Truth, Justice and the American Way

After I volunteered to lead a discussion at my Quaker Meeting on the subject of ‘Truth,’ I started thinking about what that word means. I didn’t think about it for long before I was hit with an opportunity to really think about it.

I was listening to the radio when I heard a very brief news item concerning a couple in Canada who had lost custody of their two children because their second grader had appeared at school with a swastika drawn on her skin in permanent marker. The child had been taught racial hatred by her parents and according to the report hatred is a crime in Canada. Of course, there was more to it than just that. The parents also had issues with drug abuse and neglecting the children, which contributed to them losing custody of the children.

But the idea gave me pause on several levels. If a parent believes in White Supremacy and wants to teach their children their beliefs, should they be allowed to? Such a parent would surely think that I am just as crazy in believing that all people are created equal. Just because the majority (at the moment) is in sync with me, does that mean I’m right? Or to bring the subject back to Truth, does it mean that my ‘Truth’ is ‘The Truth’?

Another question this brings up for me is whether an emotion like ‘hatred’ can be legislated against. And do we have such a law in the U.S.? I hate seafood, should that be illegal? Or more to the point, what if I were to say, “I hate racists,” should that be illegal? And, to broaden it further, what if I decided that keeping dogs for pets is wrong and that it should be illegal to keep a dog for a pet? I could argue that dogs are sentient beings and that ‘keeping’ them is as wrong as enslaving humans.

During the discussion, a Friend told about a meditation technique that involves sitting cross-legged, touching knees, face-to-face with another person and just looking in their eyes for ten minutes. He said after he had done this with a friend, they both agreed that if all humans said ‘hello’ this way, world peace would be soon to follow.

I can’t help thinking about the children in Canada who lost their parents and the parents who lost their children. What if their ‘punishment’ was to look in a different black person’s eyes for ten minutes every day for six months? Would they still be able to hate them? But is it right for me to want to ‘re-program’ these people to my way of thinking? This seems to open a Pandora’s box of possibilities.

The only thing I think I know for sure is that hatred and violence are rooted in fear. We all want to be loved and we all want to be ‘someone’, as one member of our discussion mentioned. I am thinking love is the answer along with the abolition of fear. But I think I am not finished thinking about Truth. Maybe the only answer is a question.

The Little Voice

A friend asks me about my take on God. He says he has never had any personal experience of God and therefore wasn’t sure about it. I have always felt very strongly about God (or whatever you want to call it: Universe, Higher Power, Goddess, etc) and find it hard to imagine someone who hasn’t experienced it directly.

I was very young when I discovered that my name, Beth, means ‘of God’ or something like that in Hebrew. I remember thinking that this made me special, with a direct line to God or something. I was completely un-churched as a child, except for one memorable autumn when I was about nine and my mother decided I needed some religious education and put me in “Thursday School” at a local Congregational church. All I remember is the singing, a couple of stories, Noah and maybe Jonah and the slightly musty institutional smell of the church classrooms. That Christmas we went to Midnight Mass in the snow. I have a fond memory of the romance of it, the dark and cold, the solemnity and the candles.

In high school I went to Australia as an exchange student. I was sixteen. One night I awakened in the middle of the night with the sure knowledge that my elderly dog, Fluffy, had passed away. She had not been in poor health when I left, so it was not expected. I cried a little, but I knew she was ok. After all, she had somehow let me know that she had gone, so I knew she must be ok. I went back to sleep.

My mom called the next day, all the way from New York. She asked how I was and then said she had something to tell me.

“I know,” I said. “Fluffy died.”

My mother was astounded. “How did you know that?” she demanded.

I was surprised by her vehemence. Of course I would know if my beloved Fluffy had died, how could I not? She had been with me since I was five and helped me survive my parent’s divorce. My mom was a self-proclaimed witch who kept Tarot cards in her bedside table and read my friends’ palms. Surely she would not be surprised by anyone’s clairvoyance, least of all her own daughter’s. But she was. I wasn’t. It felt perfectly natural to me. I figured it was my direct link to God, that’s all.

