Did you know that something quite extraordinary happens every April? I can tell you that I’m absolute certain it’s not what you expect! Yet, every year, it’s enough to bring my heart to that same place of hope that happens when I saw, for example, that young girl singing a song from Frozen in a Ukrainian basement, or one of the several musicians set up their own solo orchestra in some littered, dirty, deserted town square to fill the air with music—music tender and enduring enough to drown out the flash of sirens.
But I first discovered this awe–filled yearly event many years ago in a poem by e e cummings: when faces called flowers float out of the ground. . .
when faces called flowers float out of the ground
and breathing is wishing and wishing is having—
but keeping is downward and doubting and never
—it’s april (yes,april;my darling) it’s spring!
yes the pretty birds frolic as spry as can fly
yes the little fish gambol as glad as can be
(yes the mountains are dancing together)
I just knew that one day I’d get to go to New Hampshire and visit Joy Farm, e.e. cummings’s summer home, because I just knew it was there that he found those mountains dancing! And, sure enough, in the mid–1980s, fate brought us here and soon after, in April (of course), we made our way up to Madison in search of Joy Farm and those dancing mountains.
It was a weekend and, being April, lots of snow was still on the ground. We managed to find the entrance to the long driveway up to Joy Farm but it was fenced off and clearly not passable by car. Undaunted, me, already in full swing with those dancing mountains, was not so easily dissuaded! So, we made our way back to town in search of someone who might be able to give us some kind of permission to venture up to the farm by foot. Doug, my husband, whose feet were a little closer to the ground, well, actually on the ground, kept reminding me that those mountains would not be dancing, so unabashedly, with me in jail! Luckily, we were able to locate a man with some authority, in one of the local establishments, who gave us the ok. I remember he looked quite puzzled when I, especially, could not be persuaded to return in a couple of months when the road to the Joy Farm would be passable. Didn’t he know those mountains were dancing now?!
So, at last, up the long driveway we went! The house had been vacant for a while yet still felt to be alive, standing, waiting patiently for the return of bare feet, frivolous chatter, the smell of barbeque and stargazing off the porch. The grounds were open and rambling and a small gazebo–like room, in the middle of the back field, seemed timeless.
But, without a doubt, it was those dancing mountains, cradling, holding us, that kept me frolicking round and round as if I could somehow fly right into the center of their waking, unguarded alive;we’re alive,dear:it’s (kiss me now) spring! pulse.
Away with respectable composure! Down with petty self-consciousness! Let’s dive as all the pretty birds dive to the heart of the sky and climb as all the little fish climb through the mind of the sea!
It’s April! We’re sun-drenched alive! Our faces like flowers float out of the ground! We’re opening as every leaf opens without any sound! We’ve quivering, waking, pulsing as the little fish quiver so you and so i…
So, yes! Let’s dance, unbridled and undone, for its april (yes,april;my darling) it’s spring! and, most wondrously…
I’m an interfaith minister. My default for addressing problems has always been the way of nonviolence. Two of my lifelong heroes are the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. So, it may surprise you when I say I’m not a pacifist. I do believe there are times when right action calls for the warrior to rise up. When Hitler was seeking expansion and engaging in ethnic cleansing, giving rise to the eradication of the Jews, was one such time. Today, Putin’s war on Ukraine is another. But I’m no military strategist or political analyst so I’ll leave such commentary to those better qualified. Instead, I’m going to share a story in hopes that it’ll reveal just why I believe that this moment, indeed, calls for the way of the warrior.
“Imagine you live in an old family home, well–aged by several generations of babies’ cries, backyard birthday parties, holiday gatherings around the large, worn, wooden table, and by the many cherished nights of star gazing from the tree swing out the back door. It is who you are. All you’ve known. Your great–great grandparents had settled in this home and you want nothing more than for your children and grandchildren to know the feel of the old, curvy, wooden floors beneath their bare feet and to smell all those lingering scents drifting out of the kitchen from the homemade biscuits, pot roasts, and apple pies.
Then, one day, when all of the extended family had gathered for a family reunion, the unthinkable happens. You wake in the middle of the night and you smell smoke coming up from below. Frantically you run down and discover a small fire, just starting, from the back wall in the kitchen. Luckily, the fire department is close by so you immediately call but the person answering the phone, after taking down your address, says they’ll have to call you right back.
Shaken and confused, you race through the house yelling to wake everyone while still trying desperately to keep calm for the children. The biggest challenge is to get your elderly grandmother, who’s unable to walk without help, down the stairs from the top floor. All of your other relatives are now up and rushing around erratically trying to grab what they can from the closets, drawers and cupboards. As smoke begins to fill the house, you call the fire department again and, this time, the voice on the other end, trying to be as compassionate as possible, tries to explain that, because you’re just beyond the town line, they’re not able to come.
“What?! But you’re so close!” you shout not believing what you’re hearing. “I’m losing my home!”
“I’m so very sorry,” the person says with a shaky voice. “I really wish we could help. Really. But we’ll send over some supplies, some things to help to get you through. They’re on the way.” And the call ends.
Meanwhile, two of the children have run back into the house to get their special stuffed animals, and now they’re nowhere to be found. But there’s too much smoke coming from the house to go back in to look for them. You know now the house will soon collapse.
Numb, tremblingly uncontrollably, shrouded tight in your worst nightmare, unable to fully grasp the magnitude of what’s happening: the children inside, burning, about to be buried in the rubble, you frantically call the fire department again this time screaming into the phone unable to control yourself.
