Becoming a Classic: Aging with Grace is a blog about aging with enthusiasm, optimism, and satisfaction. No, I haven’t yet figured out how to deserve these labels, but I’m working on it. Through my writing I’ll be looking at what I’m doing wrong (and very occasionally right) and how I can do more to grow as I age. I’ll be sharing my writing because you may have been wrestling with some of the same challenges that have resisted solution for me.
Because I love books—from the greatest classics to the most frivolous just-off-the-press fluff and everything in between—I will relate my musings to things I have read that have given me guidance or ideas, or at least suggested that my feelings and failings are not unique. In some cases, the books and their insights will take center stage.
The voice in the essay may be that of my literal guides or may be the Inner Light that shines inside each of us.
You say your boundaries are too porous. If you would strengthen your boundaries appropriately, you will ask yourself why you are erecting barriers between you and others of God’s creatures. It is not really barriers, or boundaries, that you seek. It is a stronger sense of self.
how to achieve that stronger sense of self? The way is by knowing your values
and needs, as well as those of others. Sometimes it is hard to tell what is
fair, but the only way to judge is by looking inside yourself and asking, “Am I
trying to give more than I have to give at this particular time?” If the
situation is an emergency, you do all you can and more. But most situations are
not emergencies, and you have time to think and plan: how will you renew
yourself sufficiently so that your soul and body are able to flourish and grow,
along with those of the person you are trying to help?
It is not much good to help another and harm or destroy yourself. God wants all of his creatures. You are not more important than the next, and not less important. Give all you can but not more than you can without draining your reserves and denying your gifts to the world, for we all have gifts, every creature, heavenly and on Earth; we are responsible for saving and healing ourselves, as well as others. We don’t rob Peter to pay Paul.
Remember the Parable of the Talents, and think of those as literal talents, your talents. They are not to be buried under arduous work or sacrifice that robs them of their value and gloss. Build your talents to serve and serve through your talents, not by denying them and burying them in the burden of every day. Your kindness and love are talents, too, and giving them helps them to grow unless you are giving more than your body and mind can afford from their store of energy and time. This is the way the Lord wants you to reason—not that you must give and give and give so that there is little left in you and you are half destroyed from fatigue and exhaustion of your nerves and patience.
your guides are with you and will help you to understand if you are not doing
your share. Generally that is not a problem with you, but we know that it
worries you. You think you are not being fair, not doing your part, not helping
enough. When you are exhausted or have not released your creativity through
valued outlets, say so and do so, rather than plowing ahead. This is the way
the Lord wishes for you to do so that you help others and respect yourself at
the same time.
in prayer if you are uncertain, or come back to your journal and write, for
that will free you and sort out your mind so that your spirit is unencumbered—so
that you are able to give without pain and receive from God your talents and
their multiplying on your behalf and that of others. You are not a slave. No
human being was made to be a slave, literally or figuratively, and do not
enslave yourself through your own misunderstanding of who you are and what you
must do to give to others balm for their needs, their worries, and their
We are with you. We care. We are not telling you to be selfish, and being selfish is not your nature even though all people are selfish from time to time. But we are telling you that treating yourself right according to your gifts and your physical limitations and possibilities is not selfishness. The adage of paying yourself first is appropriate, if we may return to the money metaphor. More accurately, we would say to be sure to pay yourself as you are giving to others—not in the sense of payback or bribe but in the sense of adding to your fund of energy, enthusiasm, ideas, and inspiration. This is our recommendation, and it has stood the test of the ages.
So try, even if the advice does not seem easy to follow. Actually it is easier than you think, and the guidelines are here. If you are too tired physically and/or spiritually, and if your creative outlets have not been followed sufficiently to stem your frustration and sense of self-denial, you need to “pay” yourself before continuing unless a true emergency situation exists for another. And even then you must return to yourself as quickly as you can—to renew yourself for your sake, God’s sake, and that of others. You will give far more from a base of fulfillment and physical wellbeing than you ever can from an empty vessel of self.
We speak truth, and we will help you to follow it if you turn to us with your doubts. We leave this subject now but can return to it when the need arises, after you have given these principles your full attention and effort. Blessings to you and to all of God’s creatures. We love you. Love both yourself and others.
The annoying poetry professor begins, “All right, pupils: listen up! What rhythm do we have here in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem ‘Kubla Khan’?”
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure-dome decree:
“I’ll beat on the desk to show you. The pattern of unstressed (short) and stressed (long) syllables goes short long, short long, short long, short long—‘In Xan-a-du did Ku-bla Khan.’ So what we have—if you are paying attention—is iambic tetrameter, four poetic feet of iambs. How are you [asks the annoying professor] going to appreciate poetry if you don’t know an iamb from a dactyl or an anapest from a trochee?”
Hold everything, Professor: Stop right there! Probably you were trained by pedants much like yourself, but the way to read a poem is not to rip it to shreds. A poem is not a code to be cracked. The way to read poetry is simply to enjoy yourself, as I am about to explain.
Come to know a poem gradually. Begin with an overall sense of its subject and tone. Read the poem all the way through, aloud or silently. Visualize the images—the words that paint pictures or arouse your other senses. Absorb the tone and mood.
Here is a well-known short poem by Emily Dickinson:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers – That perches in the soul – And sings the tune without the words – And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard – And sore must be the storm – That could abash the little Bird That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land – And on the strangest Sea – Yet, never, in Extremity, It asked a crumb – of Me.
It might take reading the poem a few times to figure out fully what Emily Dickinson is saying here, but the sense comes through immediately that she is speaking of hope as a bird that sings in spite of the storms and buffeting of life. Also immediately evident is her conversational tone, which is enhanced by the punctuation slowing the presentation of her thoughts. (Early editors “corrected”—i.e., damaged—Emily Dickinson’s poems by making her punctuation more traditional. Thomas H. Johnson’s edition of Emily Dickinson’s work restores the poems as she wrote them.)
Sometimes getting a general impression of a poem—simply sinking into its sounds and the mood it creates—is enough. If the poem inspires a second look, move on to such details as characters and situations and develop a clearer sense of the theme, the central idea the poem is expressing. The speaker in Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” for instance, is standing at a window overlooking the English Channel: “Come to the window, sweet is the night air!” he says to his companion. For the rest of the poem, the speaker talks about the view before him and the thoughts the scene inspires. For him, love is the only peace available in a world full of uncertainty and sorrow:
Ah, love, let us be true To one another! for the world, which seems To lie before us like a land of dreams, So various, so beautiful, so new, Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain:
If you want to dig still further into your poem, the next step is to take a look at its rhythm, rhyme, and word choice. By noticing these, you will better understand why the poem affects you as it does.
Look to see if there is a consistent rhythmic pattern, such as the alternating unstressed and stressed syllables in the professor’s lines from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” Another fairly common pattern is the galloping rhythm used in Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman.” You will see that the rhythm is well chosen to support the mood and meaning of the poem:
The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees, The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas, The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor, And the highwayman came riding— Riding—riding— The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.
Rhyme is a feature present in most poetry written before the mid 20th century, as well as in some contemporary works. In William Shakespeare’s “Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds,” Sonnet 116, the first four lines discuss what love is not, and the next four lines explain what love is. (A sonnet is a fourteen-line poem that follows established rules for its rhythm and rhyme.) The rhyme scheme in Sonnet 116 supports the poem’s content:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds Admit impediments: love is not love Which alters when it alteration finds, Or bends with the remover to remove.
