Friday, February 26, 2010

The Four Mythic Fates of the Funeral Parlor

When a cousin died five years ago, I came back to my small home town's Polish funeral parlor for an afternoon wake. I sat unobtrusively in the back. A small group of women filed in front of me who are the salt of this town's earth. They were members of the Rosary Sodality.

They live lives of necessary and practical frugality. All were dressed in similar fashion -- sturdy snow-boots, slacks, puffy, quilted snow parkas and hand knit hats and scarves.

They are the family farm wives, with ruddy faces and chapped, calloused hands. They and their husbands have worked hard their entire lives, hoping to help their children to a better life. (The New England farm tends to be a small family business, not the large thousand-of-acres-farm of the American West and Midwest.)

My cousin had been a retired teacher of elementary school, and a member of this Rosary Sodality. Her fellow members and former childhood friends had come to pray for her one last time.

That's what it is like here. You can grow to your 80's and still have a childhood friend or two around. People stay here. Or like me, they move back.

But back to the women. These are good women, loyal, hard working and true. They are their family's backbones, the purveyors of the glue that kept their families together during tough times.

And, now that they are in their 60's, 70's and 80's, they know everyone's story. They know what everyone thought would happen to their lives, and what did happen.

I listened in on their conversation. There were four of the women sitting next to each other directly in front of me, close enough that I could hear their whispered comments. (I've changed their names, and some of the personal details.)

"Who is that, Betty?"

"Jeez Jenny, you know -- that's Helen's daughter -- the one who married that gambler who left her with all those kids!"

"Oh yeah....and the one next to her?"

"Sophie's grand-daughter -- the one who had that drug thing. I think she's OK now, but I don't want to ask Sophie. It's such a shame."

"Yes, a shame."

They were quiet for a while, and then another one of them spoke.

"Flo, that's the guy whose brother lost his job for stealing, right?"

The time-worn rosary beads slide through hands and I listened as visitor after visitor is defined by some pain-worthy event in their life. No one is just "Stella's son." He is "the one that can't seem to keep a job." No one is "Henry's ex wife". She is "the one Henry cheated on with that Italian waitress." Everyone has their little life drama that defines them.

Yet, there is no cruelty in these women's voices, no gloating. They are matter of fact, even-keeled. There is no tongue clicking, no sense that they are imagining that their own lives are somehow magically free from similar drama. I watch them and imagine them all wearing little badges that read "I Didn't Get My Dream, but You Probably Didn't Either".

I was quiet for a long time. These women were examples of their generation. They met a boy, married him, and hunkered down for whatever came next. They said "forever" and meant it, whether they liked what forever held or not, whether forever was kind or cruel to them, just or unjust. They knew how to stay put, so that is what they did. There is a stoicism in them that is at once inspiring and tragic.

The wake moved over to the church to become the funeral. From there, the burial. From there, we all drove to the after-burial gathering at a nice restaurant in town hosted by my cousin, who was in her 70's and not strong enough to cook for 40 people in her home. The farm wives might have gotten together and attempted it for their families.

As I looked around at the restaurant, I realized that everyone else there had a little invisible "Sorrow ID" -- that piece of disappointment or loss or tragedy that stuck to them like a second name.

Later, as I got back into my car in the parking lot, there was a tapping at my drivers' side window. A woman stood there there who was about my age. I rolled down my window, puzzled.

"Oh Mata, good. I'm glad I caught you. My name is Kitty."

"Uh...hi, Kitty. Can I help you?" I had no idea who she was.

She rested her hand upon my arm. "I just want to tell you," she said as she patted my arm, "that we are all so sorry for the way your father treated you. It is really shameful, and we all feel so bad for you."

I was stunned. I don't know what to say. The story about my father and events in the couple of years prior to this parking lot meeting is a story full of awful details -- details I thought were, well, not all that public. And here is a woman sincerely patting my arm who seems to know all about it.

I do not recall what it was that I said in response. It was something both appreciative and cordially dismissive -- something like "Thanks, but it's OK now." (It wasn't OK then. But I couldn't talk about it with Kitty, the stranger.)

"Well, we just wanted to tell you how really bad we feel. It wasn't right what happened......have a safe trip back to NJ!"

"Thanks," I said, trying to make a weak smile happen while wondering how she knew me, knew my story, knew that I lived in NJ.

