Sunday, October 28, 2018

2010.10.28 Bare Naked Love

We live in a world that sobs for love—not romantic, dutiful, or tough.

I mean sobbing, aching, sundering love—the kind that breaks hearts, even hearts most hardened by wealth or poverty.

“How much many more can we take?” A woman said in church today, her eyes flooding with tears. She was referring specifically to the mass shooting yesterday at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Tree of Life? How ironic. That is the other tree in Eden, the one we rarely hear about, not the one we humans grab for, prefer, the one that gives them knowledge, both good and evil knowledge. That’s what we grab for.  

“Only eleven people were killed, but still . . .”  the woman went on. Only eleven—only?

How many holocausts must happen before we let go of all our pretenses, our masks, our fears, our reasonable explanations, our religious platitudes, the most clichéd being God is Love, and simply sob.

Most of us look for a leader, a teaching, a solution, a word of wisdom, a path, a hope, a savior, a limb to grab onto as a child grabs the nearest adult leg to hold. This morning’s news reported that President Donald Trump declared that this shooting had ‘little to do’ with gun laws and suggested that the Tree of Life synagogue should have had armed guards. More defensive politics. I wanted heart!

But then . . . he expressed horror at such incomprehensible malice—and during “a baby-naming ceremony at a sacred house of worship on the holy day of Sabbath.”  My heart jumped. Maybe he would drop everything, yes, even in campaign season, and go to Pittsburgh immediately? You know the best, most remembered leaders are the martyrs, the ones who die trying.

But then he said: “We don’t let evil change our life and change our schedule.” My heart broke. We don’t let evil change our life and change our schedule?

To let evil change your life and your schedule is the best definition of Christian behavior I’ve ever heard—or the behavior of any good and true human being. To be a christ you have to let down your guard and sob. You have to see the wound, tend the wound, sob and sob and sob. That’s love—alone or together—no props, no fixes, no doctrines, just naked grief. It’s precarious, delicate, the artistry of a funambulist, a tightrope walker. The Bible says this in every story. So does this poem.

The Highwire of Grief

It’s quite the feat
the funambulism of the newly bereaved.
What a treacherous act it is
to attempt freehand balance without a support point.
Weighed down, paralyzed,
but forced to move anyway.
And press forward
by placing another tentative step
after that last unsteady step
into the thin air
on a fine wire
of twisted memories
stretching from there to here—
and all the while squinting through a salty waterfall.

    by Rabbi Janet Madden
      currently the Rabbi of Providence Saint John’s Health Center
      Santa Monica, California

Sunday, October 21, 2018

2018.10.21 Vincent MIllay, Woman of Gift, Ill Repute,and Tragedy

Recently I spent a week enjoying the beauty of the Berkshires. There was no fall dress but still……..we got to visit the farm where I’d summered as a child, and the estate of the great poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, who called herself Vincent. I’d read some of Millay’s work but was clueless about the woman behind the words—sharp, startling, awakening. Here’s one well-known quote I remember from a college poetry course, over 50 years ago when I too was young, yearning and burning many candles down to the nubbin.

“My candle burns at both ends; it will not last the night; but ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—it gives a lovely light.” 

I wanted it all—great literature, great love, wild drinking parties, freedom—and God. I was also scared witless of most all of such things burning within me, very unlike the care-free Millay, yet poised and ready to try. 

Millay was a flapper of my mother’s era, full of pulse and promise. Who ever heard of a flapper from rural Maine, let alone one of beauty—flaming red hair, lithe and petite (5’1”) stature, and a prodigious poet with a formidable intellect as ballast?
Millay was born in Rockland Maine in 1892, the oldest of three daughters. I was born 46 years later, the oldest of three daughters. Her middle name was derived from St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York where her maternal uncle’s life had been saved just before her birth. My middle name is Hall, my maternal grandmother’s maiden name. The Halls of Medford, Massachusetts were socially upscale. I live near Medford and can see the Halls of Medford’s large home, now condominiums. I imagine my grandmother’s antics, which by repute were many. Women in my family push against boundaries.

