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Archive for the ‘family’ Category

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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It’s winter, a time when — at least if you aren’t into skiing or snowboarding or tobagganing — people like me  tend to hole up, make lots of soups and stews, try to stay warm, and — as Susan Cooper’s poem The Shortest Day says, “Light candles to drive the dark away.”  Sometimes it feels like there’s cold not only in the air but in my bones as well, and these days, the cold seems to extend to our hearts and minds, too.

Today, one month after the horror of Newtown, CT, where we had to watch the faces of beautiful first graders flash on television as commentators announced their massacre, the National Rifle Association has taken aim at the President of the United States’ daughters, doing their best to lodge an argument that Obama is a hypocrite for wanting gun control when his daughter go to school in a protected environment.

The same organization argues that, in order for us to be safe, we shouldn’t restrict the sale or use of assault weapons, but instead get armed guards into every school and show our teachers how to handle firearms.  Rambo goes to school is the image that floats in my head, and it’s not one I’d want to share with the children I know.

Paranoia has permeated the minds of the NRA and those Second Amendment defenders who have now decided that a proposal to conduct background checks and perhaps even restrict assault-style weapons will take away our hard-fought civil rights.  I truly believe they have lost their perspective on reality and become the Paranoia People…folks who are caught up in thinking that government is out to get us, and that the right to bear arms is so essential that it can not be modified with any restrictions or conditions.

Several years ago I recalled the era of McCarthyism, including its own brush with my family when I was a very young child.  And I decried the fact that it seemed as though the government was permeated with such gutless leaders as those who – like Rush Limbaugh and his cronies – want to denounce all who disagree with them, scare and intimidate everyone into agreeing with their beliefs.  Funny, but things just haven’t changed much since I wrote that piece.  If the NRA’s current ad is any indicator, it’s all slid further downhill into a pile of very bad smelling stuff.

I remember, as a child, visiting my grandparents and my aunt, uncle, and cousins in a rural part of New York State.  My uncle Fred — a really nice guy who farmed for a living, worked hard, and occasionally went hunting — went out and shot a deer.  My cousin, Linda, posed with it, and I suppose (although I do not recall) that our family ate it for dinner and for quite a while thereafter.  I don’t question my uncle wanting to hunt, and recognize that there are many people in this country who like to shoot rifles at targets, go skeet shooting, or kill game to put on the dinner table.  I also recognize that there are some people who feel that they want, or need, to keep a gun in their home for protection.  My own husband has had one at times, although it’s a musket that shoots black powder, used for his colonial MinuteMan activities.

But that is a far cry from the purchase and sale and possession of assault-style weapons by people like you and me.  I can think of absolutely NO reason why any private individual needs to own such a weapon…none.  And the argument that any restriction on gun licensing or change to the review that individuals might undergo in order to purchase a gun constitutes infringement of second amendment rights, is hogwash.

When people get caught up in the idea that the government is there to work against them, not for them; when individuals start arguing that this president, or any president, is going to take away their rights and so they have to stock an arsenal of weaponry to defend their homes, we’re into dangerous territory.  A month ago, in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, there was a lot of talk going on about the need to be kind to one another…to embrace good will and the pure wonder and joy that those slaughtered first graders had, and bring it into our lives.  That didn’t last very long, at least if the NRA’s current media campaign is to be taken as an example.

Yes, there are a few little glimmers of hope.  Yesterday, parents of the Sandy Hook Elementary School children announced the creation of Sandy Hook Promise, which calls on people to “choose love, belief, and hope instead of anger” and to believe that “this time, things will be different.”  What would happen if the paranoia people let go of the fear that’s driving them and decided, instead, to sit down at the table and have an honest conversation with these heartbroken parents about violence and its impact on their lives and our society?  What a radical thought that seems to be.