“Please come! Now! Two children have gone back inside and the house is about to fall! Please come now!!!”
But the voice on the other end, choking back tears, says again, “I’m so very sorry, sir. I so wish we could help. Your supplies will be arriving soon.”
Now I realize this may appear to be an overly simplistic representation of Zelenskyy’s plea to us for help. But is it? I don’t know about you but if it were my children trapped inside a burning house, my family’s homestead about to be leveled, my entire life literally going up in smoke, I wouldn’t care so much for the arbitrary reasons given by the fire department. Being told my home is outside the town line would feel about as irrelevant and nonsensical as being told in essence, “You’re not a part of NATO so, sorry, please understand we’re under no obligation to do what really needs to be done to help you. But we’ll send you what we can—just short of this—along with additional supplies.”
Yes, I do understand the larger potential implications of sending what is really needed, the fire hoses, the full force of our military—and the possibility of nuclear warfare and the start of World War III. And I get that I’m well beyond fighting age and have largely lived my life so it’s likely easier for me to advocate for such a response. But please tell me, what better use could there possibly be of the world’s most powerful military than for it to defend an innocent democratic country being unjustly and brutally attacked by a much larger and more powerful autocratic one?
So, as hard as I try to be sober about the possible ramifications of such a response, somehow all the good justifications crumble when I witness all those bunny ears atop crying swollen faces; the teddy bears being held tight as tiny exhausted feet try hard to keep up; the moms now having to hold themselves and their children together, not knowing if or when they’ll ever see their husbands again; the fathers, everyday men, now suddenly warriors called to fight to defend their homeland. An innocent people being assaulted. A country being annihilated. Their house is burning. And we choose to send everything . . . everything except the fire trucks.
And what message does this send to Putin and to all the other autocratic leaders around the world? What not–so–silent message does it send to all the democratic countries watching the most powerful nation on earth not show up to do what’s really needed? To me, it broadcasts worldwide that the forces of terror and genocide are prevailing as the ultimate darkness in the human spirit is now unleashed and on full display.
So, what will we do in this critical hour? Will we rise up to follow the way of the warrior, to defend the innocent, right a wrong and restore justice or keep giving arbitrary reasons that allow for the darkness to prevail?
The way of the warrior always requires fearlessness in the face of death . . . it does so because it knows some things are worth fighting for . . . dying for . . . so, freedom and justice for all, for all peoples around the world, may prevail.
Imagine, again, if it were your children trapped inside your burning home . . .
For the February 5, 2022, Concord Monitor – “My Turn”
you have chosen the hip shirt
with the star on it
and you dream
– Thomas C. Kent, Blue Lights and River Songs
I recently came upon this book I’d had in college in 1971 and was mesmerized by this short poem. It caused me to reflect upon what dreams have been lost since that time and which ones still lay silent in broken hearts, hearts that once yearned to choose a life.
I thought about the cry of our times, “Black Lives Matter,” and the resounding echo back, “All Lives Matter,” bouncing off deaf walls. Of course, all lives matter! Yet, many disenfranchised groups have had to fight for the right to matter, for inclusion in our founding ‘all men are created equal’ ideal — African Americans, Native Americans, many other ethnic groups, women, the LGBTQ community, the disabled, the poor, the homeless, the mentally ill.
Yes, how wonderful it would be if we could all stand side by side with our disenfranchised brothers and sisters and, together, proclaim, “All Lives Matter!” However, when we witness horrific injustice, even murder, of a fellow American, as we did in the killing of George Floyd, as well as the killing of all those who came before him and of the many others since, such a cry rings flat and feels like a not–so–subtle attempt to veil the historical legacy of discrimination and racism found in these United States where the ‘all men are created equal’ ideal neglected to specify that, in essence, the ‘all men’ referred only to aristocratic white males.
Truly, I wish we didn’t even need to say the words “Black Lives Matter.” But I’ve seen too much. Felt too much. Known too much to deny my part — yes, my part. I remember “white only” drinking fountains and bathrooms and not just in the deep south. I remember shacks clustered on the back dusty roads and heard of “colored towns” hidden deep in the woods.
In the city, I could see at the edge of town those segregated neighborhoods, especially at night when the oil lamps glowed, where white folks just didn’t go, “‘cause, you know, colored people live there.” I’m old enough to remember that, of course, I must be somehow better “‘cause yous is white.”
Sheltered in my privileged status, I could easily look away, get busy, deny, rationalize, anything but recognize and acknowledge my sisters’ and brothers’ disenfranchised isolation. Like so many of my status, by not giving voice to the uncomfortable truth, I helped to perpetuate the lie.
And such complacency, however innocent or unintended, continues to allow for the seed of racism to take hold, generation after generation. This seed begins with what I’ve imagined being the moment and it happens, mercilessly, in the hearts of children. Something happens and suddenly they know they’re different and that that difference isn’t good.
Sadly, in that moment, I can imagine that even the most sparkly star on their shirt could begin to dim. For our African American brothers and sisters, I can imagine it happening one Christmas sitting on Santa’s lap. “Why does Santa look different?” Or, perhaps in church. “Why does Jesus?” Or, perhaps, it wasn’t any specific event but just, one day, a sour, sinking, “it ain’t ever goin’ away” feeling that Black made them different, less than, and worst of all, it couldn’t be changed or gotten rid of.
