardia, but two others in the class went to a different stairwell and haven’t been seen since.  (Of course, this fact gave me considerable pause, since if I had been teaching in that room on 9/11 as I had been throughout the months of July and August, the odds would have been pretty good that I would not be here writing this…)

But now, a month later, “Jane” (not her real name) is still too scared to take an elevator.  When we went to the main terminal for lunch, she decided not to mail a letter in the airport post office for fear the airport would be bombed and the letter wouldn’t make it to her friend.

Her husband was on the 74th floor.  He and five others got out, thanks to a janitor with a small metal window squeegee and a knowledge of building construction.  They were on the express elevator that runs from the 44th floor cafeteria to floors 69-74, when it suddenly plunged downward, and then, just as abruptly, stopped.  (This was the same elevator bank that I used when I wasn’t training, for our offices were on the 71st floor.)  Trapped, they had no idea where they were.  They were able to force the doors open, but saw only a dark wall.

As smoke was seeping in through the elevator cracks, they shared handkerchiefs soaked in milk (which the janitor had just bought from the cafeteria) to breathe, while they spelled each other using the metal edge of the squeegee to laboriously cut through the sheetrock.  They eventually broke through into a bathroom, and then had to break through ceramic bathroom tiles.  Somehow, they emerged on the 50th floor, and walked single-file down the stairs leaving room for the many firemen who were running up.  When they made it to the 15th floor, they felt another huge jolt and thunderous roar – the crash of the south building. They managed to make it out to the street just 4 minutes before the north tower crashed.  If the elevator had stopped at the 55th or 60th floors, instead of the 50th, they would not have made it.  If the janitor (a guardian angel in disguise?) had not had the squeegee, the pint of milk, the experience, and the cool to mastermind the rescue, no one would be alive to retell their adventures of the morning.  It’s a truly unbelievable story that made it into the NY Times, and is now making the route of some of the TV news shows.  His wife kept shaking as she retold the story.  They did not know that each other was safe until late in the afternoon, for both had managed – finally, since telephone service was mostly non-existent for the whole area for most of the day – to get through to their son, who is in college.  It was in the early hours of the morning that both were finally home and reunited.  (I still get teary as I relate her story.)  Of course, all those firemen running UP the stairs have disappeared…

I’ve heard tales of numerous (and I mean LOTS) of Port Authority police and NY Fire Department folks who were off that day, but drove to the WTC immediately to help — and have never been heard of again.  Since all were coming in from the outside, it is pretty clear that they knew what they were getting into.  The survivors who were coming down the steps all say that the looks on the faces of the firemen and police going up the steps was such that they must have known that they were going to their deaths.  There were also several “ordinary” office workers who called loved ones from the plaza or elsewhere to let them know that they were safe, and then decided to go back into the buildings to help rescue others… and then disappeared…  (I’ve captured a few of these at the end, but there are many more.)

Many of us working on the 71st floor remember Omar, the blind man, with his wonderful dog Salty.  Two colleagues in the office went back to make sure he got out.  The four of them – two friends, Omar, and Salty — were among the last to make it out.  Then they really started running for their lives.  In describing that day, he focuses on the strange and constant crackling sounds (later understood to be the death rattles of the steel girders), the acrid smoke, and the smell of jet fuel – all of which will live with him for the rest of his life.  It seems like a terrifying equivalent of how the smell of Madeleine cookies brought back memories from Proust’s early childhood that then resulted in The Remembrance of Things Past

In any case, of the 50+ people I’ve spoken with this week, not one of them has gone back to view “ground zero” – or plans to…

They’re all heroes in my book, even the “ordinary folks” who were there, like the six RWD staffers and the 30+ Port Authority people with whom I had spent the summer.  To stay calm, if only on the outside, to be humane, to make way for the injured and fearful, not to stampede each other — these are incredible stories. Of the Port Authority folks, only 74 were killed (half of them the police and firemen who knew that they were going to their deaths) out of the 2,000 or so who were in the building.   Another interesting statistic that speaks volumes: less than 5,000 people were killed in the collapse of the two centers, compared with 25,000 who were safely evacuated.

Next week, I will go to a temporary office to work with the information systems folks to try to reconstruct the written procedures and training materials – a whole summer’s worth of work – that was lost.  I expect that it will be a good deal more difficult than being out at La Guardia, where only a few were directly affected.  I will be working with the people who were on the 70th and 71st floors, many of whom lost friends and colleagues.

I remember being in severe shock during three different times in my life – the kind of truly dysfunctional, mind-numbing, panic-attack-type-shock that makes getting out of bed an act of incredible stupidity or superhuman courage.  But then it was just one person (me), and there were plenty of others around to help me stay functional.  So how do people manage when EVERYONE they know is also in shock?  (And this is shock, not post-traumatic stress disorder – that will come months or years from now.)

I will also be a short ferry ride away from “ground zero.”  I haven’t decided yet whether I will visit or not.  I will be at the same hotel in Jersey City where I spent the summer.  My room looked out over the twin towers, and I always kept the curtains open at night because the lights from the city cast a gentle glow – much like a night light.  The highlight of my day was the ferry ride across the Hudson.  A couple of times, I chose to stay on the ferry for an additional trip, lying on the upper deck and enjoying the richness of the life around me.  In addition to the incredible variety of people, there were boats of every kind – the huge Staten Island ferry, smaller ferries from WTC and Hoboken and Liberty Plaza, towering cruise ships, lanky barges, squat fireboats, coast guard and Navy ships, resolute tugboats, three-masted schooners, 20-30-foot sailboats of all varieties, an occasional cabin cruiser, and even the lonely kayaker that skirted around the Jersey piers at 6:45 – 7:00 every other morning.  In the air were the helicopters, single- and twin-prop planes, the jumbo jets, a rare blimp, the massive cranes that were pummeling pylons into the river making foundations for future condos and office buildings, and even the parasailing fool who got trapped on the Statue of Liberty.  And of course the birds – gulls, ducks, geese, cormorants, and even (I think) one great blue heron cruising close to the water far in the distance.  The mouth of the Hudson – so rich, so varied, so ALIVE – will it ever be the same again?

 

Week 2:  October 15 – 19, 2001:

Upon arriving at my hotel room in Jersey City, I went immediately to the window to check the New York skyline.  The room faced too far north to see the remains of the World Trade Center, but I had a wonderful view of mid-Manhattan.  On this night, it was an exquisite sight:  layers of cloud meandered through the night sky in such a way that the emerald-green crown of the Empire State Building was hazy and luminous while the lower part was so clear that one could almost count the windows.  It was intensely beautiful, I thought.

After unpacking, I went to get a soda and ice and looked out the rear hallway window to the remains of the WTC.  Even three-quarters away, I was not prepared for what I saw:  despite the darkness of the clear night sky, the smoke bellowing forth from the hole in the ground was plainly visible.  It reminded me of large institutions with underground steam heat.  But whereas, in such institutions, one can see steam rising from well-placed vents of inches, or (at most) four feet wide, here it was rising a hole that was several city blocks in diameter.  It was pale enough to be identifiable as mostly steam, rather than smoke.  Almost a month to the date from the bombing, and no sign that the end was near; it felt like a part of my heart had caved in, much as the ground had.

Upon returning to my room, I looked more carefully at the emerald beacon on the Empire State Building and the source of the cloud that made it shimmer so.  Sadly, it was true: that opalescent haze was not cloud, but smog from ground zero.  I then opened the window to bring in some fresh air for sleeping, but the faintly acrid smell made me close it immediately thereafter.  It was at this point that I had no choice but to cry.