Millay was just twelve when her mother, Cora, divorced her father, Henry, for “financial irresponsibility.” My mother did not divorce my father but I bet she thought of it. He was responsible about money but not about booze. 

The young Millay girls grew up in rural poverty. I grew up in a big city called New York with the fear of poverty hovering over my parents' young lives, thanks to the Great Depression. (Why on earth do we capitalize that?  Dread I guess.) The Millay girls’ poverty was tempered by the joys of too much independence and the slew of classical literature which Cora hauled around in a trunk from place to place. The girls cavorted outside in summer and skated in their kitchen in winter when water from leaks froze solid. Edna, who by then called herself Vincent, was writing and publishing poems and having love trysts with women. I had the joys of a private girls’ school where I too was exposed to classics.

In 1912 Millay entered her poem “Renascence” in a poetry contest.  The poem is long, rhyming, plaintive and mystical, worth a read. Although it was considered the best submission, even by the winners who offered her some of their prize money, it was awarded fourth place—thus creating a scandal that catapulted her to fame and got the attention of a wealthy patron. Vincent got famous by NOT winning! Fame is exhilarating. Quick fame can be scary and scarring. Then again to be a prodigy in poetry requires scars on the heart. I have never been famous but did accumulate many scars on my heart.

At 21 Millay entered Vassar College. My paternal grandmother was graduated from Vassar in 1900 and insisted I apply. Vassar seemed austere to me, yet Millay’s eyes lit up, because Vassar  had people from China, France, Germany, and more. Nevertheless, she found Vassar’s rules binding: “Damn this pink and gray college. They trust us with everything but men. Man is forbidden as if he were an apple.” Smith College was my choice, embedded as it is among many men’s colleges.

Rules never stopped Millay. Often late to classes, she’d say: “I was in pain with a poem.” I was in pain over romance and exams, never missed a class, and was on time—mostly. When Millay committed the cardinal sin of spending the night out in a hotel, the college kicked her out. When I came back late to my dorm on father-daughter weekend, I’d been out drinking beer with my dad, and was not kicked out. I was, however, reprimanded and had to appear before some kind of student judiciary panel. It was humiliating and damn stupid.

In 1917 Millay’s classmates and faculty voted she could graduate, rules or no rules. She went to Greenwich Village, and lived a bohemian life, writing poems to support herself. They got published but the money didn’t keep up with her extravagance. She wrote Poetry Magazine: “I'm awfully broke. Will you mind paying more?” She was a tiny figure with a large voice so promiscuous she had many abortions, and so callous that one of her mourning lovers, possibly Edmund Wilson, suggested they form an alumni association—one model I suppose for unrequited bereavement. All I suffered was the terror of a pregnancy scare. Bouts of promiscuity came later.

Inside, Millay craved love, a void that all her rock star fame did not fill—not even the Pulitzer prize for poetry she won in 1923, nor the devotion of Eugen Boissevain, the man she married when she was 30—late. I married at age 24—also late for the eager sixties. Eugen adored her, and served her through moods, illnesses, and many betrayals. In 1925 the couple moved to Austerlitz, New York and onto 300-acres of what had been a blueberry farm.  Millay named the place Steepletop, after a shrub known as steeplebush, which grew on the property.
Steepletop is surprisingly humble, the mountain view beckoning, the terrain rough and woodsy. Here is the house, the outside bar next to the swimming pool, and the tiny writing cabin where Millay wrote.

After WWI, literary styles changed radically and the brilliance of Millay’s sonnets, the only form structured enough to contain the electric vigor of her passions, was deemed old-fashioned in Europe. Although a pacifist, she turned to war poetry in support of Allied war efforts. By the 1930s she suffered injuries from falls, developed an alcohol and morphine addiction, and was quite probably manic-depressive. Eugen tried to help by drinking and drugging himself. I too had my bout with alcoholism, contracted in part from trying to curb my first husband’s drinking by joining him. Superb logic, no?  It didn’t work and I eventually divorced, remarried, and grabbed sobriety.  