When we deny any group of people the right to dream, to choose a life, something dies within them and, I believe, within us as well. This is actually a great blessing because this painful acknowledgment can only arise from an undeniable knowing that we’re all one family so what we do to the other we do to ourselves.
The good news is we can choose to reject the lie and follow the truth that we’re all truly equal in the eyes of our creator. This means that, perhaps, we of privilege must also give up the lie we’ve knowingly or unknowingly told ourselves: that our lives matter more than others.
Acknowledging our part in the propagation of racism and discrimination is not for the fainthearted. If we’re to avoid postures of either moral superiority on the one hand or overplayed humility on the other, we must be willing to follow the advice of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and first look within ourselves. Yes, within.
We must search our own hearts, indeed conduct a fierce inventory, of where we’ve been blind but now are daring to see. Maybe then we’d be ready to approach our African American brothers and sisters and ask, “What can I do to ensure that the ‘moment’ never happens to another innocent child?” and then be willing to hear the answers.
And, if so, maybe, just maybe, we’d all come a bit closer to the day when all peoples may be free to dream a life . . . a life of their choosing.
(Rev. Dr. Stephanie Rutt is founding minister of the Tree of Life Interfaith Temple in Amherst. She lives in Nashua. To read more of her writing visit becomeaforceforgood.com.)
Today, as with so many, my heart is with the Ukrainian people – the men turned fighters and their families turned refugees—the courage being asked of them, the resolve to persevere being required of them, and the love, yes, the love of home and country that must now sustain them. And I ask myself, not in the usual hypothetical sense, but, today, in a very real, palpable, way, “What would I be willing to fight for . . . to die for?” My family, first and foremost. And, of course, the opportunity to do my work and to serve those in my small corner of the world. Yes, I am blessed.
Still, to live these questions, as the Ukrainian people are now doing, often requires great courage—the courage to lift ourselves up and to keep going when fear, in all its forms, lurks ready to trip our gait and collapse our will. Ordinary men turned fighters must now, suddenly, steady their advance and galvanize their will for destiny does not cater to the fearful. It requires resolve—relentless, unshakable, resolve—to stay honed–in on that faint lighthouse beacon when our life’s rudder has broken, and night is falling fast. Mothers, now refugees, must drag exhausted children while carrying all they own on their backs, stepping one foot at a time, toward some unknown place. And, mostly, it requires love…the kind of love that, in the end, frees us, propelling us, in spite of the fear and the unknown, to rise up and meet our destiny . . . and, in the process, to, blessedly, discover our self to be what we may not have imagined.
As I’ve been sitting in communion with the Ukrainian people, I’ve been asking myself what I can do, being so far away, to support them? And I remember Chief Seattle’s reminder that we’re all bound together in this web of life. It’s a beautiful reminder that everything we do matters whether or not we may ever know or be able to see the results of our actions. It’s only important that we do act and offer our gift, our heart, our love.
So, whenever I want to offer something special to someone, one of the first places I look is on my altar and in my prayer bowl. In the past several years, the Holy Spirit, Great Spirit, has gifted me with the symbol of “3 Feathers” which has permeated my life. The picture below is from the three feathers that are now on my altar. Many Native American tribes believe that the white feather symbolizes peace, purification, faith and the heavens. I can think of no greater gift from my heart to offer the Ukrainian people at this time. In particular: one feather to honor their courage, one for their resolve and, finally, one for their love.
Perhaps there’s something special, sacred, in your life you’d like to offer our Ukrainian brothers and sisters. If so, join me in breathing it into this web of life where we are all one and, rest assured . . .
“Any persons inclined to purchase, may know the particulars by . . .”
ULSTER COUNTY GAZETTE. Published at KINGSTON (Ulster County [NY] By SAMUEL FREET and SON (Vol. II. Num. 88. Saturday, January 4, 1800.)
How it got into the secretary of my great–grandparent’s home in Alabama, that prized piece of furniture I was told was made by the slaves, I’ll never know–that desk that sat up against the wall in the long hallway that ran from the front to the back of my great–grandparent’s house. But that’s where I found it. It was loosely folded and stuffed in a back corner of the top drawer, a page from the January 4, 1800, Ulster County Gazette. It was the early 1970s and my great–grandmother had just died, following the passing of my great–grandfather a few years earlier. I, rummaging through the old secretary, had found it and asked my grandmother if I could keep it. For many years it remained in one of the boxes where all the old family pictures and other relics were stored. Then, not too many years ago, while cleaning out, I found it again. This time I took the time to look it over and immediately saw “Negro Wench.” I knew in that moment that, someday, I’d write about her. Today is that day—in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the dream still yet to be realized by so many.
Wench. It’s a word that makes my stomach flinch. Historically, it referred to a girl or young woman. But to better understand the full meaning of the word in the context of the times, we can look at Dolen Perkins–Valdez’s, 2010, best–selling historical fiction novel, Wench. The book’s front matter includes a quotation from 1836 about a slave owner who, “especially prided himself upon owning the swiftest horse, the handsomest wench, and the finest pack of hounds in all Virginia.”
So, it feels reasonable to imagine that, in this case, the wench was, likely, a young teenage girl. But why would she be for sale? And just what were those particulars? Did she not make the cut on the handsomest scale? Was she unruly? Was she just one mouth too many to feed over the long winters? Regardless of the reason, it’s clear she was just property to be monetized —a dispensable thing—and not likely even a second thought on her owner’s mind while he was sippin’ his brandy, the slow goin’ down kind, just like the evening sun.
