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Number 208

Guest Post by Ben Soule

The day after the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly ended my wife Deb and I were still in New Orleans. Most of the other delegates had already flown out and Deb was scheduled to be in meetings with some of the remaining UUA leaders, so I had some time to myself. Finding that the museum I intended to visit was closed on Mondays, I decided to take a long walk through my favorite city instead.  I took out my cell phone, opened Google Maps, dropped a pin in the middle of the Bywater District, hit the start button, and set off.

I was glad for this chance to get out of the hotel room, out of the GA bubble, and stretch my legs.  I was also glad to be able to have a chance to reflect on all that had happened in the past five days.  I thought back on all of the mind- and soul-stretching workshops I had attended, working to understand where I fit in the seismic shift in Unitarian Universalism that this year’s Assembly has signaled.  In addition, I had set out on my own quest to answer some questions for which I could find no ready answers, such as:

~ What is the cultural origin of the word ashé? 
~ Why have “indigenous people” been given a separate category from the larger category of people of color? 
~ How did the phrase “white supremacy” come to be the default term for that which we are working against?  
~ And my last and only unanswered question of the week: How do we wrestle with the issues raised by the brutal attack on two UUA staff members in the French Quarter on Saturday night, in light of all we had learned in recent days?  I was working hard on that one.

My route took me around much of the crescent for which the old city was nick-named.  As I crossed Bienville I recalled the news report from that morning saying that the attack took place on “the 200 block of Bienville.”  I glanced to my left and wondered.  I continued past Jackson Square, past the French market, through the industrial end of the Marigny district and into the Bywater.  The Bywater is a pleasant neighborhood that appears to have come a long way since Katrina, and shows signs of the mixed blessing of gentrification.  I walked along Rue Dauphine past many brightly painted houses as well as some that clearly needed to be worked on.  I came to a corner with a Mom and Pop market and a flower and bookshop where my GPS told me I had another 100 feet to my destination.  I walked the last few steps, stopped and looked around, hoping that there would be  something there, something significant, something that I was supposed to find.  But there wasn’t. Just some well-kept houses on a quiet street shaded by lime trees. 

So I turned back the way I had come to that last street corner.  It was mid-afternoon on a warm New Orleans day and I was glad to be able to buy something cold to drink at the market.  I stepped past a few people sitting in the shade of the sidewalk awning and entered the dimly lit market.  I exchanged a few pleasantries with the woman behind the counter as I bought a bottle of fruit juice and had a few gulps.  I stepped out onto the sidewalk and looked across the street at the book and florist shop I had passed earlier. 

And then I knew why I was there.  I crossed and went into the tiny florist’s but no one was there.  I called up the stairs where the books must have been.  No answer.  As I turned to leave, a young woman appeared in the doorway.  I recognized her from the group across the street.  “Do you work here?” I asked.  “Yes, can I help you?,” she said.  I asked for a small mixed bouquet for a sick friend.  She went to the tinier back room and returned with a lovingly assembled splash of colors and look of sympathy in her eyes.  I asked for a card to write a note, jotted a few words and tied it with the yarn around the brown paper bundle.  I paid her the $13.20, thanked her, asked for the most interesting route back to the Quarter, and set off.

On Burgundy I passed a carefully restored Esso station with a sign saying “No gas today.”  On Elysian Fields I saw a circle of rust brown statue-people facing defiantly outward.  On Rue Royal I was greeted with a “How y’all doin’” by a young man, and I saw a young woman retrieve an electronic recorder for a UPS driver that had fallen from his truck.  Everything seemed to have meaning to me in the hyperaware state I was in because my GA experience. 

I was nearly all the way across the Quarter when I drained the last of the now-warm juice, and saw the sign for Rue Bienville up ahead.  My heart was pounding as I turned left toward the river.  I passed the 400 block and crossed North Peters.  I seemed to be out of what I thought of as the French Quarter but I kept on. Ahead was a single four-story brick building surrounded by parking lots.  I realized that the flowers’ brown paper wrapper was soaked through with my own sweat as I took the bouquet with my right hand from the crook of my left arm and approached the building.  It was marked number 208.

