Magic seems to permeate this season of the year, the time when the darkness descends upon us – literally – and we are full into the darkness. In my life and spiritual practice, it is certain that when I descend into the darkest place, the light, the new emerges. The promise of those who have gone before is that there will be light, there will be another day. And another day arrives, new – Magic.
When I was a child, my sense of wonder provided a kind of Magic. On Christmas Eve, my non-churched family attended a church to be present for the children’s program. I was among the children who stood to recite the Christmas story, verse by verse, for the gathered adults, the sanctuary filled with lights, the light of candles, the smells and sounds of a place with a cold winter: cold hands and faces, warm wool outerwear. What I remember about those Christmas Eve times is the sense of Magic I held as a child – that Magic itself something holy, something that would pass away, away from me as I entered puberty and young adulthood. Nothing can replace the Magic of that time and place, still clear in my memory.
A few days ago, as the light of the day was ending, Jeff finished his work on the strip of land we call, “the Panhandle,” where he has lately installed a neighborhood library – a beautiful wooden box complete with a glass door that a friend crafted to suit the vision Jeff and I had. As soon as the library was installed, a few books appeared. One day, I watched as a woman I did not know stopped her car and delivered several books to the library. Our vision has come to life! Our vision is useful! Our vision is beautiful!
That day, as the sun set over San Francisco Bay, barely visible from our windows on View Place, Jeff stepped into the kitchen and looked out to the West as the sun was setting. He had cut the branches of a tree in our yard that had hid the site we were seeing. Jeff called me over to stand with him at the window. And there – there! – as if the moment was for us alone – our own screen on the sun setting over the Bay – the outline of downtown San Francisco, coated in grey fog and lit by the lights of the City – shone before us. Magic! I named our view, “The City of God,” and we stood for a few moments as the vision faded, as the sun sank lower into the Pacific beyond the City. Then – gone.
The simple gifts of light, of a tree with golden leaves about to fall, of my cat who comes to sit close to me on the couch to receive a good petting, of an old recipe for borscht that gives us a week of meals. These simple gifts are Magic to me.
“The City of God,” photo by Mary Elyn Bahlert, Oakland, 12/2022
One Sunday morning in 2002, as I was in the sanctuary at Lake Merritt United Methodist Church in Oakland, preparing for worship, I saw an elderly African American couple I had not seen before. It was my practice to arrive early, while the choir rehearsed, to greet folks I knew, and to personally welcome people I did not know. When I walked up to Joanne and Earl that morning, they stood, and Joanne spoke first, introducing herself, and then her husband: “this is Earl,” she said. “He’s a Bishop,” she added. I saw the look of pride that moved across his face at that moment.
An African Methodist Episcopal Bishop, Earl had chosen to have a community outside of his denomination to make his home in retirement.
I came to know that every emotion showed in Earl’s face: tears shed, eyes shut tight in laughter, a wandering look when he was wondering. Every emotion showed and was quickly replaced by the next emotion. Sometimes anger and frustration, the next moment, joy, laughter. After a time, Bishop Earl volunteered in the church office, and often as I worked in my study there, I would hear his booming voice as he answered the phone, and laughter – also booming – from the office staff, and from Bishop Earl himself.
My husband has an expression that he saves to describe certain people, and I think it applied to Bishop Earl: “he was helplessly himself.” And for those of us who knew him, his being himself filled our lives with kindness, with sincerity, with happiness.
Over the years I pastored at Lake Merritt Church, Earl and I spent lots of time together. One day, we visited the Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, where Earl parked his car and walked to the stone crypt that held his oldest daughter. He cried, and his little dog, who stayed in the car with me, whimpered as she watched him in that sad and lonely place. When he returned to the car, Earl was all words again, and soon we were laughing, enjoying the day. Sometimes, Earl would take me to another of his favorite eating places, and we’d talk and laugh over lunch together. When my mother died, he was one of the first to talk to me, to offer his condolences, and he preached for me that day after she died, on short notice.
I can remember the exact place in Oakland where, stopped at a stoplight, Earl and I were talking about our favorite kinds of music. I told him that I loved the blues. He burst into song, singing the blues – in his deep, resonant voice. We laughed, and laughed again!
My mother-in-law, Betty, was a reserved woman from a small community in Wisconsin. On one of our visits to see her, she answered the phone to hear Bishop Earl asking to speak to “his children.” She handed the phone over to me quickly, not sure what to make of this!
Joanne’s health failed before Bishop Earl’s, and they moved away. On one of his return trips to Oakland, where their daughters still lived, Earl invited me to hear him preach at a small church near my home. That’s the last time I saw Earl; as I walked away, I watched him court the women, speak with respect to the men. Many years have passed, but I still think of him when I pass that little church.
This past week, I read a distressing article on my news app. The article recounted that a right-wing pastor in Tennessee declared to his congregation that God had told him to burn “evil books,” after which the pastor led his congregants outside, where they burned books together, in a huge bonfire. In his mind, these books are a threat to his religious rights, freedoms, and belief system. Apparently this is not the first time the young man has caused a stir, as over the past 2 years – when the country and the world have been dealing with the COVID pandemic, and over 900,000 Americans have died of the disease – he has denied the pandemic.