It was then that I realized I had just been issued by very own "Sorrow ID". Even after I moved past feeling sad, or angry or disappointed by the rift between my father and me, even after he died and my feelings healed -- even then, my "Sorrow ID" would follow me in this town.

It had been publicly issued by a strange woman named Kitty that I have never seen again.

I moved back to this town two years ago, after having been gone for about 35 years. The magnet of small town New England life is a strong one. I have a handful of friends still here from high school, and several others who, as I did, moved back. I'm here with my little drama, my dreams gone awry, my sorrows and my joys, and everyone else is here with theirs.

The women in the funeral parlor are like the opposite of the Three Fates in mythology The mythic Fates supposedly controlled the events of human life. The Funeral Parlor Fates here remember the hardest of them. They chronicle the sorrows we all go through, remembering them for us, and kindly knocking on our windows saying they are sorry.

And, when we die, they gather together to say one last prayer for us to send us on our way.

Hatred - and ways to stop it -- start with a quiz

Hatred has become a part of the fabric of everyday life. From the web to Congress, from casual remarks over paper cups of coffee to snide remarks over cocktail glasses, hatred can be found lurking. Hate crimes in America continue to rise. But some people are working to stop it, and we can join them.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has just produced a publication called Ten Ways to Fight Hatred that can be printed from their site, or ordered in quantity. It speaks pragmatically of things that can be done in one's community. The Guide Introduction says, in part:

Whether you need a crash course to deal with an upcoming white-power rally, a primer on the media or a long-range plan to promote tolerance in your community, you will find practical advice, timely examples and helpful resources in this guide. The steps outlined here have been tested in scores of communities across the nation by a wide range of human rights, faith and civic organizations. Our experience shows that one person, acting from conscience and love, is able to neutralize bigotry. Imagine, then, what an entire community, working together, might do.

10 Ways to Fight Hatred

DIG DEEPER (Look inside yourself for prejudices and stereotypes.)

That is the area I'd like to discuss here, with you -- Digging Deeper. Take a deep breath and quietly as yourself the ten questions below (inspired by the SPLC). Hatred, prejudice, bias -- they are all like glue, and we may have rubbed up against some and gotten some on us, or inside our thoughts.

And, unwittingly, we may have passed these ideas on to our children. That compounds the tragedy. The roots of hatred, however thin or thick, need to be routed out. The stakes are too high not to do the work. The world we will pas to the next generations -- will they say that we helped heal the hatred?

Partners Against Hate has released some frightening statistics about hate crimes and youth:

33% of all known hate crime offenders are under 18
31% of all violent crime offenders and 46% of the property offenders are under 18.
29% of all hate crime offenders are 18-24.
30% of all victims of bias-motivated aggravated assaults and 34% of the victims of simple assault are under 18.

We live in a culture that serves up prejudice in insidious ways. We all need to muster up the courage to look inside to see, or we can never heal ourselves, or our world. Think through these and track them back - imagine how your answers to any of them may have affected the way you view others.

10 Questions that Dig Deeper

1. If you believe in God, and you suddenly imagine an image of a person to represent God, what color is he/she?
2. Have you ever passed along an email with "redneck jokes"?
3. Have you ever told a gay joke? a joke about illegal immigrants? a joke about a fat person? ethnic jokes?
4. How many people not of your race are in your personal address book?
5. When you think "terrorist" - what religion is that person?
6. Have you ever asked a friend or work colleague not to tell a sexist,racist, ethnic or homophobic joke in your presence?
7. How often are you in the minority - ethnically, racially, religious, income level, or by sexual preference?
8. When you learn about another group, where do you get your information - from members of that group or from a third party group that may bring their own limits with them?
9. Do you speak differently of members of another group if they are in the conversation with you, as opposed to when they are absent?
10. Have you ever clumped all members of a group together with a negative value statement? ("All Irish are...", "Muslims are...". "Those immigrants...")

Everyone is going to find something on that list to fix. Everyone has some time when they have not spoken up, or when they have spoken badly. But that was then. Now is now. Fixing the problems in our troubled world runs concurrently with fixing the problems inside ourselves.

The stakes are so very high. We are all part of the human family, unique, but connected. Our futures are each inexorably bound up with each other's well-being.



Teahing Tolernce.Org has a list of children's books that can be used to teach tolerance across all ages.

Partners Against Hate has a list of resources for communities, families and schools.

The Charter For Compassion focuses on compassion as a vehicle for social justice and change.

