Jun

26

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Entering Cronehood

Her eldcroneer son died in October of an aggressive cancer.  At 29 he was a strong, determined, old soul.  She just turned 60 and her loving husband requested a croning ceremony.  She declared that she is moving from child-bearing years into wisdom-sharing years, leaving behind her youthful personality that sought approval and safety and bringing her grounded soul-self.  May she grow in wisdom as she celebrates this third act of her life.  Her son walks with her in memory and dreams and in ways we cannot describe.

Apr

28

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Peace Be with You

We stood on the Allenby Bridge between Israel and Jordan.  Sweat trickled down our backs and we stole furtive glances of one another.  She was young and beautiful and wore a hijab and long skirt.  I was a tourist with camera and suitcase in hand.

Quietly I asked her if she spoke English and she nodded affirmatively.  We exchanged names and talked of families and children and of the indignities she faces crossing at this border point.  As we stood in the searing sun I understood.  Sometimes a crossing can take 5-6 hours.  She stays in Amman, her birthplace, during the week and goes home to Palestine and her family on the week-ends. I learned she is a Jordanian student of Palliative Care Nursing at a university in Amman.  She told me it is a new field for their country.

I told her of the Threshold Choir and of our mission of bringing compassion bedside.  She told me of her grandmother’s death.  I spoke of my mom’s.  Then I sang to her, intently and looking into her eyes.  “May peace be with you, peace be with you now, may peace be with you always…”  We cried together and the line began moving slowly as we touched hands in farewell.

May

9

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Miracle in a Hospice Room

Thursday mornings present as liminal space bridging ordinary and holy time. They share a ritualistic similarity beginning with a drive sweet as cinnamon rolls and heavy as dark coffee. Warming the voice with bubble lips through the scale, pretending to hold a quarter with my buttocks, breathing with my belly, I prepare.

We group together in the hospice parlor ready to leave behind us our personal cares and obsessions, putting them in a metaphorical bowl to be picked up and owned again when our work is done.

The first three rooms held no surprises. We asked permission to enter and sing; they acquiesced. For each patient, three or four songs in rich harmony later, we parted.

At room 4 we hesitated. He was obviously challenged. His right eye searched to the right and his left eye cut straight ahead with a blank stare. Boundless white were those eyes.  Not as white were his terrible teeth—fangs pointing every direction, like one of the monsters from Where the Wild Things Are. One arm was foreshortened, more like a flipper, and the sheets covered his unacknowledged torso and legs. He weighed maybe 70 pounds; I easily could have lifted him.

Shock still we stood, hesitating. I turned to check others’ faces. No one was sure. Buoyed by intuition I entered, asking permission to sing. Nothing came back—no sound, no blink, no expression. My inner knowing said, “Yes, this is right.” Motioning for the others to follow, we sat our stools round the bed and as in a lullaby began: “I am sending you light, to heal you, to hold you, I am sending you light, to hold you in love.” The words lapped round his deformed body, loving him in an embrace.I am sending you light

I half stood and leaned in, watching for any flicker to show us the way forward.

Then it happened.

He lifted his left hand, touched my right cheek, and said only one guttural word: “Mama”.

I managed to say yes, that his mama had sung to him and his mama loved him. I held his sizzling hand against my cheek.

Somehow I led several more songs. Bent double, falling out of the room behind the others, all the pent-up sorrow and joy and humility burst out as my breath escaped in a rush and tears flowed. He’d touched our hearts.

God had touched me.

Holy time, indeed.

Sep

14

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Memories of Prison

I just finished reading Orange is the New Black.  My memories of five years working in the women’s prison came flooding back as I read. I want to share a few thoughts.

If only we each had several lives to do all the work that needs to be done…. I taught parenting classes and we had evening classes and then a Friday lab from 1 – 6 where the inmate’s children came in. Planning activities for 25 women and their children ages 6 weeks to 16 for five hours was a huge job, but I loved it. I saw moms united with their children after many years of separation. I saw children thrilled to spend time with their moms and aunts. I watched women of color cluster safely within their own group, but others brave enough to move out toward others. I saw women practicing their communication skills and sometimes asking for help.

Several take-aways were:

  • Rich folks don’t go to prison. (for the most part) They hire attorneys.
  • All women love their children. Most were eager to be better moms.
  • Many came from incredibly deprived homes and hadn’t a clue how to parent.
  • Others knew more, but made mistakes not only parenting, but in life.
  • Some took the heat for the mistakes of the men in their lives.
  • Friendships flourished.
  • My classes were about 1/3 white, 1/3 African-American, and 1/3 Latina, not representative of the demographics in Arizona.
  • Some in my classes were bad-asses, but most weren’t. Some I wanted to take home. The ones who were surly or disruptive were also fearful underneath and sometimes mentally ill.
  • It’s true that child abusers are considered scum.
  • Drugs figured in most of the detentions.
  • Grandmothers hold up the world. (but sometimes were the source of the generational problems)
  • Mental health help is non-existent. One psychiatrist for 400 women.
  • Health care was uneven and precarious.
  • The women were petrified of re-entry into society.
  • A few highly educated white women were in my classes. Though I couldn’t ask, I usually learned that they were guilty of financial crimes.

