Wee Enchantment: Beatrix Potter

I was so blessed to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum in London when a special exhibit of Beatrix Potter’s letters, writings, sketches, and paintings were on display in an intimate, well lit hall. I got in as close as I could to snap a photo of this watercolor through the glass.

I used to read Potter’s books to my wee ones. What sweet memories!

Doors, the Third in a Series

“You can’t escape the past in Paris, and yet what’s so wonderful about it is that the past and present intermingle so intangibly that it doesn’t seem to burden.”- Allen Ginsberg, American poet, writer, philosopher, and activist

I snapped this in the Montmartre District, I loved the juxtaposition of the weathered old green door, with its geometric windows and centered knob, against the modern graffiti. It’s the LuLu White bar in Paris, it’s website is below. Next time, I think I’ll visit.

 

Mary Oliver’s Poems and Sacred Trees

Image result for Mary Oliver

This morning, I awakened to a gift. A poem that my eldest child, my daughter, sent to me. It was by Mary Oliver. I read it. I was stunned. And then I was intrigued. So I decided to find some more of Oliver’s work. What followed was no less than a descent down a white-rabbit tunnel into a wonderland of beautiful words and exquisite thought. It seemed I had found a poet who spoke to my soul. It turns out Mary Oliver is also a deep-thinking, dream-driven introvert who loves nature, and she has drilled deeply into the questions of Divinity. God’s nature. God’s revelation in nature.

Unitarian Universalist minister and blogger Fred Hammond described it beautifully, and he quoted author Kathleen McTigue as well:

“Kathleen McTigue writes regarding Oliver’s theology, ‘By that word [theology] I mean not only what her poems reflect of her beliefs about God, but what they reflect about a host of other religious questions: What is holy? Who are we? What are we called to do with our lives? What is death, and how do we understand it when we turn our faces toward its inevitability? These questions matter to all of us. And the answers in Mary Oliver’s poems feel so resonant and so true…’”

These are the questions that have become the very litany of my new existence. I now have an empty nest. It’s just me and my husband and our two dogs knocking around the house. I always believed my calling to be a mom was holy. I know it was. But it’s pretty much over. Now I wonder what I am called to in this new chapter. And with each arthritic pain and new wrinkle, I am forced to turn my face toward the inevitable. My parents are gone, my husband’s parents are slowing down. Beloved aunts and uncles seem so much older. These days, my heart is tender. Tears hover behind my eyelids, waiting just out of reach for a bit of tender piano music or the sight of a mother nursing her baby to call them forth, dripping down my lined face.

I have begun to embrace the idea that I am holy, in and of myself. Not my motherhood. Not my wifehood. Not my artistry. Not my vocation. Not my voice. Not even my silence. I am all of those things. All of those things are holy. But even without them, I am holy.

tree 2

And trees are, too.

This poem moved me to tears:

When I Am Among the Trees

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

tree 4

I love trees. I love them. I just got back from a walk, and the photo above is where I walked: a quiet lane completely enfolded in green leaves and branches. The trees whispered in the spring breeze. Like Oliver says, trees save me. Daily. All my life.

I have always loved trees. The first tree with whom I fell in love was a locust that lived in my neighbor’s yard. My seven year old self, a neighborhood pariah, would climb into the tree and nestle in its branches, eating the little brown beans that grew in pods, watching the kids play without me from the safety of my perch.

My ten year old self adopted the tree in our new house, wedged into the V shape that just fit my scrawny behind, Beverly Cleary and Madeleine L’Engle books nourishing my lonely little soul.

Near my house there was an enormous weeping willow, and I would stand in its fronds, imagining that I was in a safe and magical world where no one could find me. I recently visited that street. Both of those precious trees were gone. I grieved.

In the yard in front of the house where my husband and I  spent most of the child-rearing years of our family, there was a giant oak tree whose leaves created a canopy outside my bedroom window. All of every spring and summer, I felt like I slept in a tree house. I kept a chair on the balcony just outside my bedroom, and when my spirit was angry or in despair, I sat in that chair and simply let the tree speak to my soul. I hugged that tree. Literally. I hugged her. And when we left that house, I had to spend time with her, saying goodbye and thanking her for taking such good care of me.

Psalm 52:8 says: “But as for me, I am like a green olive tree in the house of God; I trust in the lovingkindness of God forever and ever.” I think that oak tree in Shenandoah, Texas was a gift from the Divine One, to show Her lovingkindness for my soul.