I’m reminded of Bob Dylan’s words: “You’re gonna have to serve somebody Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord… But you’re gonna have to serve somebody…” And John Lennon, reacting to those words, wrote: You gotta serve yourself… Ain’t nobody gonna do it for you
“Book burning refers to the ritual destruction by fire of books or other written materials. Usually carried out in a public context, the burning of books represents an element of censorship and usually proceeds from a cultural, religious, or political opposition to the materials in question. The burning of books under the Nazi regime on May 10, 1933, is perhaps the most famous book burning in history.” (credit to: encyclopedia.ushmm.org; Holocaust Encyclopedia).
Every day, the great divide in the United States grows, right and left separated from one another, malice for the other accelerating on both sides. Many people in this country are armed, some with assault weapons, a testament to their “Second Amendment Rights.” In their ignorance, they will not travel to other places – where they could see the vast diversity of how human beings live.
I won’t say that this is dangerous; that is obvious. What I want to say is that I grieve for this country. We have gutted our educational system, and in its place are dangerous ideologies that rely on the ignorance of those who hold them. I grieve for the children of this country, in particular the children who will be educated in public schools, children who are not privileged, children whose lives could be opened and enlightened by an education that teaches them to think for themselves, to hold the common good, to be kind to one another, even those who are different. I am fearful for them, and I am fearful for the future that this lack of education will mean to this country, and to the world.
Apparently, the United States, this “great” country, will be empowered by refusing to educate its young, by refusing to to send them into the world as world citizens, as people with respect – for themselves, and for other human beings, whoever they are, however different they may be.
I like to say: “your God is too small.” A small God is a dangerous God, undoubtedly a God who takes orders from the ego, that small part, that fearful part, that wounded part of each one of us, the part we grew from our wounds. This small God is the God of ideologies.
And those who choose this God will be those who hurt other human beings, other living things. Wounded people – hurt people – hurt other people.
You can’t argue with someone whose “God is too small.” There is no room for compassion, for growth, for understanding. There is no room for difference, diversity.
As I get older, I am more and more aware that my life has been shaped, has been formed, has been gifted by, and has been empowered by the education I received in the 50’s and 60’s in the public schools. I am ever grateful for the teachers I had: several were Jews, professional teachers who loved their subject, who loved their work, who wanted to give to the children who were entrusted to them. Several had fled Europe during the Holocaust – and spent their lives giving to the next generation. I am grateful for teachers who taught us to think, to consider, to open our minds, our thinking by reading, learning, and discerning. They taught us by who they were, by their example, by their choice to take on an important profession. They taught us by by their willingness to teach us how to think – to think for ourselves. And in their teaching, they gifted us their longing for a just, kind, and peaceful world. By example, they taught us that there was a way to live with one another.
Through their teaching, and through the example of our elders – even those who were not educated, as in my family – they taught us that we could be citizens who could think, who had historical memory that would continue to teach us, that even those of us who came from poor, working class families could be educated. The public schools taught us this.
And now, every year, the schools in this country are at the bottom of what is deemed important. Instead of being highly regarded for teaching students how to think, they are required to teach students what to think. The best people will not want to be part of that legacy. We will assure that by our actions as a country.
We are all suffering from this world view. We will continue to suffer. We will continue to raise up children – young people – who cannot think for themselves, and because they cannot think for themselves, can be led by damaged, dangerous people – even people who claim to speak for “God.” And we, then, will be responsible for the injustices, for the damage done to other human beings, whoever they are. We will be responsible.
When I was young, my having teachers who opened my mind and experience, gave me the gift of thinking that I could serve, too, that maybe I could leave something of value for the world when it came time for me to leave. Now, in the Wisdom Years, I am less certain.
Over the past two years, life has developed a new rhythm. I didn’t choose to move into a new rhythm – the choice was made, and given to me, as it was given to everyone else. In the first days of the COVID sheltering-in-place mandate, the streets were quiet. If I needed to drive myself, it was seldom, and for short distances. For the most part, I stayed close to home.
You have your story of COVID-time, I’m sure. This is my story.
Activities that were meaningful to me – classes at a Senior Center, or volunteering as a chaplain at a local hospital – stopped immediately. My familiar routine was erased, also. A few friends stayed in contact as they adjusted to this change in all our lives; one friend, who is the last person to call – ever – called me one evening just to chat. At Thanksgiving, we had to forgo the usual family gathering in San Francisco for a ZOOM call, listening to each person talk about what their life was like now.
Some days, my husband and I would drive a distance – 30, 40 miles – to walk. Over time, we developed favorite places, places to which we’ve returned again and again. We came to enjoy walks at the Martinez Slough, where we watched the water ebb and flow from the tide, sometimes allowing us to see a shipwreck in the Carquinez Strait, sometimes not. Often afterward, we’d drive through the neighborhoods of Martinez, sightseers with a lot of time on our hands. Or we’d walk downtown, alone on the empty streets.
