On Labor Day 1999, my parents and I spent most of the day on the Winterthur Museum grounds, in Wilmington, Delaware, where we lived. We explored the large craft fair being held there, and my mother and I bought the silver-and-glass necklaces that became our most-often-worn jewelry. I have my necklace on today. For a late lunch, we drove a few miles up Kennett Pike to the Mendenhall Inn, which had long been one of our favorite restaurants.
When we returned to Winterthur, we decided to park in the lot for the visitors’ center and take a jitney back to the craft-fair area and the field where the Delaware Symphony would perform that night. We thought we were being clever to avoid the congested parking area near the Labor Day events, where everyone else attending the outdoor activities had parked.
After a bit more craft-fair browsing, we found a spot to sit in the field near where the orchestra would perform. Picnicking families surrounded us. The concert was magnificent. It concluded with the full moon rising within the exploding stars of fireworks.
The other thousands headed to their nearby cars. We quickly learned that no more jitneys were running at that hour. Holding hands, the three of us walked down the long, otherwise-deserted hill to our car. We walked on and on in the moonlight, creating my favorite of all my memories from all my years. Here is my poem about the conclusion to the day.
Labor Day Picnic
The Moon rises over the trees— First a hint of light, Soon a crescent, Then a round face with familiar features Gazing on the thousands Assembled for glorious lesser lights Shining to music.
Later, Jupiter repeats the Moon’s ascent, Balancing the Moon’s placid warmth With its sparkling intensity.
Flash, boom: Brilliance into the dark, Surrounding the Moon smiling through With a mustard-yellow grin, Then nearly white again.
Intricate smoke trails almost as beautiful as the exploding colors, Scenes like the end of the world by asteroids, Scenes like the beginning of the Earth: Golden trees, flowering, branching farther, Drifting down into the dark sky To be joined by rising, arching, pure color and light.
It is a beautiful life, A moment to sear into memory When the fireworks reach across the Moon And the children twirl their neon necklaces— Whirling in the shadowy almost-dark; Sky-filling chandeliers of blue, red, gold, white, and green Suspend themselves above us; Our night is overtaken by light: Circles of colors, human, momentary, framing the eternal.
And then in the moonlight, Thousands stream for their cars, A little lost, A little tired and cold, Carried on brightness Into the September night, Until it is only the three of us, Holding hands, Moving on together Into the lovely silhouettes of evening At the end of summer.
The answer to your question is, “Take one step and then another.” You will find your road by walking, Not by spinning, Rushing one way and the other, Losing all direction, Resenting the opinions Of those you ask the way.
You are a sunflower expecting to be turned, Afraid to follow her light; She complains she is carried about like a seed, Although her petals are turning brown.
You measure yourself by shifting shadows And stumble along as the Earth moves. Seek your Inner Light, And find your foothold there.
You fear the judgments of others, Expecting from them The second-rate value You long since assigned to yourself.
You mourn for freedom, Believing you paid it for love and acceptance. But these are given and earned, not bought. Freedom grows wild within.
All human beings are connected—every one of us, from the saint to the terrorist, from the billionaire to the family living in a refugee camp. When untainted by the infinite distortions we humans apply in their name, our religions remind us of our bonds to one another. We share responsibility for the wellbeing of all those with whom our lives intersect, directly and indirectly. Little that we do is without consequence for others.
All creation, in fact, vibrates in harmony, and when a nightingale sings in Rome, the effect is felt in every heart, wherever we may be. While the influence of our thoughts and actions is strongest on those closest to us physically or on those closest to us emotionally and spiritually, we humans cannot help but touch one another.
We are tangibly connected, much as the starlings in an enormous flock are connected and know simultaneously when to change direction. Evidence of our literal ties is available if we don’t close our minds to the possibility. It’s not unusual for close friends and relatives to experience telepathy, with one voicing what the other has just been thinking. When someone rises to speak and breaks the silence of a Quaker Meeting for Worship, the ministry will frequently prove to be on the same subject that other individuals have been pondering silently. A person we have not heard from recently may suddenly come to mind, not long before he or she calls us unexpectedly. Entering a new place or meeting someone new, we may sense the positive or negative qualities of the surrounding energy or aura. Sometimes a dream or an image appearing during meditation will reveal something happening or soon to happen to a loved one or even to strangers.