Sadly for Millay, Eugen got off the drugs and she could not. When Eugen died of lung cancer, Millay, recovered from morphine but not alcohol, mourned alone, and wrote poetry. She drank 1.5 bottles of wine a day. I gave up Scotch, drink four glasses of wine a week, channeled my perversity into a religious vocation, and wrote.

In 1950 Edna St. Vincent Millay died, despite her vows to “control myself.” One night she went to bed leaving her half emptied bottle of wine behind. In the night she got up, fell down the stairs, and broke her neck. She was 58. The caretaker found her in the morning.

Tragedy requires a fatal flaw in one’s character. Millay’s might have been her charming emotional immaturity. It takes maturity to house the creative vicissitudes of genius while longing for eternality.

I feel sisterhood with Millay. Although I am not a tragic figure, and no genius, I derive great spiritual zest from writing and the boost of getting published. There was in Millay’s work and life an ache, a profound soul-stretching yearning for something beyond. I recognize that ache in myself. Tears came to my eyes when as part of the tour we were able to hear her own voice reading her poetry. It was deep, resonant, like a slow roll of thunder brewing within a storm of passion. Not sad but simply tragic.

I shall die, but
that is all that I shall do for Death.
I hear him leading his horse out of the stall;
I hear the clatter on the barn-floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba,
business in the Balkans, many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle
while he clinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself:
I will not give him a leg up.

Though he flick my shoulders with his whip,
I will not tell him which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where
the black boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death;
I am not on his pay-roll.

I will not tell him the whereabouts of my friends
nor of my enemies either.
Though he promise me much,
I will not map him the route to any man's door.
Am I a spy in the land of the living,
that I should deliver men to Death?
Brother, the password and the plans of our city
are safe with me; never through me Shall you be overcome.

    “Conscientious Objector” by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Sunday, October 14, 2018

An Elegant Soul in LIfe and Death: James Keegan, S.J.

The Rev. James Keegan, S. J. (1940-2018), a man of wit and wisdom who brought life to others through his ready grin, bold heart, and sharp mind—always ready to leap the bounds of traditional religious rigidities, died this week into the great mercies of God.
I say this, not because Jim complained or was fed up with life. Not at all. Jim gave life every ounce of everything he had for 78 years. He was born in Franklin New Hampshire, grew up attending Roman Catholic schools and Boston College where he majored in English. He taught high school English and theology in Portland Maine and then was assigned to Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There he met William Barry under whose tutelage he learned to pray, fell in love with Jesus in his own flesh and prayer, and was ordained a priest in 1971—a late vocation you could say. Still, his early experience formed him to be, to use an old-fashioned sort of word, well rounded: all life mattered. Jim Keegan's mantra was: seize life!

In his last years Jim struggled with the diminishments of Parkinson’s disease for many years. He had lost mobility, speech, and most recently, bore up under a case of shingles as a “bonus". Yet Jim retained a sharp sense of the divine voice and energy, so much so that he received visits from people who sought him out for spiritual guidance and direction until just a week before his death.

[NOTE: Despite what you might have heard anywhere from anyone, God doesn’t cause any of this. It just happens. Still, some people seem to have more suffering to bear than others—again, by nature’s design, not divine design, or desire. The sacred holy heart weeps with us who weep, and wept, for Jim.]

The Rev. Jim Weiss, Episcopal priest and Professor of Theology at Boston College, as well as one of Keegan’s directees, shared his own reflections: “The last time I saw Jim for direction I told him I had nothing much to say, that I’d been busy and hadn’t even prayed as I would like. Jim, whose head drooped low and whose speech was generally unintelligible, suddenly lifted his head, his eyes bright and focused, and said clearly: ‘That’s just what you think. There’s a lot more going on.’”

Weiss also revealed that two things about Jim Keegan had stayed predictable and constant right up to the end: his sweet tooth and his penchant for puns. He loved chocolate chip cookies [I can identify!] and wherever he was, in his long career as a Jesuit priest, spiritual guide, teacher and friend, his family sent him tins of cookies. When the cookies arrived his colleagues hung out and hovered, like children ready to pilfer from the cookie jar. Jim would tell them: “There’s a toll for the Toll House Cookies, you know.”