There was a man setting up a power washer.  The intake hose was in a drainage ditch of an adjacent building project.  As he started the washer I saw that his job was to wash away the sand that was strewn on the sidewalk.  My realization that I had found the right place was confirmed when, as he cleaned away the top layer, I saw the caked red sand beneath.

209 NOLAI placed the flowers in a nook in the front of building and left the man to his task. As I walked away I wondered why I had done this thing.  It was not my typical behavior.  I didn’t do it for myself, and I knew it would make little difference to the victims.  I had no expectation that the flowers would be there more than 10 minutes after I left.  But I understood I was the only person in that place and at that time who could make that gesture, who could bear witness, as Deb phrased it later.  I understood that no matter how difficult we find the road that we travel together, no matter how long it takes to hear and to know each others’ deepest stories, how painful it is to create a welcome place in our movement for all who wish to join, we must stand together.

Clearly I had felt a call from my deep life-long connection to Unitarian Universalism.  I am grateful to have been awake and aware enough to heed that call.

Ben Soule is a lifelong Unitarian Universalist.  He resides in Lexington, MA and is a member of First Parish in Lexington.

My father-in-law, Dick Soule, was a colorful character.  He had many sayings – some of them made more sense than others – all interesting, some timely.  And maybe none were more timely than the one I’m using as title for this post.  Lots of people have talked about the President’s fondness for ‘alternate facts,’ a behavior embodied by his press secretary and top aides.  For those who rely on digital media for their news, and tend toward information coming in fast bursts that don’t involve reading (let alone reading print publications “Of Record,”), it’s becoming tricky to know whether to believe what you hear and see.

And so the messages continue to be cranked out – about Putin, about the ‘crooked media,’ about lack of coverage of terrorist threats – even the “Bowling Green Massacre,”  which – it turns out – is one of those ‘alternate’ pieces of information ginned up by a Trump aide.

Which brings me to another of my father-in-law’s sayings.  He – and my husband as well – loved to distract our kids by pointing in a direction over their shoulder (particularly if there was, for instance, a brownie sitting on a plate in front of a child) and saying, “Look!  A Linotype!”  Linotypes, of course, haven’t been used for years…and hardly any kid (and few adults) would know what they are!  But the idea of pointing in one direction to grab the cookie off your plate, or throw you off your game (just like the old Quarterback Sneak) – now that is alive and being used with verve right now.

Because, of course, it turns out that the Administration — the one that we are supposed to respect and admire — would far rather have the media get distracted on ‘proving’ that they really HAVE covered stories of terrorist threats – and covered them enough (what the heck is enough???) to exempt themselves from the criticism of the White House.  At what point will the reputable media – the ‘failing’ New York Times, for instance; the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and the like – respond to this kind of criticism by not responding and being distracted?

PT Barnum, famous showman, was well known for staging stunts.  He talked proudly about hiring a child in a town where his circus was, to carefully place six bricks outside of the tent where his show was.  People would gather, watching the child and the bricks and then, curious, they’d go inside to be entertained by acrobats, dancers, Gen Tom Thumb, and others.  They’d leave, feeling that they had experienced a great show, and spread the word to their friends.  Evidently – even though Ringling Brothers has announced the close of their circus – we haven’t learned the lessons Barnum wanted to teach us, more than 100 years ago:  we can be duped.  Over and over again, just like (as my husband likes to say) “shooting fish in a barrel.”  It’s easy, and it’s working. And more than that:  we know what this game is, yet still, we play it, over and over again.  “Never give a sucker an even break, or smarten up a chump,” said WC Fields, who seemed to embody the spirit of Barnum years after the showman had passed.  Evidently we’re the chumps, not smart enough to know that our ears are wet – and no, it’s not the rain coming down on our heads.