Minds, love, finds, remove. And now the next four lines use different rhymes:
Oh, no! it is an ever-fixed mark That looks on tempests, and is never shaken; It is the star to every wandering bark, Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Mark, shaken, bark, taken. Lines nine through twelve continue the established pattern (rhyme scheme) with new rhymes and further establish the qualities that mark genuine love:
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks Within his bending sickle’s compass come; Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
Even if you don’t realize how a poet is using rhyme, the patterns can have a strong subliminal effect. Such is especially true for the sonnet’s rhyming closing couplet—two lines—which create a satisfying summary comment on the entire poem:
If this be error and upon me prov’d, I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.
Finally, vivid and well-chosen words are essential to a poem. They should evoke sharp images and appeal to your senses. Particularly take note of a poet’s inventive comparisons. For example, “Her Legs,” by English Renaissance poet Robert Herrick, creates a pleasingly silly picture because of an unexpected comparison. This is the entire poem:
Fain would I kiss my Julia’s dainty leg, Which is as white and hairless as an egg.
In her poem “A Work of Artifice,” contemporary poet Marge Piercy makes the point that many women live constricted lives. The poem compares a woman and a bonsai tree. Shakespeare’s “Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds” compares steadfast love to the North Star.
As you can see, poetry is not about obscure language and singsong meter. It’s not about figuring out that “Kubla Khan” goes da dah, da dah, da dah, da dah. It’s about experiencing the magic, mood, and meaning created by lines such as these:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure-dome decree: Where Alph, the sacred river, ran Through caverns measureless to man Down to a sunless sea.
If technical terms and analysis interest you: great! I like them, too. Recognizing and understanding poetic techniques can help reveal the soul of a poem. But if the literary terms and tools overwhelm you, why not simply enjoy poetry on your own terms?
Reading contemporary poets, as well as the poetic heros and heroines of the past, is thrilling. Browse the poetry section of a bookstore to see whose work appeals to you. You can also get leads by searching online for “best contemporary poetry”; here’s a link to one useful site. If you don’t enjoy a particular poem or poet, go on to another one. The world is filled with so much incredible poetry that it would be a shame to get stuck wading through poems you don’t like for whatever reason. Try Mary Oliver, Pablo Neruda, Wislawa Szymborska, Langston Hughes, Billy Collins, Richard Wilbur, and hundreds more. Jump in and discover new poetic heroines and heros.
The backyard is both a place and a state of being.
The front yard is partly for the neighbors. In the front yard, the grass must
be cut and the crabgrass kept to a minimum. Even if the homeowners think
dandelions are pretty, the neighbors will expect the flowers to be mowed before
they turn to seed. Children may play in the front yard from time to time, and
company is greeted there, but the real living takes place in the backyard.
In our first little white house, where we
lived until I was six, I loved our backyard. Mother planted wide beds of flowers
along both sides, and my parents grew vegetables—I liked the green peppers
best. My wading pool sat partway down the yard. One day I took my life-sized
doll, Susie, swimming with me; doing so made her seem like a real girl, and I
wanted Susie to share my fun.
When I was four, I came home from a
playmate’s late one afternoon to find my father brushing forest-green paint on
a wooden jungle gym he had just finished building. A long ladder with smooth
round rungs was suspended between shorter vertical ladders. I couldn’t believe
this magnificent structure was meant for me. On it, I could hang upside down
and then flip over to land on my feet. I could travel hand over hand down the
long horizontal ladder. I could swing over to the bars on the swing set. I was
fearless on the jungle gym, and my parents trusted me to stay alive.
At the far end of our backyard, where the
area known as “the mud” began, other neighborhood children and I wandered and
explored, stopping to look up when the occasional airplane passed overhead. One
afternoon, accompanied by Inky the spaniel, we children set off on a turtle
hunt. “Inky is going to find us a turtle!” I called to my mother. Against the
odds, Inky came through for us. After she helped us take off our muddy shoes,
Mother found a box for the turtle and lettuce for his lunch.
The backyard of our second little white house
did not include a jungle gym, which I was sad to leave behind, but half of our
new backyard was wooded. Wild plants, dry leaves, and boulders surrounded
hundred-foot-tall trees. When I was in the woods, it screened out all memory of
bullying classmates and teachers who piled on the homework.
The branches of an ironwood tree bent down to
meet the top of a tall granite rock, and in the space between, my friends and I
played house. A flat rock by the largest oak created a porch, as we called it,
for sitting a moment and deciding Native Americans had worn the nearby path.
Around us grew blueberry bushes, spring beauties, dog-toothed violets, and
jacks-in-the-pulpit. Tadpoles lived in the small pools of water left from the
spring rains. On the June morning when summer vacation began, the woods greeted
me with still-fresh, light-green
leaves. Sunlight illuminated the last of the mist from the cool overnight air.
In front of the
woods, on the backyard lawn, my friends and I played croquet and softball, sat
on another of the yard’s boulders to converse with our dolls, held handstand
and cartwheel contests, and swung on the swings. Unlike some parents, mine
didn’t mind that our feet wore away the grass. I
liked to swing high and then jump to the ground. The neighborhood girls shared
some traits with my classmates—as in, “We’re in a club, and you have to pay
five cents to join.”—but in our backyard, I never felt second-rate or thought
about needing to be different than I was.
Every summer, we visited our relatives in
Harrodsburg, Kentucky. The backyard I most loved there was behind Aunt Ruth and
Uncle Larry’s big white house on College Street. We ate dinner outdoors on long
tables: a big family eating late in the evening after Aunt Ruth’s lengthy
preparations—green beans cooked for hours with country ham, corn on the cob,
huge pieces of lemon-meringue pie. Two-year-old Kelly toddled toward the side
of the property, to be brought back and then start off again. Mark, a year
older, called me “Cussin Winnie” and wanted me to play with him. No one rushed
away. Nannie and Aunt Winnie had only to walk next door to be home.
One evening, my cousin Shirley and Shirley’s
husband, Duffy, danced for us all: Mother and Daddy and me, Nannie and Aunt
Winnie, Aunt Ruth and Uncle Larry, Cousin Carol, and Mark and Kelly—their
sister, Ruthie, was not yet born. The Landrums were there, too; Aunt Winnie
managed the Landrum Insurance office. The layers of Shirley’s party skirt
swirled as she and Duffy waltzed to the music from the record player.
Afterwards, Aunt Winnie and Mr. Landrum performed a comic routine. She stood in
back and extended her arms in front of him; he kept his arms hidden. As Mr.
Landrum told a story, Aunt Winnie spread her arms wide to emphasize the
dramatic points and wiped his eyes at the sad parts. Her dainty arms made an
incongruous contrast to her boss’ tall frame. Daddy told his story about the
hoarse ice-cream waitress. “Do you have laryngitis?” asks the customer. “No,”
the waitress replies, “just chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla.”
The world in which summer evenings brought time to climb on the jungle gym, backyard games of Mother May I? and Harrodsburg family suppers has long since spun away. Present life includes more front yards than backyards. But in my mind, I see my dear ones gathered on the tranquil, broad, green lawn of Aunt Ruth and Uncle Larry’s backyard, from which no one will be forced to leave, torn away from the pleasure and affection. Shirley dances; Nannie gives her saucy commentary; Mother tells a funny story; and Daddy soaks up the textures of the layered trees against a brilliant sky.
Je l’aidai de mon mieux, c’est-à-dire, en essayant d’écrire un chef-d’œuvre immortel. (I did my best to help her, that is, by trying to write an immortal masterpiece.)
–Romain Gary, La promesse de l’aube(Paris : Gallimard, 1960) 185.
Relief for me is finally, finally being good enough in my own estimation, within my own head and heart.