So, to honor her, I thought I’d quiet my heart just long enough to ask, and maybe hear, just what she’d want us to know today from all those years ago—about her life, in her voice. May her words somehow honor, in some small way, all that’s been lost, forgotten, tucked away, relegated to the back corner of our collective mind.
And from across time, I heard . . .
“I never had a chance to be nothin.’ I was human just like you but no one saw. Why you’d own us? All I wanted was to be free. To fly away somewhere. I just knew if I could, I’d find some new fine place to be. I just knew. But truth is, I’d never leave on account of my little sister. Never.”
“What were your days like?” I asked.
“We’d be up with the sun to work the fields. Sundays we’d maybe get some time for ourselves. Sometimes Master would come in my bed at night. I’d just close my eyes and go somewhere until he’d be done and gone. Next day, I’d be so tired cause I could never sleep after that. The Misses, she’d look at me like she could kill me. Like I did somethin.’ Fine with me. Most the time, I wished I was dead anyways.
I was sixteen and gonna have a baby when he went to sell me. Didn’t want the Misses to find out. That’s the ad you saw. I couldn’t read but I knowed he’d done it.
My mamma’d been sold a few years back and I’d takin’ to spending all my time trying to forget her being put in that wagon and watchin’ her get smaller and smaller away from me. For a long time, I’d go back and look down the road first thing when I got up and then before I’d go to bed just to see if she’d be comin’ back. I just knew she would. But I wasn’t old enough to know that wasn’t gonna happen.
So, when I got sold to a family a good ways away, I begged Master to let Pee, that’s my little sister, go with me. I called her Lil’ Pee cause she was so small. Never did grow right. But I knew he wouldn’t so I tried to tell Pee what was gonna happen. But every time she’d just start crying so I’d have to stop. I started staying up late to make her a bracelet out of twine to go with one I made for me just like it. The day Master told me it was the day I’d be goin,’ I gave it to her and told her to always wear it and I’d wear mine too and that way we’d always be together. Being hauled onto the wagon seein’ Lil Pee screamin’ and tryin’ hard to run after me, just like I’d done after my mamma, haunted me all the rest of my days. I never saw her again. Don’t know what ever happened to her.
Next year my baby was born. I called him Moses cause I’d heard how Moses had parted the waters to let his people go. I wanted him to be strong like that. The years went by pretty fast and he did grow big and strong. But I tried hard not to get too close just in case one of us got sold. But he was a good worker so Master kept him.
Shortly after my first grandbaby was born, I came down with the cough. Master had the doctor come but he said there wasn’t anything he could do. I died a few months later.”
“What do you want to say to us here today?”
“Always remember that we all be God’s children—no matter the color. We all want to be somebody and you got to be free to do that. We all want to just love our mammas and pappas, our sisters and brothers, children, grandchildren. We all just want a chance to live. Whenever you start thinkin’ you be better than someone else cause you be white, stop yourself, cause it ain’t true. Cause you be no different from me. Stop and ask how’d you feel to be sold, to see your mamma hauled away or you bein’ hauled away and your lil’ sister just screamin’ like crazy. If you’re a girl, how’d you’d feel to have some big white man come into your bed before your time and you to wake up bleeding all over and not know why. Ask yourself and I bet you get the same answers as me.
Stop and ask how’d it feel to make a twine bracelet for the one you know, real soon, you’ll never see again, the same one you make for yourself and never take off for all your life.
Ask yourself. Then, you’d know me. Better yet, maybe then you’d be knowin’ youself better . . . cause we want the same things . . . you and me.
Ya know? I’d make you one of those twine bracelets if I could . . . sure enough . . . just so we’d always have something to remind us that we be the same . . . you and me . . .
It was one of those warm, bright, clear nights at the wilderness camp just over the border from the Magical Kingdom. Abbie, now growing tall and straddling childhood with coming adolescence, wandered out after dinner to gaze up at the expanse of sky, spotted with all those glittering stars that looked just like diamonds. She had a lot on her mind. A mysterious virus had changed when and how she went to school, got to hang out with her friends, do many of the things she’d always loved to do. Basically, like for so many others, her life had been turned upside down.
As she sat on the front steps staring up at the black velvety dome that somehow could hold all those stars in place, it seemed to her to be the most amazing thing. But suddenly, her magical reprieve was interrupted by what she thought was the silhouette of a woman moving towards her. As the woman came closer, Abbie could see that she had long, shinny, grey hair and wore a flowing light blue gown. But strangely, Abbie didn’t feel afraid, just curious.
“I’ve come from the North Star,” the mysterious woman said, pointing up to what then seemed like the brightest star in the sky. “As a part of the North Star, I shine very bright in the sky but, sometimes, I choose to come down to earth to give someone a message. Tonight, I’ve come with a special message for you.”
Abbie wrinkled her forehead feeling uncertain now that what she was hearing was really happening. But still she was curious.
“As you grow older, you’ll experience many new things—some you’ll enjoy, and others will be challenging. But whatever life brings, always remember three things,” the mysterious lady from the North Star said. “If you can, it’ll make all the difference.”
Now the young girl was all ears.
“First, just like me, remember that you’re made of stardust.”
“What?!” Abbie exclaimed in disbelief.
“It’s true. Scientist here on earth can now prove it and are saying so. This means that you are here to shine on earth just like I shine in the sky.”
“But how do I do that?”