It was good to see my Port Authority friends on Monday.  In particular, I was pleased to be sharing an office with Diane Amici (not her real name), a senior manager for the agency.  Diane is known for her drive and for the long hours she puts in; she seems impelled by a maternal dedication to her staff.  From our standpoint as the consultants, this meant that she demands high-quality documentation and training material and will tolerate nothing less.

By the evening of Wednesday, September 12, the day after the bombing, I had learned that Diane and all of the other folks in the procurement group were safe – most of them having walked down from the 70th and 71st floors.  But “safe” and “okay” are not synonyms.  Thus, I was relieved to see that Diane was pretty normal.  Despite her years (mid-late thirties), she still had her cute way of giggling (rather like a new bride) when she was pleased with someone or something.

But the eyes were different.  They didn’t twinkle anymore.  I also noticed that she used rubber gloves to open mail.  But mostly, she was no longer driven to the extent that she had been; the passion, the energy, the drive – they were dormant.  They will come back, I thought, but probably not with the same intensity as before.  And perhaps that’s good; I don’t know.  But it made me think about Galen (my teenage son) and his friends, and how this has shaken them in ways they have no idea of yet.  Just about to leave the nest and explore the wide wonderful world – when suddenly, that world has changed.  The world is not a safe place anymore.  Suddenly, people are aware of their fragility in the face of evil.

I don’t know what war itself is like, but I do feel have an idea of what it’s like to “go through the wars.”  It is the process by which one is forced to acknowledge one’s vulnerability.  For most of us, war is external; its “over there,” and “back then,” and it involves others.  Now the war is here and now and within.  The reality of ourselves is at war with the preconceptions about ourselves.  Suddenly we are afraid, and we’re not happy with the people that we’ve become.

Certainly part of the reason that Diane has lost some of her intensity is because her commute is now 2 ½ – 3 hours each way, instead of the mere 90 minutes it had been.  Also, the new Port Authority servers are not yet set up for remote access, so she can’t work nights and weekends on the computer, as she did before.  And twice, she was an  hour late because Penn Central had been evacuated for “something” (never explained); this meant that she had to walk 6 blocks to a subway and then a different PATH station.  So she leaves home before 6:00 am and doesn’t make it into the office until 9:00 or 10:00.

…Or perhaps her emotional weariness stems from the fact that the computer system has been fussy ever since so many servers were destroyed.  What once was a simple, two-minute transaction is now a cause for celebration.  For example, it kept going down Monday morning, when Diane was trying to enter a requisition for anthrax test kits.  (This was a requisition she wanted to enter herself, so as to hide its purchase from the rest of her staff.)

As it turned out, she was just a small step ahead of the game on the anthrax business. After secretly showing me the requisition, she left for lunch.  But while she was out of the building, a man in another large bank of offices across the hall returned from lunch to find a white powder covering his desk.  (Suddenly the rubber gloves that Diane used for opening mail weren’t so ludicrous…)  Within seconds, all doors in the building were closed, and the HVAC system was turned off.  We were quarantined to our offices, unable even to go into the hallways to the bathrooms.  About 20 minutes later, an entourage of security experts arrived.  Fortunately, the doors to the hallways were glass, so we could watch – in fascination and terror – as two of the men went through the laborious process of suiting up into “moon suits.”  Shades of Jimmy Carter and Three-Mile Island, I thought, but this time it was only 20 feet down the hall.

The comments in our corridor spoke to the general fear of the country.  Because the building was secure, it was evident that putting anthrax powder on this man’s desk was an inside job, either by a prankster or…a terrorist…here?  There was unanimous agreement that, if it were a prank, then the culprit should be fined and put in jail…  After the 10-minute ordeal of suiting up, they walked into the other bank of offices, and, with nothing left to gawk at, the rest of us went back to work.

Thirty minutes later, one of my colleagues came back chuckling.  The “white powder” was innocent enough – it was particles of ceiling tile and dust, apparently loosened by some construction.  Had this happened 6 weeks ago, the man returning from lunch would have looked up and asked a few questions, and probably figured out the cause without effectively shutting down the offices for two hours.

Toward the end of the week, Tom (catty-corner from my office) had a similar episode, but it was only a small amount of dust.  However, work was disrupted for about an hour while we awaited the security experts (along with a doctor, who took nasal swab samples from Tom and tried to reassure him that, if it is anthrax – which will be confirmed in 3 days time – it is easily treatable with drugs.  (Of course, I wrote this before the sudden deaths of the DC postal workers have given us a whole new respect for the power of bio-terrorism, but Tom, fortunately, was fine.)

I’ve been thinking about All Saints’ Day and the sermon that I need to give in class.  In a wonderful book of daily meditations called All Saints, author Robert Ellsberg defines a saint as “someone whose life doesn’t make sense without God.”   This allows him to honor the awesome humanity of true sainthood by including such godly non-Christians as Chief Seattle of the Snohimish nation, Gandhi, the ancient Hebrew prophets, and numerous others in his list.  Expanding on that idea, I once described saints as those people who can transform the gospel from historical artifact to living truth.  So I’ve been pondering the difference between heroes (all of the people in or anywhere near that building on September 11), and saints.

As Victoria Lockhart walked into our office with a stack of files, I heard her muttering “Jesus Christ” under her breath.  Assuming that she was cursing, I looked up from the computer to see what was wrong.  (I guessed that she had forgotten something or broken a fingernail.)  Instead of a scowl, I saw a warm smile followed by a cheerful “Good morning, sister” from a woman whom I had never before seen in my life.

We soon got talking, and she was happy to share her impressions of that day.   She was sitting at her desk on the 63rd floor when the plane hit.  Rather than run or scream, she dropped to her knees and started praying.  Although no one knew exactly what had happened, everyone realized that this was much, much worse than the bombing of ’93.

Praying on her knees, she had a clear vision of God “sitting on his throne” and looking down on her and saying, “Look at my baby girl calling on me in the midst of this terror.”  Directing some unseen angels, God told them, “Go and see about my daughter.”

She was also reminded of a previous epiphany when God had promised various things that had not yet come to pass.  And, instantly, Numbers 23:19 came to her mind: “God is not a human being that would lie.” Thus, in her heart, she knew that this day was not going to be her end and that she would calmly deal with whatever might befall her.

When the vision of God’s radiance faded, she stood up and went with waiting colleagues to the nearest stairwell.  Walking down, she began singing praise and worship songs, as well as reciting the 23rd psalm.  Others joined in, if they knew the words, and many came up to her later, thanking her for the courage and faith that she radiated in that dark, smoke-filled stairwell.  In an e-mail that she shared with me later, she wrote:  “I love the Lord, he heard my cry and pitied every groan; as long as I live, may trouble rise…I hasten to his throne…. This is my testimony, and I will continue to spread God’s word; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.”

As others wake up shaking at their reliving of the sounds, smells, and sights of that dreadful day, Victoria says that she begins the day with “profuse tears of gratitude at God’s salvation.

Yes, I would define Victoria as “someone whose life doesn’t make sense without God.”

 

Week 3:  October 22 – 26, 2001:

Sounds are a huge source of trauma for people.  Every alarm, grinding sound, scream from the outdoors, squealing of breaks – they all bring a brief moment of terror before people settle down.  Once they do, someone comes up with a joke and everyone laughs off their anxiety.  (Although there are no jokes about bombs, airplanes, or anthrax, there is an overabundance of other types of humor.)