I continue to hold to the belief that our country can do better, be better, than it is now.  Evidently the parents who began Sandy Hook Promise believe the same…that we have an opportunity to turn tragedy “into transformation.”  But first, the paranoia has to be set aside.  Even for just a few moments…long enough, perhaps, to bring us all to the table to look into one anothers’ eyes and search for the compassion that we all hold, somewhere deep in the too-cold heart that waits to thaw with the promise of love, trust, and healing.

 

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Last night, in one of those interesting confluences of events, I found myself at my church, helping to mentor a group of 9th and 10th grade students who are part of our Coming of Age class.  This program, one of the crown jewels of the Unitarian Universalist religious education program, guides high school students as they contemplate their personal ethics, morals, faith, and vision for themselves, both now and in the future.  And, in an ironic and timely coincidence, the evening’s theme was on good and evil.

Is there inherent good in the world, we were asked?  Or inherent evil?  Or does it take people for either, or both, to exist?  Why do people do good things, and have you ever experienced them?  And why is it that evil occurs?  The youth, and we, their advisers and mentors, wrestled with those very big questions, all in light of the tragedy that had occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.

After class was over, Ben and I went on to meet our nephew and niece at the movie theater to escape the weekend’s headlines.  There, we watched “The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey,” and I was pulled in once again to the story of Gollum, the tormented creature who engages Bilbo Baggins in riddles and struggles with his inner selves…part good, part evil…unsure which way to go.

Face of Gollum

Gollum, who struggles with good and evil in Tolkien’s stories.

I do believe — have always believed — that it takes people to cause good in the world, that good exists because of what we do, because of how we experience it through our eyes.  And I also believe that people cause evil to exist in the world.  The sick or twisted mind loses its way, causes pain and suffering and hatred to be visited on others.  If a tree falls in the forest, it must be witnessed in some way to be known.

So while Gollum, alone on his island imagines what he might do to feed his lost soul, it requires the presence of another — in this case, Baggins — to push him to action.  And, returning to the realities of our own nightmarish existence of the last several days, it seems clear that Adam Lanza’s warped sensibilities sought out the lives of innocents to carry out his mission in the horrible, desperate way that he did on Friday.

In the Coming of Age class on Sunday night, the question was asked:  “What have you done that was good?”  People thought hard as they struggled to answer that question.  My own response was pretty simple:  This weekend I wrote a letter to a very good friend who lives in Newtown, telling her that I was thinking of her.  And at church yesterday, I sought out a woman — with two beautiful children of her own — who teaches kindergarten in our town, and thanked her for what she does.

Someone I know wrote, in an email to others, that we might not be able to do much right now for the people of Newtown, but that we can be kind to one another.  True, we can sign online petitions to the White House, the National Rifle Association and public interest lobbies — and that is important.  We can write to our elected representatives and the President of the United States, and that is required, I think.  But if we do those things and we are pushed, in a moment of anger, to scratch the door of someone at the parking lot because they parked too close, or to cut someone off in traffic, or push to the front of the line at the movie theater, we might have missed the bigger point.

Child lighting candle Make no mistake:  I am no Pollyanna.  As my friends — and some who are not — will tell you, I have been known to proclaim someone an ass—e on plenty of occasions, and I certainly don’t get it right every time in my life.  But long ago, I resolved to try to treat people with kindness; to live out what I held on to when I was a teenager, about the same age as these kids who I now seek to mentor:  I chose to believe that people are, as Anne Frank once said, really good at heart.  And that we should try to treat one another with kindness and do good where we can, even in small ways.

Right now, as we thread our way through the thorns and blossoms that reside next to one another in the garden of good and evil, that seems like it might be a pretty important goal — and the one that we can all work toward, no matter where we are on our society’s power ladder.

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Yesterday, I had the opportunity to share with my congregation my thoughts regarding Massachusetts’ proposed ballot initiative (known as Question 2) which asks voters whether the Commonwealth shall permit physicians to prescribe a lethal dose of medication to terminally ill individuals who request such assistance.  My perspective on this is deeply personal.