“When you wake up in the morning remember that each new day is like a precious gift just for you. If you can do that, you’ll start to shine. Every time you feel joy in doing something you love, or watch someone else doing something they love, you’ll also start to shine. And, most importantly, when you feel like life has become very dark, like those spaces between the stars, if you can believe that something good, or helpful, will always come out of the worst of times, most especially then you’ll shine the brightest. Remember. You’re made of stardust. It’s your true nature to shine—regardless of the circumstances.”
“But how can I shine when I feel sad or mad?”
“It’s okay to feel sad or mad. In fact, it’s okay to feel all that you feel. Most importantly, don’t try to push your feelings away. They can help you to recognize and consider more deeply certain things that are happening in your life that are really important to you.”
“But then how do I shine?”
“What you’ll discover is that when you take in those hard feelings, they become something like clouds passing in front of the sun. They may hide the sun’s full light for a while but, sooner or later, the clouds pass, and the sun will shine bright again. And so will you. In the meantime, as you’re working with those hard feelings, it’s good to remember that the sun is still truly shinning even when those clouds are passing by. And, dear Abbie, so are you.”
The young girl’s head was starting to spin with all she was hearing.
Secondly, just like the stars, be sure to share your light equally with all but pay special attention to those around you who may need it the most. Maybe there’s a kid at school who no one seems to like or is always alone. And, you know, the absolute best is to give something away to someone when they don’t know it was you who gave it. It’ll just make you giggly with happiness! Just remember, when you share your light, you’ll start to run into joy everywhere.”
“But I want someone to know when I do something special for them,” the young girl protested.
“That does feel good, doesn’t it? But one day just try doing something in secret and see what you discover. Just give it a try sometime.”
And, lastly, remember that, as we’re all made of the same stardust that comes from our Creator, the Great Spirit of all things, I’m always with you and you’re always with me. And we’re both a part of all that is. Now that’s the most wondrous thing!”
“. . . a part of all that is . . .” Abbie repeated to herself and then just sat quietly allowing all the swirling in her head to quiet down as she continued to stare up at that North Star that still seemed to be shining the brightest. Then, when she turned to look, the mysterious woman was gone.
“Did I just imagine it?” she wondered. She wanted to go in and tell her family all that the mysterious lady from the North Star had said but decided to just keep it all to herself for now. There was a lot she had to let settle in her heart.
Just then, her younger brother came out to sit on the steps too.
“Hey there,” she said as she hugged him close. “Just look at all those amazing stars. Did you know that the stars are made of stardust?”
“Stardust?” her brother repeated curiously.
“Yes, stardust, just like us! We’re made of stardust, too!” she said.
“No way!” her brother said in disbelief.
“It’s true,” the young girl said . . .
and the North Star continued to shine the brightest in the night sky.
This New Years, I wish for all of us to remember that we’re made of stardust, that it’s our true nature to shine. May we both feel and observe those dark clouds that will inevitably come but also remember that we, just like the stars, could not shine without those dark spaces in between. May we aim to be more like the sun and allow our light to shine on all in equal measure even as we also keep a watchful eye out for those who may need a ray of light in order to remember their own. And may we discover that unparalleled joy that comes in times when we share our love anonymously allowing love to ignite two or more flames at once. And, perhaps most wondrous of all, may we remember that, as sparks of stardust, we’re all born of the one great Star, our blessed Creator, the Great Spirit. Let’s all decide to shine bright like diamonds and light the night sky!
Who knows, just maybe we too will get a special visit from the mysterious lady from the North Star.
Sometimes Christmas shows up in the most unexpected ways—suddenly ringing an ole tune, echoing off a dusty pew from an old country church long ago. I was a young girl when we’d visit my grandparent’s each summer and Sundays meant goin’ to church time. We’d get up early to make sure our best clothes were ironed and our hair curled. Finally, all dressed up to perfection, we’d make our way over town to the small Methodist Church just in time for worship.
My granddaddy had helped to found the church so his name was under one of the small windows which I thought was pretty special. And, like all the other regulars, we had our chosen pew where we’d always sit. All the pews were made of simple wood and were a bit rickety when you sat down. Up front was a padded kneeling bench and a low railing that we’d use for taking Communion. And hanging up on the wall in front was one of those well–known pictures of Jesus—the one where he has long dark hair and he’s gazing upward. Being a one–room church, there wasn’t an organ but, rather, an old piano someone had donated. Some of the keys didn’t play and others would stick off and on so, when the piano player would fall behind a bit, well, we’d just all sing a little louder.
Sometimes there’d be a choir made up of maybe six to eight folks. Funny thing though, several couldn’t carry a tune too well and one dear woman, Miss Mammie Lee, liked to stand up front and sing the loudest. She always seemed to get started a little late and her lone voice would hang in the silence just after the music had stopped. When I was very young, I’d have to squeeze my belly in hard and hold my breath tight to keep from laughing!
Oh, but it’d be a lifetime before I could close my eyes and remember the slightly slivered feel of the rickety pew, hear the just barely–off piano keys ringing loud, and see those choir faces, and only then need to breathe deep to hold in and keep alive all the tender, sweet, memories spilling over the edges of my heart. Over the years, it’s been especially poignant to remember Miss Mammie Lee with her imposing, unrestrained and undiluted voice ringing out. Just the memory of it stirs something so true in me—and I could imagine, perhaps, for all of us as we each time, smiling dutifully, always tried to show our appreciation. Maybe it was something about how, when it comes to worship, just our simple authentic self, not perfection, is quite enough. I don’t know but it seemed to me that by just being who she was and doing what she was doing, she taught us all something about what was really important.