Over the years, I learned to listen to that ‘little voice’ more and more. Over and over I found that when I didn’t listen, I got into trouble. I’ve gotten pretty good at listening, but sometimes I still forget.

This past December, I came down with a nasty cold that lingered for weeks with a terrible and overwhelming fatigue. When I finally went to the doctor at the urging of friends, I was diagnosed with walking pneumonia. Of course, during this time we had to prepare our annual gingerbread houses and so I dragged myself to the kitchen and we made dough and cut out the shapes for walls and roofs. I couldn’t manage the assembly and decorating right then, so I put the pieces in a ziplock and left them on the kitchen counter while we went to visit Grandma for a few days. I looked at them sitting there and the little voice very clearly told me to put a note on them so the carpenter who had been working on the house wouldn’t eat them. Near collapse, I simply couldn’t do it. We left for Grandma’s and when we came back there were only two pieces left and a few crumbs. I couldn’t even blame the poor carpenter. I had left him cookies before, why would he think these odd angular shapes would be any different? It was my own fault, for ignoring the little voice. By this time, antibiotics had kicked in and we made more pieces and finished the houses as usual.

You’d think I’d have learned that lesson.

A few weeks later, I was pulling on my grubby sweats to go out and work on the old house myself. George, my eight-year-old son, was standing at the door in his jeans and boots ready to help me install decking. He loves power tools and is very good with them. Home school, you know. So I pick up the keys and my cell phone and realize I have no pockets to put them in. George is shifting his feet and begging me to hurry up.

“I don’t have a pocket for my phone.” I tell him.

“So, go change your pants,” he says sagely.

I hesitate. That will take too long and all my grubbies with pockets are in the wash anyway.

“Oh, forget it,” I say. “I’ll just set them down.”

He nods knowingly, my little guru. “You really ought to go change your pants,” he says to me.

You can guess the rest of the story. I set the phone down, glass display up, of course, on the brick steps of the deck. I cross the deck to unlock the door and step inside the house. Without even looking, I fling the keys out and they sail fifteen feet across the deck and I hear the agonizing sound of keys on glass. I can’t even see the phone because it’s on the bottom step, but I know what I know.

George just shakes his head at me. He knows too.

I’m still learning, but I believe this knowing and this little voice are part of whatever binds us all together. You can call it what you want and believe in it or not, but I can tell you, it works for me. When I choose to listen.

Bringing Quaker Practice into the Workplace

The silence was what attracted me to the Quaker Meeting. As a single parent of two active young children, any amount of silence was bliss. To sit for a whole hour in stillness and silence was a balm on my soul. I was hooked from the first meeting and have been a regular attender now for over four years. My kids were antsy at Meeting at first, wiggling and asking when they could get up and go play, but after a while they grew used to the silence and are now content to sit for fifteen minutes before they go to play.

At a recent meeting, someone brought up the subject of how we bring our Quaker practice into the workplace and it was suggested that we consider this and discuss it at a later date. As a stay-at-home-mom, I immediately dismissed this thought because I figured I don’t have a “workplace” per se.

During a warm late fall day here in North Carolina, my kids and I went on a bike ride down the dirt road on our farm. Since the weather was so nice for November, it was sixty and overcast, and we had time, we went farther than usual and stopped at the edge of one of our fields. The grasses and wildflowers we planted for a wildlife habitat were waist high and we knew there was abundant wildlife from the many tracks and scat we saw.

The kids found a dead bird in the grass and scavenged for sticks to poke at it. We puzzled over what had killed it, since there was no blood or apparent wound and whatever killed it did not eat it, like our cats usually do. I could see that I would not be able to tear the kids away from the bird, which they were avidly exploring with their sticks, so I took my bike and went down a side path to see what was down there. I went a little way and came back.

I found the kids huddled over a spot on the edge of the tall grass. They had used their sticks to dig a grave in the sandy soil, had buried the little bird and somehow erected a cross of sticks to mark the spot. I admired their handiwork and then suggested we have a Quakerly moment of silence for the little bird.