On Monday and Tuesday, the agency conducted detailed fire drills (3 separate egresses and 2 regrouping points outside of the building).  This was followed, on Wednesday, with the distribution of flashlights, elaborate dust masks, and hard hats.

I’m especially enjoying the gentle, respectful way that they talk about one another regarding that horrible day.  Joe and Kamar were sharing their stories about walking down from the 70th floor.  Things were pretty calm until the 20th floor, since many people had been through the previous bombing and everyone trusted the structural integrity of the towers.  Certainly, they were nonplussed by the burn victims coming down the stairs, along with quite a number that were actively bleeding, but they never feared for their own lives until about the 20th floor, when the smoke became increasingly intense, making it hard to both breathe and see.  An incredible, inexplicable, rolling, deafening roar (which they later learned was the crash of WTC2) made the north tower shake intensely, cutting off the emergency lights and causing people to stumble over each other.  After this, it was an almost super-human effort to maintain calm, and some began to scream.  But still, the group kept talking to each other to stay calm, groping their way down, many of them holding hands, some whimpering, but with little apparent complaining – just cold, stark determination.

In the middle of this horrific retelling of events, Joe blurts out, “And, you know, we were the lucky ones.  We had no idea of what was going on.  When the second tower fell, we knew something horrible had happened, but our stairwell was still fine and our tower still stood…  Actually, it’s the people like Diane that really have it hard.  She was just walking in from the plaza and saw it all.  She froze, absolutely froze – not knowing whether to rush up and help her people or run away as fast as she could.  Fortunately, a policeman coming by ordered her to leave – and it was a good thing because this is when debris – huge debris, enough to kill you if it landed on you – started falling from the sky.”

I was moved by the fact that Joe felt sorrier for Diane than he did for himself.  It was no surprise therefore that, since she was out of the office when the flashlights were distributed, he installed the batteries in her flashlight and made sure it was working properly.

Everywhere and always, when people stop in for a meeting and see someone that they haven’t seen since that day, work abruptly ends and people come out from their cubicles to check out the scene.  It’s rather like the excitement of a woman coming back from being on maternity leave with her new baby in tow – except that it’s very, very quiet – a chastening calm, totally unlike the gushes over the beautiful baby – and the unspoken affection is truly palpable.

I left New York on Wednesday afternoon and spent that evening and Thursday at Wesley.  On Friday, I returned to my office in Columbia, Md., for meetings and paperwork, and, quite late in the afternoon, I found myself, quite suddenly, very depressed.  I realized that I had once been graced to witness the realm of God in action, however strange and strained it might have been, but that powerful vision was quickly vaporizing into a fleeting glance.  For some, their self-sacrifice for the well-being of others was absolute and cost them their lives; for most, it was timid and tenuous – but nonetheless transforming…if only for a time.  And I knew that I too was forever changed, for good as well as ill.  The trivialities of my life gnawed at me: having spent three weeks in the company of saints, heroes, and people who were not ashamed to show that they genuinely cared for one another, ordinary mortals seemed so frivolous and self-absorbed.

 

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Circling Excerpt 3: Part I (Soaring) — Chapter 1: Geography (Second Section)

September 7th, 2013

The ingenuous sophistication of high school and overseas travel continues through college. Unlike many other students at Bennington College, I have little money and thus avoid standard forms of trouble (wild partying, profligate sex, and dangerous driving). Further, I hail from a public high school in the dull hinterlands of Washington, D.C. rather than from a fancy prep school in New England. Fortunately, the year abroad has given me confidence to hold my own.

My education is helped by the fact that I can’t handle marijuana. As with most people, there is no effect whatsoever the first time I try it. The second time is a different story. A dear friend once called me “half Victorian spinster and half flower child.” Weed proves him right.

I am sitting with friends passing a joint around when suddenly my right knee rises up in time with the music. This isn’t part of the plan, so I hold the leg down. But then, my left knee starts twitching. So I restrain it with the other hand. A mistake. My arms are now engaged, which makes them decide to flap like a bird. A duck, to be exact. As this is happening many years before I realize that I want to return in my next life as a great blue heron, I am quite perturbed. Watching me quacking with hands on hips, elbows flapping, and knees bouncing up and down, my friends start chuckling.

It is funny and I am laughing too, but I am also upset at myself for wanting to fly like a bird, so I alternate the guffaws with statements chiding myself and scolding my friends for aiding and abetting my outrageous behavior. “Stop it, Felicity. Put your arms down right this minute. You are not a duck. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. But I am really very funny, aren’t I? I really haven’t ever been this funny before, have I? Felicity, shame on you, you’re making such a fool of yourself. Ha ha ha ha ha ha. Now don’t laugh at her – I mean me – you’re just leading her on – I mean me…”

One episode is no big deal, but it gets a little scary to morph into a schizophrenic duck every time you smoke dope. Eventually, I surmise that all of the marijuana in New England is laced with heroin or some such thing, and opt not to smoke again. Free spirit though I yearn to be, I’m not totally stupid.

 

Bennington’s great gift is that people take each other seriously. My graduating class includes about a dozen famous writers, artists, and dancers – a surprising number for a college with fewer than 350 students. People are attracted to the college because of its small classes and dedicated professors. But I wonder if there would be such a large proportion of successful people without the gift of their being valued during a time of their lives when they most need it.

This becomes clear to me in the first month when Rush Welter, a professor of American history, returns my first paper considerably thicker than the five double-spaced pages he received a week earlier. I see suggestive comments like “bah,” “ugh,” and “NO!!!” in the margins, followed by eight pages of his handwritten notes; I am both disturbed and impressed. He asks me to come to his office to discuss the expectations of college work and “to develop a way of thinking about the material you are reading.”

I do, the next day. We spend over an hour, in which he queries me about my irregular preparatory education. He also shows me how to approach a writing project – to highlight the key issues, then examine the supporting data for possible explanations, then develop a conclusion, and finally to write a paper in which one clearly states the arguments and uses the data to make a case. It sounds good; I am beginning to get the idea.

He is called away for a telephone call, and I stand up to examine his books and gaze out the window to the pastoral scene a mile from campus. Upon returning, he asks whether I can identify the statue that rises up from a distant ridge along with the obvious spire of the Congregational church. It is clear that he loves the community and is happy to introduce its delights to newcomers.

“Oh yes,” I answer. “It’s Old Bennington – that’s the monument to Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys.” I had walked around there a week or so earlier, and recognize the 300-foot obelisk surrounded by a one-story colonnade.

I watch him ponder, expecting him to quiz me on Ethan Allen’s dates or battles or some such thing. After all, he is a professor of American history and I am a student in his class.

He chews for a moment on his bottom lip, clearly wondering whether he should or shouldn’t. Will she be offended? Will she understand its meaning? Is she so dumb that she will just be embarrassed? Then he blurts out, “Yes, and we also call it the Bennington phallic symbol.”

I laugh out loud and – for the first and last time in my life – come up with the perfect riposte at the right time. “Well, I come from Washington, D.C., and our phallic symbol is bigger than your phallic symbol.”

He roars with delight and then apparently gives me another chance in the is-she-worth-spending-my-time-with department. I continue with his course and then take two more from him, gaining confidence each time. I learn more from him than any other professor there. I enter as an uneducated rube and leave with the assurance that I know how to think – thanks to a dirty mind and an affection for architectural phallic symbols.

 

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Circling Excerpt 2: Part I (Soaring) — Chapter 1: Geography (First Section)

September 4th, 2013

This is the first third of Chapter 1.  It goes downhill from here.  And up, and around.  And around.  I invite you to subscribe so that you will receive all the postings.  And I genuinely welcome your comments.

