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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Now that it’s happened again, I remember how it felt the last time.  I remember feeling  like the nerves on my skin were burned, jangly, hyper-sensitive.  I remember how I startled easily.  I recall looking out the window more often, gazing up at the sky…although back then, I also remember the eery quiet that came from no planes flying overhead.  I remember hoping there would be answers soon, cranking out as much work to update the UUA website as I could manage before I collapsed in exhaustion for a few hours.  And I remember how calm it all felt here in my town, thirteen miles away from downtown Boston.

That was in the minutes in hours and days that stretched on, following the September 11, 2001, attacks on our country, some of which originated in Boston.  Now, of course, is the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing that occurred on Monday afternoon.  And while the circumstances are different, and the loss of life much less, it still feels like a punch to the gut of every person who calls Boston their home.

It was Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen who, interviewed the other day on the television news, said, “Bostonians care about only three things:  sports, politics, and revenge.” And, he continued, in this case, revenge is about carrying on our lives, and not letting whoever perpetrated these acts change what we do and who we are. In a demonstration of solidarity, we saw the reviled New York Yankees raising a banner that had both teams’ names on it, and playing our beloved baseball anthem, “Sweet Caroline,” after the seventh inning at Yankee Stadium.  Way to go, Evil Empire.  Maybe we’re not so far away from each other, after all.

And in that spirit, last night the Boston Bruins held the first major sports game since the attacks (two other Celtics games were cancelled) and the entire Boston Garden joined in singing the National Anthem.

Bostonians — and I count myself as one now, having lived here for well over twenty years — are in general scrappy, intrepid, and prone to keeping on, no matter what.  In these days following the attacks on the Marathon, story after story has come to light, of strangers opening their homes to stranded runners and tourists, of people who ran toward the blast, not away, to help those whose legs had been torn off or who lay on the ground, bleeding, of people who are donating to relief funds set up by area banks to help those whose injuries are so severe they will require extensive long term care.

Today, the President of the United States will come together with interfaith leaders at a worship service to remember those who died, those who were injured, those who came to aid the fallen.  Meanwhile, the investigation into the crime goes on, painstakingly, relentlessly.  I have every confidence that the answers will be found, that the perpetrators will be brought to justice.  And that our city will recover.  Again.

Way to go, Boston.  In so many ways, by acts mundane and huge, our people show what they’re made of.  And each time the Red Sox win (and Saints preserve us, they seem to be on a roll again) and our other baseball anthem, “Dirty Water,” pumps out of the Fenway Park sound system, I’m proud this is the place I call home.

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Very late on Sunday night, April 14, I was sitting in Lexington’s Hancock-Clarke House next to the brick fireplace, the room lit only by two eighteenth-century candle lanterns.  The historic house becomes a stage set on Patriot’s Day Eve, as the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere into Lexington is re-enacted, much to the delight of local Boy Scout and church youth group members, townspeople, and visitors who’ve come here from all over the world to see what Patriot’s Day is all about.

My husband, Ben, plays John Hancock in the re-enactment, and I am his dresser, helping him pull off his outer garments and hat, re-adjust his body microphone, and present himself as though awakened from restless sleep by the arrival of Paul Revere and William Dawes at the home of Rev. Jonas Clarke.  The play is a charming event, sponsored by the Lexington Historical Society, and after the last scene of the play is staged on Lexington’s Battle Green (in which Rev. Clarke inspires the farmers of the town to stand up to the Redcoats, and Hancock and his pal, Sam Adams, flee Lexington for the neighboring town of Woburn), the crowds disperse…at least until the 5 AM Battle of Lexington re-enactment.

As Ben and I got in our car to drive home, just after midnight, we remarked on the cold, clear night with the crescent moon shining down.  We drove toward the Green and saw the new American flag, much bigger than the last, waving over the Green, lit by spotlights.  We looked back at our church, First Parish in Lexington, gathered in 1691, with its steeple illuminated — a reassuring beacon in the night.  And I thought about how this holiday was so special for New England…how I wished more people would celebrate Patriot’s Day here in our town, and not just think of the next day as “Marathon Monday.”

We haven’t ever been Marathon people, although I’m proud of Boston’s history with this oldest of marathon races.  Ben and I usually watch the end of the race, remark on how well the Kenyan runners seem to do, follow a few of the heart-warming stories of the race (including this year’s dedication of the race to the victims of the shootings in Newtown, CT) and otherwise, observe the day with Colonial activities in Lexington, Lincoln, and Concord.  And we like it that way.

Too often, there are also pro-gun rallies, or other events in our town, that are designed to remind people of perceived threats to second amendment rights.  I have written previously about these and don’t need to revisit those thoughts now.  This year, however, the individuals or organization that meant Boston harm had something else in mind, as two bombs were detonated along the finish of the marathon route.  The shock of this horror happening in our city took me back to the bombing of the Murrah building in Oklahoma City, which occurred on April 19th…and to other threats made against our country on other April mornings.

I imagine that the perpetrators of such acts fashion themselves to be patriots of a sort…people who are taking a stand for their point of view against the organized influences of government and society that they feel threaten them.  I imagine that they have decided to cause such chaos and tragedy because they want to be heard.  I imagine that they feel that violence, and a large act of it, is the only way for them to gain attention.  And I imagine that they want to frighten the rest of us, so that we will know that they are strong.

These are patriot games of a most unpatriotic and cowardly sort.  and I (just an ordinary citizen) feel confident in saying, on behalf of all living near the epicenter of these acts — designed to bring us to our knees — that acts of terror will not have the desired effect.  As one woman, interviewed on the street in Boston today, said, “We are Bostonians.  We will not be intimidated.  We get up, we get our coffee, we allow extra time to go to work, and we carry on…because we will not be frightened by these acts.  We are Bostonians, and this is what we do.”

The people of Great Britain must have had it right when the slogan, “Keep calm and carry on,” was coined in 1939, at the start of the second world war.  These games of intimidation and mayhem will not succeed, and life in and around the Hub of the Universe, where the struggle for liberty began so many years ago, will go on – even stronger, blessed by the people who make this part of the world my home.

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