“Oh, we already did,” my daughter told me proudly, while my son piped in that they had each said a few words as well to honor the memory of this tiny creature. I don’t know who was more pleased. We rode back watching the leaves sail down off the trees and thinking our own thoughts about life and little birds. And I was pleased to have something to contribute to the discussion about bringing Quaker practice into the workplace.

Disturbed? Well, yes...

Publishers Weekly announced their list of the top 100 books published in 2009 and were “disturbed” to find that the top ten contained not a single woman. In fact, the top 100 was close to 70% male. I find this disturbing on several levels. First, what are the criteria for a ‘best’ book? Are women somehow less capable of writing a ‘best’ book? Or is it that publishers are more eager to publish books written by men? How can it be that in a society that is predominantly female in general and in an industry in which the majority of consumers are women that the ‘best’ books are mostly written by men? I would be interested to see the statistics on who is buying and reading those ‘best’ books, men or women.

I think part of the answer lies in the gender issue itself. Women are more likely to read a man’s book, whether it has been written by a man, or is just more geared toward a male audience. My mother, for example, loves a good thriller and likes many of the same books as her male neighbor. Both my mother and I love a great literary romance, such as those written by Anita Shreve. My mother’s neighbor would never consider reading such a book, nor would I expect him to enjoy it if he did. The same is true for most of the heterosexual men I know.

It is telling of the persistent bias of the publishing industry that the list is male dominated. I think the panel of PW is absolutely right to be disturbed. No wonder the industry is in such dire straits. How many great books written by women are languishing on some editor’s desk (or more likely, an agent’s, since the editors no longer accept un-agented submissions) while the books by men are being passed along? Obviously, the editors are publishing more ‘best’ books by men, so if an agent wants to sell a book, he or she is more likely to succeed with a book written by a man. It’s obvious, but faulty logic, because the industry is overlooking the plain fact that more books are read by women than men. Not that men can’t write books that women love, I have several favorite male authors, one of whom made the top 100 list with his first novel, Abraham Verghese. But men are less likely to love a book written by a woman, unless they are gay. At some point we have to accept that men and women are different. Equal, but different.

Perhaps what is needed is a fresh look at what makes a book great. Maybe we need a gender-segregated list, like we need more all-girl schools. Or maybe we need the gender of the panel to more accurately reflect the reading public. I don’t know. But I think the dialogue created by this year’s male-dominated list is welcome and I hope it will benefit the industry in the long run.

And, by the way, in the photo I am reading When They Tell Me, by Grey Brown (no relation), which is on my personal list of the top ten books of 2009. This beautiful book chronicles in poems the author's experience in finding out her daughter has autism. The poems are heartbreaking, ruthless and evocative.

Driving the Dump Truck

New to farming, and with our two kids in tow, my husband and I went to a farm auction.  We milled around the old dusty farm, looking at mysterious rusty heaps of tractor implements, sagging tobacco dryers and other things we wondered at the uses for.  I sat my three and four-year old on countless tractor seats, where they grinned and pretended to drive and insisted we buy “this one!”

It was hot and then it rained and I was getting exhausted chasing after the kids while their dad dreamed about farming.  The auctioneer began calling out in his unintelligible rapid and unceasing monologue from a portable platform set down on the edge of a field now fallow.  I herded the kids to a small tent, where a tired-looking lady was selling hot dogs and hush puppies and got the kids some food.  I was looking fruitlessly for a place to sit down when Cole came running over and said I had to see something.  I gave him the I’m-all-done-with-farm-auctions look and trailed after him with the kids in tow.

He was ogling an enormous beat-up yellow dump truck and saying how we needed it to spread compost on our fields.  I said no.  He argued that it was cheap.  I argued that it probably didn’t run.  He began to beg pathetically.  I saw a way out of the farm auction.  I told him we could buy it, but only on the condition that I got to drive it.  He agreed.  Fifteen hundred dollars later, I was driving the kids in the van behind that wheezing jerking truck, down darkening back roads.  Later, he confessed that the brakes were almost completely shot and that he had had to downshift at every intersection and pray there was nothing coming.  By that time, I was just glad to be home.