When that door clangs behind you, even though you know YOU get to leave, your spirit nosedives. I left the first class and went to a pay phone across the street and called our daughter Sonia. I was crying. She asked what was wrong and I said I was crying because I could come home to her and I just left 25 women who couldn’t. She was a good listener even though she thought I was deranged. Later she and her brother Colby loved to tell anyone who called that they would take a message cause “their mom was in prison”.

A young woman named Amelia was one of the unforgettable students. She was obviously bright and had educated herself by reading voraciously. She told me about waking up in drug houses as a child, using the bathroom amidst needles and drug paraphernalia, never knowing where she’d be living next. Amelia created a needlepoint for me that says “You have touched so many lives.” I wasn’t supposed to accept any gifts, but she hid it in my bag of art materials and it’s hanging in my house. From her I learned that the most important thing I could do as an instructor was honor each woman by respecting and listening to her, by treating her as a valuable human being. It wasn’t the material, but rather the interaction, that was important.

Another young woman whose name I’ve forgotten told me of being in the backseat of a car while her mother was having sex in the front seat. The guy left to go steal cigarettes and shots were fired and she jumped out the window and ran and never saw her mother again. And WHY was she in prison?!

Once I made a mistake by asking them to tell me the stories they were told about their birth, expecting some feel-good answers. Some of the answers were horrid. “The day you were born was the worst day of my life.” “Everything turned worse after you came along.” “You’re just like your dad and he was a Loser!” I never made that mistake again.

One activity that worked well I used repeatedly. I created booklets for each of them and wrote on the front “I am grateful…” and asked them to keep a Gratitude Journal for two weeks. They were to write something for which they were grateful and then simply write “thank you”. It repeatedly was a success because when they HAD to write something, they were looking for it. I kept one, too, and we shared them.

We also sang a LOT! I had a set of affirmation ovals which we used and some of them we sang. We sang folk songs and camp songs and lullabies and their songs—and then we sang them with the children. It was a favorite activity.

Some of the guards were scary even to me. The rules changed all the time and I was clearly a target of their scorn. I finally decided that some of them were just a few lucky breaks ahead of their inmates. They came from the same socio-economic strata and they were jealous of the course I taught. I was often yelled at and demeaned. Once the women were in the large room of the lab, though, the guards rarely interrupted or interfered in any way.

I’m sure that some of the guards are compassionate and professional. They all work in a hierarchical system set up to de-humanize and demean. Some of their attitudes could be caused by the system, low pay, lack of respect, and fear.

All pregnant women were sent to my prison no matter the level of their crime. When the child was born, the mom was given 15 minutes to hold her baby, but then it was taken away. They didn’t want the baby to bond with the mom. And WHO does this help???? That baby is innocent and deserves every chance possible in this life.

Some prisons in New York have the mom and children living together in group homes. The moms go out to work while others under supervision care for the kids. The moms eat with their children and put them to bed, again with help and hints from instructors. This sounds ideal to me.

Some of the women did learn trades such as carpentry and being an electrician, and believed they might be employable after prison. For several years my boss had them work together to build a playhouse for a local charity auction and they were so excited about their projects. I understand that the funding for all of this was removed several years ago.

I’m no expert, but I’m sympathetic with these women, who had so few of the support systems present in my own life, beginning with a loving home. I wished I could do more for them. I still do.

Aug

14

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Sing, Sing, Sing!

Sing, Sing, Sing!

Weave the sunlight

Cradle the moon

Sing in the morning

At nighttime, at noon.

Fill spaces and places and faces and graces,

Sing loving paths and mystic reunion

Sing, Sing, Sing!

Aug

9

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A Good Day to Die

10600661_800445156661883_3371777788181263036_nAugust 7 was a good day to die.

Rowena Barham, my great aunt and like a sister to my mom, died at age 102 and counting.  A genteel Southern lady who taught first grade in Jackson, TN, Rowena lived at Alexandria Place.  The last year of her life, they extended her care over and beyond that expected of an assisted living residence.  She was at home in her room of familiar furnishings, decorated with photos of her wedding, travels, and family.  I am especially fond of this photo, which shows her in her bridal gown with her husband J.T.  I pulled this photo from the trash at her home to restore it to her.  Because of an unscrupulous financial advisor, Rowena’s home was being stripped.  By coincidence and some lucky sleuthing, my brother and I recovered the picture you see here.  It feels like vindication and a triumph of sorts.