Thanks so much!

Circling_cover

1.     Geography

 

“There is an eternal landscape, a geography of the soul; we search for its outlines all our lives.”

– Josephine Hart

 

Retracing the circular journey, it seems that whatever success I have had in life began with the need for a precautionary pee in Germany, the benefits of a dirty mind in Vermont, and the challenges of teaching Eskimos in Alaska.

 

Most of my childhood memories were agreeable but atypical. In high school in Washington, D.C., I was part of a pseudo-intellectual set. My friends and I took hikes along Rock Creek, held pretentious “philosophy parties” with jug wine on the weekend, enjoyed sunrise breakfasts to watch the cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin, and conducted poetry readings at twilight on canoes going down the river. I still blush to remember the time I was asked to bring poetry by Keats. Unable to find any of his works in my parents’ bookshelves, I brought a volume of Yeats instead. (I figured that Yeats was a lot like Keats, just a different first letter…)

Teenagers in what was becoming the most important city of the world enjoyed a heady combination of Southern ingenuousness and Northern sophistication. The city was indubitably gracious: children gave up their seats to adults on the bus, men opened doors for women, and salespeople were always friendly. In 1960, Kennedy and his Camelot cabinet had just come to town, with brilliant minds and enough openhearted largesse to save the city, the country, and the world. Civil rights and urban renewal became the watchwords of the day, and my parents were prominent activists in both areas. It was an enchanting town for insiders.

With encouragement from my mother, a precinct captain for the Democrats and active in numerous social and political causes, ten of my friends organized a publicity campaign to improve the deplorable physical conditions of the D.C. public schools. Four others joined me in tutoring junior high school and elementary school students in a less affluent part of town. And when my best friend Mabrie and I got television and newspaper coverage following our refusal to pay the “discriminatory and illegal” class dues imposed by the school principal, we gained special prestige among the “teenage intelligentsia” that we all thought ourselves to be. Like the city itself, we were full of ourselves; in a word, insufferable.

Looking back, I warrant that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. For better and worse, my parents both grew up with a sense of invulnerability and self-importance, and my subconscious goal was to match their outrageous teenage stories with one or more of my own.

 

My father’s classic story, paraded for special occasions, new suitors, and interested grandchildren, involved a real-life duel. Yes, the kind with swords, against a nobleman, at dawn, over a woman – the full nine yards. He had an elaborate narrative about visiting his parents in northern Italy where his father was managing several mines for an English company. It was the summer of 1939 and Dad had just finished his freshman year at college. Entering the local bar, he met a nobleman, the fiancé of an attractive woman who sometimes played tennis with Dad. When the duke loudly insulted America for its stance on fascism, Dad responded by criticizing Hitler and Mussolini.

The enraged duke slapped Dad backhanded on the cheek, a challenge to combat. Perhaps he assumed that Dad would back down or lack the skill to engage in a duel, which had been outlawed in Italy for nearly fifty years. But Dad, who was on the fencing team at college, gleefully chose swords as the weapon of choice before returning home to spend a sleepless night and await the dawn.

The fight, which was held at daybreak in a gentle grove overlooking a river, included an attending doctor and two seconds. The duke came dressed in black velvet pantaloons, a white silk shirt, and elegant leather boots, while Dad showed up bare-chested, in tennis shorts and golf shoes (for extra traction). It was reportedly an arduous encounter because the two were evenly matched in strength and skill.

Dad’s fighting skills tended toward the defensive, and he saw that the duke often left his right flank exposed just after thrusting forward. So, awaiting a good opportunity, Dad set up an attack in such a way that when the duke lunged forward, Dad parried to the right, pulling his opponent with him. When the duke brought his sword back to the left to strike again, Dad snapped his to his right, such that his opponent impaled his forearm on the tip of Dad’s blade. Dad gleefully explained that he gently passed off the sword – with the duke’s arm still attached – to the surgeon before walking off to shower and play tennis with the duke’s now ex-girlfriend.

How much of it happened as Dad described? Though I’m quite sure that my ever-gracious father added plenty of dramatic license, one had only to meet him to know that the substance of the story was true. His persona was marked by an ingenuous and enchanting self-assurance that fans of David Niven can recognize. I consider it a key to his character because on that day he understood that he was both charmed and charming.

 

My mother’s epic story happened in 1935, when the Gestapo stopped the train on which she was traveling from Göttingen to Paris while they grilled her on the whereabouts of the thousand dollars that she had had when she arrived in Germany to visit her governess’ family only three weeks earlier. Mom was an unwitting smuggler for peace activists in the United States who were helping to finance the exportation of German Jews after Hitler’s ascension to power. Unaware of how rapidly Hitler had corrupted German society, her father, a minister and antiwar activist, had given her money to take to his Lutheran counterpart in Germany.

In the dozen or so times that Mom recounted the story, she still hyperventilated as she relived the innocent-looking shrugs and bald lies employed to hide the truth and protect her German friends. “Well, we went out to the opera several times, and I bought a whole bunch of clothes, and, oh yes, I had to buy presents for all of my brothers and sisters and family and friends back home…” she said, looking bug-eyed, curling her mouth down, and shrugging her shoulders in a most perplexed manner. Exasperated after questioning this fourteen-year-old ingénue for two hours, the Gestapo finally let the train proceed. And thus her teenage conquest of the Gestapo affirmed in her a steely courage and shrewd resourcefulness that was both a blessing and a curse.

 

With an inheritance of $1,000 from a great aunt, I traveled for a year between high school and college, taking classes and working for six months as an au pair in Germany and then meandering through Spain, Italy, and Greece, doing such odd jobs as washing dishes and working on a road gang. Since my parents grew up shuttling between Europe and the States (although usually accompanied by governesses or older siblings), they were relatively sanguine about my going off alone.

Or maybe this is the blessing – and the curse – of privilege, for while my family was never affluent, I grew up with an assurance that “the world was my oyster.”  It was assumed that I would make a positive difference in the world and that my life would be relatively painless. But would the advantages of prestige and education offset assumptions of invincibility and the familial burdens of high expectation? — Only time would tell.

In the beginning, it seemed either that God was protecting me or that my innocence served more a talisman against evil spirits than an invitation to mischief. Few could believe that I was barely seventeen. That plus the fact that I lacked the experience to recognize a come-on meant that most people treated me as a mascot whom they needed to protect rather than a love object. (Or I had learned my mother’s easy graciousness without her sexuality, and somehow managed to translate that into a friendly, but hands-off, approachability.)

Europe was an extraordinary gift, for I discovered that simplicity is a virtue and that status and sophistication are not all they are cracked up to be. A basic vocabulary of phrases in Spanish, Italian, and Greek sufficed for a month or more in each country, and I commend them to all young ladies traveling alone. They are: “Good morning,” “Good afternoon,” “Good evening,” “please,” “thank you,” “I love you,” and “Don’t bother me.” (“I love you” is especially helpful for pre-adolescents and grandparents who will then take you under their wing, while “Don’t bother me” is important for all others.) These phrases, a ready smile, and body gestures kept me hale, hearty, and happy for almost a year.

Greece was a special haven. Everything sparkles in the brilliant Mediterranean sun – the crystal Aegean Sea, the white sandy beaches, the spotless whitewashed buildings, the hearts of the villagers and simple peasants. Running out of money about a week after arriving, I found a succession of jobs helping sell crafts to tourists, washing dishes in a nightclub, and clearing rocks on a road gang. The foreman could have been an understudy to Anthony Quinn in Zorba the Greek with his flashy smile and zest for life.