I got a call tonight that just crumbled me.  Our friend, Reinhard was on the line, from his lovely home near Reno, NV, to tell me that his beloved wife, Margarethe, had died in October after battling cancer for more than a year.  He’d received our ‘seasonal’ card – the one we never manage to get out before Christmas – and wanted to let me know the news.  I was crushed as I heard his voice, struggling not to break, as he told me of the passing of his wife of more than fifty years.

Reinhard and Margarethe were once strangers in this country.  They had met at a tuberculosis sanitorium in Germany; he from the former East Germany – as a youth he had been forced into the Hitler Youth movement – and she from the Black Forest.  She had tales of going outside with her mother to bury the dead English soldiers on their property; stories of what the second world war was like as a child and youth – a terrible time.  Together they had decided to make a new life in America.  Reinhard was a chemist and worked for Dow and other large chemical companies; Margarethe was a bookeeper and met my mother at the real estate agency they both worked at.  The social connections grew;  my father – son of two Orthodox Jewish immigrants – quickly developed a close friendship with Reinhard and Margarethe.

christmas-candlesAs a child and a teen, I found them fascinating.  Margarethe taught me how to make gooseberry and currant jam and homemade spaetzle; Reinhard taught me how to decorate a Christmas tree with real candles, which they carefully lit.  And then I would listen to my father and both of them sing “Stille Nacht” in German, as the tree sparkled with magic.  We’d sit down to a supper of homemade baked beans (New York-style, as my mother made them) and German sausages and later, enjoy shots of homemade bootleg brandy (made by my mother’s uncle in a copper still during prohibition) to chase the food down.

When I married, I introduced my husband and my children to our friends, and some years ago, we took my mother on her final airplane trip, out to Nevada for a lovely German Thanksgiving in the mountains.  It was smashing.

And now, Margarethe is gone, leaving me with these memories and all of us with the footprint of her life, well-lived, in America.  Reinhard and Margarethe came to this country for a better life – in search of stability, democracy, opportunity.  They received it, were sponsored into American citizenship by my parents, and have loved and supported this country.  Their story, of course, is one that has been – and hopefully will be – repeated, over and over again.  I say this, while knowing that the new American President is busy building a wall that we are all going to pay for – not just in money but in so many other devastating ways.

Margarethe lived a life of love, of generosity, of friendship.  She embodied the warmth that one hopes will come of any friendship.  She shared generously of her life, her culture, her perspectives which enriched my own.  I loved her.  Tonight I just might pour a small glass of some clear liqueur and raise it to her memory, and to Reinhard, her beloved husband.  Downstairs in my pantry there is still a jar of Kiwi and orange jam that Margarethe made…a jar I had been holding on to, waiting for some really special occasion.  Maybe that time is here.  Maybe tomorrow I’ll open it up, and remember her sparkling smile, her warmth, her friendship – the second mother I always adored.  It’s a legacy that will live on in blessed memory.

I guess there is one thing that I can be grateful for on this Inauguration Day:  Donald J. Trump got me back into blogging.  After weeks of feeling increasingly ill, after nights of tossing and turning and waking up way too early with an impending sense of doom descending on me – here I am, back at the keyboard after a hiatus of more than three years.

It isn’t that I don’t like to write, of course:  I do it a lot and enjoy it.  It isn’t that I didn’t have ideas…I have too many of them.  But busy?  Oh jeez.  Nevertheless, I’m back and sitting here as the news plays in the background, sharing images of the new First Family headed to a worship service, then to the White House to have coffee with the First Family of my Heart For All Time, and then on to the swearing-in.

I won’t be watching it;  I’ll be at the church I’m serving, in the sanctuary with parishioners, lighting candles, sitting in meditation and prayer, at high noon.  I’ll be thinking, in this town where the American Revolution began, about the country that has been my home and that of my parents and their parents.  This is the land that was built from struggle and love and visions of a place where immigrants could arrive and find – with hard work and dedication – a better life … and it’s where this drama is unfolding, as a large part of the nation holds its collective breath.

