Walking the Streets

Campania,Casecta, Capua, Image274getty

 

I walked through the Tenderloin in San Francisco this week from 10:00 PM until midnight. I saw several drug deals. A variety of sex workers were on the streets. A scuffle erupted beside me. Something to do with an unpaid debt.  Yet I felt completely safe. I was in the company of Lyell, a night minister. I felt like I was walking with a beloved saint.

 

Lyell walks the streets of San Francisco from 10PM until 4AM wearing his clerical collar. He’s been doing this for ten years. He does not proselytize. He does not judge. He does not give away money. He walks, offering only a listening ear and an open heart. If asked, he’ll pray with someone. Mostly he smiles, nods, and banters. Often he gets into a lengthy encounter when someone pours out their troubles.

 

Seven of us from my church were in San Francisco for a week of service projects. We helped serve breakfast and cook lunch at Glide Memorial; we toured a teen homeless shelter and served a spaghetti dinner in Berkeley; we packed boxes at the Food Bank; we priced, sorted, and cleaned furniture at Habitat for Humanity’s Re-Store.  And we walked the streets with two night ministers: Lyell and Megan.  Lyell strolled through the Tenderloin; Megan walked through the Castro.

 

San Francisco Night Ministry was founded in 1964 as an ecumenical response to the tsunami of homeless teens who’d made their way to San Francisco seeking sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll but ended up destitute on the streets. For fifty years, without missing a single night, at least one minister has strolled the streets of San Francisco, offering a compassionate presence during the darkest hours.

 

Lyell started our night’s walk by teaching us the Night Ministry saunter. “We’re not in a hurry. We’re not going anywhere. We’re just walking. Keep your head up. Look people in the eye.  Nod or smile. Many of these people aren’t used to being smiled at.”

 

It was clear that Lyell loved this neighborhood. Loved these neighbors. And the feeling was mutual. We were greeted on every block. “Hi Pastor.” “Hi Father.”  We stopped to talk with three men outside the Iriquois Hotel. Lyell got into deep conversation with an agitated man while we chatted with a man in a wheelchair and another who told us about his mother in Memphis. After about 20 minutes, we said goodbye. Lyell handed the agitated man a pen with the Crisis Line phone number and told him he’d swing back by later.

 

Lyell pointed out beautiful architectural details and historic plaques as we ambled down O’Farrell and around the Civic Center. It was a very quiet night Lyell told us as we ended our stroll around 12:30. We headed to our beds. Lyell headed back out into the streets.


 

 

Image above is Campania, Image 274, courtesy of the Getty Museum.

Posted by admin in Inspiration, religion, 1 comment

In A Philosophical Moment

R-20091211-0001.tifWalking out of the Mercy Center labyrinth this morning, I saw a squirrel furling and unfurling its tail, making a series of question marks that dissolved and re-formed.

Egg cure oil, I thought. Ecureil. That’s French for squirrel.

I’d engraved the word on my brain the day I arrived in Montreal, a provincial girl from Massachusetts. I’d anxiously fled the dorm, walked up the slopes of Mount Royal, encountered a golden-tailed squirrel and begun the laborious work of learning a new language.

Today I wonder what connects that coltish girl to the fifty-eight year old woman sitting in a blue chair beside the labyrinth?

It’s tempting, but too easy, to use the metaphor right in front of me. The labyrinthine path of life connects the girl of eighteen to the woman of fifty-eight. Yuk.

In my more philosophical moments I’ve thought—I am a metaphor.

This physical being sitting in a blue folding chair and sipping coffee is a metaphor. I stand for something else. I am a form that makes the invisible visible.

Not a stand-in or a stunt double. Not a placeholder for someone else.

I am a concretization, an embodiment, of essence. Spirit, if you will.

That’s what connects the vibrant young woman quivering with fear and joy to this tranquil woman scribbling in a notebook. Still trying to learn the language of being human. Of being at home in this beautiful, paradoxical world.