On one Sunday, when I was home from college, my grandmother and I got to go to church alone. On that particular day, the choir led us in the opening hymn, How Great Thou Art, my grandmother’s favorite. As we all stood, I put my arm around her shoulder and together we sang it out—loud, with Miss Mammie Lee leading the way of course. And I cried the whole time. My grandmother had been my saving grace growing up and I knew I’d be etching out this short time deep into the most sheltered place I could possibly find for safekeeping.
Oh Lord, my God
When I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made.
I see the stars. I hear the rolling thunder
Thy power throughout the universe displayed . . .
Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee
How great Thou art . . . How great Thou art . . .
So, today, some fifty years later, I find myself right there in the old church again, standing and singing with my grandmother, and hearing just beyond our own loud voices, Miss Mammie Lee’s sweet echo.
I know in these days of mega–churches with their enamored buildings, organs, his and her choirs, and, of course, around–sound digitized music, such a memory of an old country church may feel quite antiquated. True. Still, I’d give all the world for just one more Sunday—to sit on the rickety seat–worn pew, to sing along with the sticky piano keys and, most of all, to get to hear Miss Mammie Lee once again.
I do believe it would be an awesome wonder.
Merry Christmas everyone!
Here is a picture of the original Methodist Church in Lauderdale, Mississippi.
*A shortened version of this blog was published in the New Hampshire Concord Monitor on Sunday, December 5, 2021. Enjoy this original, expanded, post and feel free to leave a comment. You can learn more about my work at https://www.stephanierutt.com/
“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” Muriel Rukeyser
I don’t write this blog for myself. I’m old now. I’ve lived my life. No, I write it for my daughters, granddaughters and for the generations of girls yet to be born. And, it’s my hope, as well, that my sons, grandsons and the boys yet to be born will also heed the words written here to, perhaps, gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a young girl, a woman, in our society at this critical point in our history . . .
Five years ago, I was sitting in an over–crowded plane trying hard to escape into my new book, The Handmaid’s Tale. Unlike many, I’d not read it years before on its initial release. Next to me was a young man who, seeing it, started a conversation saying he’d read it in one of his college courses. What I remember most about our brief conversation was what I would only distill in retrospect: there’d been a kind of subtle concern in his voice, some fear carefully shrouded—tucked away from any possibility of being spoken aloud dare it become real. He simply said, “I think every young girl and woman should read it,” and then he quickly put on his headphones and escaped away.
Since the recent ruling on abortion in Texas, I’d all but forgotten about that brief encounter. Now I find it echoing off the inner chambers of my mind like some premonition, once barely acknowledged, now ravishing unabated. I’ve watched with shallow breath the steady enactment of legislation clearly designed to remove a woman’s personal autonomy and to, largely, return her to her “rightful place”— to the deemed patriarchy of the family and society. This is promoted under such seemingly innocuous headings as . . . all being in support of traditional values and, of course, always in the best interest of the family. And now, this week, the Supreme Court will take up Mississippi’s abortion rights case putting Roe v Wade on the line.
Particularly when it comes to the issue of abortion, many in the more conservative Christian communities, proclaiming to be pro–life, now are feeling called to rise up and stem the tide of societal decay. However, I would argue that what’s now being labeled pro–life is just the tip of a not–so–subtle proverbial iceberg concealing a much broader movement, a movement that’s allowed for the steady growth of what I would call holy misogyny, a term first coined by scholar April DeConick and popularized by author Sue Monk Kidd. It’s quite perfect, actually. As who could argue with the will of God?
Let’s take a closer look at how the issue of abortion and the–not–so subliminal desire to return women to a handmaid–like existence are related. It seems clear to me that many who would call themselves pro–life are really not pro–life at all but, simply, anti–abortion. In my view, a true pro–life stance would include care and concern for all parties, not just the unborn. Ideally, where an unwanted pregnancy has occurred, all parties would be included in a discussion of potential outcomes based on their particular situation. Andall parties would naturally include the father whose role and responsibility remains conspicuously omitted. Sadly, it’s only the mother who’s being summarily called out, banished, and left isolated and vulnerable to be easily hunted down by self–pointed vigilantes. And, as importantly, if a woman is being required by the State to have a baby, shouldn’t the State then be required to provide support?
And little has felt more misogynistic to me than there being no exceptions for rape or incest. As one who’s sat with hundreds of women for over thirty years as a therapist, minister and spiritual advisor, I’ve heard the stories of many of the one in five of us women who’ve either experienced sexual abuse as a child or will experience an attempted or completed rape as an adult. Clearly the men engaged in the promotion and passage of such legislation as we now see in Texas have never been a young girl, in the middle of the night, lying shaking and terrified of hearing the door open, again, long after the house has gone dark. They’ve never known what it’s like to wake up and have to pretend nothing happened because they know if they said anything the beloved family pet would be killed or their little sister could be next. And those same men have never endured the horror of rape, at least two–thirds of the time perpetrated by someone the victim knows. They’ve never huddled themselves in a fetal position on a shower floor, crying, trying hard to wash away the memory and all the pain now oozing from every cell in their body. And they’ve never had to spend years learning to trust the hands of a good man, desperately hoping that one day they’ll enjoy making love again.