I haven’t felt good enough before now. I would have liked to be a great novelist who stirs readers’ souls. Or perhaps, I thought, I would be good enough if I earned a doctorate and became a tenured university professor, or even if I earned a Master of Fine Arts in writing. My master’s degree in literature is not a “terminal” degree and so is not good enough, or hasn’t been. I began a doctoral program at the University of Maryland but changed states and jobs when I was just two courses into the program. Even at this point in my life, I’ve thought about earning an MFA or PhD. I’ve explored university websites from time to time, hoping to discover the path to wholeness. I would enjoy the academic work; I love to learn. But I can learn outside an expensive degree program. The degrees have appealed to me because I’ve thought they might make me, finally, fully sufficient.
For most of my life, I have felt insufficient, second rate next to the world’s full professors, full-time writers, musicians with careers, people with a life mission. Above all, I have with desperation sought a mission for my writing. I’ve been searching for fifty years. Having a mission would, I was convinced, permanently ignite my writing, giving it drive and meaning, carrying me past procrastination, past wondering what to write, past the paralysis of feeling overwhelmed with projects calling to me but languishing unsupported by confidence in how to do them and in their offering others something of value.
I have with frantic intensity tried to find my writing niche—my life niche. Good ideas have come and given me hope that I have finally found this longed-for writing and life niche. But inevitably I’ve bogged down sooner or later from a loss of energy, inspiration, momentum, and belief in the merits of my plans.
I want to write about so many things, but the pen becomes too heavy to lift if I think I must write specifically about X or Y and do so at a suitably high level—what that is, I am uncertain. I bloom at intervals, even finishing substantial projects from time to time. But then I sink back into the slough of discouragement, fatigue, and endless games of Scrabble on my Kindle Fire.
The truth is that, in contrast to my ambitions, I love being a Jill of all trades. I have not proved willing, or even able, to give up the quantity of my interests and hobbies in order to achieve quality, to overcome my master-of-none status. I love the full range of my enthusiasms. I don’t want, for example, to give up my French class in order to spend more time on Italian, or give up Italian in order to practice my flute daily, or quit billiards, tap and line dancing, or my occasional acting to reestablish a regular program of reading literature. I don’t want to give up my meaningful visits with friends in order to have time to produce masterful creations, as much as I am driven to express myself creatively. I’ve joined a choir and signed up for spiritual retreats with a dear friend. I want to organize my possessions, walk down by the pond, meditate, make jewelry from beads. And still I’ve craved—begged—to find my overarching purpose in life, my reason for being, my way of serving.
Can I possibly serve merely by being as I am—rather than only as I have, all my adult life, longed unsuccessfully to become?
I can’t be a great writer and also spend long hours studying my part for a play, or figuring out how to fill seventy-five minutes leading a book discussion in French, a language I love but in which I lack confidence. I can’t be an accomplished musician if I spend my days on other than practicing music. Yet perhaps, after all, my failure to reach the heights I’ve been thinking I must scale if I am to count, to serve, and to overcome my sense of not measuring up is because God didn’t form me to be an Isabel Allende, James Galway, or tenured professor.
Maybe I’m meant to serve as I can by savoring smaller bites across the vast smorgasbord of life and by sharing my enthusiastic efforts—whatever their limits and deficiencies—with others. I can encourage others, too, to find their joys in the world and to embrace their own God-given ways of being.
I suppose it is shortsighted of me to smother the pleasure and satisfaction of my Jill-of-all-trades temperament and opportunities because of my shame and discouragement over my master-of-none status. I’ve been damping the fires of who I am. I’ve spent large portions of my days mourning the failure to materialize of the person I thought I ought to be—but couldn’t figure out how to make myself become.
What profound relief I feel as I begin to move forward, having decided that who I am is not simply enough but is also who God made me to be. I have the responsibility to grow, to serve and to seek to master being me, but not to become other than the nature I was given.
Update: I shared the letter in this blog post with the deacon who is leading the RCIA sessions for me. In spite of my views, he has responded very kindly, telling me that I am welcome in the Church. I’m grateful to him for easing my mind about a great source of worry and fear.
My letter below represents the next stage in the thinking shared in “Church Bells and a Riptide,” which describes my struggles with the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) process through which I am possibly converting to Catholicism. I feel great affinity with some groups within the Church but have deep reservations about many of the attitudes and teachings of the more traditional, conservative Church powers.
“Dear Deacon” restates a few of the points in the longer essay posted earlier, but it also reflects new self-understanding: The key to my converting is the Church’s acceptance of me as I am and as someone who can add my own gifts, however limited, to the Church’s wisdom, insight, and understanding. Equality and mutual respect are the basis of all healthy relationships, whether within an individual friendship or family or within a vast country or religion.
You have been very kind to me and have listened to my opinions with great courtesy. I nevertheless am uncertain about the answer to this important question: Are you able to welcome me into the Catholic Church as I am, with my 69 years’ experience, spiritual reflection, education, strengths, and weaknesses? In other words, are you able to feel that through joining the Church, I will, in my small way, bring gifts as well as receive them?
Or do you, in contrast, believe that the Church’s formal teachings are the sole and complete answers? Do you see the RCIA process as one of pouring the Truth into me as if I were an empty vessel?
I cannot accept having any human being set out to change me through the conviction that he or she comprehends the Truth and I don’t.
As a member of the Church, I would have the opportunity to gain immensely from the examples and insights of countless Catholics. For instance, many Franciscans will be—and already are—mentors to me. Certainly as a Catholic—or as I am—I would/will change over the coming years, evolving through ongoing conversion and continuing revelation.
At the same time, if I join the Church, I will bring with me my lifetime of wisdom, mistakes, and understanding. I want and expect all of me to be welcomed. I have much to gain, and I also have something to give.
Here is what I would like to ask of you: I hope you believe and will explain that through the RCIA sessions, you are sharing the traditional views of the Catholic Church and your own interpretation of those views. I am eager to learn more about the Church, and I value hearing your perspective. But I also hope you acknowledge that every human being must seek her or his own understanding of the Gospel and God. I ask you to recognize that my own spirituality, while as flawed as the next person’s, is also as worthy of consideration and respect.
No one, and no human religion, grasps all the answers. There is room within the often-magnificent Catholic Church for a wide range of sincere and carefully considered perspectives. And there is room—and need—within the Church for evolution and change through ongoing conversion and continuing revelation, through deeper and deeper insight into God and Christ’s teachings. I want to be a part of that process. I want to give to the Church, as well as to receive.
So I’ll rephrase my opening question: Is there room in your Church for me as I am, or only as the strictly conceived RCIA teachings would like for me to be? If there is room for me as I am, I am eager to continue with the RCIA process.
Thank you for your contributions during our sessions and for your thoughts on my concerns.
To my friends and readers who are Catholic: Please forgive me for sharing my disagreements with the Church. I am struggling with the question of whether or not I should become Catholic. To all my friends and readers: I would value your perspective.
On Thursday morning as I sat in church with a dear friend, the bells calling worshipers to weekday Mass took me back to hearing other church bells a few miles away. On warm evenings, my parents and I ate dinner on our screened porch, and daily at 6 p.m., the carillon at the Methodist church out on the main road played hymns. If we sat down early to supper, we might say, “Well, we beat the Methodists tonight.”
As I listened to the Catholic bells this week, I could see in my mind the three of us on our porch at the back of our little white house. I saw the scene from above; I was a ghost revisiting a place and time of joy from a life now past. I wondered, “In some dimension, are the three of us still together, sharing evenings on our porch, listening to ‘the Methodists’?”