 

Hoffman, Red Squirrel, courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Open Access program

 


 

Posted by admin in spirituality, 0 comments

The Negativity Bias

 

Still Life With Jar, Cup, and Apples, Cezanne, www.metmuseum.org

 

Good news. Things really aren’t as bad as we think they are.

I’ve been learning about neuro-plasticity lately—the study of how brains change.  Not just over millennia but in weeks, months or years depending on the stimulation given.

Apparently our brains have a built-in bias towards the negative. They’re like velcro for negative impressions but teflon for positive ones, according to Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness. The good just slides right on by, in and out of consciousness, while the negative sticks.

The negativity bias makes sense given that our ancestors needed to figure out where saber tooth tigers lurked, remember their telltale traces and communicate that information to the family. Our brains have dedicated significantly more storage space, neural wiring, and chemical transmitters for avoiding tigers than for appreciating butterflies.

Finally I understand why negative political ads are ubiquitous. Why headlines scream horrors. If it bleeds, it leads. And why parking lot conversations are so often downers.

I’m not advocating a Pollyannaish attitude to life. Just think positive! No.

Horror, suffering, and tragedy are real. But so are beauty, joy and love. Even though our brains would tell us otherwise.

 

I volunteer weekly with women in a court-mandated residential drug treatment program. They’re in very difficult situations, with many negative aspects to their lives. We’re going to spend the summer noticing the positive.

Yesterday I took them outdoors.  They called out everything positive they noticed: sunshine, breezes, how good it felt to get outside, the smell of mown grass, stretching, breathing, laughing.

Once they started talking, the words poured out. I was astonished at how much they noticed. How much they savored. And how much lighter they seemed afterwards.

Back in the musty house we acknowledged that the challenges have not gone away—their court dates remain on the calendar, Child Protective Services still control their children’s lives, jail is still a possibility—but they marveled at how much stronger  and calmer they felt.  As if the dark realities were storm clouds in a larger sky.

Do this daily, many times a day, I urged them, as I handed out logs to record small moments of goodness. In thirty seconds you can notice, savor and store a positive experience. Do it! When bad experiences come along, your brains will have pathways towards hope, antidotes to despair.

Still Life With Jar, Cup and Apples, Cezanne, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art


 

 

 

Posted by admin in Inspiration, 2 comments

Ceremony

The Pont Neuf, Eugene Atget, 1923, Getty Museum

 

Yesterday I flew back from my nephew’s wedding. It was a beautiful wedding, celebrated in the same little stone church where I’d been married 36 years earlier. And the reception was very festive, with the dance floor crowded all night.

 

I’ve been thinking about ceremony, how important it is, and how hard it is to do well.  Last week, before flying to the wedding, I’d attended a funeral. It was a particularly sad funeral, for a young man who’d drowned while on a solo sailing voyage.

 

His parents are our friends. My husband was the first to hear the news after the Coast Guard called, and we waited it out with them during the terrible hours and days of the search, until finally his body was recovered.

 

What can anyone do during such tragedy? The answer is not much. Nothing to change the outcome or affect the flow of events.

 

Yet, the little we can do is of great worth. We can listen. We can cry. We can just sit with. We can walk the dog, order pizza, make sure cell phones get charged, do some laundry. We can pray. If you ever doubt whether you could make a difference to someone in crisis, ask yourself what their experience would be like if they were alone or if you were not there. The answer is immediately clear.

 

Our friends asked for help to create some kind of meaningful ceremony to honor his death. They are not a religious family, although Andy was very spiritual, a quality his mother shares. But they don’t have a faith practice or a community to help structure a funeral or memorial service. There was just a huge hole. A gaping void.

 

It was at this throbbing edge of emptiness that they found some solace in a ceremony that

1. honored the sea that Andy had loved

2. included powerful music, poetry and appeals to a greater source of meaning

3. invited people to share stories and memories of Andy, and

4. provided abundant, delicious food (Andy loved good food) and drink.

 

Aboard a boat, as the family scattered ashes, they felt they were releasing his physical remains to the greater currents. Back at the house, with almost 100 people gathered, they felt his spirit was still present in his impact on others and the memories shared. And the ceremony became an uplifting celebration, buoyed by love, kindness, laughter and connection. The memory of that day will be a light in dark times ahead.