Have you ever seen a giant tree? Maybe a California Redwood? When I visited Sydney Australia with my younger daughter, we found what I think might have been a giant gum tree in the Royal Botanical Gardens. It was stunning. I almost couldn’t walk away. I had to stroke her trunk and talk to her a bit, much to my daughter’s amusement. She’s a bit more pragmatic that her older sister, who balances her chakras and talks to trees like I do.

My daughters, my son, my husband, our parents and grandparents back and back and back have created, as have all families, forests of family trees. Roots go deeper than we can imagine, soaking up nourishment of love like water. Branches reach toward the azure sky and the vibrant sunshine as the seeds of dreams are created and carried. Sometimes there is disease. It might cause a branch to fall, or perhaps even need pruning. That is the great cycle of life that the Divine One has created and set in motion, isn’t it?

What I know today is that my walk amongst the trees fed my spirit, so will the rich poetry of Mary Oliver. Her inner monologues, as revealed in her poetry, just seem to affirm that there are other introverted and tender souls out there who are like me. God has given me my soul, Mary’s poetry, and gorgeous trees to hug. His lovingkindness is everlasting.

A Little Bit Racist? Maybe…

 

I both laugh and cringe at the delightful song “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” from the brilliant Broadway musical Avenue Q, in which Sesame Street-style puppets sing about making rent, having adult relations, and surviving existential angst in riotous, bawdy joy:

“Everyone’s a little bit racist
Sometimes.
Doesn’t mean we go
Around committing hate crimes.
Look around and you will find
No one’s really color blind.
Maybe it’s a fact
We all should face
Everyone makes judgments
Based on race.
Princeton:
Now not big judgments, like who to hire
or who to buy a newspaper from –
Kate Monster:
No!
Princeton:
No, just little judgments like thinking that Mexican
busboys should learn to speak g****n English!”
I really love those puppets. They’re calling it like it is: we humans are a little distrustful of folks who look and live differently from ourselves. Different customs, clothing, and speech (everyone’s a rittle bit lacist!) plague us all, if we’re honest.

But over on a different end of the racial conversation spectrum, I just finished a powerful book, Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things. I really like Picoult’s narrative style- it’s simple, clean, and full of rich metaphor. Her characters struggle with things that all of us encounter in the span of living a normal life: loss, faith, suicide, dreams. Those you encounter in her books are complex, full of contradiction and beauty.

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Her books always affect me. This one almost physically hurt.

It’s about race. Right here, right now, in these United States.

There is no way to live in our contemporary society and be oblivious to racial tension. Every week it seems there is another shooting or violent attack. And most of us white people don’t want to be racist- we’re horrified by the very idea! But maybe…just maybe, this book posits…we are.

Small Great Things puts us into the lives and thoughts of a Black nurse (the capital B is Picoult’s device), a white supremacist, and a white Liberal lawyer. A baby dies, a law suit is filed. And everything that each of these three people thinks they know about how the races relate to each other is challenged.

The character I most identified with, not surprisingly, is the white Liberal lawyer, Kennedy: she’s toiling away in the Public Defender’s office, spending her days working so that all defendants have a shot at justice. She knows about the inequity of sentencing for Blacks, it’s part of why she became a Public Defender- she is on a mission to balance the scales. Her desire comes from what seems like a good and noble place: an acknowledgement that the system is flawed and her position is privileged. And yet…she takes her privilege for granted. She is made to realize that she sees Ruth, and other Blacks, as victims. And that makes them Other. Less than. In need of rescue rather than true equity. Kennedy reminds me of what it was to teach in a  public school in Texas, where so many different ethnicities pile into buses, cafeterias, and classrooms with no choice but to figure it out.

I really struggled to read the sections from the White Supremacist’s point of view. These pages were so filled with anger and vitriol, described in language that I could barely stomach, that I told my husband I didn’t know if I could stay with the book, even though I have such admiration for the author. But I read reviews that indicated that others had struggled with this character and his world view, but that the journey was worth it. And it was.

I remember one time, back in my mid twenties, living in Abilene, Texas, and telling my husband that “I never held a slave. And none of the Blacks living now ever were slaves. So why are they still angry? Why can’t they just move on?” I cringe now that I was ever so callous. I have learned about systemic and historical oppression, and what it does to a people.

The book’s main protagonist, Ruth, is a Yale educated labor and delivery nurse who is raising her son alone- not because she was an always single mother, but because her husband, a soldier, died in Afghanistan. Her experiences on a day of shopping, being tailed by TJ Maxx sales clerks, being the only customer required to show ID at the cash register, then standing at the exit while security checks her receipt against the contents of her shopping bag while the white shoppers all exit unimpeded, rang true to me. Not because I have experienced those indignities, but because when I was working retail as a high school and college student, that was exactly what we were told to do. The shoplifting training videos all featured Blacks as the perps. When African Americans wandered into the men’s clothing store where I worked, my manager would send me over with instructions to follow them.