The sermon, delivered by Jim’s friend of many years, Richard W. Bollman, S.J. of Milton, Ohio, was quite splendid—faithful to the person and wealth of character of his buddy as well as to the gospel message of hope in the midst of inevitable aging and death. In John 21, the risen Christ grills Simon Peter about the fortitude of his love. Christ is remembered in John’s gospel as saying to Peter: “When you are old, you will stretch out your hands. Someone else will dress you. Someone else will lead you where you do not want to go.”

Will Peter carry out the vision of love and service in the best and worst of times?  Will we?

Bollman spoke about his visits to Keegan. The phrase he used about pushing his dear friend about in a wheelchair was: “It softened my competence.” Most of us can admit with honesty that when we are helping someone who is disabled, we secretly think about how good it is that we are just fine and able. I know that’s my first thought. Bollmann told us, however, that giving companionship to his suffering friend over time “fractured my poise.” He was plunged into his own vulnerability and rage at Parkinson’s. “Like Simon Peter in the gospel story, I was led somewhere I did not want to go,” he said.  

Jim Keegan’s poems are equal to his presence in the flesh. Words and feelings, raw and real, all move as one. One day in the midst of the dawning of awareness about his condition, he examined his own hands with dismay. As he did, he received a strong vision—newborn hands. It inspired him to write this poem, called “Hands.” The title of Keegan’s collection of poems is These Hands.

When did these hands become foreign to me?
Skewed like a lobster’s claws: about ten degrees
off at the wrist—and bony? Puffy blue rivers
of blood run north-northwest up their back side.

And when did these hands make enemies of
buttonholes, zippers, clasps, snaps, fasteners of
all sorts, screws, safety pins, paper clips or
any kind of knot? Did it happen in my sleep?

My sleep has been visited in recent weeks by a
newborn boy in a crowd. He looks at me and laughs,
stretches out to me ten perfect fingers and
holds my scarred flesh in his divine

Bollman had agreed to come and preach for one reason only: “Because he asked me.” Now here standing in front of the casket he asked his beloved friend: What do you want them to know?  The answer he received was: Tell them that it all belongs.

It all belongs.  Thank you Jim, and goodbye.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

2018.10.07 A Visit To The Farm: Sweet Memories Build Spiritual Resilience

Grabbing a short four days to head north to Ancramdale, New York sounds like a traditional leaf-peeping autumnal trip. It wasn’t.

First, there were no leaves of color on the green summer trees, even in upstate New York. There was torrential rain and bleak landscape covered mostly with fog. This should have dampened our spirits if that was what we’d hoped for. It didn’t.

We were looking for bright memories not bright colors—heading for Ancramdale to visit the farm where I’d spent summers as a child. Along the way I kept looking for Route 22, the one my parents had traveled from the big city Manhattan, leaving the minute school got out for the summer. I would get so excited as we drove up Route 22, I thought it would take forever. I felt the same way as Dick and I drove along, and I chattered to him about the Ancramdale chapter of my life. Route 22 finally appeared—still there. 

I’d regretted my parents’ decision to summer in Westhampton, L.I. when I was ten or so. I guess it was the upwardly mobile thing for a “Mad Man” and his young family to do back in the 1940s. But I missed the farm, my pony, the old swimming hole, my best friend Bella, and the big red barn with its hayloft from which we’d swing on a rope like monkeys. I loved being around animals I’d only seen in picture books: cows, horses, even grunty pigs. I did not miss the big fat beady-eyed rats or the fiercest loudest scariest mountain thunder storms, the likes of which I’d not known in the city. Even now as we snaked up 22, I conjured the dungy milky sneezy pungent hay smells of my barn.