 

I’m starting to think that ceremony—whether joyful or sorrowful—rests primarily on community, a community that is intentionally gathered for a shared purpose. We become one for a time.  We come together hoping that the old truism holds.  A joy shared is doubled.  A sorrow shared is halved.


 

Posted by admin in community, spirituality, story, 2 comments

Old Dog

dad and college roomates2

We were at a party the other night. One of the guests had brought her dog: an aging pug/beagle mix who grinned, swaggered, and jumped surreptitiously onto the counter, leaving only a trail of crumbs where the shortbread had been. “He’s channeling my father,” I said, and our hostess, who’d known Dad well, broke out in gales of laughter.

My father was a handsome man and charming, but he was also a rascal and a food thief, particularly in his last years, when sweets were hazardous to his health.  He took great delight in sneaking forbidden foods, the outcry as pleasurable to him as the treat itself.

Perhaps because Father’s Day is approaching, I’ve been thinking of him a lot. I put a white quartz crystal (picked up by my mother on a walk) next to the little metal urn of his ashes.  He passed away about 5 years ago, and my felt connection to him is stronger than ever. He does, however, irritate me less. That fortunate alpenglow of memory.

It was a great advantage to have a father who

a) was unconcerned about material possessions

b) was always up for a game

c) was skeptical of inherited orthodoxy and authority

d) had passions, including the practice of law, the Boston Red Sox and his family.

He was the hero of my childhood. One of my earliest memories is being carried aloft on his shoulders, then swung down beside the kitchen table, where he’d played poker the night before. “You can keep the chump change,” he said, and I scrambled to pick up the silvery coins the men had tossed away.

He won my mother in a poker game, the story goes. He was a returning soldier, going to Boston College on the GI bill. He and his buddies were playing poker in the dorm, a forbidden activity. When the dorm monitor, a Jesuit priest, caught them, he gave them a choice: Get written up or take 4 nice Catholic girls from Regis to a dance.  

When taking the street car over to Regis, the 4 guys agreed that to avoid awkwardness when picking up the girls (obviously losers or they would have gotten their own dates) they would simply line up by height. My father was the shortest of the group, so he ended up with the shortest girl. And also the prettiest.  My mother. Sometimes he said she was his prize and sometimes he said she was his penance.  But she was the heart of the game he played all his life.


 

In the photo above, Dad is the guy with the grin and the cigarette.

Posted by admin in family, 7 comments

Taste of Hope

R-20100106-0003.jpg  Hope

I certainly received it—a taste of hope—at The Ruin last weekend. The Ruin is a wondrously made outdoor environment built by Gabe and Sarah Acrich at their home in the Sierra foothills. Envision a very large living room, made of rock walls, minus the ceiling and fourth wall, so the space is open to the sky and fields. Now imagine that the walls slope downward, lined with tall glass votive holders, and pierced with niches, so the perimeter is dotted with candle light. Within this powerfully moving space, Sarah staged a play set in a Nazi concentration camp: Taste of Hope: A Play in Three Courses.

Hope and concentration camps might seem mutually exclusive. But the profound territory that this play explores is how hope was kept alive in a hopeless situation.

The Acrich’s have a personal connection to the Holocaust; Gabe’s grandfather survived Mauthjausen. When Sarah read In Memory’s Kitchen, A Legacy From the Women of Terezin, a nonfiction book based on recipes secretly collected in a Czech concentration camp, she was immediately inspired to work with that material, family material, and other Holocaust stories to create a play affirming the faith, strength, love, and courage of the women in the camps.

Sarah is a woman of extraordinary vision, creativity and energy. Not only did she write the play, create The Ruin, recruit talented actors and musicians (drawn from friends, students and family), she also cooked latkes, matzo ball soup, carmels and honey cake—recipes which the women discussed fervently in the camp. After each act, the audience was served a hearty taste of these dishes, which were now soaked in meaning, significance and wonder.