In March 2011, on the night of the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, my mother and I were restless and couldn’t sleep; were we sensing the turmoil and suffering on the other side of the Earth even before we heard the news? On the way to work on the morning of September 11, 2001, I felt upset for no clear reason, so much so that I almost turned around and went back home. In the office that morning, I couldn’t concentrate and found myself crying. I tried meditating but, in my mind’s eye, kept seeing a bicycle and car colliding; perhaps that is how my mind translated the morning’s reality into its own imagery. In the scene, I attempted to separate the bicycle and car, but they collided again, and then again. I gave up meditating and turned to the Internet, where I learned about the attacks. The Twin Towers had already collapsed.
Given the intertwining of our lives, how can we do better by our fellow human beings, locally and around the world? First we can recognize that what we do locally can have repercussions globally, much as a wave travels across the ocean. With this knowledge, we can do our best to love. And what is love? Love is valuing one another—all others. Love is seeing that of God in all people, even if their Inner Light is buried under hatred and evil acts. Love is respecting the Earth, whose bounty human beings have diminished through selfishness, ignorance, and neglect. Love is wanting the best for every human soul—not the biggest car, house, and salary but the best in individual growth and the expression of that soul’s unique excellence and experiences. Love is seeing that each individual is a part of the whole and, as the poet John Donne said, one person’s loss diminishes us all.
Love complements direct intervention on behalf of those who suffer. We must individually and in partnership feed the hungry, nurture the lonely, shelter the homeless, and heal the sick. But if we are not in a position to assist directly to feed, clothe, comfort, and heal, we are nevertheless helping the whole world if we practice kindness and love others genuinely and fully, if we speak up for what is right, encourage through the means available to us, lend a hand whenever we can, and find a way to do our work—whether in the home or through paid employment—in such a way that we lighten life’s spiritual and mental burdens for our loved ones and colleagues and give to society through our efforts.
The contribution does not need to feel profound, but it does need to be on the beneficial side of the ledger. If we are manufacturing weapons, why are we doing so? If our business is poisoning the land, why are we in this business? Perhaps we are, in fact, making a contribution to humankind, but we must be able to articulate it and not be kidding ourselves. It is not that all workers in less-than-exciting jobs should rush to the want ads to find more obviously meaningful employment. Instead, in most cases, we can find and develop the potential to serve within the job we have. If our work is harmful to ourselves and others, we must leave it as soon as we can without genuine risk to ourselves and our loved ones depending on us for their care and support. In our avocations, if we write, sing, paint, act, coach sports, teach literacy classes, run community fundraisers, host a book group, knit, garden—wherever our talents and interests take us without harming ourselves or others—we are exercising God’s gift of these talents and interests, and we can serve others and spread love and encouragement through them.
If you love and I love and we reach those around us so that their love grows and is shared, we will change the world. Love is shared in many ways—writing a poem, encouraging a friend, speaking up kindly but firmly in the face of unkindness and injustice, refusing to go along with behavior and attitudes that harm, building a soup kitchen, teaching children to read, creating music and art. All of these can be an expression of love if they are done with a reverence for and full sense of the unity of humanity and creation. Each of these can help to change the world. We change the world through our way of being, as well as our way of doing. Love is the answer, whatever form it takes.
Because we are connected directly and indirectly, love will spread when we love and show love. In turn, those we touch may love more deeply and therefore spread greater love. And with a thousand who love and then a million, and with all those who are touched in turn, love can become a mighty force, catching fire around the world like smoldering kindling in a hot wind, like a beneficial virus spread from person to person, from traveler to traveler, until a worldwide epidemic is declared. This is the way the human race will move forward. Those who love also seek and find a way to help those around them, to cooperate for the common good, to overcome poverty, to move past corrupt governments and past the forces of Nature that we humans have corrupted through our actions and choices.
