Sometimes, a few words fill a void that has been within for a long, long time. Sometimes, I have heard those few words in a story, real or imagined.
“The Island” is a Russian language movie that tells the story of the sailor Anatoly and his captain, captured by a German vessel during World War 11. To save his own life, the Russians instruct him to kill his captain, Tikhon; afraid of death, Anatoly complies.
The next day Anatoly, who has survived, is saved by monks on the shore. Filled with guilt over his choice to kill his captain, Anatoly becomes the stoker – the keeper of the fire – for the monastery, and as the years pass, he also provides wisdom and healing to people who come to the monastery.
Many years later, an Admiral brings his daughter, possessed by a demon, to the monastery for healing. Anatoly exorcises the demon. Anatoly learns that the father of the girl is Tikhon, the man he thought he had killed to save his own life. Tikhon forgives Anatoly.
Within days, Anatoly prepares for his death. The monks bring him a coffin, and he lies in the coffin, apparently awaiting his death. A monk – a man who has frequently had difficulties with Anatoly, leans into the coffin and asks Anatoly for some words of wisdom, words that he might now have, as he faces imminent death.
Anatoly speaks: “Just live your life, and try not to sin too much.”
It was in the beginning of January, 2001. My mother was in the last days of her life, and she lay on her bed, under hospice care, in the Mathilda Brown Home in Oakland, every day, all day. I sat with her often – as often as possible – and we chatted idly, our conversation about ordinary things. From time to time, Mom would close her eyes as she lay on her back, and I sat in the silence – our last times together.
At the time, I was the proud and enthusiastic owner of the Palm Pilot, powered by batteries, that held my calendar.
One afternoon, I sat next to Mom’s bed as she rested, and because I had not brought a book or other work from my office, I turned on my little computer-calendar and started to play Solitaire- a bonus feature. A few moments later, Mom sat up, and threw her legs over the side of the bed, as she looked at the object in my hands. “What is that?” she asked.
Over the years, I’ve come to value my own curiosity more and more. Curiosity has been a great gift to me. As I get older, I know that I prefer to spend my time with curious people – people whose sights are set on the abundance of wonder in the world. Their curiosity may lead them to interests that aren’t mine, but it’s the quality they possess that makes them interesting – and, well, curious – to me. What they give me from what they’ve received from their own interests continually makes my life richer.
And their curiosity flows over – to people. Curious people are interested in other people, about the world other people inherit, about how other people got to where they are going now, what decisions they made, who they’ve encountered in their lives. Over the years, my friends loved to visit with my parents. In their small living room, my friends’ lives were of interest to Mom and Dad, whose lives were enriched by the young people in their lives. Mom and Dad were interested in the lives of the young people who visited, and the young people knew that – and liked it.
My brother Ronn was 9 years older than me; he married when I was 14. In my eyes, he was all grown up, making his way in the adult world. One day, after he’d been married a year or so, he said something to me that I’ve never forgotten: “Do you know that some people are not as interested in things as we are in our family?” “No,” I answered Ronn, in response to his reflective question. I’ve never forgotten his question, his observation, really, about the world as he saw it – his own world growing larger by his connection to another family.
Curiosity has led me to be curious about myself, to be curious about my inner life, about what has brought me here, about who and what I’ve encountered over the course of the years of my life. My curiosity extends to other people: what makes them tick? In my mind, curiosity is not dependent on finding answers; curiosity is interested in questions…
I’ve always loved libraries. What better place than a building whose purpose is to hold books, computers, magazines – all filled with something to satisfy someone’s curiosity – or to leave someone’s curiosity unsatisfied, so that they have to go back for more?!?
I didn’t come from highly educated people, people with degrees and titles. But I did come from a curious sort, people whose eyes lit up with the discovery of that was new, new in their lives. I expect that the quality of being curious is not related to education.
And would the world be different, if human beings were less concerned with certainty than with curiosity?
My mother did not graduate from high school, although she received her GED while I was in university. I know for certain she did that so that I would graduate with a degree, since I was wavering, and had taken a semester off during my senior year at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. She didn’t tell me her reason to do it then, but I knew. When she received her certificate, I sent her a spring bouquet.