We walked in downtown Oakland, too, not far from our home. In the weeks after the George Floyd protests, we took our time, looking at the graffiti that lined the buildings on Broadway. We stopped to take pictures. We discovered places in our city we had not seen before, or places that we had only driven past in our cars.
As the months passed, we became more accustomed to this new, quieting rhythm, and we added new sites to our list of walks. One day, we drove to Half Moon Bay, where we walked along the shore of the Pacific Ocean, and then we walked on the high ridge that overlooks the shore. Because we live across the Bay from San Francisco, whose skyline we can see from our front window, we started to drive across the Bay Bridge – a dream to drive in pandemic days, with so little traffic! – to a different neighborhood on each visit, for a long walk on the hills, taking in the sites of the new places that we discovered.
One day in the fall of that first year, we drove to Apple Hill in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains for the yearly Apple Festival. We were grateful that the booths and stands, open-air, were open, yet were not filled with people from a long line of tour buses, which they had been in the past. The sight-seers’ loss was our gain as we enjoyed the quiet and safe surroundings.
Those early days of the pandemic are in the past, now. The busy street a block from our house is busy again. During the day and at night, I can hear the traffic passing, cars filled with folks busy in their lives. Now, although I continue to go to the grocery store early in the day – a habit I developed during the pandemic – even then, it can be busy, with lines of people waiting to check out.
Now, we are waiting – again – for another spike in COVID cases to complete its work, and, now, having learned about the ability of the virus to evolve again, and again, those early days are a long time ago. This is a new time, it seems.
Still, what will our lives be like when we are not barraged daily with new virus updates – the number of deaths, rising again, news stories of the famous who have lost their lives to COVID, COVID as the central and first news story, day after day?? We listen to the news each day, noting whether or not COVID is the first story of the newscast.
I’m in an in-between time, once again, in my life. What will interest me now? Where will I ever want to go, after this pandemic has moved into endemic mode? What will this new stage of my life, a stage I am not entering alone, but with all the other inhabitants of this world, be like? What will have changed, and what will not have changed? I guess, mostly, this is a time of questions.
A few weeks ago I watched an online video about a woman who, from her front window, waved to the high school students who walked past her house day after day, morning and afternoon. Because they were accustomed to her being at the window, the young people waved back. After years of this interchange, the students invited their friend – a woman in her 90’s! – to their school to honor her.
Take a look out the window!
In some neighborhoods in most cities, people are afraid to look out their windows. That’s hard for me to imagine, and maybe it is for you, too. But it’s true. Folks are afraid to look out their windows because they might be seen by the crack dealer who walks the street, the crack dealer who carries a gun. Folks are afraid to look out their windows because they are afraid to be called as witnesses to the crime that is living in the streets.
That can happen to any of us. Unless we take a few moments today to look out our windows, to see what is happening on the street, to witness who is passing by, or to see who is missing today, we’ll lose control of our communities.
Over the past several months, students from a nearby high school have taken to climbing up the hill from the main drag that runs through this part of the city, to walking across the quiet street that leads to a cul de sac, and to sitting on the wall that marks the edge of my yard. I took a look at the kids as I parked my car, making sure they noticed me, as I had noticed them. When I came into the house, I went over to the window that looks out onto the wall. There they have gathered, talking, laughing, playing music. They look like young kids to me, and they look like kids just young enough to pay attention to adults.
That day, I opened the window and told them that this is private property. They looked up at me – ! – and answered politely that they weren’t harming anything. But I wanted them to know I’d noticed. A few minutes later, I heard a loud “pop!”, and laughter. Again I opened the window, but this time, in a firmer voice, I told them they’d have to go. When they didn’t leave, I opened the window a third time and told them I’d call the police if they didn’t leave.
Wow! young people can certainly run fast! I saw about 7 or 8 kids go running back across the street and down the hill onto the sidewalk of the main drag! Whew! That didn’t take much!
I know I’m just another old person to those kids. Anyone over 30 is old to them, after all! But I also know that I’m doing my best to keep my own community safe. I can’t do that alone. I need other well-meaning folks to keep an eye on the street, like I do. I need other kind people to point out clear boundaries to young people who are simply doing what young people do – hanging out together, maybe skipping afternoon classes.
When I was in junior high at Peckham (now Jackie Robinson) Junior High School in Milwaukee, I lived in an upper flat on Medford Avenue. I walked the mile to school, morning and afternoon. My parents rented that flat from Mrs. Schmidt, a widow who seemed very old to me at the time. Every day when I walked up the driveway next to the house to the back door and into the narrow hallway to take the steps to the second floor, I saw Mrs. Schmidt sitting in her chair by the front room window. Recognizing me, she waved – every single day.
I think adults weren’t as leery of young people those days as we are now. But Mrs. Schmidt was keeping watch, in her own way, of who walked up the driveway. One time she knocked menacingly on the window when my friend Sharon came to see me; later, my mother told Mrs. Schmidt that Sharon was the daughter of the Baptist minister, and Mrs. Schmidt didn’t try to motion her away again!
Sometimes we do what’s right, and sometimes we don’t do what’s right. How do we ever know for sure? At the very least, take a look out the window – today!