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Posts Tagged ‘humanity’

crocuses snow diptych

I flipped the kitchen calendar to April this weekend, as a mix of snow and sleet swirled down outside the windows. This wasn’t quite the April Fool’s blizzard of 20 years ago, but it was still a proper nor’easter: more like February than April. Both Nature’s clock and my internal one seem to be off this year.

It’s been a month since Ash Wednesday, a month that has swung wildly between sunny days that coaxed the crocuses to lift up their faces to the blue sky, and freezing, bitter winds accompanied by snow, sleet and rain. I suppose we were all fooled by the mild days in late February. (I know I was.)

Lent is typically a hard season for me: I do not naturally dwell in darkness, and Lent asks us to look steadily at our human frailties, the flaws inherent in our nature that trip us up again and again. We begin, on Ash Wednesday, with the words that say it all in one sentence: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

This year on Ash Wednesday, I sat with a handful of other Harvard folks in the boxy white pews of Memorial Church, listening to the prayers and readings, reciting the litany of confession. But I was thinking about two things, not (at first glance) related: a poem I’d heard that morning at the daily prayer service, and Lord Voldemort.

The poem, by Jan Richardson, is called “Blessing the Dust,” and Alanna read it aloud in her clear, ringing voice:

This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched.

This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.

At many churches, the dried palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday service are burned to make the ashes for Ash Wednesday. The ashes are what is left after a fire: the scorched remains of what was once fresh and green. They mark us, smeared onto our foreheads by the finger of a minister or a loved one, along with those words I can’t forget: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Earlier this winter, I reread the Harry Potter series, again. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve turned back to this story, diving joyfully into the world of Hogwarts and relishing Harry’s adventures with Ron and Hermione. I read them, this time around, with a friend who loves them as much as I do, which was the most fun I’ve had reading anything in a very long time.

On Ash Wednesday, my thoughts turned back to Voldemort, and how the insistent reminder of Lent – that we are dust – is the very thing he worked so hard, all his life, to deny.

Voldemort – when he was still Tom Riddle, young and friendless – always yearned to believe he was special, set apart, somehow above the rules and limits placed on other people. When he learned about his magical ability, he began searching for a way to make himself immortal, which led him down a dark and dangerous path. He always had a deep and unusual fear of death, and this obsession led him to experiment with Horcruxes: splitting his soul into multiple pieces, killing again and again, trying any means he could find to achieve a semblance of immortality. His followers – never friends – were called Death Eaters; his quest to find Harry, and kill him, was born out of the terror of his own mortality. Voldemort never believed Dumbledore’s assertion that the limits of our humanity can also be a gift.

Magic in the Harry Potter universe (which bears some resemblance to faith in our own world) provides no guarantee of immortality. Many witches and wizards live long lives, but some of them – like Dumbledore, Harry’s parents and eventually Harry himself – end up placing their lives at risk, even giving them up, to defend those they love.

The walk Harry takes into the Forbidden Forest near the end of Deathly Hallows echoes Jesus’ journey to Calvary: the action of a man, gifted but mortal after all, intent on giving up his life for the sake of others. Voldemort, by contrast, hid behind his own twisted experiments and machinations until the very end. He never would have understood the words of Richardson’s poem: he would not have believed in “the blessing / that lives within / the ancient ashes.”

We are two weeks away from Easter: from the day when we emerge, blinking, into the brightness of the Garden on a Sunday morning, into the joy that has been winking at us, calling to us from around the corner. I love the Holy Week narrative and I know we need it all: the deep, utterly despairing dive into darkness, the mournful songs of Maundy Thursday and the howling grief of Good Friday. I know we need the suspension of Holy Saturday: the world holds its breath, waiting to see if the promise will be fulfilled.

I am ready for the joy of Easter Sunday: the blaze of light, the birdsong, the proclamation of the sentence carved on James and Lily Potter’s grave: “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” But we are not quite there yet, and even when we get there, some of the old sorrow will still linger. The glory of Easter doesn’t negate the wounds of our humanity. It heals them, but it does not make them disappear.

So as I walk (carefully) down sidewalks still edged with melting snow, I am holding Richardson’s words close. I am thinking about our humanity, about the frail, soft, vulnerable parts of ourselves that Voldemort feared, but which give us (among other gifts) our ability to love. I am hopeful, as Richardson is, that I will see

what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
is made,
and the stars that blaze
in our bones,
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
we bear.

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atomic weight of love book sunflowers

I was humbled by the thought that our lives, however briefly, had touched. I thought about how lives bump up against each other, whether for moments of superficial conversation in line at the post office or a deeper enmeshment. […] How much meaning should I ascribe to knowing a stranger for the moments it took for me to donate to a V-book [war stamps] campaign? What were the evolutionary implications of kindness?

—Elizabeth J. Church, The Atomic Weight of Love

I came across these lines recently in Church’s stunning novel about the life of Meridian Wallace, an ornithologist who studies the behavior of crows. They reminded me powerfully of that Elizabeth Alexander poem, the one I have carried with me during a spring and summer fraught with personal changes and national tragedy:

Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,

and are we not of interest to each other?

Every time I turn on the news, there is more heartbreak to absorb and to bear: shootings by and of policemen, black families afraid for their lives in the U.S., refugees struggling to find a safe place to land, military unrest in Turkey and political turmoil in Britain. I have wept and I have ached, and I have wondered, What now?

I have failed, so far, to come up with any answers except this one: we must stop reacting to each other out of hatred, disinterest and fear.