Another way we can help those near and far is to be informed. We can learn, for instance, how the gems and the gold in our jewelry were mined. Were the conditions safe, the pay fair, and the mines free from child labor? Who picked the coffee beans and cocoa beans for our beverages and sweets, and how are these workers treated? Who sewed the seams in our clothes; who lost work and who gained work as a result, and what were the situations for all concerned?
And how are others living their lives? In my comfortable home and with my ample food and safe environment, can I rightly ignore the poverty, hunger, and other threats that at this moment endanger millions of children and adults? The last time I was in Philadelphia on a cold winter day, a homeless man was sleeping on a grate to try to capture a little bit of warmth. Can I justifiably ignore him as I settle in under my warm covers? And can I ignore the child whose parents sold her into subjugation because they could not afford to raise her? What about the families fleeing genocide and those whose lives are devastated by wars and other violence? Whether they live next door or across the globe, these are our neighbors. These men, women, and children are an extension of ourselves, as we are of them.
Too much suffering elicits only backs turned and perhaps a few prayers of thanksgiving that the plight of so many strangers is not our own. But the suffering of the man, woman, or child halfway around the world is our own suffering, too, and when we ignore him or her, we ignore part of ourselves. And so it is with the angry men and women who harm their neighbors or those perceived to be the enemy. That anger is our anger, and we must learn to quench our own if we are to stem the flow of hatred and violence in the world. Lasting change will come one person at a time, and another, and another, and another.
The message is not to lie down and let the winds of hatred or war flatten us and others around us as a tornado pulls out trees by their roots so they cannot recover. But self-defense must never drift over the line into offense, and self-defense must increasingly be without weapons and any trappings of war. If a people—if the world’s people—can learn truly to cooperate with one another, rather than competing in a mad rush for power and success however they are defined, humankind will be able to stanch evil even before it gains a foothold because we will deny those who practice it the following they need to advance. And as we act, we will act out of love, caring, and concern, knowing our own hate and revenge feed that of others.
So many ways of being are possible. There is not one right way but are infinite right ways along the path of caring and kindness. Each such way amplifies love in the world, helping to spread it where it might not have gone before. From here on throughout our years, let each of us light the lamp and show the way according to our map and journey.
“Trust in what you love, continue to do it, and it will take you where you need to go.” —Natalie Goldberg
What do you especially love to do? To share a list of the activities that give you joy is to allow a glimpse into the essence of who you are.
In this era of vast, worldwide suffering from the coronavirus, of quarantines and social distancing, some of the things we love to do must be modified. But those of us still blessed to have health for ourselves and our loved ones can remember the joys of past times, dream of joys to come, and recognize the joys still open to us, even now.
Here is some of what I love. A number of these pleasures still offer themselves to me in full measure. And all of them are possible in some version, from reading about favorite cities to attending choir practice on Zoom. My list is probably not interesting to you in itself. I hope, though, that my loves will remind you of your own, perhaps inspiring you to give them renewed places of honor in your life.
