This is What You Shall Do

“This is what you shall do,” wrote Walt Whitman in the preface to the second edition of Leaves of Grass,the collection of verse that shook the literary establishment clear down to its knickers.

I keep the whole passage in a frame on my desk and have read it so many times that it has entered me by now. I hear his voice in so many places I visit.

I certainly heard it at sunset the other day when I drove to the stretch of city shoreline known as Revere Beach.

Let me set down the whole of what Whitman says and you will maybe see why he sang to me here. He tells us,

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals; despise riches; give alms to everyone that asks; stand up for the stupid and the crazy; argue not concerning God; have patience and indulgence toward the people; go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and the Mothers of families; dismiss whatever insults your own soul and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency, not  only in words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the  lashes of your eyes and in every last joint and motion of your body…

Whenever I need to feel better I reread this and then I go out to where the people are. ‘Stand up for the stupid and the crazy,’ he says and I know that one day I will very likely be what the world calls stupid. As for crazy, my sister thinks I’m that already .

It’s fine if I am. It doesn’t matter. I went to this beach and was smiled at by every single person I gave a smile to.

We were all just there together. We walked or sat or stood, right where we should be: where God first put us and where He can find us again, here in His light, in His glorious late day-light.

Be Glad of it All

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Here’s why I’M thankful on this last day of the long giving-thanks weekend:

1. I don’t have to peel anymore slimy flesh off a turkey. The soup’s all made and I’m done sifting through gunk to find the tiny bones.

2. I’ve decided I’m not going to even TRY doing the dreaded Holiday Card until January since I have new book just published and it’ll be all I can do to get the word out about that.

3. The book is an audio book so I didn’t have to annoy the socks off my whole family by asking them to read it for errors. I just closed myself up in a back bedroom with some fancy sound equipment last summer and let fly – and amazingly enough it doesn’t seem to embarrass me to listen to it because my old pal Roger Baker out in Albuquerque not only took out all the swallows and lisps and hiccups but also added original music between the ‘cuts’ so it’s all pretty and nice.

4. I can actually SORT OF of swing a golf club even though my spine is twisting up like a contortionist with this secret scoliosis I didn’t even know I had, never mind a neck with so much joint-degeneration in it the guy doing the X-rays in at Mass General in October said, “Wo! Whadja, fall out of a tree or something?” I’m taking these lessons and my head hasn’t fallen: amazing.

5. I’m not sure but I THINK I’m getting to be less of a workaholic. The whole neck problem comes from being such a wonk all my life, actually hand-writing term papers in fancy Old English script in high school, taking notes on my notes all through college, bringing entire pieces of furniture on ski vacations to strip and refinish them. (Picture it ! Whole SETS of chairs! Entire bureaus!) Last night before supper I was able to spend a whole hour locked in a locked closet with my four-year-old grandson without once feeling like Patty Hearst or panicking about all the emails I wasn’t answering. A little later I asked him if he wanted to hear the world’s greatest tenors and put on a CD which I had thought was Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo but which turned out to be the soundtrack to the Kenneth Branagh movie of Hamlet. “Where’s all the singing?” I said after we’d listened for a good two minutes. “Shhhh! TT” whispered my little friend, putting his finger to his lips. “This is just the part where the curtain is going up!” I liked that. I really liked that, because it reminded me to feel thankful AND glad AND lucky that…

6.Yet again this morning whatever shape we find ourselves in, that big old curtain went up for us all.

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Serene as a Swan, Robbers or No Robbers

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Dateline Phoenix: We flew in last night and drove straight from the airport to the house that had been offered to us for the weekend – only to find it standing open, the kitchen window smashed and shards of glass everywhere, computer gone, printer gone, DVD players gone, and we didn’t know what-all else. Plus every drawer and cabinet had been yanked open. and darkness was comin’ on fast.

“I can’t stay here tonight!” I told old Dave.

“It’ll be fine” he told me back, which is what he says even when bits of your busted appendix start coming out your nose.

“Take me out to eat?” I squeaked, which seemed like a good plan to us both since we’d just come off a six-hour plan flight with no food on it. And when we came back a Parking Control truckidled by the house next door. We thought, Why not? so rolled on up and told our story to the cop inside it.

“DO NOT RE-ENTER THE HOUSE, HARM COULD COME TO YOU, REMAIN IN INSIDE YOUR VEHICLE!” she ordered us and quick as a wink called it in on her radio. And in about 20 minutes here came one Officer Kleck, crime-scene kit in hand.