So much has changed—is changing—at least that is how existence feels to me. In my spiritual life, too, the past seems to be a distant shore from which I am cut off on this ocean of being. I had thought I was now among those whom the bells call to Mass. I thought I’d found a new spiritual shore toward which to sail. But I fear I am steering toward the edge of my world, of my understanding of God’s world.
I am distressed to find myself caught in a riptide in my spiritual ocean as I meet with the deacon who is dealing with me in the RCIA process by which I am, perhaps, turning from Quaker to Catholic. The deacon is a kind man who does not abruptly reject my views that conflict with his; he even appears to give my opinions some consideration, at least out of courtesy. So ours is not an adversarial relationship, but he and I are spiritually oil and water. Engaging in a process that causes me to focus squarely on the swirling chasm between the deacon’s perspective and mine causes me to question the wisdom of the voyage I have begun.
My Reasons for Setting Sail
I was raised a Quaker and continue to resonate with the Quaker peace testimony, conviction that all people—and that includes men and women—are equal, belief that no ministers or priests are required to intercede between the laity and God, and rejection of rituals as a necessary part of worship. But in the past decade, I have lost the sense of a Quaker home. Like our porch at our family home, the Wilmington Meetinghouse filled with Quakers I knew and with whom I felt kinship has disappeared from my everyday reality.
The Meetinghouse is now frequented by new generations of Quakers, generations with whom I share the tenets of a spiritual philosophy but not the spiritual temperament and enthusiasm I used to feel in our Meeting. When I lived in other places, I never found a Meeting that came up—in my mind—to our Wilmington Meeting. And now the Wilmington Meeting I loved—and the inspired ministry of my parents, others of their generation, and the elders still with us then—lives in timeless eternity. It has joined our little family listening to the Methodist hymns and the katydids as we sit together on our porch.
But through a dear friend, I have come to know the Franciscans. Franciscans and Quakers share a similar social testimony and belief in the value and dignity of every human being. Franciscans are warm and welcoming, as Wilmington Quakers once more vigorously seemed to me. Franciscans love and care for the Earth and its creatures and growing things. Franciscans notably live Christ’s teachings of love and kindness with devotion and sincerity.
And Franciscans sing hymns with a joy I haven’t known in congregational singing since my childhood, when the Wilmington Quakers sang with gusto, too. Music is not part of a Quaker meeting for worship, but we sang enthusiastically beforehand, when Evelyn Young, of my grandparents’ generation, played for us children, and afterwards, when everyone, old and young, gathered to sing hymns. We closed each week with “As We Leave This Friendly Place”:
As we leave this friendly place,
Love give light to every face;
May the kindness which we learn
Light our hearts till we return.
Music no longer lights the hearts of the Wilmington Meeting, in spite of the kindness there. And to me, music is the most thrilling and perfected way of praising God and creation, of expressing joy, gratitude, and the unity of us all.
I crave regaining a spiritual home. I crave a spiritual community in which I find mentors and partners for trying to live the essence of Christ’s teachings: be kind to one another; love one another; act always through kindness and love. I find such a community among the Franciscans, especially the Sisters of St. Francis and their Companions in Faith.
But to join them as more than a welcomed visitor, I need to work through a parish church—thus the deacon. The Church has a need and a right, of course, to ensure that those joining are committed to Christ’s teachings and to being active members of the Church community.
I try to bridge the gulf between the deacon’s religion and my own by telling myself that rather than joining the Catholic Church per se, I am joining the Franciscans. Within the Franciscans, the pieces of my spiritual faith and desires fall into place. I also love the profound contributions of numerous other Catholic groups and individuals on behalf of suffering people around the world and on behalf of peace. And I love the magnificent architecture, art, and music growing out of the Church’s two millennia of devotion to Christ. There is much to love. And the terrible actions of a few do not erase the good of multitudes. But I would be a hypocrite to pretend that I am a fit within the religious picture the deacon is drawing for me.
Manageable Waves or Tsunamis?
I don’t expect a perfect Church. Of course I know that like each human being, no human institution is perfect. Nevertheless I am struggling to decide: Can I in good conscience join a church with which I have significant disagreements? If I had been raised Catholic, I believe I would stay Catholic, revel in the Church’s great attributes and contributions, and work from within for necessary change. Whether or not to sign on at this stage of my life feels like a different sort of decision, however, one that should be made based on a strong concurrence between the Church’s teachings and my own values.
I do not love the Catholic Church’s—and society’s—continued denigration of women. Keeping women out of the priesthood is purely a continuation of many men’s ongoing desire and determination to retain power. Those who don’t realize how much is being lost by barring the door to women priests should come listen to the homilies that our local Franciscan sisters sometimes deliver in their convent chapel.
And I do not love the Church’s placing priests above the rest of humanity, men and women. Priests are not singled out by God, by Christ; they do not stand above us mere mortals. Priests (and ministers and other religious leaders) contribute enormously to their congregations and the world when they are filled with love and wisdom conveyed through their ministry and lives. But priests are not uniquely the descendants of Jesus’s Apostles and keepers of their responsibility to preach Christ’s message. We all are.
I do not need a priest to intervene between God and me. Every human being can commune directly with God. Similarly, priests have no right to believe they alone among people can absolve me of my sins, and I do not intend to ask a priest to do so.
It bothers me deeply to see a priest sitting on a throne-like chair, holding himself physically and symbolically above all others present. At Mass yesterday afternoon, we heard James 2:1, “My brothers and sisters, show no partiality as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.” And Philippians 2:3 tells us, “Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves.” Verses 5-7 continue, “Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”
Yet within the hierarchy of the Church, the concepts of equality and humility are too often given mere lip service. The position of conservative Church officials concerning LGBT members is another example of Church hypocrisy about equality within the Church and in God’s eyes. In an additional example, the elaborate church vestments worn by priests and higher church officials, while perhaps aesthetically appealing, are certainly not symbols of humility and equality. And, of course, as with any population feeling holier- or higher-than-thou, the sense of entitlement and superiority that some priests nurture within themselves helps to allow them to rationalize abhorrent behavior.
Friend deacon, among the other disagreements I have with you, I reject your message that deep knowledge and insight are infused in the individual through baptism in the Church. Baptism can be a beautiful way of committing oneself to striving to live according to Christ’s example. Through baptism, one symbolically becomes a part of the local and worldwide community of those who have made the same commitment. God does not, however, dump knowledge, wisdom, kindness, and understanding onto the person along with the baptismal water. Knowledge, wisdom, kindness, and understanding can develop only in the course of living one’s life with the guidance of the Inner Light, God’s blessings, and the example—not dogmatism—of others.
God loves each person infinitely regardless of his or her baptismal status. Quakers, who do not believe in baptism, can be as wise and good as any Catholic—and so can Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, agnostics, and so on. And in determining our afterlife status, God doesn’t care one bit about whether we have been baptized. Deacon, you are not wiser—or possessed of greater insight into Jesus—than I am simply because you have been baptized and I have not. By seeming to believe that you are wiser, you inspire me to form a shell to protect myself from your message.
The position of the deacon’s Church on who can take communion is another source of distress for me. (Some Franciscans, such as Father Richard Rohr in his insightful books, also disagree with the deacon’s version of the Church on this point.) I believe Jesus likewise would have disagreed with the mainstream Church’s requirements for taking communion. Jesus said, “. . . I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35). Jesus’s teachings and example emphasize inclusivity. But the deacon’s Catholic communion is too much about saying, “I’m in the club and you’re not.”