Encouraging others, especially about their writing
Being—simply being—with a close friend, whatever we’re doing, and working on shared projects
Listening to music that reaches my soul
Shopping at health-food stores
Interacting with other people out and about town or in my community
Writing a poem and sharing it with others
Meditating inside quaint or magnificent churches
Seeing art in places such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Uffizi Gallery, or the Louvre or in the piazzas and churches of Rome
Walking through towns and cities—especially Rome or other Italian cities and towns, Paris, New York, London, or Montreal—up one street and down another, catching glimpses of daily life and imagining how life is for the people whose activities and homes I glimpse
Sitting in a café and writing in my journal, reading, and soaking up the atmosphere
Reading about how other people have handled life’s challenges
Finding a poem that captures what I’ve felt or would like to have said
Watching wildlife of all kinds
Browsing and shopping in bookstores
Listening to audiobooks
Learning languages and reading in French or Italian
Taking and teaching classes
Reading about and discussing spiritual philosophy
Traveling by train and seeing the changing scenery
Attending the opera
Reading novels whose characters captivate me
Connecting with loved ones on the other side
Making a fresh start
Getting outside early on a fine spring or summer morning, or taking a walk at dusk
Expressing myself about strongly held opinions
Making music and singing with others
Dancing with a partner who dances well, or expressing myself through dance
Handling challenges successfully
Experiencing unspoiled Nature
Looking at catalogs, especially when I could do this with my mother
Hugging loved ones
Translating interesting literature or articles from Italian to English
Writing up an experience so that it comes alive for someone else
Rearranging furniture and organizing my books and other belongings
Looking at the stars on a clear night, especially when I could do this with my father, or bathing in moonlight
Going to a good movie
Eating with a friend at an interesting restaurant
Attending retreats and Masses with my best friend and the Sisters of St. Francis
Since long before I was old enough to be called a woman, I have wondered, worried, explored, analyzed, psychoanalyzed, reformed, self-chastened and chastised, groveled, and agonized about the kind of woman I am, should be, need to be, want to be. These journeys into the deepest caves of my being, these self-forced marches through the stalactites and stalagmites of my spirit, have taken place on paper, in my dreams, in my insomnia, in my conversations with myself and those with whom I share affection. And these journeys have gone on, and on, and on, leading me to travel one way and then another, circling back, losing myself in the dark forest of perfectionism and seeking approval, binding me with the crawling, clinging, choking vines of trying to be the girl and woman I have thought others expect me to be and I expect myself to be. I swing, unable to reach the ground, caught, nearly unable to breathe, held fast by the terror of not measuring up.
And so I am sick unto revulsion of writing about the kind of woman I have been and find myself to be.
Okay, on the Enneagram I am a Type 2, one who loves to serve but too often flips over into serving in order to be accepted. I am old according to most but don’t feel or act old. I don’t even always act or feel grown. I am proud of my degrees but feel less than those who have more degrees than I; I still think of earning a doctorate, but the goal is only partly from my love of learning. I am single—I detest the word “spinster” because of the connotations it carries, but yet I’m known to apply these connotations to myself. I am adventurous. I do love learning—so much so that I expect my heaven to include universities. I love intensely those closest to my heart. I am still trying to figure out my purpose. I have, including recently, been called Goodie Two Shoes, but I am meek and goodie only until I’ve absolutely had enough, and the time lapse between goodie and harpy varies.
Do you know who I really want to be? I want to be a woman who is exactly as God intends for her to be—herself, foibles and all, and with a determination to work each day toward being herself in the best sense. And that, of course, includes at the center finding out how she can, as herself and not merely as she wants and thinks she ought to be, be useful to others and honor her parents and creation, of which she can right this minute stop being ashamed of the part she is taking in its being and becoming.
You rekindle the light in me, The true in me, The one who joins all peoples of the world In harmonies and counterpoints To their rhythms, Their keys and intonations, Their passages pianissimi oveloci e fortissimi.
With you, I am one whose consciousness expands Beyond the seemingly solid walls of her apartment To embrace the musicians, The other lovers of these melodies, These instruments and voices, The composers Alive or long since gone beyond.
You make me sing— I love to sing, And I remember playing guitars That summer of ‘69 at the university; One boy called his guitar Adele— I don’t now know the boy’s name And never saw him again, But I recall playing Bob Dylan with him And his Dylan-esque ways, And I played for the adored Rick: “No, I never got over those blue eyes.”
You ask me to remember The creaky floors of Tower Records on South Street, Of singing along with Pav and thinking of my love, Of later, at Essene Natural Foods, Singing along—more Dylan— “But I was so much older then,” And by then I had understood The wisdom of growing younger as we age.
You ask me to spruce up my hair For Zoom-on-Sunday choir practice; The best is singing in the pews, Floating on the alto and tenor harmonies, The bass foundation, The soaring descant— I am a soprano, though I do not vocally soar, Only inside, But even so, my meager high notes thrill me.
You ignite the dancer in me, And that I am, Tap, line dancing: Move your body and be whole; Once I ice skated to Galway playing Pachelbel’s Canon And when I listen to the Canon, I skate in my mind; My closing spin is more secure.
With you, I gather again With my dearest ones who have stepped away; We take our seats at the symphony, the opera, And sing around the piano, “Let the Sunshine In.”