“This must’ve been recent,” said Officer Kleck, standing between the smashed kitchen window and the open sliding door. “We’ve had some big winds lately and things would be really tossed around here otherwise.”

He let me walk with him him as he went around the house gathering evidence.

“Don’t you think this place is SCARY?” I said, trotting close begin him as David curled up on the couch and started watching sports on the one TV that must have been deemed to huge for them to take. “It’s like the Haunted Mansion! I mean most of the lights are burned out and there are those fliers plastered all over the front door… That’s how the thieves knew the place was empty huh?”

“Yep,” said Officer Kleck.

“Well so I don’t think we should sleep here because what if they COME BACK for what they missed?”

“Looks like they took all the DVDs,” he mused, examining a yanked-out drawer by the entertainment center.

Ah! So then maybe it was just kids, right?”

“Kids or tweekers.”

“Tweekers?”

“You know: druggies; meth addicts,” he said.

“Oh GOD!” I said.

“They did leave this nice little flat screen TV behind,” he said,  and that laptop over there so they COULD  come back – but I’m betting they won’t.”

He went on taking pictures of the mess, then brought out his fingerprint kit and left some forms for the owners to fill out. Finally, in a burst of old fashioned chauvinism, he took down DAVID’S information, shook HIS hand and ambled on out to his cruiser.

“I’m pulling these fliers off the door right now so the bad guys will know the house is at least occupied!” I said to David – and saw right away on the smallest one a hand-written note, signed by the pool guy: “Side window broken, back door standing open,” it said, “8am October 30.”

The fliers: the door: fliers

I ran after Our Man Kleck with it, just as he was ready to pull away in his cruiser.

“Well this is great ’cause now we can pinpoint the time of the crime!” he said with a big smile, though he STILL didn’t ask MY name or shake MY hand.

He was one happy public servant, though not half as happy as I was. Because THIS meant the break-in happened almost a month ago! THAT”S why the lights were burned out! They’d broken in and at night and just left them all on! And come to look around a bit, the furniture was dusty as all-get-out from those big old winds he’d referred to!

By then it was full dark but within the next 30 minutes David had patched the window with cardboard, swept away the glass, cleaned up the entire house, and was sitting down again to watch the ballgame.

So what could I do but take my cue from him?  “Oh well” I thought; crawled into the bed, slept like a baby the whole night through and woke feeling safe and grateful to see the sun shining on this pretty little scene out back.

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Because it looks as though you can take the electronics and take the DVD’s and make one hell of a mess on the night of your crime besides but you still can’t steal the sunlight or the new morning that it shines on.

“It’s Full of… LESBIANS”: On Judging Not Lest We Be Judged

I have felt so ecstatically happy since Election Day that I look back at the column I wrote the week before and can’t believe how sorrowful it seems. In fact so very different in tone it is from the way I have been feeling for these last two weeks I couldn’t bring myself to post it here at the top where it says ‘This Week’s Column’ so let me copy it below where it will live forever as a post and not disappear and be replaced as the column is each week. It’s not that much fun but it had God in it and also my wonderful old friend and fellow blogger Milton. Here it is:

lesbI once bumped into an acquaintance who asked me what college my daughter was hoping to attend the following year and so I told her. “Oh, I would never my daughter go there!” she exclaimed with delicate horror. “It’s full of lesbians!”

It’s funny but I felt a wave of kindness toward her and so went and put my hand on her arm: “You must know that isn’t true, Sarah.” (I will call her Sarah.) And even if there are lesbians here and there in colleges, they’re our daughters first aren’t they? Our own young people?”

I was calm in those days.

I was less calm last week after my conversation with the Postal clerk I will call John. I was sending something to one of our honorary sons, a young man we have long loved and a brand-new homeowner. I asked him if the letter would get there fast; I was worried because it held important documents.

He read aloud the name of the city and shook his head. “Tough area,” he said unsmilingly.

“What do you mean?”

“Full of minorities” he answered with lowered voice.

“HE’S A MINORITY HIMSELF JOHN,” I said with a voice not at all lowered. I embarrassed him – made an awkward moment – but for the first time in my life as a careful and courteous female I didn’t care.

And so a silence hung between us until our transaction was complete and I had thanked him and turned away.