I was seated next to a Jewish woman. Her husband did not attend; Holocaust events are too raw for him. She, however, was delighted with the play, and during each course shared with me how she had learned to cook that dish, family variations in recipes, and memories of the holidays. I was thus privileged to experience the continuity that the women in the camp desperately longed for and dedicated themselves to insuring.  

The play worked with the theme of continuity by having three areas always present on stage: a modern kitchen, with a contemporary mother and daughter cooking and occasionally  talking; a kitchen from the pre-war era with a grandmother instructing a granddaughter; and the main focus of the bunks, where four starving women prisoners engaged in intimate dialogue.  I would have found the concentration camp conversations almost too excruciating to bear, if not for the silent testimony of the past kitchen anchored in tradition and the modern kitchen witnessing  to ongoing life.  In this way, the play’s structure beautifully gave us a paradigm of time’s effect on suffering, evil, and healing.

In a further amplification of the themes of food, community, and hope, each performance was a fundraiser. There was no admission fee; all donations received went to hunger-relief organizations.  The performance I attended was an Empty Bowl Project in support of the Gathering Inn, a private nonprofit serving the county’s homeless. 

After the play, audience members lingered in the ruin, licking honey cake and carmels from our fingers. A slender moon hung overhead.  “Puts things in perspective,” someone said. “Made me think about hope,” another affirmed. And then there was mostly the crunch of gravel as we made our way down the driveway, our flashlights flickering in the dark.

The sketch above is Giacomo Cavedone’s Clasped Hands, 1612, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

The photograph was taken during a performance.


 

Posted by admin in arts, community, Inspiration, religion, 5 comments

Six Photos for Six Days

Since I can’t find the words to describe our experience (only partially due to jet lag), this post consists of six photos, one for each day of the safari in Kwa Zulu Natal.

Sunrise on first morning game drive at Zulu Nyala IMG_8745 IMG_9175  IMG_9558 At the Elephant EncounterIMG_9188


 

Posted by admin in travel, 3 comments

An Elephant Pilgrimage

Mom Elephant

 

We are in Africa so my mother can see elephants. She has a special reason for loving elephants. One saved her life when she was caught in the Hartford Circus Fire at the age of 10. She and four other girls were there for a birthday party. When the circus tent caught fire, amidst the flames and smoke and chaos, Mom saw an elephant stoically holding up the burning stairs. She and her friend ran down the stairs and escaped. The other girls, who were seated separately, did not make it out.

 

Mom has only told this story to me a few times.  I was shocked to stumble upon an independent account of the fire when I read Modoc, The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived, by Ralph Heffer, which describes Modoc’s life-saving efforts.

 

At any rate, we’ve come to HHuluwe so Mom can see elephants in the wild. She is 84. We are here, 6 women from the family, our own kind of herd.   We are on a pilgrimage.

 

With some hesitation, I privately told our guide, Rian, the background story behind our trip. He proceeded to look for elephants for us. Yesterday, just after sunrise, he spotted three massive grayish lumps on the hillside opposite. Even with binoculars, I could not detect they were living creatures; they continued to look like boulders. Rian, however, knew exactly what they were, what they were doing, and where they would go next.

 

He maneuvered the Land Cruiser through the brush for about 20 minutes, stopping in a stand of acacia trees. In a few minutes, three elephants lumbered in front of us. They were 3 ladies, Rian told us, two sisters and one three-year old calf. They paid no attention to us, but proceeded to demolish an entire acacia tree, placidly reaching up with their coiling trunks, delicately stripping off leaves, yanking down branches, and finally uprooting the whole tree, and stuffing its roots in their mouths.  We watched in awed silence as these massive creatures went about their business, oblivious to us, though we were only 10 feet away.