Here is that dear old barn today, still standing but silent—no longer a working farm.
We found the things I remembered most and learned more about the Ancramdale backstory. My young parents weren’t dreaming of a rural getaway in February, 1942, but a business associate of Dad’s thought they’d love a free two-week vacation in the farmhouse he rented. I was three years old by then and my maternal grandmother would stay with me. My parents hopped on it. There was only one stipulation to this offer: that they not bother the Sommerhoff family, owners of the property who lived a short few blocks away at their place, The Sommer Hof, German for summer court or small enclosure. They kept their promise not to bother the Sommerhoffs, but the Sommerhoffs had made no such promise in reverse—and thank God for that.

The weather was unusually frigid, well below freezing and with strong winds. The little cottage had no heat and so many holes that the wind whistled through it. There was a fireplace around which my parents huddled and shivered. They moved their bedding to sleep there. My mother reported that her Coke froze solid. Probably Dad’s gin didn’t freeze.  The Sommerhoffs, Kurt and Ba, worried and debated. Compassion won out and they called my parents just to ask if they’d like to come for a hot meal and a hot shower. Salvation! Thus began a solid friendship of 26 years. 

My father wrote a poem about this amazing friendship—all printed out and framed. Though not signed, this poem and neat printing is Dad’s voice and heart. I’d know it anywhere.
The Visit That Lasted Twenty-six Years

In the middle of February
    in ‘Forty-two,
The winds were like sixty,
    the temperature two.
An unheated farmhouse
    was the scene
Of  Peggy and Don’s
    vacation dream.

In warmth and comfort
     a mile away,
The Sommerhoffs worried
    most of the day.
But after the sun set—
    wouldn’t you know?
The Temperature dropped
    to fifteen below.

The Sommerhoffs seriously
    pondered intrusion;
Their kindness prevailed
    as they reached a conclusion.
They offered a bath
    and a hot dinner, too;
The Gillespie’s accepted
    without much ado.

The bath and the dinner,
    the company were
So great that the G’s
    not a muscle would stir
To return to that Hell
    which is supposed to be hot
But in this very case
    it most surely was not.

The Gillespies they sponged
    for a solid two weeks,
While the Sommerhoff food
    they stuffed in their beaks.
There’s a very good chance that
    they might still be there
If their meager finances could
    have stood wear and tear.

The friendship that started
    with this chilly tale
Has grown to a strength
    that never can fail.
Here’s a toast to the memories
    this friendship has known;
The Gillespies won’t trade them
    for the most precious stone.

We Gillespies never stopped going to Ancramdale to visit the Sommerhoffs even when we no longer spent summers there. I remember my father’s cursing heartily at the chains we put on our car against the winter ice and snow. They would snap and break off as we snaked up 22.  He pulled over, jumped out, swore at my mother, and repaired the chain link. It was Ancramdale or bust. Even if I moaned  that I might throw up, he motored on. Mom supplied a bag in case.

Emilie Sommerhoff, daughter of Chris Sommerhoff and granddaughter of Kurt and Ba, and her husband, Job Yacubian, still live in the original Sommerhoff home, the one we called the big house, the house of hospitality. They were charming and we felt at home.
Ancramdale felt the same to me some 70 years later. Emilie gave me a tour of the house and lovely conversation. The amazing thing is that it is not very changed from my childhood memories, although it is not a mansion as I’d remembered. The small windows just under the roof are still there, the large playroom upstairs, and the rope bannister going down to the hearth room where we all spent much time by the fire singing and laughing and partying. The thick lambswool rug is gone now. That rug used to scare me. I was sure mice were nesting in its depths. Emilie grinned and said: “You were probably right.” I think she loves the humble place as much as I do.
Before we left I had to find the farmhouse where my parents had originally stayed and where we spent so many delightful summers. Chris Sommerhoff and my old friend Bella helped me with an address. Here it is, now all spiffed up, painted red and obviously expanded. But I see it still it as the little white farmhouse with the vast cornfield next door.
The vast cornfield where I used to run and play—hide from discovery—still stands. I’d run through its neat rows, completely hidden from view, and share all my secret wonderings with God and myself. Cornfields whisper back. Did you know that?

And sweet memories provide resilience and hope in days when anxiety lurks and slinks around the edges of both the personal and the national. I feel grateful Thank you Emilie for inviting us to come again.