And perhaps most disheartening is how holy misogyny rears its head when, in those rare times, a mother gathers the courage to go and talk to a leader in her more conservative faith community about the abuse she knows is happening in her own home. Sadly, it’s not uncommon to be told in, of course, a very caring way that it’s really her charge to try and be a better wife. If she could just be a better wife, her husband wouldn’t need to seek out such satisfaction from her daughter. And, too often, the mother agrees. This is because she’s long ago put aside those initial feelings and questions about who she is in relation to the men around her.
She long ago suppressed that first time, perhaps sitting in a church, when she may have found herself wondering: God is a man. Jesus was a man. My minister, or priest, is a man. All the disciples were men. The gospels were written by men. Dad, or my husband, is head of the house and he’s a man. Everyone that’s important is a man. Where is there someone good and important who looks like me? What’s wrong with me?
Blessedly, there have been a few signs that this current trend in holy misogyny is just starting to be challenged from right where it needs to be—from Christian men. Perhaps the most prominent challenge came from former President Jimmy Carter when he very publicly decided to sever his ties with the Southern Baptist Convention. According to the October 21, 2000 article in the New York Times, Carter Sadly Turns Back on National Baptist Body, the severing came just four months after the Convention had declared its opposition to women as pastors and who, two years earlier, had called for wives to be submissive to their husbands. Today, Carter, however, continued to be active in his Baptist church in Plains, GA, where his church does allow women to serve as deacons and, as he confirmed, “would not have any problem with a woman as pastor.”
However, the President of the Convention, Rev. James G. Merritt, was not deterred stating, “The vast majority of Southern Baptists are extremely happy with the direction the Convention is taking. We felt the need to turn our denominations back to a more conservative theology, and for whatever reason, the president did not agree with that.” Turn our denomination back, indeed. I found myself wondering about the women: the mothers, wives, daughters, sisters. Were they also extremely happy with the turning back? Were their voices as thoughtfully and equally consulted on the matter as the men’s? More importantly, what have these women done with those initial wonderings? Where, in their bodies and minds, do they remain, yet, silent? Where do they lie . . . in quiet waiting?
And I try to imagine, what would happen if just one of them told the truth about her life?
Of course, many other more conservative Protestant denominations are also gladly operating in full agreement with the Southern Baptist Convention. And Pope Francis has struck a similar tone. While recent changes in canon law now allow women to perform particular functions and grants them access, for the first time, to the altar, the Pope continues to declare that the priesthood is reserved only for men—indeed, any discussion of the matter is off the table. Why? What are the conservative Protestant and Catholic leaders afraid of? I would offer that it’s about the perceived loss of power—the power, clearly justified under the heading of holy misogyny, to ensure that the men continue to enjoy having the only voice in the room—that is, the only voice that truly matters.
One important way this imbalance of power continues to be perpetuated in these more conservative Christian congregations and parishes is through the practice that men may preach to, or teach, both men and women, but women are only invited to teach women. Simply, women don’t teach men. Sad. The men don’t know what they’re missing! I remember many years ago, a man in one of my Bhagavad Gita study groups asked my husband, who was also a participant, how it felt to be in a group with his wife as the leader. I’ll never forget what my husband said, also remembered by those in our community who were there. “If she wanted to learn about support engineering, she’d be in my group. I wanted to learn about the Gita so I’m here. Besides, I see how it’s helped her and I want some of that.” I saw my dear husband, a man fully secure in himself, know how to make his wife smile with enduring gratitude.
Being a predominately Christian nation, I’ve chosen to highlight holy misogyny as it’s thriving in certain Christian communities and influencing our current events. However, I’d be remised if I didn’t also point out that holy misogyny is alive and well across most faith traditions. It’s also fair to say that there’re many caring men, striving to be good husbands and fathers, who happen to adhere to the more conservative, traditional interpretation of the Bible. However, when that caring and goodness takes the form of minimizing the input and participation of the women around them, it’s simply not okay.
What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?
What might happen if more women allowed those initial wonderings, those felt long ago, to rise up? How might we join together to approach today’s challenges? What might we bring to the table to round out such important discussions as the ones happening today around the issue of abortion? How might a demand for the equal consideration of all parties change the dynamic? How might it change our daughters and granddaughters? How might it change the men who will love them?
Yes, let’s not be afraid to ask, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?” Perhaps then, indeed, the world would split open . . . and just maybe we could begin to build a society where all voices are heard and celebrated equally.
June, a character in The Handmaid Tales declares, “They should have never given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army.” Women . . . dare to remember your initial wonderings—wherever and however you may have first felt them. Dare to join a sisterhood, a brotherhood, of those who would stand and fight for a nation, a world, where all of God’s children are equally valued, heard and celebrated.
Do it for all the young girls alive today and for those yet to be born. Do it for all the young boys alive today and for those yet to be born.