 

My attention was torn between the elephants and my mother, who was seated in front next to Rian. She looked like a child again, gazing in wonder. A half hour later, the elephants lumbered off into the bush. When they were out of sight, just as Rian started up the engine, I heard Mom tell him, “I was in a circus fire once…”


 

Posted by admin in family, travel, 4 comments

Into the Blue

The Equatorial Jungle, Rousseau, National Gallery

A sweet old nun recently told me this story.  She’d had a grand time in Ireland, visiting family and many sacred sites, including St Brigid’s Well in Kildare, from which she drew some holy water.

On her return to the States, she was carrying the holy water in a plastic bottle, along with a fifth of good whiskey, a gift for the friend who was to pick her up at the airport at an ungodly hour.

Arriving at the head of the security line, she was shocked when the TSA agent told her she couldn’t bring the liquids with her.  She slowly uncorked the holy water, tipped it to her mouth, and guzzled it down;  then she picked up the whiskey and presented it to the TSA agent. “Call your friends and have a party,” she sniffed, and sailed up to the scanning machine.

I tell you this story because I’m about to set off on an adventure myself, hopefully a little better informed than Sr. Margaret.  I’m heading into the blue, as the South Africans say, going on safari with my mother, two sisters, sister-in-law, and one of my daughters.  

Since childhood, my mother has dreamed of seeing elephants in the wild, and when my sister Patricia saw a safari being auctioned at a charity event, she couldn’t resist. She won the bid, then called me. “You know I can’t take Mom to Africa by myself.” Indeed, I knew she couldn’t.

As it turns out, the lodge agreed to sell additional slots to family members at a very reasonable price, so there will be three generations of Schlichte women on safari.  I’m bringing my laptop and hope to blog along the way, technology permitting,  so stay tuned.

The image above is Henri Rousseau’s The Equatorial Jungle, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.


 

Posted by admin in family, travel, 2 comments

America Sings

dancingrousseaupaintingsldr.jpgAmerica Sings was the title of a concert presented by the Colla Voce Chamber Singers last weekend. It was an ambitious undertaking—to give voice to an entire country in 90 minutes.  I was astonished by the depth, beauty, and diversity of the program.

A Viet Nam veteran’s foxhole prayer, Borrowed Time, was the centerpiece. Before the concert began, the director asked veterans to stand. Around 25 men and one woman rose. The audience of 300 broke into spontaneous applause. The soldier-poet, Brennan Toohey, was introduced, as well as the composer, William Brusick, who’d flown in from Texas.

I felt like a wet dishrag by the time the piece was over. The intense, honest, direct  words of the soldier combined with the haunting modern composition was devastating—in the best way.  And my catharsis was shared. Everyone in the row had tears sliding down their cheeks.  

We’d been asked to hold our applause, and there was total silence as the choir segued into an introspective Alleluia, while audience members who’d lost loved ones lit candles.  Randall Thompson’s Alleluia, composed during World War 2, served as benediction and release.

Although the emotional gravitas of the concert centered on sacrifice and death, the concert as a whole provided a huge range of moods and experiences.  It opened with clear and beautiful Native American flute music, romped through Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and included jazz standards that the audience was invited to dance to.

Perhaps the thing I admired most about the concert was its commitment to audience participation. At every Colla Voce concert there’s a brief audience sing along, but for America Sings, we belted out the first stanzas of Down in the Valley, Home on the Range, I’ve Been Working on the Railroad, and Oh! Susanna. The rafters in the room rocked with song.  The candles around the room blazed with light. Couples danced happily to As Time Goes By.

Janine Dexter, Colla Voce’s founder and artistic director (and, truth be told, my friend) is passionately dedicated to music as an agent of personal transformation.  Colla Voce’s tagline is “creating opportunities for engagement in the arts—for all ages.” In addition to the chamber singers, Colla Voce has a children’s chorus, family choir, a singing program for adults with neurological impairments, and music docent programs in elementary schools.  Very shortly they’re adding a senior choir, a choir for developmentally disabled adults, and jazz singing for young adults.

Colla Voce, and Janine, are making a difference in many lives.  And they’re having fun while they’re at it.


 

 The image above is A Centennial of Independence, Henri Rousseau, courtesy of the Getty Museum’s Open Content program.

Posted by admin in arts, 2 comments