I never did get to drive it, being otherwise occupied all the time with the kids.  During our separation some years later, I drove by the house and found the dump truck looking forlorn, parked on the side of the street with a ‘for sale’ sign in the windshield.  I called the attorney in a frenzy of panic and climbed up in the cab for the first time to take out the for sale sign.  No way was he going to sell my truck.  He had already sold the tractor, a pretty green John Deere that I mourned piteously.

Two more years passed.  In a posh downtown attorney’s office, I got the farm and the dump truck in the divorce settlement.  She was mine, but I still hadn’t driven her.  And now, I had no one to teach me how.

A year went by before I screwed up the courage to begin working on the renovation of my great grandfather’s farmhouse.  One of the first things that needed to happen was the removal of a huge pile of construction debris left from the framing of the addition.  The dump truck was still parked by the road, minus the ‘for sale’ sign.  I called my farmer and asked if he could drive it over to the junk pile.  He did and I started the long process of loading six tons of debris over the tailgate (over my head!) into the back of the truck.  I insisted on riding along for the dumping, on the pretense of having to pay for the dump (only $27/ton for construction debris).  What a thrill to sit in the high cab and watch the bed tilt and hear all that junk sliding out into the landfill.  It was better than the State Fair in my opinion.  But still, I had not driven it.

After three trips to the dump, I felt I was ready.  My carpenter had taken the last trip with me, after confessing that he had driven trucks in the Army before starting his own business in construction.  I asked if he would be willing to let me have a go at driving.  He was.

I got in and cranked her up.  It only took a few tries.  The engine kept dying, but Aaron coached me in giving her a little gas and I soon got her going.  We let her warm up while Aaron supervised his little crew on the construction.  Then he came over and said, “Well, are you ready?”  I took a deep breath.  I was ready.

We got in.  We figured out the ancient seatbelts.  I got back out and collected some work gloves and safety glasses in case the load stuck, which it had every time.  Aaron suggested I adjust the seat.  I did.  He sat there.  I looked at the gearshift.  Four speeds and reverse, just like my car.  No problem.  Except that past the gearshift knob I saw a very big-eyed mouse perched on Aaron’s shoe.

Not moving, I calmly said, “There is a mouse on your shoe,” and all hell broke loose.  Aaron jumped at the shock and the mouse leaped off his shoe heading my way across the debris on the floor.  I screamed and wrestled open the door and tried to jump out, but I was caught by the seatbelt.  Trapped, I was sure the little devil was heading up my pant leg and I began to really scream in earnest.  I tried to focus on that little seatbelt button, but I couldn’t get it to release.  Aaron was already out of the truck and the mouse was long gone, but I was screaming like a ninny.  The seatbelt finally let go and I flew out into the yard, where the construction workers were coming at a run to see what all the screaming was about. 

While Aaron took a stick and tried to force the mouse of the engine compartment, the kids began filling a box with straw to make the little fella comfortable in captivity.  But, we never did get him to come out.  Poor little guy was all settled in for the winter in his cozy spot until the stupid humans came.

I don’t know if the mouse ran out at some point, or if he rode to the dump with us.  But I drove all the way and even got to work the dump levers.  It was deeply satisfying to hear the truck making that bleeping backing-up sound, and to see the looks on people’s faces when they see the gray-haired lady driving that big truck.  Golly, it was fun.  I’ve been advised that backhoes are even better.  It’s hard to imagine, but might be worth a try.

How I Came To Live On The Farm, Part 2

In 1995, I was living on a thirty-seven foot sailboat anchored out in San Diego Bay.  I had fallen in love with the boat, and its owner, four years before in Seattle.  We lived on the boat at a small marina on Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound for several years before deciding to start the world cruise by heading south to San Diego.  (You can read one of the highlights of the passage south in my blog post, Procrastination on Memory Lane)

Boat life was a dream come true for me.  I have always loved the water and had lived and worked on a small cruise ship before I met Darrel.  Living on the water in a small boat was even better.  The yachting community was close-knit and warm, the boat rocked us to sleep at night and the water soothed my spirit the whole time.  I loved hearing the seagulls cry, the slap of a wake on the hull and the clink of the rigging on the mast.  The smell of the water was intoxicating.