 

But then comes undeniable proof that my life is firmly in the grip of the bizarre. Because my first SAT scores were not as high as I want, I opt to take them a second time, which means hopping a train to Frankfurt to the U.S. Army enclave known as “Little America.”

Arriving at the American high school twenty-five minutes before the test is scheduled to begin, I find only two adult proctors setting up. Being well versed in the value of a precautionary pee, I ask for the nearest toilet and learn that the girls’ bathroom is nearly a quarter mile down labyrinthine hallways at the other end of the building.

After closing the stall door, I discover the latch is broken. I am trapped in a cell that is two feet wide, five feet deep, eight feet high, and just shy of a quarter mile from the nearest human being. I spend five minutes in grueling attempts to shimmy up the slippery sides of the stall and lunge from the toilet seat to the top, hyperventilating all the while. (“Damn me – if I were as agile as my sister Allegra I could just shimmy up the walls. If I were as strong as my brother Peter I could muscle my way over. But I’m useless and helpless. Damn me!”)

I consider screaming but that is pointless. The proctors are far away, and there are apparently no other students with college aspirations. I decide on one last attempt before breaking down in tears and writing off the possibility of college later this year. Removing my shoes and socks to get better traction with bare feet, I breathe deeply, conjure up positive affirmations, place both feet on top of the toilet seat, and lunge for the top of the stall. This time I am able to get one toe over the top and then bully my ankle to the other side. I reach up, get an arm hold, and then carefully slide my body up and forward.

At which time the unbelievable happens. I am literally eight feet in the air with bare legs straddling both sides of the toilet stall, congratulating myself on my physical prowess and simultaneously trying to catch my breath, when the door opens and a young woman walks in. I say a sheepish “hello” and am about to explain why I am perched bare-footed atop this strange aerie. She looks up, spies me hovering like a raptor overhead, and bolts out. Sliding down and washing my hands in warm water to calm down, I chuckle at her terror. There seems something oddly familiar about her, but I can’t place it.

A minute or two later, she walks back in – more calmly this time – and looks skeptically at me, asking, “Felicity???” I instantly recognize Alice Kraft, a good friend from elementary and junior high school whom I haven’t seen in four years. I also know this is the most memorable story of bumping into old friends in strange places imaginable.

In that instance, I discover that terror is temporary and happiness can be found in adventurous abandon. I will go crazy places, encounter bizarre situations and, catlike, end up on top with eight more lives and a good story to boot.

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Circling Excerpt 1: The Introduction

August 27th, 2013

With encouragement from friends and fellow writers, I am revising the book that was previously titled In God We Tryst: A Pilgrimage.  It will now be called Circling.  I’m not sure whether or not to add a subtitle, A Spiritual Odyssey.  (I welcome your thoughts.)  Also, I will be posting parts of it on this blog and hope that I’ll get lots of suggestions from you, my dear readers.

So here is the Introduction.  Enjoy — and respond with what works and doesn’t work for you.  Thanks so much!

 

Goober

Introduction

 

I live my life in ever-widening circles

That stretch out over the things of the world.

I may never reach the outermost orbit,

But that is what I strive for.

 

I am circling around God, around the ancient tower,

And I’ve been circling for a thousand years

But I do not know yet: if I am a falcon,

A storm . . . or a great song.

 

Rainer Maria Rilke, A Book for the Hours of Prayer

 

To this day, I live all three: the falcon, the storm, and the song. There have been times when the storm raged so harshly that the falcon cowered and the song was stilled, but these, albeit violent, were infrequent. Mostly, the falcon flies high and the song is a love song.

But it’s hard work: circling God is not easy. There is no assurance that “things will be all right in the end,” either in this life or the next. Living a God-centered life is counter-cultural, and it becomes harder as the children grow and our bodies deteriorate. Often our hearts want to say “Yes” to God, while our heads protest “No way!” Many people question the legitimacy of God, craving certainty when none is possible. Others profess intimacy with the inner workings of the divine mind, alienating those with a humbler faith.

As a teenager, I careened between self-righteous certitude and hardened skepticism until an unlikely Trinity of cheap wine, dirty feet, and a fire-breathing Baptist preacher set me on a spiritual odyssey to find a loving God. Ashamed by a circuitous odyssey with too few signposts, I despaired of going public with the love story that supposedly happens when one finds God.

Earlier drafts were titled Searching for God: An Idiopathic Odyssey because I began it after the death of my infant daughter Caitlin, thirty-five years ago. One thing after another went wrong in her three-month lifetime and it was as perplexing to the doctors as it was to us. When the chief cardiovascular surgeon came to tell us of another bizarre twist in Caitlin’s medical plight, I probed to understand its cause. He shrugged his shoulders, raised his eyebrows, curled his lip, and said it was idiopathic.

When I asked what “idiopathic” meant, he sheepishly explained that it meant there was no clear medical cause. I laughed outright, “Oh, ‘idiopathic’ is the same as ‘I haven’t a clue!’”

When he acknowledged the truth of my equation,  the word evolved into a description of my spiritual journey quite as much as it did Caitlin’s medical trials. It’s an elegant term that experts – doctors, lawyers, or even theologians – can use when bereft of better explanations for why things happen the way they do. There is a respectful holiness about idiopathic confusion.

In time, I recognized that my yearning to understand God’s truth in the face of innocent suffering might some day result in a book. But being an optimist by nature, I thought the book could not be completed until there was a happy ending. There has to be a purpose in life, I thought, just as there has to be goodness in God – or why else are we born and why do we persist in believing in a loving deity?

So I waited for the happy ending. And waited. And waited. Some delightful blessings came my way, including a pair of magnificent children, delightful friends, and satisfying professional work…but the fairy-tale ending remained elusive. Every time I thought life was leveling out to a gentle and comfortable playing field, another gut-wrenching loss would find its way to my soul.

The clarity of my youth became the curse of my adulthood. Raised on the importance of rational thinking and hard work, I managed the first half of my life with a healthy combination of messiness and good fortune, emerging at thirty with a fine husband, excellent job, and upbeat attitude. Then things soured: our first child died at three hours, and Caitlin at three months. Of the two living children, one was born without an ear and another with a neurological birth injury. Twelve years later, the marriage was over and my foray into new life as an ordained minister boomeranged, hitting me broadside and leaving brutal scars.

Finally – finally! – I wised up. I heard God clearly for the first time, and what I heard made me realize that I’d been going about things all wrong. I had wanted my head to justify the yearnings of my heart. Sure, I was on the right path and walking in the right direction, but it was as though I had been walking backwards all the way.

When I turned myself around so that I was walking head- (or was it heart-?) first, I still tripped over the rocks and slipped in the mud, but discovered newfound pleasures in the trek. I realized that I had been looking for the wrong type of happy ending. I needed to focus on the journey not the destination – to enjoy the walk with all the pathos and bathos, the sublime and the ridiculous, that comes our way. I learned that there are times when we need to scout aggressively for blessings as a way of tempering the trials. Prayer and gratitude help in making the valleys less deep than they might be otherwise.

My quest took me from the East to the West and back to the East coast, from motherhood to ministry, and from skepticism to faith. After years of spiraling through a spiritual wilderness where the only choice was to dismiss or disdain God, I emerged shaken but open to new possibilities. The children are well, my health is good, my attitude is positive, and my awareness of the blessings of life is enhanced by the challenges of getting to this point.