You light my spirit To embrace its creativity, Remind me Gray skies are beautiful, I am not confined, I am not old, just me, It is not too late, I can still create, Be, Be a part of everything, Am a part of everything, Everyone, All that is, Even in virus time.
La musica è la lingua madre del mio cuore. ______________________
Notes: “No, I never got over those blue eyes,” from “I Still Miss Someone,” by Johnny Cash and Roy Cash, Jr. “But I was so much older then,” from “My Back Pages,” by Bob Dylan. “Let the Sunshine In,” words by Ada J. Blenkhorn.
Ours is an era that will live on through the history books, and perhaps through enduring transformations for humanity. And right now, ours is a time of erupting change, much more for many than for me, although I feel my ground shaking, too.
I live in a large retirement community, a place that has been my home since my 62nd birthday, the age of eligibility, when I moved in to be with my mother, Doris. We had two-and-a-half blessed years together in our little apartment, where I have remained. Because I am healthy and active, I might not have moved to the community if my mother had not already been here, but I would not give up a second of the time Mother and I had together, and I do not consider moving now. Here I have found a community of dear friends, including a friend whom I consider my sister-friend because we are kindred spirits. Other than distant cousins I haven’t met, my living relatives are eight cousins who live hundreds of miles away. But here where I live, I have the gift of a sense of family and community, both of which have always been profoundly important to me.
Following the Pennsylvania governor’s guidelines, we in our community had been asked a couple of weeks ago to avoid leaving the campus and to stay six feet apart from one another. Seeing some wiggle room there, my sister-friend and I were getting together late each afternoon to eat our dinner together, read things that inspire us, share our thoughts and feelings, and watch the news. We sat six-feet apart in my friend’s apartment, which is considerably larger than mine, and I wore vinyl gloves if I used her computer.
This past Saturday evening, March 28, my friend and I had finished eating and were listening to music on the television when a robocall came in to let everyone know that beginning the next day, Sunday, we needed to stay inside our own apartments for two weeks, at least. I cried a little, knowing that life was changing even more than it had already and that I would be missing seeing my friend. I had known in the back of my mind that becoming quarantined was probably inevitable, but meeting the reality was a little daunting.
But now I have a better sense of what people in countries such as Italy, Spain, and China have faced and are facing, and how it is for New Yorkers. At the same time, I realize that I am profoundly blessed. We’ve had one case of the virus in our community, but my friends and I are well, as are my cousins in the South. I am active—able to jump around in front of the TV to get my exercise—have lots of interests, and best of all, can talk by phone with my friends nearby and in distant points. Facebook helps me to feel connected with my international friends, including the several living in Italy.
But even in our community, where the employees are delivering meals, helping folks figure out how to walk their dogs, planning to deliver mail, even willing to drop off a needed roll of toilet paper, some of the residents are less able than I am to deal with the challenges. Our community director and medical director hold regular call-in shows on our closed-circuit television station, and on Sunday, the first day of the quarantine, a woman called in who was clearly having a full-blown anxiety attack. And again, all of us here are the fortunate ones compared to what so many are suffering.
After the worst of the coronavirus has passed, what will remain of the changes we are making now to try to rid the world of the virus? Will we continue to be kinder and more helpful to one another, more grateful for all we have and to those who risk their own wellbeing to serve, more attentive to the needs of the Earth and Nature? To what extent will we return to so-called normal? Whatever the answers to these questions, I will mark this past Saturday night, March 28, 2020, as the night I fully became part, in my small way, of the world’s shared efforts to stop COVID-19.
And Saturday, March 28, 2020, would have been my father’s 100th birthday. On March 11, the second-to-last day that I was out and about, I attended a one-day retreat at the nearby Franciscan Spiritual Center with my sister-friend. The retreat included time for silent meditation. During the first quiet time, I clearly saw in my mind my parents reaching out to me in love. I believe they were expressing their understanding of what the world was facing and of the experiences about to reach my friends, neighbors, and me. They were saying, I think, “We are with you.” I believe they are. And I believe that all human beings have love reaching out to them from the other side. I wish that everyone could also know the sense of love and comfort that I am blessed to find inside my everyday life.