We walked from the marina to the ferry dock and rode the massive Washington State Ferries to our jobs in Seattle.  It was keenly romantic.  I often still dream of riding those ferryboats across the drizzly sound.  But that pernicious rain was beginning to wear on me.  I had been in Seattle for too long.  I couldn’t face another dark, damp winter.  Darrel was in agreement.  All we had to do was untie the boat and sail away.  We quit our jobs and headed south.

San Diego was also a dream, at first.  Sun was abundant, the weather a perfect contrast to the dismal Seattle gloom.  But the cost of a dock space like the one we had enjoyed on Bainbridge Island was prohibitive, so we lived at anchor in a little cove near Shelter Island northwest of the city.  This was very romantic, but also meant that every week or two we had to move the boat to take on water and fuel and pump out our waste tank. 

We also had to row to shore with our dirty laundry, drag it up the dock to the car and repeat the process in reverse with our groceries.  The boat had no refrigeration.  In Seattle the water is about fifty degrees so we just put our perishables in the bilge (it was clean) and that took care of it.  But in San Diego the water temperatures averaged in the low sixties and with the air temperature in the seventies and eighties, the bilge was not an effective cooler.  So we schlepped huge cakes of ice too.  This got old pretty fast, particularly when I started working at two part time jobs. 

I began to dream of a little garden, a bit of green.  We bought books on growing food at sea.  We bought window boxes for the cockpit and tried unsuccessfully to raise herbs and lettuce.  It became obvious that we could not earn enough to sustain our world cruise and we began to explore other options.  I began to think of the farm.

How I Came To Live On The Farm, Part 1

I am a city girl.  My mother did the New York thing and walked from our apartment building across York Avenue to New York Hospital to give birth to me.  Central Park was my backyard.  I didn’t climb trees there, but I loved to scramble over the enormous bronze mushrooms at the feet of Alice In Wonderland and sit in the lap of the statue of Hans Christian Andersen as he read to the ugly duckling.

I was a sophisticated New York teenager in 1976 when my father purchased his grandfather’s farm from his cousins, who had inherited it in pieces.  On one of our annual trips to visit his family in Johnston County, North Carolina, my dad dragged me out to “The Farm” to show off his new acquisition.  I was painfully unimpressed.  In fact, I thought he was out of his mind.  He had a beautiful co-op apartment on the Upper East Side.  What did he need with a farm in the middle of nowhere North Carolina?

He dragged me out of the air-conditioned car into the knee-high weeds in front of the dilapidated boarded-up old house.  The heat was oppressive.  I could feel my lungs tightening up with my undiagnosed asthma. Ignoring my misery, Dad extolled the virtues of all this fresh air and greenery.  He praised the fabulous qualities of the soil. The weeds tickled my legs and I sneezed. Gazing dreamily over at the paint peeling off the house, Dad told me about my great-grandfather, who had built the house in 1887.  He was a Civil War veteran who had been wounded in battle and left for dead.  He had survived his wounds and walked home from the POW camp in Maryland after the war.

I finished blowing my nose and began to scratch a mosquito bite on my arm.  I squinted up at Dad and said, “Yeah?  Well, too bad he was on the wrong side.”  My father’s handsome face colored and he looked down at me as if surely I were someone else’s child.

“He was not on the wrong side.” He said through clenched teeth.  Now it was my turn to look at him with incredulity.  Did my father think slavery was a good thing?  I sniffled and scratched while he tried to explain the Civil War to me, but it was no use.  My father, so proud of his Southern heritage, had somehow, unwittingly, raised a Yankee child.

Make Mine Cherry

On a trip south, we stopped in Walterboro, SC for a snack at McDonald’s.  I ordered two Happy Meals for the kids and then asked if they had cherry pies instead of apple.  The young man at the register said something very fast in the thick local accent and I asked him to repeat himself.  He did, but in spite of my Southern genes, I could not understand him.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I just can’t understand you.”

He laughed a little, shrugged and leaned over the register, as if I was hard of hearing.  Must be my gray hair.