But while I preach and believe the good news as written in the Bible, I am nonetheless beleaguered with questions; it is heady work to explain the value of being faithful without also being certain. And so I write this book for those of us who are “seekers”: those of us who want to believe in God but find it tough going. We can’t understand why religious faith comes more readily to other people: have they had an easier life, or are they smarter than we are, or are they dumber than we are? Somehow, our weary minds can’t quite muster the necessary energy to take the exhilarating bounce of faith that graces other lives. Instead, we torment ourselves with the big “why” questions that differentiate us from other species – the “why this?” and “why not that?” and – worst of all – the “why me?” questions that suggest we may be created in the image of God but are a long way from home.

I trust that readers will enjoy the roller-coaster stories of my adventure while also exploring the workings of God in their lives. I hope that these nourishing, if perhaps bittersweet, appetizers might open readers to a divine banquet where, I believe, all are welcome.

We each experience the divine in personalized ways based on our culture and upbringing. In this light, some readers may object that my occasional use of colorful language is sacrilegious, or that it trivializes what is a genuinely profound and perplexing struggle to explain Holy Mystery. To such complaints, I have two responses.

First, as Popeye would say, “I yam what I yam,” and perhaps class just ain’t my strong suit. I sometimes use graphic language, and so the book just wrote itself that way. Second, I believe that God yearns to connect with all of us – old and young, male and female, black and white, gay and straight, rich and poor – and will happily use any and all methods of discourse to open our ears, our hearts, and our minds. In my case, it sometimes takes gutter speak to get through the earwax.

Finally, I end this introduction by explaining that the God I now love has different faces and voices and appears through a robust tapestry of images, terms, and languages. God is beyond being male, female, Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, and everything else we can imagine. I believe that, just as God created so many varieties of flowers to bring beauty into our lives and just as there are varieties of birds to give us music, so also are there many different religions so that all people can find a way to Her. Too often we argue over the pros and cons of the different lamps, forgetting to honor the universal light that is God.

Because of my cultural and personal heritage, God speaks to me through the person and teaching of Jesus Christ, but I hope that non-Christians will be able to relate to the substance of this faith journey, if not the specific images and terms. Most importantly, I hope this “travelogue” will encourage readers to honor their own search for God. It may be that the roller-coaster of disordered chaos is actually a God-centered Ferris wheel: we still go up, down, and around, and some of us may get horribly nauseous.

But the view at the top is celestial.

 

If only for a second. Then the circle begins anew: our lives are an interwoven trinity of falcon, storm, and song swirling up, down, and around that ancient tower that we call God.

 

 

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Happy Mothers’ Day…and celebrating what’s in the Bible!

May 11th, 2013

ZeusStatueWe too often think of God as if HE, like Zeus reigning havoc from Mount Olympus, were an outrageously virile, sometimes malicious misogynist.  Woe on us ladies, who are hapless helpmates if not also victims…

Well, there’s lots of history and literature behind such an misconception, but it’s not in the Bible!   Okay, okay, let’s be honest — some of it is…. BUT there’s much to commend a more gentle and feminine image of God.  I’m preparing for tomorrow’s message for Mother’s Day, and I’ve gleaned the following from several sources:

In the Hebrew Bible, El Shaddai is one of the words for God, along with Yahweh, Adonai, Elohim, and others. Although usually translated “Almighty God,” it might better be translated as the “Many-breasted One” from the plural of the Hebrew word shad, meaning breast, rather than the ancient Semitic word shadu meaning mountain.

A. Examples of God referred to as a mother:

  • a woman in labor (Isa. 42:14) whose forceful breath is an image of divine power
  • a mother suckling her children (Num. 11:12)
  • a mother who does not forget the child she nurses (Isa. 49:14-15)
  • a mother who comforts her children (Isa. 66:12-13)
  • a mother who births and protects Israel (Isa. 46:3-4). In contrast to idol worshippers who carry their gods on cattle, God carries Israel in the womb. The message to the people is two-fold: it demonstrates God’s superiority over other gods, and reiterates the divine promise to support and redeem. In short, God’s maternal bond of compassion and maternal power to protect guarantee Israel’s salvation.
  • a mother who gave birth to the Israelites (Dt. 32:18)
  • a mother who calls, teaches, holds, heals and feeds her young (Hosea 11:1-4) 2. Other maternal references: Ps. 131:2; Job. 38:8, 29; Prov. 8:22-25; 1 Pet. 2:2-3, Acts 17:28.

B: Examples of God doing womanly activities:

  • God as a seamstress making clothes for Israel to wear (Neh. 9:21)
  • God as a midwife attending a birth (Ps. 22:9-10a, 71:6; Isa. 66:9)
  • God as a woman working leaven into bread (Luke 13:18-21)
  • God as a woman seeking a lost coin (Luke 15:8-10)

C: The Holy Spirit is often understood to be feminine:

  • “Ruach” in Hebrew is a feminine noun; “pneuma” in Greek is neuter
  • The Holy Spirit is often associated with women’s functions: the birthing process (John 3:5; cf. John 1:13, 1 John 4:7b, 5:1, 4, 18), consoling, comforting, emotional warmth, and inspiration.
  • Some ancient church traditions refer to the Holy Spirit in feminine terms (the Syriac church used the feminine pronoun for the Holy Spirit until ca. 400 C.E.; a 14th c. fresco depicting the Trinity at a church near Munich, Germany images the Holy Spirit as feminine).
  • Sophia is honored as a goddess of wisdom. In Orthodox Christianity, Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), is an expression of understanding for the second person of the Holy Trinity, (as in the dedication of the church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul) as well as in the Old Testament, e.g., Proverbs 9:1.

So tomorrow, with the children, we will pray:  ”Our Mother, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name…”

And I do believe that the Father-Mother God will rejoice!

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Gratitude

April 5th, 2013

I’ve been asked to write about gratitude, but I’m not feeling mellow or happy or grateful. And it is because I CANNOT ABIDE TIME-WARNER CABLE. I just got home and went to turn on the BBC and PBS News Hour, but my TV is responding with a screen telling me that my cable box is not authorized (a new message that doesn’t make sense since it was working yesterday) Sadly, Times-Warner has the monopoly here for TV/Internet access, so I’m helpless.

I call the number on the screen and get a message said that the wait for customer support will be “slightly more than 10 minutes.”

I can manage that, I think, putting the phone on speaker. Feeding the new puppy and making dinner for myself, I listen to ads promoting various Time-Warner services punctuated with the constant (if insincere) refrain: “Thank you for your patience: an operator will be with you shortly.”

But now it’s been 47 minutes and 17 seconds and still no operator. And I’m supposed to be thinking about gratitude? The fact is that I’m thoroughly p*ssed! I’d hang up except then I would have to wait even longer.

In my frustration and impatience, I remember to breathe deeply and consider: what am I grateful for? I realize that my anger is heightened because of my sense of entitlement. Assumptions of instant TV, a free press, and local and international news come with privilege. For me, they come with a free (and good) public education, from being born into a white, middle/upper-class family, and from living in the greatest democracy in the history of the world.

Reflecting on my nephew who had served in Afghanistan (and the Afghan people that we are trying to help), I am reminded of the poverty and injustice common to the American natives in Utah and Alaska with whom I had worked many years ago. I am reminded of friends and colleagues living in squalid townships in South Africa and barrios in Mexico. I am reminded of friends living in the hollers of Kentucky. I am reminded of friends and family struggling with life-threatening diseases.

Gabriel, my now-well-fed puppy, charges around the house. Celebrating life and freedom with wild abandon, he interrupts my self-indulgent reflections, calling me back to thoughts of life and joy and connection.