I moved to Boston six summers ago from the plains of west central Texas, where I had lived nearly all my life. I’d heard that people in the Northeast were cold and unfriendly, and I was unsure how to carve out a place for myself in this bustling, unfamiliar city. It took me a long time to build a community here, to form real bonds with colleagues and friends. It took me even longer to start reaching out to others without fearing rebuff or dismissal. I cherish the friendships that have grown from that slow work: the brilliant women in my book club, the far-flung but genuine community at our church, my coworkers at various offices around Harvard.

When I read these lines about kindness, though, I thought about a different group of people: the ones whose lives bump up against mine in small but important daily ways.

The florist in Brattle Square, who always has a kind word for me when I go in to buy tulips or roses. The mail guy I used to work with, who would pause on his daily rounds to chat about Boston sports or the weather. My elderly Italian landlords, who live downstairs from us. The woman who makes the delicious tamales at the farmers’ market, tops them with freshly made salsa and calls me mi’ja. And the coffee-slinging, sandwich-making crew at Darwin’s, most of whose last names I don’t know, but whose smiling faces and cheerful banter are a regular and indispensable part of my workdays.

I am fascinated by the idea of all these lives constantly bumping up against each other, against my life, as I go about my daily routine. I am even more fascinated when I get a glimpse into one of their stories, when I break out of my self-focus long enough to truly connect with someone else. More and more, I am convinced this is the only way to begin healing the deep wounds of our common humanity: to listen, to look, to pay attention to one another.

It takes no work at all to encounter other human beings: we are surrounded by each other constantly, especially those of us who live and work in cities. But it sometimes takes work, and it always takes intention, for us to engage one another with kindness.

I’m not sure about the answer to Meridian’s question: I don’t know what the evolutionary implications of kindness would be. But they have to be better than the results of racism and hatred, fear and indifference, that are tearing our nation apart.

I know that smiling at a stranger will not solve the problems of the world: finding a better path forward will be the work of years. But kindness and attention must be where we begin. We must – I will keep saying it as long as I have to – we must be of interest to each other.

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candle flower

Amid the horror and heartbreak of the past week, I have been turning back to poetry, because I honestly don’t know what else to do. I quoted this poem in a post I wrote last month (after the tragedy in Orlando), but I share it here in full.

Ars Poetica #100: I Believe

Poetry, I tell my students,
is idiosyncratic. Poetry

is where we are ourselves
(though Sterling Brown said

“Every ‘I’ is a dramatic ‘I'”),
digging in the clam flats

for the shell that snaps,
emptying the proverbial pocketbook.

Poetry is what you find
in the dirt in the corner,

overhear on the bus, God
in the details, the only way

to get from here to there.
Poetry (and now my voice is rising)

is not all love, love, love,
and I’m sorry the dog died.

Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,

and are we not of interest to each other?

—Elizabeth Alexander

I also recommend Philip Larkin’s “The Mower,” Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Gate A-4,” and Adam Zagajewski’s “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.”

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peony candle

I read this line last month in Krista Tippett’s gorgeous, luminous book Becoming Wise. It is from a poem by Elizabeth Alexander, and I have not been able to stop thinking about it. In the wake of this weekend’s tragedy in Orlando, it has been with me like a heartbeat, thrumming quietly but insistently through my veins.

I talk a lot, lately, about my deep love for Darwin’s, the coffee shop down the street from my office. I am there so often – for chai or lunch or an afternoon snack – that I know at least half the staff by name. Several times a week, I stand in the lunchtime line that winds around the wine racks and past the ice cream freezer, and exchange smiles and hellos with the folks I know: Al, Kiersten, Ariel, Justin. If I’m lucky, my friend Gamal is working the register, and he always has a smile and a good word for me.

I have spent much of the past year not knowing quite where I belong: shunted between different offices, learning the ropes of two temp gigs while searching for the next right thing. I am both shy and introverted, and it’s hard sometimes for me to reach across and connect with new people, especially when I’m not sure I will be welcomed. (My first couple of years in Boston were hard and heartbreaking in that way, and it’s taken a long time for me to believe that people here want to know me, or be known by me.)

Especially during this year, I’ve been grateful for Darwin’s, and for other places of sanctuary and welcome in my life. The teams at both my temp gigs are full of smart, warmhearted people, and I’m lucky to have other folks to lean on: my husband, my family, a few treasured close friends.

And yet.

Relishing, and appreciating, the existing friendships in my life can’t be enough. Not when we wake up over and over to news reports of violence and tragedy, perpetuated by people full of hate and fear of those who are different from them. I can’t let my shyness – or my perceptions about any group of people – override my simple human responsibility: to be interested in others, and to treat them with dignity and compassion.

I am straight. I am white. I can’t imagine the discrimination experienced by some of my friends who don’t fit those descriptors. But I can – I must – be interested in them and their stories. Not as tokens or examples, but as people – complicated, messy, gloriously individual.

Alexander’s poem starts out being about poetry, as the narrator tells her students that poetry is “idiosyncratic.” But it quickly becomes about the human condition: “poetry is where we are ourselves,” she says. Her voice rises until it reaches the poem’s final crescendo:

Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,

and are we not of interest to each other?

Yes. We are of interest to each other. We must be, if we are going to stem the tide of hate and fear that seems to be spilling out all over the place. We must remain interested in – and delighted by, and full of compassion for – each other. We cannot afford to do otherwise.

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