No One True Humanly Charted Course
I believe we are all seekers who can learn from each other, and some individuals are outstandingly wise, but I have never been able to accept the notion that anyone has a corner on the truth. When I was a senior in high school, a member of the Meeting decided that in our Sunday school—which Quakers call “First-day school”—he would teach us young people exactly what we “ought” to know and believe. In response, I immediately stopped going to First-day school. I have not (at least as yet) decided to stop going to meet with the deacon because I still want to be among the Franciscans as more than a welcomed visitor. But how can I join them without having to pretend to be in agreement with the deacon and the vast elements of the Church that he represents?
Deacon, here is what I would like to ask of you: Tell me that you are sharing the traditional views of the Catholic Church and your own interpretation of those views. But then acknowledge that every human being must seek her or his own understanding. Acknowledge that my own spirituality, while as flawed as the next person’s, is also as worthy of consideration and respect as the next person’s. No one, and no religion, has all the answers. There is room within the often-magnificent Catholic Church for a wide range of sincere and carefully considered understanding. And there is room—and need—within the Church for evolution and change through ongoing conversion and continuing revelation, through deeper and deeper insight into God and Christ’s teachings.
The Wrong Direction Altogether?
When I am with the Franciscans, I feel as though I have found a spiritual home. It is not the home of my earlier years, the home I will miss forever in this life, but it is a beautiful home, filled with love and deep satisfaction. The bells and music of the Catholic faith are not the bells and katydids accompanying long-ago family suppers on the porch, not hymn-sings in the old Quaker Meetinghouse at 4th and West Streets, but I thought they could be welcoming and meaningful to me.
Am I going to have to turn back into the emptiness of living without a spiritual port, a spiritual home that counts me fully among its family? Do I have to turn away because I am having profound difficulty accepting the lessons I am supposed to be learning in the RCIA sessions–conforming enough for the deacon and those he represents to let me in? Should I join the Church feeling as I feel? I want to be a Franciscan, but for now I am not sure I am suited to be a Catholic.
 Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (even the name bothers me: I am already Christian).
 The formal name for the Quakers is the Religious Society of Friends.
The poem and story I’m sharing here make a companion to my recent post “Embracing Now,” in which I tell about hearing my mother’s voice, in spite of the veil between worlds that separates us for now.
I would know for sure.
Would become vistas
Over all sides of creation.
I could help others,
But above all,
Doubt would disappear
To be replaced by knowing,
By reaching out to you
And finding you,
Not just sometimes
And then forever.
In the fourth grade, our teacher taught us about the Navajos. I loved drawing pictures of pueblos and became fascinated by Native American jewelry.
Under the tree at Christmastime that year, 1958, I found an interesting-looking gift about four inches square and an inch deep. The tag said the present was for me from Mother and Daddy. On one of the long days before Christmas, my impatience overwhelmed my self-control. I slipped off the package’s ribbon and carefully unstuck the tape on the wrapping paper. The box inside was stamped “Marjorie Speakman,” the name of a local store selling children’s clothing. In the box was a turquoise-and-silver pin. My parents had forgotten to remove the price tag, which gave the cost as eight dollars. Thrilled and awed by the present, I reassembled the paper and ribbon around it.
From December 1958 until May 2007, the turquoise-and-silver pin from my parents was my favorite piece of jewelry. The pin—about an inch tall and just over an inch across at its widest point—was in the shape of a three-branch spray of little turquoise leaves, fifteen in total. The silver branches joined toward the bottom and ended in two little silver knobs. I wore my pin on the collars of my blouses, dresses, and sweaters. It came with me to college and to my first apartments. When I was twenty-eight, my parents gave me turquoise earrings for my newly pierced ears, and from then on I wore the earrings with my pin as it continued with me through my years in Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, and Delaware. When my father died in 2004, I moved back into our Wilmington, Delaware, family home to be with my mother. I continued to wear my pretty pin.
On May 7, 2007, my mother moved to the Maris Grove retirement community, and I went to an apartment in nearby West Chester. We shared the same moving van. The movers delivered my mother’s furniture and boxes and then drove the seven miles up Route 202 to my new home.
I had left my clothes, jewelry, and other possessions in place in the dresser drawers. But in my new West Chester apartment, the first time that I opened the drawer where I kept my turquoise-and-silver pin, it wasn’t there. The missing small pin left a cavernous gap. Perhaps the drawer had come open while the men were loading or unloading my dresser. I imagined my pin lying on the bottom of the van, crushed now under the legs of other people’s furniture. Or perhaps, I hoped, I had put the pin in a different drawer or left it on a collar the last time I’d worn it. I searched every drawer and examined every collar I owned, without success. The pin seemed irrevocably lost.
For the four years and three months I lived in West Chester, I missed my sweet pin. In my mind, I saw it as it had been for five decades, among my other jewelry and decorating my clothes. How could I have been careless enough to allow its loss by any means?
In August 2011, I prepared to move in with my mother at Maris Grove. As I was readying my belongings for the movers, I opened my jewelry drawer. Sitting in an open box in clear view at the front of the drawer was my turquoise-and-silver pin.
I cannot unequivocally explain how my pin returned to my drawer after being gone for more than four years. But I have chosen to adopt one of the possible explanations. I choose to believe my late father somehow recovered the pin and returned it to me. The idea is not preposterous. My father in several ways showed my mother and me that he continued to be a part of our lives—as both my parents now continue to be in my life. I believe my father found the means for me to have the pin again. This time, instead of honoring my interest in the Navajos, the gift honored the life my mother and I were to live together, always with my father in our hearts.
“My Turquoise-and-Silver Pin” and the poem “Being Psychic” are from my book A Woman in Time. If you wish to read more about afterlife communication, I recommend the four books I’ve listed at the end of “Embracing Now.”
This is a meditation about floundering and about renewing connections—with memories, dreams and joy, courage, and loved ones on the Other Side. If you don’t wish to read the entire essay, then choose the last section because it may offer comfort and assurance if you are missing people dear to you.
Returning to the Patio
I’m sitting on my patio for the first time since sweet Mother and I were able to sit here together. Because of regrets, I have resisted enjoying the patio since Mother’s passing. But now I seem to be here with the three of us—Mother, Daddy, and me. The birds are singing for us, and although it’s already July—yesterday was the 4th—the bird chorus sounds like dawn in spring. While the air is almost hot, a little breeze makes the morning inviting.
The summer that I moved here, the summer of 2011, Mother and I often sat on our patio together. We used the antique wicker chairs on the patio then. I’ve since had them repainted and moved inside to preserve them; they were in Mother’s girlhood home. Four years ago, I bought two pseudo-wicker chairs from Target to use outdoors. This morning is the first time I’ve sat in either of them.
On that summer I moved to our apartment, I often sat on the patio as I wrote on the small, inexpensive notebook computer that I’m using now. Mother and I also sat outdoors into the night, past dark, talking and being together. And the patio takes me back into our screened porch at 113 Rockingham Drive, where Daddy loved to do his writing, and where all three of us ate countless summer dinners and then sat together as the insect chorus tuned up and swung into their full-throated renditions.
Holding Back, Weighted Down
In much the way that I’ve waited to sit on the patio, I’ve been waiting to begin life. Yet I’m already what most would consider old. If I were to be the subject of a news story, I’d be called an “elderly woman.” I don’t feel elderly, and except for my wrinkles, I don’t look elderly. I’m blessed to be physically agile and quick, in spite of my limited store of energy, a lifelong limitation. It seems as though life was fresh—a bud just opening—and then, bang, it was two-thirds over, at least. What am I waiting for?