In the process, he puts my life in perspective and I realize that I am grateful that:

  • I have a telephone to call (and wait) from.
  • I live in a country that honors a free press; I can get PBS, BBC, local news, and numerous other TV stations most of the time.
  • I have friends and family who are working to make this a better world and trying to improve the lot of those who have less.
  • My puppy reminds me that life is joy.
  • My friend thinks well enough of me to ask me to write about gratitude.

Hallelujah.

 

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Melody, Harmony, and Instrumentation: The Lessons of Bach (and of Jesus)

February 18th, 2012

I’ve been pushing the envelope at my church — just a wee bit, i.e., enough to delight some and trouble others. After all, there’s the right way of doing things (that is, the way we’ve always done it) and the Wright way of doing things. There is confluence but not symmetry — or not as some might wish.  We have a worship planning group, and they’re excited by new ideas and approaches, but sometimes they are more adventurous than traditional (which may be why we enjoy working together).

For several weeks, I’ve pondered how to explain my philosophy of worship in a way that “traditionalists” might understand, if not agree with. And then — as if by grace — Time Warner Cable (not a standard agent of divine inspiration) created a new ad often aired on CNN. I was unmoved by the message of Ricky Gervais, but something unspoken kept me from hitting the mute button.

I soon recognized the background tune as Bach’s Prelude No. 1 in C Major. It wasn’t long before the voice of Bach or God or something offered divine inspiration to me and (hopefully) my congregation! A few hours after consulting with Google (the modern “god” of facts if not the eternal God of love and wisdom), I was reminded of two key qualities of Bach:

  1. He wrote “S.D.G.” (soli deo gloria — “to God alone be the glory”) on each of the 10,000+ pages of music he created;
  2. He was heralded as a great improvisor but not composer during his lifetime!

On iTunes today, I was able to find 8416 melodies either written by Bach or based on his melodies. Take the Prelude No. 1 as an example.  Though an exquisite piece for the harpsichord (as written), it also works beautifully on the piano, harp, and harmonica. Gounod used it as the underlying harmony for his exquisite Ave Maria — which has been recorded by many classical musicians, including my favorites Kathleen Battle and Nana Mouskouri. Of the non-classical versions, my choice is the one where Bobby McFerrin sings the Bach prelude-harmony while cellist Yo-Yo Ma plays the Gounod super-melody.

Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring is a beloved chorale, and it is surprisingly enchanting when played by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass or Leo Kottle on 12-string guitar.

O Sacred Head, Now Wounded shows up with different words in numerous hymnals  plus it’s the melody that Paul Simon uses for his “American Tune.” (Of course, Bach probably thought it was a German tune, but what the heck — it’s so beloved and effective that it’s probably a universal tune.)

Air on a G String is the underlying harmony to Sweetbox’ “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” — in fact they did to this melody what Gounod did to the Prelude No. 1 in C. There’s also a 2010 version by the Fucking Champs, a heavy metal band from California, that is surprisingly enjoyable (from the standpoint of one who is NOT a heavy metal fan!)

You can find the Fugue in G Minor performed by illustrious organists (as written by Bach) AND a wonderful version by the U.S. Navy Steel Band!  Plus the exquisite melodies from the Anna Magdalena Notebook is given words and percussion additions in The Toys’ “A Lover’s Concerto.”

What does this say for worship, if not also for life?

We need to remember the why — namely the melody — of what we’re about. Personally, I may not like the harmonies and instrumental arrangements of many of the pieces I found on iTunes, but I have to acknowledge that some people are put off by the words “Bach” or “classical music.” They would never pick up an album of Kathleen Battle or Andrea Bocelli, but might fall in love with Bach-Gounod’s “Ave Maria” sung by Stevie Wonder, Michael Crawford, the Carpenters, or Wynonna Judd. (To say nothing of “These Are Special Times” by Celine Dion.)

The harmonies and instrumentations may change, but it’s Bach’s melodies that have enchanted us for centuries. Would Bach, famed as one of the great improvisors of all time, be discouraged or delighted by the many (and sometimes outrageous) re-interpretations of his melodies? I think the latter!

Similarly,  the music of Jesus warrants different expressions. For some, it’s organ and standard hymns sung by a traditional choir.  For others, it’s praise music and overhead screens. Some won’t open their lips or raise any body parts; others offer a chorus of “amens” and wave arms. In all cases, it’s about Jesus’ gospel of inclusivity, justice, and all-embracing love. The interpretations may change, but the melodious message lives on — for Jesus, for Bach, and for us.

S.D.G.

 

 

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Celebrating a Life Well Lived

October 25th, 2011

On Thursday night at 10:00 PM Eastern time, PBS will feature a fabulous movie as part of their “Independent Lens” programming. Written by Eric Neudel, the film is “Lives Well Lived,” about the disability rights movement; it features, among others, my cousin Frederick Allen Fay, who died last month at his home in Concord, MA.  It was one of my greatest honors to be asked to lead the worship service for him, for he changed the lives of many — including mine.

Here is a portion of my remarks:

How does one do justice to a man who is so much larger than life? How does one do justice to a man who spent half of his life flat on his back and yet was more powerful than a phalanx of soldiers?

As we ponder that, I need to tell you that, as a child, Fred wasn’t my favorite cousin.  He was a few months older than my brother Peter, which meant that both of them were two years older than I. Peter and Fred were into sports and girls and … teasing me.   I really liked Bruce and Margaret and Jean and Aunt Janet and Uncle Allan and their wonderful dog Bandit. Fred was OK, but no, he wasn’t my favorite.

That all changed after his accident.  Or, I should say, after he transformed his life – and mine, and many others – following the accident.  He was not only my favorite, he became a personal hero. Except that he didn’t like the idea of being put on a pedestal.

Now, in my life, I’ve been fortunate to meet – if only in passing – Desmond Tutu and Martin Luther King, Jr.  And I’ve read a lot about Jesus and Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and Franklin Delano Roosevelt and others who changed the world. Speaking for myself, Fred is way up there with these other luminaries – so much larger-than-life, so able to make wise and loving choices especially when they’re difficult or unpopular. What is it that they have-or-think-or-believe that gives them the faith or the vision or whatever-it-is to become pioneers in courage?

Ever since Trish and Derick asked me to develop and speak at this service – one of the great honors of my life – I’ve struggled to discern what makes a hero. In addition to Fred and Jesus and Gandhi et al., I’m thinking about 9-11 and the firefighters in New York and the airline passengers in Pennsylvania who looked death in the eye and decided that a brave life was more to be treasured than a long life.  So, for two weeks, Fred, 9-11, hope, and heroism have all been spinning together like the makings of a milkshake in the blender of my mind.

It took a while, but I finally “got” it. Some of it has to do with opportunity, but there’s more.  I finally “got” why Fred, powerless by the world’s standards was the most powerful man I ever had the privilege of knowing up-close-and-personal. I finally “got” what underlay Fred’s “can do” attitude even when he – physically at least – “could not.”  I finally “got” why my young and rambunctious children preferred to spend the day at home with Fred than out sightseeing or going to the playground or a movie.

Namely this:  what Fred had in common with Jesus, Gandhi, FDR, MLK, the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu, Viktor Frankl, and other champions of justice has everything to do with power – specifically, the use and misuse of power.