After describing the path before us, Stephanie sat there, grinning, ear to ear with excitement. My first thought: “Why is she the only one so excited about us going out to not look for something – rather, to let it find us?” My second thought: “What might she know about what awaits us?” I began my Saturn Walk of the Sage by looking for a path that wasn’t too hard for me to navigate. I walked along something that looked like a golfing green or fairway. I tried hard not to look around for things, but I had to navigate my way lest I fall. Now at the end of the grassy area, I came upon a particular spot that had small colonial columns around a small pool and several benches. I stepped into this gathering place. There was a canopy above with walls of trees banding around it. Just as the trees fixed my attention, I heard, what must have been awaiting my arrival, a chorus of chattering birds all over and other sounds unfamiliar to me – the waves of rustling leaves. There was so much noise surrounding me, immersing me in wonder and delight! I was immediately filled with excitement. And in an instant, I understood exactly what that excitement was that had Stephanie smiling before us! I was so surprised! I had barely found a safe path to this holy place and there it was waiting for me, singing in chorus after chorus, and holding me and I was “beside myself”! Again, I tried not to seek out that which would speak to me. But I turned to see the fullness of this realm before me – and there HE was – a large tree just outside of the concrete circle, yet under the canopy. (picture below) He stood before me, waiting for me to catch His eye watching me . . . as I beheld Him. And He revealed to me His fulness. Then, I sat, waited, and wondered how I could possibly return to our meeting room with a 30-foot tree! Then it happened; kerplunk! A nut as big as my palm gave way to gravity and hit me on my head! (picture below) At once, I thought “This is the treasure that I will take and share with the group.” When I began to think that even these people of God might laugh at my story (and that I should wait a bit longer for another gift), it seemed as though the entire canopy burst into a louder chorus, now with the falling of many hearts! This time, I laughed and took the first seed to our sacred circle. My filled heart overflows . . .
And here is a beautiful poem DeAnne wrote about her experience:
Angel wings spread The white cloud’s canopy fills the sky.
No form surrounds this soul, But sweetly glides –
Taking me to the heights Of silent and dry lightning –
Keeping watch, Guarding mind and spirit, Within, and without –
I have no need of wings To carry nor be lifted now.
Sometimes the most amazing openings come unannounced. Just suddenly they’re there having their way with me. This was one of those times. May this story bring hope and sweet joy to your heart as well . . .
I’d started feeling overwhelmed lately with what’d seemed to be one calamity after another: the reemergence of COVID through the rise of the delta variant—in particular seeing so many children becoming sick; the erratic weather patterns raging across our land effecting so many families in devastating ways; the growing divide in truth–telling between the political right and left creating deepening stress fractures in the very foundation of our democracy; the unbearable, tragic, witnessing of our Afghan brothers and sisters trying so desperately to escape impending Taliban rule as our brave soldiers continue to stand guard monitoring the doorway to freedom. Add to all of this any personal challenges we may be facing and, well, it was just all starting to feel down right crushing to my fledging spirit. What else?????
So today, I decided it was time for serious action and took myself out for one of those long walks on a trail in a near–by park. I put on my favorite pink sweatshirt—the one with black letters, amour, (Spanish for love) and a rose on the front, pulled on my comfy cut–off jeans, and slipped into my favorite walking shoes. Last, I grabbed my headphones and iPod.
I decided to put on Sing Allelu. As you may know, Ah is the sacred sound current of the One called by many names. Christians sing Alleluia praising Abba, Aramaic for father. Jews call out to Yahweh, O God of Israel. Muslims chant la illah ila allah declaring Allah to be the only God. Hindus intone Atman, the universal God–self of each person. So, when I listen to Sing Allelu, one of the first Christian hymns, I think of the Ah . . . the One who cannot be fully known but to whom we can, most unabashedly with no holds barred, sing to, sing about, and sing with!
So, off I went progressively picking up speed until I could barely hold back from skipping. Now, when I walk, I am somewhat aware of those close–by as I do tend to sing along with my music. But today, I didn’t care so much. And then, about ten minutes in, I suddenly saw a feather just out in front of me. Small but impossible to miss. Ah, (no pun intended😊) but this was no ordinary feather. It was a dove’s feather.
Feeling most certain that I’d just struck gold—or, even better, a chord with the Holy Spirit—there was no holding back! My heart did open wide to see Your face—now everywhere before me! From the ones passing who looked at me smiling to others who simply looked away. No matter. Now, I could now see Your face everywhere. Even the stone people, tree spirits, high–flying hawks, and the still canal waters had joined in.
Sing Allelu Sing Allelu . . . We rejoice in Your love most high . . .
In Your Light You shine forever . . . shine in us O Lord forever,
We’re the light to the world Allelu!
Suddenly, all the world was singing and I allowed myself to just be moved along on the gathering winds beneath my feet, guided now by the feather directing, compelling, my every step. For my beloved feather had become something like a conductor’s baton as I, now full of fervor, imagined directing all those who could to rise up and join in the chorus—to sing out loud and free—We’re the light to the world Allelu! Yes! We’re the light to the world, you and I, right here and now, in the park, in the subway, in a crowd, in our solitude, in our laughter, in our tears, in the midst of deep challenge and suffering, in the heart of joy and gratitude. No matter who we are, where we are, or what may be happening in our lives or beyond, we are still, unequivocally, unmistakably, unapologetically, the light to the world!
And I could feel the holy spirit in my feather directing those gathering winds to move across time and space to wisp gently up against all those who were suffering; to soothe the unnamable; calm the heart spasms; restore peace to those too weary to get up; and, to deliver a song of love to all who’d forgotten they could sing.
Sing Allelu Sing Allelu
We’re the light to the world Allelu!
Thank you blessed dove for your feather and for the power of the Holy Spirit it brought reminding me, us, all the world, that we are each, indeed, the light of the world and, most blessedly. . . for the remembrance that we can, together, raise up one voice to. . .
Rev. Dr. Stephanie Rutt offers her work through the Tree of Life School for Sacred Living, LLC, and also serves as Founding Minister of the Tree of Life Interfaith Temple in Amherst, NH. She is the author of five books and additional interfaith curricula. To learn more about her books, as well as online and in-person classes and workshops, please visit her website at https://www.stephanierutt.com.