Mom quit school early to work. She married young, also, and had a son within a year – Ron, my brother. Mom was bright. Now, when Mom comes up in conversation, I tell folks that she should have been a teacher – a kindergarten or first-grade teacher. The daughter of Ukrainian immigrants who lived in flats in neighborhoods of poor folks, it was enough that she learned to read and write. She taught her father to read English when she was a girl. In my mind’s eye, I can see her, bright and determined, her feet wrapped around the rungs of a wooden chair in a cramped Milwaukee flat, as her father, Vlas, paced – determined, also. He was smart, although illiterate in his native language. He made that long trip across the ocean, left the familiar village of his homeland so that his children could learn to read and to write.
So Mom knew the value of education, although she could not see to get a degree herself. The life of a working class woman in that era intervened. She was married and divorced by the age of 22. She worked hard at Cutler-Hammer in Milwaukee, where her employers noticed the bright, hard-working young woman. Although she had greater earning potential than my father, she quit her job when she married again. That’s how things were done.
When I was girl, I walked 3 blocks to the Center Street Library – on 27th and Center – with Mom, every week. She must have read all of the books in the “mystery” section of that library. It was in those days that I learned to love the smell of libraries. In a library, it seems we can smell the riches of what is carried in the aisles. Twice in my life I have worked in a library – in high school, and again in seminary. For awhile as an undergraduate, I flirted with the idea of becoming a librarian. Books would save me, many times, during my life.
When Mom and I left the Center Street Library to walk home, we each carried two or three books to read for the week ahead. I see now that Mom was living her mantra, handing it to me: “you learn something new every day.” I was not able to see that for many years, but now, in my own learning, I understand. And I came to see that the learning that comes every day is not always in books!
Mom taught me how to wash clothes, too. During summers when I was a young girl, my babushka-d Mom would take me down three flights of stairs to the shared basement of our flat to show me how to wash clothes. I remember the smells – the damp and soapy smell of the basement, the hot, steaming water of the wringer washer. Into the first load went whites – sheets, pillow cases, underwear. Into the second load of the same water went towels and colored clothing. Into the last load went Dad’s work clothes. I know the smell, I can see the beautiful wooden stick Mom used to lift the clothes from the washer into the first rinse water, and then into the final rinse before the clothes were taken in the large wooden basket into the yard to dry in the humid air. As I write, I can smell the air, too.
If I could have one item of Mom’s, it would be that wooden stick, smooth, smelling of soapy water, imprinted with Mom’s hands, her weeping and her worries. Like most of what has been held and used over the years, that wooden stick is gone.
I see Mom’s broad, strong peasant hands, hands that in later years would be crooked with arthritis. She was a worker, teaching a little girl whose work is ideas and books and the fabric of words. “You learn something new every day.” I took those words into myself, and I made them my own.
The path I have taken through life has been the path of learning, too, not always from books. I keep your mantra, Mom.
When I was a girl, my father would say from time to time: “my life has gone by so quickly.” I would look at him, just little, and wonder what he meant, and how that could be. I could not relate. Some people say that time goes more slowly for the young, when all the years stretch out beyond, when growing up is something to be yearned for and in the yearning, of course, time passes slowly. But my memory is of that question or wondering that was in me when I heard my father reflect. Later, he would quote again and again, this Bible verse: “A thousand years is but a day in the eyes of the Lord.” Apparently, my dad did not stop thinking about the passage of time.
Often, I think of my most cherished memories, as “life has gone by so quickly.” My memories include those days on my visits to Milwaukee to see my mother, after I had moved to the Bay Area of California, after my father had died. My mother lived in a small upper floor apartment on a busy street close to the center of Milwaukee, and I would stay in the cramped second bedroom, the noise of the busy thoroughfare keeping me awake nights.
Both mom and I were “Milwaukee girls.” We had grown up in the flats that line the streets of poor and working class neighborhoods of the North Side. Those flats are still there.
We knew the streets, the bus lines, the parks, and we knew the sense of “small town-ness” that Milwaukee cherished for a long time. We knew the particular kind of diversity of that place – the streets where Eastern European communities lived, the place where the Italians built their church, now a Cathedral to welcome the Bishop from Rome, the places where African Americans came to live, to build community, during the Great Migration. We knew the part of town where people from Mexico came to live among others who spoke their native language. We knew how to navigate to new places, too, in that city laid out in a grid. I have never understood how to find places in cities that are new to me. How can addresses not make sense, like they do in Chicago and Milwaukee, a small Chicago?
On my visits to see Mom, before the dementia took her away,, we set aside a day to “do Milwaukee.” After coffee and breakfast, we backed her car out of the garage and onto the busy street. We had no particular plan, except to explore old places that held meaning for us, to make our way to the Milwaukee Art Center at some point, to have lunch out, and maybe to do a bit of shopping along the way. I loved those small adventures. I loved the fun we had together: “that’s the fun of it!” was one of my mother’s expressions.