But ever since I’ve been wondering: What is wrong with us all? An hour earlier, in another place of business, a man passing the time of day there said to the shop owner and me, “Barack Obama was handed through college, same as that WIFE!” For some reason tears sprang to my eyes and maybe the shop-owner saw them because self-proclaimed McCain man though he is, he led me aside, and put a hand on my shoulder.

“Don’t listen to him; he’s not himself today” he murmured, thus showing kindness to us both.

And later he told me that he too is troubled by the high feeling we have seen in this political season now just ended.

I think of something I just read by Milton Brasher Cunningham, songwriter, ordained minister, student of history and professional chef. He writes a blog called Don’t Eat Alone where he cites the Biblical verse “Be Ye Kind One to Another” as the idea he most needs to keep in mind.

“I would love to say I have mastered the art of kindness and moved on, but it is not so,” he writes.

His favorite station was having its fundraiser one day and so he turned the dial to hear something other than the appeals for money and landed on the local talk radio station. “I felt as though I had crossed into a parallel universe. That they presented a view farther to the right of NPR for me was not a surprise; the level of volume and vitriol was, however. These are guys who command huge audiences across the country, or at least that’s my perception. How can anger that severe be so popular?”

That is his question. Mine is, What can we do about this?

Milton says we can remember this: that “regardless of our political preferences, our fundamental allegiances are to God and to one another. “Not to country. Not to party. Not to ideology…. Not to class or race or even religion. “To God,” he repeats “and to one another.” And that’s a truth I mean to remember from this day forward.

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Gaudeamus Igitur

Italy Day 11: Being on a guided trip is like being a baby again: you HOPE your caregivers know you need a nap and a juice break; you HOPE they’ll check to see that you’re still dry. Our caregivers do know all this and have handed us along from dawn to forenoon to golden gloaming with so many of our needs anticipated that I find myself released somehow to range in thought over all of my tiny life, remembering, and regarding anew, and looking forward.

 What I’m remembering today is what it was like to be 18 and beginning my second year at Smith College, when a girl named Vicki James arrived.  Dewey House, where we lived, was a tiny dorm, the place where my Aunt Julia had lived in her own time at Smith with her big sister (my future mom) just three dorms away. It is for me one of THE key places of my life, a stage upon which unfolded so many new thought and fresh insights, a place gracious and formal and fine, staid and timeless – until Vicki came and changed everything.

She knew History, and believed in History’s lessons. She also knew what fun was and she believed in beer. The above picture shows her blindfolded on the lawn in front of Dewey House before the Freshman Sophomore picnic that ended with one of us spraining an ankle and another getting wedged inside one of the sinks at the Davis Student Center. It was Vicki who found out we could drink 35-cent beers in downtown Northampton. She liked the townie boys and so I liked them too, and the nights we walked down to see them we’d roll back up the hill toward campus singing the ancient Latin drinking song she taught us all.  “Gaudeamus Igitur dum Juvenes” it began. Let us rejoice now while we are young because “Where are they who were in the world before us?” As if we didn’t know. We knew all right, but we didn’t think for a minute that we would ever be anything other than young, with firm strong limbs like the marble limbs of the Greek and Roman youth we saw in our textbooks.

I had my first apartment ever with Vicki that summer while I worked and she took the courses at Harvard that would let her finish Smith in three years’ time.  A week into our living in that tiny Cambridge house I met the boy who would become my husband. Vicki went on to the PhD program at Harvard; David, then a Senior there, went on to get his MBA at the B School just across the river. And I, who had so earnestly hoped to go to grad school too, instead became a teacher of Tenth, Eleventh and Twelfth graders and saw almost every value I had previously held turned on it head, in the best possible way. Those students changed me as much as Vicki had and when the letter came at last admitting me to my own Masters Program I tore it up, taught five more years, and four years after that began writing the newspaper column that has aimed always and only to delight a weary public.

Well, Vicki came a few days ago to see her two old friends in Bellagio. She is called Victoria now, Dottorressa Munsey in fact and has lived here in Northern Italy for the last quarter century. She and I walked the hills above the city while David toured the Villa Carlotta and then three old friends ate dinner together.

Our blindfolds are off now and we all see more clearly. And if we are old, yet are we happy.

So here below is old Dewey House that gave birth to our young dreams; and below that and larger for the beauty of the photo the clear light from our hotel room that helped me remember it.