The Forgiveness Project is a global spiritual effort to heal hatred.



"I have fought too long and hard against discrimination
based on race and color, and I'm not about to stand by and not
fight against discrimination based on sexual orientation. I want to
create a national beloved community where we can enhance the dignity
of all humankind."

-- John Lewis, Congressman and Civil Rights pioneer

"Prejudices are what fools use for reason."

(simultaneously published at

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Lent - From Old School to New Version

Lent begins on Wednesday, February 17th. It has layers -- with something there for everyone, from the most traditional to the most innovative.

But it wasn't always that way.

My little town's high school in the late 1960's was uneasily divided between the kids and grandkids of the immigrants who were largely Catholic -- and the descendants of the old line Yankees, who were largely Protestant. Ash Wednesday would roll around and we would all feel as though we were wearing our "Catholic Badge" smudged in ashes on our foreheads. In a town with a fair amount of anti-immigrant prejudice, it was a badge we wore with pride.

We had something special.

In our world, one in which you were either Catholic or the lump-them-all-in-term, "non-Catholic", to have a special thing like the holy ashes felt like a big deal. It marked us as different but connected to God in some magical way that no one else had. They couldn't possibly understand because they were, as I said -- wait for it -- non-Catholic. The big plus was noticing which teachers had the tell-tale smudge on their foreheads. "Did you know Mr H was Catholic?" "No, did you? What nationality is he?"

Suffering was the key in our Lenten observations back then. I recall when I was five, the nun in my Catholic kindergarten, Sister Mary marched us all in to the church, and gathered us at the foot of the life sized statue of the crucified Christ. In turn she lifted each of us up to kiss the bloody feet of the statue. As she put us back down she whispered ominously to each of us, "See what your sins did to Jesus? Jesus died because of them, and every time you do something wrong, it is like driving another nail into sweet Jesus who only wants to love you."

Well, we were in tears. Even some of the tough kids cried. We didn't want to hurt Jesus. We surely didn't want to kill him. We were terrified. The nun looked on approvingly as we wept.

My parents pulled me out of Catholic school right after that.

Churches then were an integral part of community life, especially among immigrant and post-immigration families. They were an anchor back to a more familiar place, a remembrance, a way of preserving identity in the Massive Melting Pot that was America. And Lent was at the heart of it all. There we were, showing our wares, our specialness, to the world at large. It was like an expansion of every Friday, back before Vatican II when all Catholics had to stay away from meat on Fridays. We were the ones eating peanut butter sandwiches or tuna sandwiches, as opposed to the usual bologna or ham. "Oh, you're Catholic? Where d'you go to church?" was common lunchtime chat.

But back to Lent. It was a dreary time, one in which we had to choose something we really liked to give up. "It better be a serious thing," my mother would say,"or I'll make you give up Bandstand and Ed Sullivan." For kids it was usually some food item -- no chocolate or no ice cream or no candy. "Didju decide what to give up yet?" "Nah, didju?"

Many people still observe Lent in traditional ways, with sacrifice, fasting, prayer and charity. The newer trend, however, is to add something to one's devotional life, to do something good for ones self, or to give more to charity. The emphasis here is not to take on suffering as an act of gratitude, but to improve ones self as an offering to God.

I'll probably do a bit of both. I have selected some tasty foods that I will not eat. And I will be actively doing something (as yet undecided, it's between two) that will do me good every day.

Whether one is deeply religious, or casually spiritual, Lent still has value as a time for contemplation, re-dedication, and renewal. The months of February and March are cold, often gray. They open up to the promise of Easter in April, the arrival of Spring, the sigh of spiritual relief after the solemnity of winter.

It is the on-ramp to the slick highway of Spring. It is the chance to check one's spiritual map, to make sure one is on the right course. It is time for adjustments to be made, disciplines to be taken on.

Lent gives us a bordered time in which we can decide to pray more, to write daily, or to create a weekly gratitude list, or to do yoga faithfully. It is a time to give something to someone every day. There are just over 40 days to Lent. Taking on some new wonderful thing, some healthy practice, some new discipline that will make of us better people is not so impossible for just about 40 days.

Lift Lent into the light, and let it be an expression of thanks for abundant life, for spring-yet-to-come, for surviving the spiritual winters of our lives. Let it be full of the something(s) we do in response to all that has been done for us.

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

great joke

Frankie was shipwrecked and lived alone on a desert island for years until he was finally rescued.