Robert Hoard, married to my dearest friend Eileen, died on the same day, surrounded by family present in person and by Skype.  I had the great honor of sitting vigil with him the night before.  Bob was a character who loved to dance, play cards, and brag about the accomplishments of his four daughters.  Bob had a kind heart.  One always knew when he was in the room.

Godspeed to both of you.

“We are all just walking each other home.”

May

9

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Claiming the Term “Feminist”

IMG_4561This week I was privileged to honor the Sun City Chapter of NOW.  We read a poem by Alice Walker, danced to Sweet Honey and the Rock, sang with Holly Near, lit candles, and were showered with rose petals. I read a quote from Gloria Steinam.  When she was asked if she was ready to pass the torch, her reply was that she’d keep her torch, thank you very much, and use it to light the torches of others.  The women present, in the 70s, 80s and 90s, seemed appreciative of the recognition of their achievements.  Each had written a short paragraph about when she first knew she was a “feminist” and we read those randomly, guessing the author.  They knew one another well, and always guessed quickly.  I appreciate my friend Kathleen initiating this ceremony and wisely shaping it as it took place.  It seems fitting to post this as Mothers’ Day approaches, as the holiday was first of all a recognition of women’s contributions to society.

Mar

10

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Flagstaff Gathering

 

Sixty-five women gathered in the cavernous Little America meeting room where an impressive leader began singing.  Suddenly the chatter stopped and the focus narrowed.

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Sometimes I need only to stand wherever I am to be blessed.

Words from a Mary Oliver poem

Yes.  Yes, that’s true.  Sometimes all around me is but a distraction from focusing on the profound meaning of  THIS moment now.  Blessings flow all around me, wrapping me in a cocoon of safety and beauty.  It’s time to pay attention; to be held in the arms of the Divine; to sing with my soul.

At last year’s national gathering with a similar group, I woke up with this fully-formed song in my consciousness:

Love falls down like gentle rain, washing out regret and pain. 

The desert blooms again.

echo:  Pitter Patter, love is falling down.

At both venues we moved into church space to sing together.  The sacred was all around and within and without both before and after we moved. 

I am truly blessed wherever I stand.

Mar

3

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Holyland

Israel/Palestine is the center of three of the world’s religions.  With great expectation I packed to visit there.  Traveling with the Society of Biblical Studies promised a thoughtful and rich experience.

Two objectives stood out–placing the Bible’s stories in historical, cultural, political, economic, and religious context and hearing the voices of the Palestinians.  Both were met.

Did you know that a mis-translation led to the idea that Joseph and Mary could not find a place to stay in a middle-eastern Motel 6?  Rather, the guest quarters were full and they had to stay with the animals in a cavelike three-layered first century home.  Did you know that Jesus probably was conversant in several languages?  He spoke with Roman officials without the service of a translator.  Did you know that early archaeological excavations done in the late 1800s completely destroyed the areas they studied?  Did you know that one can visit a place where humans have dwelled for 19,000 years?  Did you know that some monastic monks were escaping from the temptations and abominations they projected on women?

Israel trip 671We visited a sustainable farm owned by a Palestinian family.  Although illegal Jewish settlements as modern as your town surround them, these folks have access to neither electricity nor water.  They are denied building permits.   A steel gate went up two weeks before we arrived blocking their most accessible road.  Their claim to the land has been in court for 16 years and they claim that as a victory.

A beautiful young Palestinean woman in line with me at a busy, unorganized, time-squandering checkpoint told me of her study of palliative medicine in Amman and the interminable lines that make going there more than a hassle.  She told me about working in a hospital with sub-standard equipment and introducing the idea of hospice care to those on life’s threshold.  I shared my volunteer work here and before we knew it we also shared tears and a final kiss.  She inspired and re-energized me.  Upon parting she declared that “No matter what, we, the Palestinian people, will prevail.”

I believe her.

Additionally, may peace prevail.

Another world is not only possible; she is on her way.  I can hear her breathing. 

–lyrics by Arundhati Roy and music by Kate Munger, Threshold Choir founder

Feb

6

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Winter

Across the country winter has been exceeding brutal this year.  Not so for us in Arizona.MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Sunshine and an early spring are welcome.  Yet an uneasyness prevails.  Climate change is not just a theory;  it is.  We stick our heads in the sand, or the ice and snow, at the peril of our grandchildren and their grandchildren.

Sometime this year we plan to buy a new or used car and mpg-status tops our requirements.  It’s only a very small contribution to a solution, but it is something we can do.  It’s probably more symbolic than substantive, but it is something we can do.   Bigger steps might make more of an impact, but it is something we can do.

What can you do?