So yes, I thank you, Mr. President-Elect.  For this, I am grateful.

I am also grateful for my daughters, they who are from Gen Y and Millenial cohorts, and their belief in a life which can be more fair, more just, for all; one where women are valued for their contributions and their minds and are paid equally and not subjected to groping and denigrating remarks.  I am grateful that one of my daughters, surrounded by friends from her high school, from Star Island, from Tulane and Loyola, are now traveling to Washington to be part of the Women’s March.  I am grateful that pretty much everyone I talk to is engaged in planning and action to change the direction the almost-president is embracing.

I’m grateful for a spouse who has a deep love of country and the history that made this nation what it is, who is here to travel the road with me, hold me at night when I’m wondering where this all will go, and share conversations with me around how we live into an uncertain time.  I’m grateful to be part of communities of faith that embrace resistance and action.  I’m grateful for the brilliant Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, who night after night, helps us understand the news we’re reading and receiving.  She is brainy and literate and she is pure gold.  I’m grateful for my progressive clergy and religious educator colleagues who are working hard to put all that people are feeling into words and action and teachable moments.

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Morning star rising over the Chapel on Star Island

And I’m grateful to remember that, for a very long time, the sun has continued to rise and set; the morning star has risen, and life has gone on.  Last summer, my beloved former neighbor said, as we stood and looked on our gardens, “Maybe this is what people mean by the end-times.”  Interesting thought:  maybe it’s not that the world ends with a bang, but with a whimper…with society caving in and conversations devolving into brags about acts of violence and hate perpetrated on the vulnerable.

On the other hand, I am now choosing to view this not as an end, but a beginning:  Even this new kind of leader probably won’t end this nation  (although I do worry…) and while the light fills the morning sky, I’ll keep praying that our nation, and our world — now more complex than ever — endures and maybe even becomes better as a result of our steadfast witness to values of love, justice and hope.  May it be so, today and in all the days to come.

Just Yesterday

What’s amazing is that it feels like it was just yesterday.  It makes me wonder what it would be like to be a real time traveler, to be able to go forward or back in time by decades or more, and wake up and know where you are because you’ve lived it all before.  That’s how I’m feeling about the anniversary, tomorrow.  I’m the cajillionth in a line of people talking about this anniversary (and I won’t talk that much, I promise).  But I keep shaking my head, because the memories are SO present.

I remember not only what I was doing, but what it felt like to be on the school bus coming home, to see my mother crying when I walked in the door, to spend the wierdest Thanksgiving ever, with my aunt and uncle in a smoke-filled den, watching Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather, for hours on end.

There were breaks for food, breaks for the adults to make drinks, breaks to get more tissues, and the sense that this was some bizarre drama in which we were the bit players. No one could remember when the last time was that this had happened;  all they could do was talk about Lincoln’s assassination, “Camelot,” and the beautiful young widow and the two small, adorable children in blue coats.  All I could do was watch them, and watch the TV.

And it was the end of some kind of innocence for me, and probably for many other pre-teens of my generation:  the time when it all seemed to go a little whacky, when the young hero I’d stood and waved to in Hyannisport the previous summer had been ‘disappeared’; the start of the time when people decided that if they didn’t like someone, they’d blow them away to make their lives better and fulfill some promise in their minds about how to change the world.

I started writing slogans that I found inspirational, writings from Anne Frank and Shakespeare and Aldous Huxley even, on the bedroom shades.  I’d lie there in the half-dark, looking at those words, wondering how they had been moved to write those things and wondering if I’d ever be a writer or a great thinker, or how one survived tragedy and disappointment so deep it hurt in my heart.