Even though I’ve been retired for a little over five years now, I’ve let myself feel weighted down with “shoulds.” Almost all of these shoulds are things I like to do or at least value, but there have been such a host of them that many days, and especially evenings and into the night and on to early morning, I have sat in paralysis, wishing I could or would move forward.
You’d think I would have figured it out before this morning that I can, right now, begin living the life I want to lead—that living life the way I choose does not require that I first master and fulfill everything on my ideal to-do list to prove my worthiness. And when I speak of living the life I want to lead, I’m not suggesting that problems won’t appear—health, financial, social; mice in the kitchen; who knows what. Rather, I’m speaking of my attitude toward each day, toward each moment of the day.
Turning Blessings into Joy
I have so many blessings, including wonderful friends and enticing interests. I love to take classes, especially in French and Italian. I do love to write, in spite of writing’s smothering shadow and sometimes-burning sunshine in my life because of the power I’ve given writing to tell me whether or not I am sufficient. I love my apartment—the apartment that was first my mother’s and then ours together—although I see so much that needs doing to return it to its loveliness. I want to play my piano and flute, learn to play the dulcimer and ukulele (both of which have sat waiting for me for years), make more bead necklaces. I have lines to master for the play that I’m in. And on and on. But I’ve let my interests kidnap my peace of mind because they became expectations rather than hobbies.
When I was merely “middle aged,” I daydreamed about someday having a small cottage. I’d sit on the comfortable couch in the living room, feeling cozy and reading books. I don’t own a cottage, but I live in a cozy apartment. It needs a big dose of my love to rise to its full potential, but I can return to loving it immediately. And that is what I am doing this morning by sitting on the patio and writing.
Getting rid of the shoulds, I can relish each moment of the day: making my simple meals in the kitchen, turning on the computer to see what interesting e-mails have appeared, reading, meditating, writing without letting the shadow of judgment take away the nourishing light and air, doing chores, greeting neighbors, playing music, even paying bills, which after all are a sign of my blessings. If I’m not worried about being insufficient, I can relish what I have and do. I can shed the fear that has continued to bind me, even as my world of blessings offered itself to me.
As I’ve often told myself and others, part of the reason that I had a thoroughly rewarding three weeks in Italy several years ago is that I decided ahead of time to find everything about the trip interesting and to have fun no matter what. And I did, in spite of a few days of upset when a traveling companion and I clashed (we soon parted ways), a national train strike that threatened to strand me alone in Naples when I needed to be in Pisa, and a bad case of sunburn and hives (from mosquito bites) decorating my face. Nevertheless, I was massively happy in Italy.
And one reason for that happiness was that I had decided ahead of time to be happy. Throughout the trip I also released my normal shoulds: I simply lived. Everyday life usually offers more challenges than even strike-laden travel, but the principle, I believe, holds true: Being content and serene are as much a state of mind as a state of external reality. I now choose contentment and serenity. And I will do my best to maintain this choice when true hardships come.
Hearing an Answer to My Prayer
Although over the last couple of days I had one of my confidence meltdowns (since passed), I have a new profound reason for experiencing contentment and serenity. In spite of many signs from my dear ones since their passing from this life, I had been feeling alone and even uncertain that my past experiences of our ongoing connection were real. I prayed for a new sign and wished for the kind of irrefutable direct communication that a few people have known. And then my prayer was answered.
I am playing Eliza Doolittle in a much-cut-down version of My Fair Lady. (A chorus will be singing the songs, although I will sing along.) To help me learn my part, I recorded my lines and the lines surrounding mine into a digital recorder. Then, using a line in, I transferred the digital recording to my PC. I opened my recording in iTunes and also copied it to my iPod, for use on my evening walks. The first time I listened to the recording on the computer, I was astounded to hear, behind my spoken words, a voice softly singing, “on the plain, on the plain,” and then more clearly, “in Spain, in Spain.”
When I made the recording, I did not own the movie or soundtrack, and I did not sing; I only spoke the words from the printed script. And the singing voice is not mine. To make sure I wasn’t mistaken in that belief, I tried transferring a new recording from the digital recorder to the computer. During that transfer, I sang vigorously; none of my singing registered in the transferred recording, not a peep. Interestingly, the singing voice that I hear when I listen to the recording on the computer (and on my iPod) is not present on the original digital recording, only on the recording after it had been transferred to the computer. On the computer and iPod, I eventually discovered a softer addition: a few notes sung just after I mention the song “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly.” I’d not noticed those notes at first because they are faint—but absolutely present.
In this life, my mother had a beautiful voice. Daddy said hers was the most beautiful soprano he’d ever heard. Mother was also a truly talented actress, and she loved the stage. How appropriate that she would answer my prayer for a tangible sign by singing a few notes from the play that I’m in. I am blessed by this gift beyond words. I think that Daddy, too, had a hand in making the gift possible. Mother and Daddy are my universe, always and forever. And each time I hear that pretty voice singing, “in Spain, in Spain,” I am comforted that we truly are together in the universe, even now.
If you are interested in afterlife communication, you might like to read the following:
Through the Darkness, by Janet Nohavec (In this memoir, Janet Nohavec, a former Roman Catholic nun, tells of her experiences with those in spirit. I have spoken with her and find her impressively credible.)
In this short story, two sisters confront memories and their strained relationship.
Sarah Bright opened the door to her sister and gave her a welcoming hug. Hugging Rebecca was like hugging a straight-backed chair. Rebecca had never been affectionate, even as a girl, but Sarah tried to act as if the sisterly bond she so much desired actually existed. “Your house smells like cats,” said Rebecca before she removed her coat.
“How’s life at Westside Manor these days?” said Sarah, trying to rescue her sister’s visit from early disaster.
Rebecca rejected Sarah’s offer to hang her coat in the closet. She painstakingly draped the pale-blue coat over the back of the chair nearest the front door, as if to be ready to leave any time.
“I’ve joined a new duplicate-bridge group. They were eager to have me, but I didn’t know whether I’d enjoy a group Marge Amstel organized. She always has to be the center of attention. I decided to go ahead since Helen Clark was joining too.” Rebecca finished smoothing the pleats in her gray skirt and sat down with her handbag beside her on the chair.
“Relax, Rebecca,” Sarah wanted to say. “You look as if you’ve come for a job interview.” Rebecca did not take kidding well, so Sarah said instead, “I don’t believe I met Helen when I visited you last summer.”
“Yes you did. She was at our table for at least two meals. She’s the tall, well-dressed woman—a little younger than you are—who always wears beige.”
Sarah recalled a woman who had not spoken to her except to request something from across the table. “How come your friends seem so unfriendly?” she asked, knowing she was venturing into a risky area.
“I prefer friends who know how to keep their distance. Rebecca looked around at Sarah’s tidy but battered living room. Sarah was still using some of the same furniture their parents had brought to the cottage when it had been the family summer home. “I suppose we’ve each selected friends appropriate to our personalities. That woman I met at your house last year—what was her name—Louisa something?”
“That was it. She looked as faded and sagging as some of your furniture.”
“Louisa’s my closest friend. You’d like her if you got to know her.”
“I can’t imagine wanting to get to know her.”
“We’re picking at each other already. Come sit over here by me on the window seat. I want you to see how pretty the mountain looks with snow on it.”
“I saw snow on the mountain last year,” said Rebecca, but she moved over next to Sarah. Rebecca brought her purse with her to the window seat and placed it between her sister and herself. She straightened her skirt again. “I’ve got to look decent for dinner. I’m sure I won’t get back in time to change.”