It was in July, 1993 that I got the phone call from my father.  After months of mysterious muscle weakness, stumbling, falling, thinking that it was the result of a fall off a ladder the previous year that had resulted in cervical fractures, he had received a diagnosis of ALS, or Lew Gehrig’s disease.  A death sentence for most people – the question was when, and how.

I was pregnant with Abby.  My mother was overwhelmed with trying to care for my father, and I have no siblings.  Dad asked whether Ben and I could talk to his doctors and find out if they would write a prescription for a lethal dose of medication that would allow him to end his life.  Ben and I talked about it, as I recall for a while, but not for long.  Because we knew we would do what Dad asked.

We got in the car and drove to New Haven, having made appointments with Dad’s primary care physician and neurologist.  We prepared ourselves for a fight.  We had all the arguments at hand about why this was the humane thing to do, the thing that would fulfill the wishes of the person who would never recover from his disease.  We had done our homework:  Rev. Ralph Mero, the Unitarian Universalist minister who had led the effort to pass a death with dignity law in Oregon, had provided us with information on options, given us some talking points, and had offered compassionate, sensible help to us at every step of the way.

We arrived at the doctor’s offices on the Yale campus, and began our meetings.  We were astonished to find no argument coming back from either physician.  Were these my father’s wishes, they asked?  We asserted that they were.  Then yes, of course they would write the prescriptions.

We were stunned that it had not taken an argument, and we were deeply grateful.  Our next visits were with my father’s best friend, an eminent psychiatrist at Yale.  He confirmed that he would be there, with my father and mother, while my father took his last breaths.  Steve Fleck would not fail, we knew, and we were deeply appreciative of his courage and strength.  Finally, we saw my parents’ minister.  She confirmed that she, too, would be there and would support the decision.  We felt that we had a plan.  The prescription was filled at a local pharmacy and picked up.

The last part was administering the medication.  My Dad had lost the ability to feed himself, to move his arms more than a little.  So administering the medication was a real concern.  I didn’t want to ask my mother to do this, and after considering the question, I decided that I was prepared to act.  Helping someone you love to spend the last part of their life in as dignified a manner as possible is high on my list of promises I will keep.  I was ready to drive to New Haven and feed my father the medication.

Abigail Soule was born in the early morning hours of October 5, 1993.  Three weeks later, we brought her to Connecticut to meet her grandfather, so that he could pronounce her ‘perfect’ and be at rest, knowing that this great wheel of life had turned once more.

On October 30, with his breathing growing more difficult as fluid built up in his lungs, my father developed a bladder infection which we had decided we would not treat with antibiotics.  He announced that he was ready for the medication:  life was just not fun anymore, and even his quips and jokes were not enough to keep him going.  Pneumonia set in.  He saw the next door neighbor’s children in their Halloween costumes on October 31 as they came to the house to Trick or Treat, and then, on November 1, he passed, as he had said he would, “quietly into the night.”  As sometimes happens in these situations, fate had intervened before action was required.

In the face of such difficult decisions, our family was lifted up:  by the compassionate physicians who were willing to support my father’s request; by the friend of decades who was willing to stand by; by the minister who – while acknowledging her own belief in the value of life until the last breath is taken – was willing to honor my father’s last wish.  We were lucky.

I hope that Question #2 passes on November 6 — because I don’t want people to have to be lucky about having the nerve to ask the difficult questions we asked, relying on the compassionate physicians, ministers, friends who we were fortunate enough to have, or be left to hope that a family member would have the guts to administer medication to a family member if she or he couldn’t lift up the medication to their lips.  We don’t need luck, we need a law that will help to ensure that people have as good a death as possible.

My father died on All Saints Day, a day of remembrance and celebration honored in different ways in Christian, Celtic and pagan communities. A hymn that we sing in our Unitarian Universalist congregations, “For All the Saints,” says, “Thy name most holy, be forever bless’d,” in speaking of the departed.  I would offer that same praise and blessing for those who have stepped forward, in different times and places, to compassionately help those who we love exit this life in dignity and peace.

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