It is often the case that someone abused as a child grows up to become an abuser himself. Physically and emotionally, one inflicts the injury upon one’s children that was inflicted up them. That goes for groups and countries also: a few crazy Muslims that were oppressed by their US-supported governments felt justified in lashing out against their tormenters – to whit 9/11.  We, the most powerful country in the world, then felt victimized and retaliated against those countries that harbored the abusers. It’s a perpetual seesaw of victim – abuser – victim – abuser…

And if it’s not the seesaw of violence, it can be the less obvious but equally destructive iron triangle of victim-abuser-enabler.  People involved in Al-Anon or other codependency programs know how easy it is to accommodate those who are addicted or abusive. When we’re caught in that victim-abuser-enabler triangle – and most of us are at one time or in one way or another – we identify ourselves by our lack of power.  We think of ourselves as “less-than” – less-than-perfect or less-than-powerful in a cruel and unjust world, whether because we are black, female, physically challenged, of the wrong religion, or children of alcoholics, or the child who wasn’t the favorite, or one who lacked the advantages of his peers… well, you get the idea.  We self-identify by what is missing – our lack of influence and power. We don’t recognize, embrace, or live our God-given power in healthy ways.  When we do claim our power, it’s often at the expense of others, making them into victims or enablers.

But not Fred.  Not Jesus or MLK Jr. or Mandela or FDR or the other truly great men and women in history. They never self-identified as “less than.”  They never got trapped in the vicious triangle of abusive power. What makes Fred so remarkable is that he never felt sorry for himself; he owned his power without oppressing others. Further, it upset Fred when folks put him on a pedestal because that necessarily meant that he was “more-than,” and the other was “less-than.”

But this only half the equation. Too often, we think of power as a limited resource, like money and food, without enough for everyone to be comfortable.  For me to enjoy as much power as I want, you need to have less.  It’s a dog-eat-dog world – right?

This is what I realized while thinking about Fred, Jesus, Gandhi, et al. – true heroes declare their power AND teach others how to claim theirs.  They empower those who think of themselves as “less than.”

So where do we go with this?  Before answering that question, I’d like to share Fred’s response when I asked how he managed to stay positive and playful.  (I was feeling sorry for myself after some life challenges and wanted to know how Fred avoided self-pity.) “How do you do it,” I asked.

“Granddaddy,” said Fred. “Huh?” I replied, to which he continued: “When I came out of the surgery and realized I was a paraplegic, I thought about our grandfather after that terrible car accident that broke his pelvis when he was 83.  No one expected him to live, or, if he did, it would be in a wheelchair. But other people’s assessments of what Granddaddy could not do didn’t stop him from doing what he could.  It took six months, but he was up and walking with the help of braces and special shoes.  He sometimes used a cane, but rarely. He never stopped hobbling out to pick blueberries, or make a fire, or serve people food and drink.  He never complained, and he never stopped enjoying life.  So whenever I feel sorry for myself, I remember how much fun Granddaddy had in living and how much he enjoyed people and vice versa.  So I consciously work on being grateful and it brings joy.  I wouldn’t change my life for anyone’s.”

In closing, Stephen Covey talks about the four aspects of a quality life: living, loving, learning, and leaving a legacy.  The legacy Granddaddy left was a can-do spirit and a joy in living regardless of physical challenges. Fred’s legacy is all that plus an awareness that we don’t need to be trapped in a victim-abuser-enabler triangle.  We can embrace our power and we can give it away.  As Granddaddy was a transforming image for Fred, so was Fred for me – and I hope you.  By sharing our gifts and power with others, we, like Fred – and Jesus and Gandhi and the others – can and will change the world.  And the saints and heroes in heaven and on earth will cheer.

If you’d like to read more about Fred, please go to my brother Peter’s website (http://www.wrightslaw.com/info/memory.fred.fay.htm) or do a Google search — you’ll be amazed at the range of his influence.  Though physically limited to a wheel bed in a Boston suburb, his moral and spiritual presence has been felt throughout the world. Truly, we give thanks to a life very well lived.

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A Hero Dies … and Lives On and On…

August 29th, 2011

My cousin Frederick B. Fay died on August 20, and the world both grieves and delights. For Fred — who lived most of his life in a wheelchair or wheel bed — was a hero of great influence. If you or a friend or relative of yours with physical impairments can use public transportation to get where you want to go, thank Fred. If you are grateful for public buildings that are now handicapped accessible, thank Fred. If you are able to live a life of quality despite physical limitations, thank Fred. If you believe that ALL Americans should be able to enjoy our country’s blessings — regardless of race, age, gender, or physical capabilities — thank Fred.

As we consider the heroes of 9/11 (about which I’ll be writing in the next week), let us also give thanks for the heroes we know, up close and personal. These are the heroes who change our everyday lives by the courage they show and the lives they improve. They are soldiers and firefighters and doctors and teachers … and cousins. They are people who, by the power of their passion and the force of their “irrepressible optimism” (a phrase commonly used to describe his indomitable spirit) break through all of the usual crud and improve the world in dramatic ways.

My brother, Peter Wright (an attorney specializing in special education law) and his wife Pam are more skilled  at updating websites and blogs and they have  posted several articles that tell of the power of Fred.  (See below.) Or you can wait until October 27 to see the film “Lives Worth Living” on PBS that will feature Fred and others in the disability rights movement.

Here are Peter’s comments:

When Fred was 17, he launched his disability advocacy career. Today Fred is widely recognized as one of the most significant leaders in the disability rights and independent living movements in the nation.

As you read this story and follow the links, you can hear Fred tell his story. 

As a teenager, Fred was an accomplished gymnast. At age 16, he fell from a trapeze and landed on his head, suffering a severe spinal cord injury. Despite his injuries, Fred was determined to live a full life. He wanted to show that a person with quadriplegia could be active, own an apartment, drive a car, get married, have children, and earn a Ph.D. In the video links below, you’ll see and hear Fred tell his story.

Fred accomplished his dreams, while also working to secure unprecedented access to civil rights for Americans with disabilities.

As a disability policy adviser to the Administration and Congress, Fred was instrumental in winning passage of Sections 503 and 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, the ADA of 1990, and the IDEA of 1997.

When President Johnson invited Fred to the Rose Garden for the signing of the the Urban Mass Transportation Act 1964, his wheelchair had to bebumped up the steps - the White House was not accessible.

“Lobbying to get access for the disabled became his life’s work, achieving it has become his life’s triumph.

At home in Washington, DC, Fred found “every single curb was like a Berlin Wall telling me that I was not welcome to travel farther than a block.” When Fred read about the new DC subway system to be built he thought “Why don’t they build it so that everybody can ride it?…”

Fred Fay with Elmer Bartels, Alison GilkeyFred’s life proves that one man can change the world, even though he has to lie flat on his back just to stay alive.

videoLives Worth Living - In this trailer, Fred as he tells you about his life after a devastating spinal cord injury, and his alliance with a small group of dedicated activists who formed the Disability Rights Movement and helped drive the nation towards equal rights.

An Incomparable Tinkerer

Fred “assumes no barriers in how innovative he can be in designing the technology in his environment.” – Judy Brewer, Director of the Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium.

Fred was a pioneer in the development of assistive technology and has been instrumental in the development of adaptive computer technology. For millions of people with disabilities, Fred’s innovations have provided access to the world around them.

UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library has recorded the stories of individuals who have made significant contributions to disability rights and the independent living movement. Read more about Fred here…

Fred Fay: Community Organizer and Advocate for Equal Access and Equal Rights

(This paragraph revised on 8/20/2011) If you would like to send Fred’s family a note of thanks, please send an email to:

thankyou.fred | at | wrightslaw.com

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