“You only come to see me once or twice a year, even though we live just fifteen miles apart, and then you can’t even stay through dinner time.” Sarah gave up pretending to be pleased with her sister. “Every time we finally make arrangements to see each other, I hope this time the visit will be different, but you never change.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. You don’t come to see me any more often than I come to see you.”
“That’s because you can never find time for me to visit. In the past year I can think of at least five occasions when you called at the last moment and told me not to come.”
“Things come up,” said Rebecca. She examined the nail on the ring finger of her left hand, took a file out of her handbag, and repaired a corner of the nail that had not been to her liking. “You know how busy I am. I have responsibilities. Why don’t you give up this place and move out to Westside Manor yourself? You complain about not seeing me. Seems to me you couldn’t see much of anyone way out here. One reason I don’t come more often is that terrible road. I’m sure it’s damaged the suspension on my car already.”
“I have lots of friends, and Louisa lives less than half a mile away. We walk over to each other’s house nearly every day.”
“You’re not a young woman anymore, Sarah. If you’re not careful you’re going to turn into one of those eccentric old ladies who live in some forsaken hovel with a dozen cats—the kind who keep money in the mattress and never wash the dishes.”
“Perhaps I am an eccentric old lady, but I keep one cat, not twelve, and you know I’ve always been as neat and clean as anyone. You’re the one who never straightened her room when we were growing up. As for my home being a hovel, have you forgotten that our own father built this house?”
“For a summer place. It was never intended for year-round living. What if you were sick or fell? Who would find you out here?” Rebecca picked up the cat that had jumped on the window seat to greet her and threw him to the floor. “After I visit you, it takes me a week to get the cat hairs out of my clothes.”
“Why do you dislike my home so much? Every time you come to visit you try to talk me into coming to live in your retirement community. I can’t believe it’s because you’d like to see more of me. When we were little, you never could stand it when I made up my own mind about what I wanted. I don’t think you’ve changed a bit. I was your big sister, so I was supposed to be ready for all your commands. If I wanted to ride my bicycle and you wanted to play princess, I had to play princess with you because you needed me to be the ugly stepsister, or the prince, or some other undesirable part. If I didn’t do what you wanted, you ran to Mother, and together you shamed me into compliance.”
“I won’t have you criticizing our poor mother,” said Rebecca. She had turned in her seat to face out the window at the snowy meadow, with the woods and mountain beyond. She stared at the scene as if it drew her into it. Sarah had seen that vacant, distracted look many times before, however. Rebecca was not absorbing the natural beauty; she was doing her best to shut out a discussion she did not want to continue.
“I’m not criticizing Mother,” said Sarah. “I’m talking about you and me. You even told me where I had to go to college. I was accepted up at Bates, but you fixed it so I had to stay home and commute. That way I could continue to be at your service.”
“I didn’t make you do anything.”
“You got Mother and Father to talk to me about responsibility and how you needed me. Sure you needed me—to do your homework for you, to do your chores, to drive you on your dates. I think you still can’t stand not to have me standing by just in case I might be useful.” By now Sarah, too, had turned toward the snow and the mountain. She looked at the scene for the courage to keep trying to tell her sister what she had been attempting to tell her for more than fifty years. At eighteen Sarah had finally begun to understand that Rebecca was controlling her life and that—as much as her parents believed it and forced her to believe it, too—Rebecca was not helpless.
For more than fifty years her relationship with her sister had shifted back and forth from anticipation of her visits, to tolerance of her insults, to determination never to see her again. She did not know what had made her feel so resolved to try once more to explain, unless it had been going through the old picture albums yesterday with Louisa: all those pictures of people who were gone; all those people she had loved, tried to understand, and too often resented for the ways they had sometimes made her childhood difficult. Her mother had been a woman who never seemed to want anything but what was best for her family. She had not seen that by making Rebecca the eternally helpless darling, she had doomed her daughters to spending their adult lives as distant acquaintances. Their brother, Jeremy, had left home as soon as he was eighteen because he thought he was a failure in his parents’ eyes. Her father had loved his older daughter best and then, because he was ashamed to have a favorite, had expected more of her than she could give. Her father had never forgiven his son for leaving them and had never stopped blaming himself.
She and Rebecca were the only ones left, but when she looked at the photographs, Sarah could barely connect Rebecca to the tiny girl in the white ruffled dress and pink hair ribbons. They had all loved her so dearly. And finally Sarah had seen photos of herself, almost as tall and big boned at fourteen as she was now at seventy. After Louisa had left yesterday, Sarah had gone through the pictures again. It was something much more than a little lingering resentment that made her ache.
“Do you think Mother was happy?”
Rebecca seemed startled by the question. “I imagine so. She loved our father. She loved us. I suppose Jeremy’s leaving so young and moving across the country hurt her. She never talked about him much after he left. I guess she was about as happy as most women of her day.”
“Yes, but what did she want out of life? What did she want to achieve? You wanted the prestige of a wealthy husband and socially prominent friends. That wasn’t for me, but I always assumed you found pretty much the life you were looking for. I wanted a career, and the chance to be as independent as I pleased. I’m still living that kind of life. I even feel I’ve been a little bit useful to some of my students and not such a bad friend to my neighbors. But what was Mother looking to find? We always just expected her to be our mother, even after we were grown. The year before she died I was still calling her up for advice about handling my students.”
“What’s gotten into you, Sarah? I think you’re making a whole lot out of nothing. Women’s lives were different then.”
“Their lives were different, but were the women themselves so different? Inside, what did they think and feel? We never asked ourselves that about our own mother.”
“I’m getting uncomfortable sitting here,” said Rebecca, who had turned back away from the wide window. She picked up her purse and moved to an overstuffed chair by the stairs. She sat forward in her chair, as if she were waiting for a convenient moment to stand and say goodbye.
The big Burmese cat settled into Rebecca’s vacant spot on the window seat. Sarah scratched him between his ears. She forced herself to keep talking. She had lost the chance to say all she wanted—all she wished she had said—to her parents and brother, but Rebecca was alive. “For years I’ve been saving some things to show you. Come with me. Don’t worry about your purse or your coat. Willy doesn’t claw things.” Sarah walked over to Rebecca and extended her hand.
Rebecca stood but ignored Sarah’s hand. “I really can’t stay long. I promised to pick up a pair of gloves for Helen at the new shop that just opened next to the bookstore.”
Sarah led Rebecca up the stairs to the large bedroom over the living room. “I bet you haven’t been upstairs more than a dozen times since the summers we spent here as girls. This was our parents’ room. Do you remember?”
“Of course I remember. I’m not senile, although I’m beginning to wonder about you. You’re starting to live in the past. The past is dead and gone. Why bring up what can’t be changed or brought back?”
“Mother and Father kept this wedding picture here. I’ve tried to keep everything on the bureau the same as it was. I guess it’s because Mother’s fancy little bottles, and Father’s mirror and brush, and the wedding picture are part of the people Mother and Father were, part of the complete human beings, with likes and dislikes and disappointments and plans for the future that I never thought much about because they were just Mother and Father. They fed me and kept me safe and made me be nice to you when I wanted you to disappear. In my world they were just parents.
“Now when I touch this little violet perfume bottle, I see Mother picking it out and setting it here so the room will be pretty and homey. I imagine Father brushing that wavy dark hair of his each morning so he’ll look handsome for Mother.”
“What else do you have to show me? I don’t have much more time.”