Before leaving the island, he gave the rescue party a tour.

Frankie says, "I built myself a house. That's it there. Here's the barn, and over here is the church I worship in."

"What's that over building over there?" one of the rescuers asked.

Frankie sneered, "That's the church I used to belong to".

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Let the story reveal the secret

Like the songs we find ourselves humming at odd moments, the stories we invent can end up winding our own stories, our hidden tales, all around us. Our invented images reflects the wilderness in our hearts. In the stories we make up, we often end up telling a second tale as well, one hidden in the brambles of metaphor.

Sometimes a song or a story are just that -- but occasionally they are deeper and far more insight revealing.

My Dad used to tell me a bedtime story that he had made up. I have never told it to anyone else. This is -- honestly -- the first time I have told it.

It is a lovely afternoon. The sun is bright and buttery and the skies are dazzlingly blue. A little boy from the village decides to go walking into the woods. He enjoys climbing a few lofty trees, wading in a rippling stream, picking sweet, wild berries. He walks and he wanders, going further and further from home, following one shiny moment after another. There are chipmunks to chase, birds to whistle with, and a young deer to follow through the bracken.

Before he knows it, time has passed, and it is getting dark. He turns to head home, but wait -- where is home? He confidently sets out in one direction, only to realize that it is growing darker and nothing is familiar. He tries another direction, but it all is starting to be confusing, and it is getting very dark.

This is the deep part of the forest, the part where light is a stranger, and the darkness amplifies the night sounds. He hears a bat rush past his face, is startled by the sudden "Whooooo Whoooo" of an owl, and begins to tremble when he hears twigs crack nearby. It is getting cold.

He finds a big tree with room next to its exposed and ancient roots for him to huddle. He starts to cry, softly, so that no creature of the forest will hear. The tears pour down his frightened face.

Out of the darkness he hears a gentle voice. "Little boy, little boy. Don't cry, little boy."

He opened his tear-filled eyes to behold the most beautiful lady he had ever seen. She had long, flowing hair, kind eyes and big angel wings. There was a warm light shining around her like a glow, though she carried no lantern. She gathered him up in her arms, lifting him as though he was as light as paper, and carrying him as if he had been a leaf on the wind. She began crooning a soft tune to him. He began to fel warm, warm and safe.

Little boy, little lost boy
Do not fear. I am here.
Little lost boy, no need to cry
Your guardian angel will take you home.

The guardian angel took the boy home, and he never wandered too far away again.

It always felt a little deus ex machina to me. I was glad the angel had come along in the story, but I didn't really think she did "for real".

Over the years, I began to understand that this story was my father's own Big Metaphor. His soul was trying to tell him and trying to tell me that he had been a lost boy. My father had endured horrific abuse in his childhood. It made him a rough fellow indeed, although he strove to be better than his father. And he surely was. But there was a crack that ran through my father's spirit, a crack that never mended. And through that crack came some sad and angry things. Things only something as powerful as an angel could heal.

It makes sense to ask some questions about stories -- why didn't the boy's parents come get him? Why wasn't he with friends? Why was it not OK to cry?

The stories we tell can be a mirror. When I look at the stories I spontaneously made up for my godson, they featured the adventures of a turquoise and chartreuse female dinosaur named "Emily Brontosaurus" -- a writer's name from a writing godmother. A dinosaur godmother, one of whom it could be said "They do not make them like that anymore! She stood out in a crowd, and was conspicuous whether she wanted to be or not. She wasn't married, wandered around the jungle alone, but always found her way to some wonderful new place to explore and met people. She'd find a monkey to help learn to read, or a pterodactyl with which she could share a spot of tea. She was a cross between Mary Poppins and Auntie Mame. She was, now that I look back, me. But I didn't get lost in the jungle, like my father had gotten lost in the forest. I had adventures there.

But, like my father, we were both pretty much on our own to figure things out.

I wonder about these magical stories, and the archetypes they reveal. They are, as I mentioned earlier, like the songs we find ourelves humming or softly singing that turn out to be telling in some way.

I remember being excited about a date and humming Louis Armstrong's "Give Me A Kiss To Build A Dream On" -- or not looking forward to a visit with my then-in-laws and humming "Fly me to the moon." One nervous occasion had me thinly humming "Don't Worry Be Happy", and a reunion with old colleagues got me humming "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" (That is the real spelling)

Then there are the obvious lovely afterglow times that found me absent-mindedly humming "Natural Woman". A drive past an exes apartment and I was suddenly singing the lyrics to "'Round Midnight".."It begins to tell, round midnight, round midnight ...doing pretty well til after sundown. Suppertime I'm feeling sad - but it really gets bad, 'round midnight....."