“Where you come from,” he began, speaking very slowly and pausing to let this sink in before going on,  “They have cherry pies at McDonald’s?”

I assured him that they did and also that they are very tasty.  He shook his head in amazement, smiling.

When I was just a little older than this young man, I traveled from my home in New York to Southeast Alaska via Seattle.  I will never forget the view from the plane as we passed by the Canadian coastline.  There was nothing but trees as far as the eye could see on one side, and the empty sea on the other side.  No humans or human influence could be seen, even from thirty-five thousand feet.  It had never occurred to me that there was this much space in North America, or anywhere in the world, with no human intervention, just wilderness.  The young man at McD’s seemed just as amazed about the cherry pies.  The world is getting smaller, but it’s still very large in some places.  I guess rural South Carolina is one of them.

Red Light Revelation

On my way to the irritating errand of dropping my kids off with their Dad for the weekend, I pull up to the red light at Central Prison just in time to see a man pushing a wheelchair across the intersection.  I brake to a stop as he goes behind a hedge of bushes and I realize that the wheelchair was empty.

I call to the kids in the backseat to see if they can spot him coming around the bushes.  I can’t imagine why a person would be pushing an empty wheelchair.  He is moving at a good clip, headed for the greenway.  He might have been coming from the prison with its impossibly high razor wire-topped fence and armed guard towers.

Before I have a chance to think any further, he emerges from behind the bushes. I was not mistaken.  He is pushing an empty wheelchair.  What I missed on first glance were his two artificial legs.  He is pushing his own wheelchair, pumping along at a pace that would tire me, almost a run, leaning on the wheelchair handles for support.

The kids have now seen all this and are peppering me with questions.  Why is he pushing the wheelchair?  Why does he have two artificial legs?  What happened to both his legs?  I run through the list of ways people can lose limbs and we decide he must have been in an accident of some kind.

The light changes, I drive down the road and the kids fall silent.  We are all thinking about the man on the run in the ninety-degree heat, with his wheelchair and his legs strapped on.  It seems to make our own journey a little bit easier.

Train Station

The people who ride the train are either black or green.  Many of them are on their cell phones saying things like 'love you' to someone they call ‘honey’.

The skyline of hard-edged glass and concrete buildings makes me want to cry with memories of my happy childhood in Manhattan.  There is even a faint smell of stale piss and cigarettes, the universal smell of the train station.

A young black man is choke-holding a chubby Asian teen.  The boy is grinning his eyes to slits and wearing socks with black plastic one-strap sandals.

I overhear my neighbor on his phone say the train is running twelve minutes late.  Actually, he says ‘bus’ and I wonder for a second if I am in the right place.  But directly in front of me are four pairs of rusty rails in heavy gravel.  Another neighbor corrects him in that familiar way of anonymous travelers.

A sharp smacking sound comes from around the corner, followed by a young boy who is bouncing a basketball with one hand and holding up his shorts with the other.  His petite young mother turns and gives him a stern look.  He stops bouncing the ball.  His little brother is wearing a baseball cap much too big for his little head and walking too close to the tracks for my taste.  His mother apparently disagrees with me because she ignores him.

A clanking sound makes me wonder if the train is coming.  But around the corner comes a baggage cart.  Surely this is a good sign, though.  Did I hear a far-off whistle?

The man talking to ‘Honey’ comes back.  His hair is short and graying and for some reason makes me think of my high school friend whose wife has left him for another man.

Puffy clouds with dark depths dwarf the downtown skyline.  A uniformed man comes out of the station and then I hear a real train whistle, one long and one short, and the man says business class is down there and there are a hundred people getting off the train so look out.
The train slides in, blocking the horizon.  I don’t remember them being so tall.  Men in uniforms pull out yellow stools for the passengers to step down on.  People are smiling and kissing.

A large black woman in a headscarf comes lumbering my way, smiling a big grin.  “Man,” she says, shaking her head, “you got to really love someone to ride that train.”

And I think how strange that is because I was thinking how fun it would be to ride the train and go to a new place.  But I’ve always been a sucker for things that go.