“Remember that wicker chair by the window? You probably hated it because Father made you paint it once. That was the only real work I ever remember him asking of you, but I had the flu and for some reason he wanted it painted right away. Do you recall how you and I used to pretend that chair was a throne? We’d put our dolls in it so they could hold audiences with their subjects. Of course your doll always got to be the young queen. But we didn’t fight every time. We made up some lovely stories using that chair. Beyond the mountain was the Kingdom of Flavoria, and we had to protect our people from the evil Flavorian count.” Rebecca looked at the chair, but Sarah could not guess what she was thinking.
“Come across the hall a moment,” said Sarah.
Rebecca stood at the door, and at first Sarah thought she would refuse to enter the tiny room that Sarah now used as a study because it had the morning sun. “I told you I don’t like to think about the past,” said Rebecca. “Why have you kept my room this way when you hate me? I think you’ve planned this little tour so you could have lots of opportunities to remind me how awful I’ve been to you. Do you think I need reminding?” Sarah was not sure, but she thought Rebecca’s voice was a little unsteady.
Sarah sat down on the single bed in the far corner. “I know you won’t believe it, but I kept your bed just as you had it because I like to think of you in this room the way you were when we first started coming here. You were the daintiest, prettiest little girl I’d ever seen. I was so proud of you. I wanted all my friends to see my beautiful little sister.”
“I was five when father finished this cottage,” said Rebecca. “Mother and Father let me pick out the bedspread and bring up my favorite doll to set on the pillow. Why don’t you get rid of that spread? It looks as if it will disintegrate with one more washing. I don’t know why I liked that silly doll so much; she’s really quite hideous.” Rebecca picked up the cloth doll and turned her over to examine the back. “There’s the place where I ripped her dress trying to yank her away from you. I wouldn’t stop crying until Mother made you mend the hole. I could be a brat sometimes, couldn’t I?” For the first time all afternoon, Rebecca smiled.
Rebecca continued to speak as she sat down on the bed next to Sarah. “The first summer here doesn’t seem like over sixty years ago, does it? I don’t remember when I stopped playing with this doll. One day she wasn’t a toy anymore, just a decoration for my room, and then before long my room wasn’t my room any longer. I married Jim, we made a life together, and then that life was over. You think I’ve just bulldozed my way along, getting what I want and not caring about anyone but myself. If I’m so selfish, why is it I feel so terrible right now, thinking about everything that’s gone by?” Rebecca stood and walked over to the side window, where she looked down at the brown remains of the garden poking through the snow. Sarah came up beside her, and Rebecca let Sarah put her arm around her waist. Unlike earlier, Sarah felt she was holding a living woman and not a piece of furniture.
“Even by the time we started coming here, the losses had begun. Jeremy had left the year before. That’s one of the reasons why Father wanted to build this cottage, so Mother could get away from our house where he had grown up. We only saw him once after that, so I always felt I’d lost my brother before I could ever know him. At least you were old enough to remember him.”
Without conversation Sarah led Rebecca into the third bedroom and sat down on the battered hope chest at the foot of the twin bed that matched the one in Rebecca’s old room. Rebecca sat beside her.
“Sometimes when I was sure you wouldn’t catch me, I used to come in here and just sit,” said Rebecca. “I used to imagine that I was you, that I was tall and sophisticated and beautiful like you, and that I was smart in school and had lots of friends. I was sure you’d marry someone handsome and rich and then you’d leave me. I thought I’d be stuck at home and be the baby sister forever, always waiting for you to come back and pay attention to me so I’d be happy again. I envied you because you always knew what you wanted to do without asking anyone. Mother even helped me choose my clothes until I was married, and you told me which boys were nice and which ones to watch out for. Except for painting that one chair, Father never made me do any real work. I just helped with little chores like making beds and setting the table. I remember when you and Father built those bookcases you still have in your living room. I thought I’d never be old enough or smart enough to do something like that.”
Sarah and Rebecca sat quietly. Sarah could hear the old clock downstairs tick and then strike the quarter hour. When they had been girls that clock had stood on the mantel in their home outside Manchester. Sarah remembered early mornings when she would get up before the rest of the family in order to sit on the red velvet sofa and read while the clock made its comfortable, family sounds. Sarah had liked being up alone but knowing her parents and sister were just up the stairs.
“I could never live here,” said Rebecca eventually. “There are too many ghosts.”
“It’s because of the ghosts that I want to be here. I can look at the mountain and think of climbing it with Father, and whenever I bake bread I imagine Mother’s perfect loaves in place of my lopsided ones. Even Jeremy’s here a little. That desk in your old room used to be his. And just as much as I think of Mother and Father and Jeremy, I think of you.”
“I’m no ghost.”
“Until today, you were to me. I sometimes walk through the house thinking of all the things I might be able to tell you to bring you back so you’d be my sister again—not just some woman who disapproves of me and whose life I can’t understand. Mother and Father and Jeremy are gone, but we still have time together.”
Once again Rebecca was quiet. She let Sarah take her hand.
The clock struck the half hour. “I have to be going,” said Rebecca. “I promised Helen I’d be back through town before that shop closes.”
Sarah followed her down the stairs. Rebecca checked her coat for cat hairs, let Sarah help her into it, and picked up her purse. She was almost to the door when she turned back to Sarah and gave her a tentative hug. “I may have a free afternoon next week,” she said. “Do you still have those picture albums Mother put together? I might like to see them.”
I am shaken by sadness and distress over what is happening in our country. A horrifying example is the Trump administration’s actions in separating children from their parents at the southern border of the United States. The facts and implications of this situation show we have not learned the lessons of history. Those lessons might have taught us to turn away from fascism and authoritarianism, racism, and government-sanctioned cruelty and injustice. I do not understand, or do not want to accept, how we have allowed the current situation to fester and thrive.
Yes, I understand that Donald Trump has the desire to have authoritarian control. I understand that he and members of his administration are (based on the evidence of their words and actions) racist and lacking in feeling and empathy for their fellow human beings. I am gratified that a majority of Americans oppose the policy of separating children from their parents who are attempting to enter the United States. But I do not understand why, nevertheless, the majority of Republicans are not also outraged at the administration’s actions. How would they feel if their children were among those being held? What if these Republicans were facing gang violence and threats to their children in their home country? Wouldn’t they try to get their children to a better situation? And if they did try, would they then accept having their children taken from them?
Particularly shocking to me is the support that Trump’s policy is receiving from some who pride themselves on their religious faith. I believe that whatever our spirituality, we need to do our best to follow Jesus’s teaching to be kind to one another, to welcome the stranger, and to recognize love as the law that matters above all others. Many of Trump’s religious followers claim to be pro-life, but how is it pro-life—being loving and supportive toward everyone, especially children—to rip families apart?
The situation here is not one of saving children from untenable parental behavior, such as physical abuse and starvation. Most if not all of the children held at the border are from families trying to rescue their children from violence and poverty—trying to make a better life for them, just as was true for the ancestors of all of us Americans who were not Native American.
Supporters of the Trump border policy air a variety of claims to justify their behavior. Most of these claims are false or are incomplete truths. But none of the excuses matter. No “facts,” no “history,” and no “scripture” can justify what is happening: the cruelty to children and to their parents, the real and enduring harm that is being done to children through the separations, the shocking parallels to the worst of our and the world’s history, and the life-threatening wounds being inflicted on the Constitution and our country’s finest values.
Please: let us care about one another—all of us, about everyone. Please, members of Congress, serve the entire country, and not merely your future as politicians. All of us: please care about people and help people—all people, not only those who look like us and lead the kind of life we lead. If you are pro-life, please be pro-life by working for the needs of all people from the cradle to the grave, not just for their needs before they are born. Please, please, can’t we treasure, respect, and provide for our children—everybody’s children—and one another, around the globe?