I started peppering my childhood minister, Rev. Wayne Shuttee, with questions about how there could be a loving God in the face of insanity and rage.  About why there was a world where such bad things happened. About how people find courage and strength to carry on in the face of such stuff.  Wayne answered some, helped me struggle some, and — with my church youth group — helped me believe that together, we could find the resources inside us to carve a new path… so that our lives, and maybe those of our children, wouldn’t be etched with the violence that wiped out those we looked up to and adored (even though we’d never really known them).

All that is hopelessly idealistic, of course.  And it was unfulfilled:  the men who wiped out Martin, Bobby, and a string of lesser heroes made sure we learned that lesson, again and again. Yet, we endure.  We continue to believe, with undying hope, that our world might be different some day.  Which brings us back, in some ways, to the unfulfilled promises of the young man who died fifty years ago.

Tomorrow, I’ll be the kid on the bus again, walking in the door and seeing my mother crying and trying to understand why the world had gone mad.  Just like yesterday.

A week ago I finished a job as event coordinator for a large academic conference in Boston.  Although the organization bills itself as a “North American Society…” there were people in attendance from all over the world, and I — an undergraduate English major who studied romanticism quite a bit — was so far out of my league I wondered where my studies of Wordsworth and Shelley had gone.

I had four students acting as assistants for the conference. Three of them were graduate students, one was a rising senior, and all of them are headed for careers as college professors or researcher/writers in the field of romanticism.  They were terrific, each one of them in their own way, so smart and engaged and energetic.  The grad students were put on panels and so, received the opportunity to present a twelve minute paper on a subject they were studying, and to field the questions of the audience who wanted to explore their topic (or tear their thesis apart).  This was a wonderful opportunity for them, and when they weren’t helping at our registration desk or running around taking care of other errands, they were off in seminars, taking full advantage of the visiting professors who came from Australia, Ireland, across Canada, China, Denmark, and more.

Each one of these women is already impressive.  And each one of them is going to be something important, really significant, and soon.  You can see it in their drive, in their conversations with one another, in their eyes.  It made me not only remember my own days in graduate school, when I grabbed every opportunity I could get to work in professional theatre and dove deep into studies of Georg Buchner and the existentialist playwrights, days when I thought I would die of happiness just working for the eighteenth hour straight on Elizabeth Ashley’s new play, about to come into the Colonial Theatre, or work on a grad student production of Percey Shelley’s play “The Cenci” (talk about obscure romanticism).

Along the way I got a boost from some people (mostly women) that helped.  The costume designer and now business consultant Betsy Leichleiter, who sent me off to Boston’s theatre district to work because she thought I had the right stuff.  Theatre publicist Nance Movsessian, a warhorse of a woman who was legend in Boston theatre, who taught me about communication in an arts setting.  Roberta Rogovin in New Haven, who thought that I had what it would take to make the City of New Haven a place where the arts could not only survive, but thrive.  And then, as I branched away from theatre and the arts and toward other non-profit settings and the world of religion,  Denny Davidoff, an advertising and marketing powerhouse who, with former Unitarian Universalist Association Executive Vice President Kay Montgomery, not only taught me about the business of religion but about how to make your career and your life focus on making a difference in the world.

These were my uncommon women, the people who were there to give me a hand along the way, sometimes a kick in the ass as well, and who pointed me toward the next challenge and the opportunities that lay ahead.  As one of my graduate assistants at that conference agonized over a professor who had torn into her thesis, I wondered if some mentor would be there to keep her headed in the right direction.  Soon enough, one of her professors (not a woman, but a mentor and advocate for sure) showed up to help her refocus on what was important.    “If you didn’t get questions about what you wrote, it wouldn’t be worth saying.  You’re doing fine.  Keep going.”  And my comment:  “Everyone I’ve talked to at this conference has talked about how wonderful you are as a teacher.  You told me you wanted to be an English professor.  You already are.  Your students value you.  Keep working toward the goal of being the best professor you can be, and you’ll be on the right path.”