Images have enormous power to get us to see the workings of our souls. Our spirits hold them out before us, like flags, waving in front of our conscious minds. Feeling restless? Tel a spontaneous story, or start humming the first thing that comes to mind. You'll find direction. Nervous and not sure why? Try humming. Your soul will speak up. Let the images that are lining up an forming wondrous tales and inventive stories free. Let your own wise soul teach you what you need to understand, and point you in the direction you need to consider.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Helen Hunt Teaches me about God

It takes me a while to see all the movies I want to see. So it is no shock that I just saw the 2008 Helen Hunt/Colin Firth/Bette Midler film, "And Then She Found Me." One line in the film haunts me, grabs me by the scruff of the spirit and will not let go. "Dive in and blog me," it says. "Figure out why, later."

So here is the line. Helen Hunt is about to undergo a medical procedure she both wants and fears. She is normally a prayerful Jew, praying over big events with her whole heart. Yet she does not pray before this procedure. She is confronted by Bette Midler - her birth mother with whom she has been recently reunited. Bette is unlike her daughter spiritually, but worries when Hunt does not pray. Finally Hunt spills out how scared she is, and prays the Shema- Hear Oh Israel, the Lord is One....

She looks at her mother and says, with amazed finality - "The Lord of Love and the Lord of Fear -- are One," and then has the medical procedure done.

That line won't leave me -- "The Lord of Love and the Lord of Fear -- are One". I am not proposing that Helen Hunt is a theologian, but some deep truth is in that phrase.
Let's assume that God is one -- that whatever notion you have about a higher power is a unity, a single energy.

Bear with me as I wander through what this might mean. Please chime in with comments later.

I think we too often think we can only spiritually stand before our Higher Power in Love, not in Fear -- that we somehow have to be perfect, or at least serene, calm, well-adjusted to be spiritual, or to ask God/The Universe for anything.

We don't lay down our messiest self before our Higher Power. What kind of crummy offering would that be? I'm not attractive when I am angry, or screwed up or confused by life. When I cry I get all snuffly and snotty. I blow my nose and sound like a trombone out of pitch. I'm a smart cookie -- how vulgar is it for me to be unresolved, despairing, with no sense of direction? I need to fix that before I can face my God, my Higher Power, even myself.

Oh wrong, wrong, wrong!

The Higher Power in my life doesn't give a rat's patootie about whether or not I am all tidied up for a visit. God, The Universe, The Greatest Good, The Universal Energy Source -- whatever you call him/her/it -- does not wait for me to have my spiritual hair done, my life ordered.

In fact, I can throw my mess out there at God, my Higher Power, and ask for help. I can ask to be given a break, some help, some wisdom. I can appeal to whatever knows more than I do in the Universe at Large to help this messy, flawed, broken creature that we all are.

It's odd, isn't it, that what we cannot ask of people, we cannot ask of God. It's hard for me to be messy in front of people. Emotionally messy. Yet my dearest friends have seen me that way and somehow manage to still love me. And, well, DUH, could it be that God is the same -- that despite my flaws and failings I am loved even in the midst of them?

I don't think that is a light thing to say. That I am loved by God even when I am frightened or freaked out -- well, it's today's miracle on my list of Events of the Day.

Should I have learned that in 1st grade? Probably. In fact, I did. But I forget. I have to learn this over and over. And so I chant -- I am loved, you are loved, he/she is loved, we are loved, they are loved.

Maybe you don't believe in the same kind of deity that I do -- s'ok, plug in the blank how you are most comfortable. "The Intentional Universe", "The Life Force", "The Higher Power", "The Earth Energy"....whatever allows you to know that there is something bigger than you out there. Now realize that because of that you are not alone - ever - in any condition. You are loved, regarded as special, precious, and seen as a pearl of infinite worth. Even though life threatens to break you down, or rough you up, or make you sad and confused, there is Love that you can turn to --even in the midst of fear.

Does that solve everything? Make the problem go away? Would that it did, but you and I both know that it doesn't. But it does give comfort, and it can fuel hope. Love is the lifeline. The Lord of Love and the Lord of Fear ARE One.
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