The Philadelphia Orchestra, Broadcasting on television, Is playing Beethoven’s Symphonies No. 5 and No. 6 In an otherwise empty Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall— Empty, without an audience, Because of the virus that has changed the world In weeks, days. Right behind the orchestra are the empty seats Mother, Daddy, and I held as our season tickets.
Beethoven, Daddy’s favorite. As I listen, my emotions rise, fortissimo, Chords of pain, Waves of feeling riding waves of magnificent sound Carrying a magnificent, hard-to-believe-it-ever-was past.
When I was a little girl, Daddy played a recording of Beethoven’s 6th for me, Narrating the story told As the symphony’s movements unfold.
I feel and see moving toward me in silent procession, Now crowding together in their joyous, Suffocatingly sad throng, My life’s vast gifts of miraculous memories.
One morning when I had escaped from Plattsburgh, New York, and the job I loved at the college I detested, I sat in a Montreal natural-foods restaurant and wrote a poem about my ideal day. The poem—now more than twenty-five years in the past and long misplaced—explained that I would write all morning in my city (ideally Montreal) apartment. Then at noon I would meet a man of my heart, also a writer, for a long lunch at the restaurant where I was composing my poem. The man and I would share what we had written that morning. And then we would return to our solitary writing. Perhaps the man and I would meet again in the evening—my poem didn’t explain. Whether with the man, with another friend, or alone, I would no doubt choose to spend nearly every evening at the opera, concert hall, or theater. But certainly the man and I would repeat, over and over, our mornings of solitary writing and our sharing over lunch. We would each be glad for what we, ourselves, had written and fully fascinated by the work of the other.
I love Montreal—and New York City, Paris, Rome, and other captivating cities—and a day such as my poem described continues to retain its full measure of appeal. But the years have spun on and I am living now in a large retirement community outside of Philadelphia. No one gets to my age without loss, and I have known and know intense loss. But I am also finding years full of ideal days—ideal, of course, within the frame of life as it now presents itself.
Ideal for me comes in a variety of guises. I love my courses, taken and taught, at the University of Delaware’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. I have more than once, at the end of a full day of classes, said aloud, “I loved, loved, loved today!” I likewise love my church choir and my activities in our community: billiards, a writers’ group, tap dancing and line dancing, an annual musical. Above all, I love the people with whom I share these activities. And I thrive at the nearby Franciscan Spiritual Center; the Franciscan sisters fully live their spirituality. They’re as radical as I am—but a lot better at putting their beliefs into practice by serving the world community.
Now in this time of the coronavirus, all my classes and group activities have been suspended. But I am still finding beautiful days because I still have the joy of one of God’s profound blessings in my life: my best friend in this world, my sister of the soul though not of blood. Every evening, I pack something for supper and walk over to my friend’s apartment within the community where we are living. Her apartment is larger than mine, so at her place, we are able to do our social distancing—six feet apart—and yet visit and share our reading and wrestling with its meanings; our experiences, thoughts, and emotions; laughter; the devastating news; and the pleasure of each other’s company. And each evening, my friend and I share with each other what we have written during the day.
The virus is devouring the planet For us who took meandering, Nearly at will, As the way our world spun; We who are blessed With generous measures Of strength and possibilities Wandered our neighborhoods And far beyond As means allowed And inclination prompted.
But now a trip to choir practice Is an act of courage, daring, Perhaps irresponsibility, Endangering others, Harming those I love.
How could a time, Decades, have been When for us— The blessed ones Not living, or enduring, In famine, poverty, infirmity, Subjugation, or war— Only time and budget impeded Our exploring the globe?
And now we avoid trains and planes, Restaurants and theaters, Gatherings at church and school, And touching one another.
Throughout the eons, Lives have been transformed, Darkened or destroyed; We feared Earth’s annihilation By inundation or asteroid, But our present world and ways Are trampled by a microbe Unheard of when the old year Stepped away a season ago, Ceding time and space To a new decade holding hope Now dying, But seeking resurrection.