This week I’ll be at a dinner, held by another ‘uncommon woman,’ one who has been an author, one of the first female Fulbright scholars, and a foreign bureau chief for a major news outlet.  She’ll gather with a number of other impressive women around her table and they’ll be talking about their lives, who they have mentored, whether they now mentor others.  It should be a heady conversation.

I have no idea if my life will put me in the place where I need to be lifted up, again, by one of my uncommon women.  But I know what the value is of such people in our lives.  So often they show up at just the right moment.  Knowing when to say something or give you a kick in the ass is part of the treasure that such mentors hold…part of what make them so uncommon.

Fourteen

About ten days ago, Ben and I returned from a stay at our last best place in the world, Star Island.  Pretty much we’ve been going there since before we can remember, and so it’s been part of our individual and combined family traditions forever.  I first arrived there at the age of eighteen months;  Ben was conceived there, and we are pretty sure we met there when we were four years old.  Our older child, Emily, went when she was a preschooler for the first time — thus securing the same kind of memory that we both held in our heads — and Abby’s first trip came when she was about nine months old, for an open up weekend in May.

My father-in-law helped build many of the buildings on the island and had a huge (now, forgotten by many) role in reopening Star Island after the second world war.  My mother-in-law came along with the kids, helping wherever she could, and making sure that her children had a great experience on this rocky, remote (and, in the 1950s) very rustic island with few services, drinking water imported by boat from Portsmouth, and one ship-to-shore radio telephone.

Over the years, generations of our family have had the same experience, and have gone to Star Island to spend a summer or an extended period of time working on what we call The Rock.  You really can’t go unless you can deal with seagulls, a couple of showers a week only, no cars, no televisions or media save what you might get from the wireless networks that can be up or down, and boat service that is sometimes subject to weather and engine failure.

And yet, we all pretty much remember it as the best time of our lives.  Where else can you spend the summer with just under 100 other young adults in a naturally pristine setting, feeling completely away from the rest of the world, working hard, playing hard, and drinking in the salt air and the starlight?  The shooting stars are better seen from the grass in front of the Star Island summerhouse or near the summer house; the swimming’s better in Smuttynose cove; the lime rickeys taste like nowhere else when they come from the Star Island Snack Bar.  It’s just the way it is.

And now, Abby.  Our second child is in the middle of that unparalleled experience and she is having the summer she, and we, always dreamed of.  She’s the fourteenth member of our family to spend a summer this way, and from all reports, it’s as magical as it ever was, as amazing as we dreamed it would be.  She’s sailing, trying out new jobs and helping out her friends, sun tanning and swimming, spending long days both working hard and celebrating summer in the perfect New Hampshire sea air.  And how bad can life be if you get up in the morning, gaze out the window, and see a sunrise and sailboats that look like a Childe Hassam painting every day?  Hassam, along with John Greenleaf Whittier and many of the top writers and artists of their day, flocked to the Isles of Shoals in the summer.  And we are fortunate enough to know why.

Photo of Abby on Star Island

A life like no other: Abby on Star Island, 2013

Before she went to Star this summer, Abby worried (as she has a tendency to do).  About whether she would have friends.  About whether she would like it. About (I think) whether she would disappoint us if she didn’t, given her family pedigree with the place.  About six hours after she left the dock in Portsmouth, bound for Star, I got a text:  “Made friends :>) ” And that was the start of this magical summer…the same one we’ve had, the same one our older daughter, Emily, had, and the same one we hope for the next generation of Soule…my nephew, Gabriel, now five months old.

With ongoing care and love, Star Island has endured, with its fishing cottages — dating to the early nineteenth century — and the grand hotel, built in the mid-1800s, preserved and still open for business.  The harbor’s the same, the scarlett pimpernel still blooms in the rocks.  The stars are still gorgeous at night, the water clear and pure, and the air brisk and clean.  Life is still very, very good on Star Island, thank heaven and earth.

And Number Fourteen’s on The Rock, working hard and having the summer of her life.  These gifts — given and received again — keeps bringing us blessings to celebrate, and to share.