How many times might I have said “Ya know, if those Black people would just lay down and be still, the cops wouldn’t have to shoot them?” before I understood that might not be so simple? That when your people used to wear chains and be sold, that subservience can be a tough pill to swallow? And that sometimes, you can say “Sir” and still be shot.

How many times have I, without realizing it, clutched my purse a little tighter when a Black man passed me on the street?

Growing up, my mom taught me that I shouldn’t associate with people of other ethnicities- it was okay to be polite to them at school, but that was it. When I made a new friend when we moved to a neighborhood in a Dallas suburb, she was worried that they were Italian (their last name was Peters for heaven’s sake) and Catholic. I had to plead with her that religious topics never came up, and that when I worked up my courage to ask what the family’s religion was, discovered they were Baptist, which was okay. When my neighbor, Mrs. Hogeda, invited me in one day and showed me how she was making flour tortillas, I had to lie to my mom about where I had been because her disdain for Mexican Americans was so strong. When I developed a crush on one, I thought the roof would collapse on the house because of her fury. Shopping at the five and dime among Spanish speakers was an opportunity for her to mutter about people needing to go back where they belonged.

I have even heard a family member recently use the word “wetback.”

And a completely different family member, whose rep I want to protect, shared the wisdom that the Blacks are happier if they stay in their own neighborhoods, schools, and churches. That particular conversation occurred when I was a young college woman endeavoring to figure out how race fit into my world view. And though I voiced respectful opposition to the idea that benevolent segregation was American or godly or right, I still found myself, for all practical purposes, living in an all white world.

Once, as a younger adult, I asked myself the question: Would I want to be black? And the answer was, without hesitation, no. Not because I believed Black people are inferior, but because I knew that to be white in America was, and continues to be, a position of privilege. I have never been tailed in a retail store. I have never been denied service in a business establishment.  I have never had to worry, when pulled over for a traffic stop, that I would be shot or arrested if I wasn’t appropriately deferential.

This week, a jury handed down an innocent verdict in the Philando Castile shooting. It’s one of way too many killings of Blacks by panicked police. The phrase my daughter pulled out of Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show commentary was, “Clearly, black people never forget their training.” The training that, for all intents and purposes, keeps the “Massah” relationship alive and well in the United States:

 

We tell ourselves that the race issue is complicated. But is it? Is it really? Or have we made it so because we are afraid to truly own what is happening in our country?

In the Oprah Magazine’s May issue, Oprah and her staff confronted the issue of race in America. With photographs meant to compel thought, such as white women giving Asian women pedicures or a Black child looking at a shelf of white dolls at a toy store, the magazine challenged us to think about the subtle daily discrimination that we take for granted. Topics like Southern shame (I’m guilty), refugees, and ethnic traditions are laid bare. In one of the articles, entitled “A Force For Good” by criminologist David Kennedy, the author quotes the president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Terrence Cunningham, who said that “police had often been ‘the face of oppression,’ and needed to ‘acknowledge and apologize for the actions of the past and the role that our profession has played in society’s historical mistreatment of communities of color.'”

http://www.oprah.com/inspiration/why-we-need-to-talk-about-race

Look, I am not targeting the police in this blog post. I get that they are under pressure and work in difficult situations. But Philando Castile should not have been shot. That jury reached the wrong verdict. Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Sandra Bland should be alive. And we white Americans have got to start being honest: we clutch our bags tighter, we sometimes cross to the other side of the street or make jokes or judgements. We do. And yes, I know it goes both ways. But whites have power in this country, by virtue of being white. And we need to admit it. I need to admit it. Picoult says, in her afterword, “Most of us think the word racism is synonymous with the word prejudice. But racism is more than just discrimination based on skin color. It’s also about who has institutional power. Just as racism creates disadvantages for people of color that make success harder to achieve, it also gives advantages to white people that make success easier to achieve. It’s hard to see those advantages, much less own up to them.”

Back to Small Great Things: I loved the book. The storytelling was taut, the points of view were thoroughly researched and rang true and clear. The characters were raw and vulnerable, and nearly all learned and grew from the journey. My heart was fully invested as I read, breathless as the trial drew to a close. The stakes were huge in this book: career, college, reputation. The stakes in our real life America are even greater: Peace and Life itself. I hope we all can embrace change and growth. I am ready to embrace the philosophy preached by martin Luther King, Jr: “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” May my small life affect change. Hallelujah and amen.

http://www.jodipicoult.com/small-great-things.html

 

 

 

 

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