On one of our adventures, we discovered again a small section of town filled with Ukrainian immigrants. My mother’s first language was Ukrainian, and so we ventured into a small bakery, a storefront, and she stumbled to say a few words to the man behind the counter. He understood, all right, and soon we found ourselves in another cramped space, the family’s living room, complete with an altar adorning a corner. They were Ukrainian Catholics, and a candle burned in that corner, lighting up the features of the Virgin Mary, her eyes cast down, her blue gown ending at her bare feet, on a sphere covered with stars.
On another adventure, I gazed at my mother as she gazed at one of her favorite paintings in the Milwaukee Art Museum, The Wood Gatherer, by Jules Bastien-Lepage. Later, Mom told me her wonderings about the scene that painting depicted, her own story fleshing out the art. I still own a print of that painting.
One day at lunch we found ourselves in an old Italian neighborhood for an Italian lunch, another at a Jewish deli across from a synagogue.
As the years passed, it was harder and harder for mom to enjoy those days, until the last time we set out. We did not know it was the last time, but something had changed. We returned home to her apartment right after lunch. Soon enough, I’d have to move Mom out of her apartment and into assisted living in the Bay Area, a move which she made bravely and with great trust.
I suppose some part of me thought those adventures would go on forever, that those times when we laughed and remembered and saw old things new again, would not end. All times end. Now, those days are distant memories, and I continue to cherish them as some of my favorite times.
Here, I find myself years later, remembering those small adventures, remembering the tilt of Mom’s head as she laughed, remembering the narrow streets we knew so well, remembering driving her blue Tercel all over the city we loved. I’m in the memory time for so many people I have loved, so many experiences, so many grievances that had filled my life over the years. All of those beloved people, all of those rich days are a memory, now.
Many years ago, to help myself not only to understand intellectually my faith, but to embody my faith, I took a very interesting class with a woman teacher in the Bay Area, Wendy Palmer. The class was called: “Aikido as Spiritual Practice.” I learned many things about myself in that class – takes a good teacher to offer that! – and one in particular has stayed with me through the years. The point of the practice was to stay self-contained, to not be thrown off by an attack. The first time I practiced the movement, my very tiny teacher stood about 6 feet in front of me holding a very big stick above her head. (No kidding). When she quickly brought the stick straight down in front of her, I pivoted, and in doing so, I turned to face the way she was facing, my arms out around her body, and me, still on my feet!
I loved this practice, for what it taught me about myself. I learned that I needed to stay focused on my own path to stay on my feet. I learned not to look my opponent – in this case, my teacher – in the eye. That would engage her as my enemy. That would mean I would use my energy to figure out what she was going to do. Then, I would wobble, lose my balance, lose my own ground. Instead, I looked beyond her as she stood across from me; I looked beyond her, toward my vision, my path, my purpose. I kept my eyes on the path I meant to take. In doing this, I embraced her energy, I protected her with my body, I saw things from her point of view, and I stayed firmly planted on my feet. I didn’t see her, then, as enemy, but as an encounter on my path: part of the journey.
Every year at Lent I think of what I learned as I practiced Aikido. In my imagination, I engage with the Gospel story: I see Jesus, going out to teach, to heal, to feed the hungry – his sight focused, always, on Jerusalem. To me, Jerusalem is a character in the Gospel account of Jesus’ ministry. Jerusalem looms ahead- always. Jesus is firmly rooted on the path he is taking. The disciples, his companions on the journey, don’t get it. They are worried about things: “how do we feed all these people?” they ask. At every turn, they get flustered, confused.
When we start on the path – the path that is our True Self – we are like the disciples. We are engaged in a dual with the ego. We are afraid. What if I let go? What will happen to me? How can I trust? How can I do it? That inner battle holds sway over us, makes us afraid.
And when the ego holds sway over us, it holds us hostage. We are bound to it. We listen to what it tells us. We are afraid.
There is a freedom, real freedom, to choose to walk the path that is yours. There is a freedom in choosing that other way. There is a freedom, inner freedom, and powerful, that sustains you, no matter what happens. You stay on your feet. You keep to the path. You encounter the people, the events, the happenings that you need to make the journey.
You stay on your feet.
And, today, we continue to pray with and for the people of Ukraine, the people of Russia, the world.