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Destroying the sacred

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.

“The Path,” photo by Mary Elyn Bahlert, 10/2021

beauty, nostalgia

Mid-winter

Were I still living in the Upper Midwest, I’d be in the thick of winter: navigating weather from snow storm to snow storm, carefully descending steps in case a bit of ice clings to the edge of a step, dressing in layers – lots of layers – before going out for the day, idling the car in a store parking lot to get it warmed up for a short drive, driving carefully on city streets to avoid patches of ice, sometimes swerving, having not avoided unseen ice,and sitting in a cozy house, watching flakes fall, early in a storm.

While winter is long, dark, cold, cold, cold, and wet (or icy) -there’s nothing like it.

But I’m not in the Upper Midwest. I live in Northern California, the Bay Area, where I get to enjoy a mild winter, and where I long for a storm in these days – years – of drought all over the West, where I both cherish the mild climate and long for snow and the coziness that arrives along with the winter storms. Although I expected “sunny California” when I moved here, it didn’t take me long to learn that we have a Mediterranean climate in the Bay Area, with lots of fog, fog which often burns off by late afternoon (because of climate change, we do get a lot more sunshine these past few years, and earlier in the day).

In a way, I’ll always be a Midwesterner, although I’ve lived in the Bay Area over half of my life. Every couple of years, I have a longing in me that will not be satisfied until I make it “home” again, to the place that marked my early years, to the places that gave me a start in life. For many years after I moved to Northern California, I would catch a feeling of nostalgia when I went outdoors. I’d be homesick, not knowing why. It came on suddenly, had me remembering places, people, often thinking about the people I loved, many now gone a long time. Later that day, I’d discover that there was a bit of humidity in the air. The humidity had brought on the nostalgia.

My brother-in-law, Randy Kunkel, wrote a Haiku for me, many years ago. I discovered it in some old files the other day:

She draws a deep breath

Unexpected humid air

Nostalgia aroused.

We’ve still got weeks of winter here, longing for rain, hoping, watching the skies: “Is rain coming, or will the gray skies give way to another beautiful day?” At the same time, some trees have already begun to blossom. Today, I took a look at my Korean Lilac – planted by my husband Jeff for me – to see that it is beginning to bud, and February not even here!

In the Midwest, I loved, loved the lilac trees full of fragrant blossoms which graced front lawns in May for several weeks. When I had a tree in my own front yard, I’d cut an armful of blossoms and put them in water to grace my kitchen table before the blossoms went a way. If I didn’t have a tree, I’d have to beg from the neighbors. Nothing like a blossoming lilac tree, gracing lawns in the city or bestowing its fragrance in the house in early spring, coming through open windows, a luxury.

My Korean lilac will blossom this spring, too. It’s getting ready to blossom. This lilac does not need the freeze like the variety in the Midwest, and its blossoms are not as abundant, but the blossoms give the same fragrance as the lilacs I knew as a child and young adult.

I’m grateful.

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Where I came from

When I was five years old – five years and one month old – I started the long walk from 11 and Ring Street in Milwaukee to 9 and Ring Street, where I entered kindergarten at LaFollette Grade School.  Those two blocks were long walks for a little girl.  I expect – although I don’t remember – that my mother must have anxiously walked with me the first day or so, pushing in a stroller my baby sister, Susan, who had been born that March.  After that first day or two or three, I walked those blocks with the other children from my neighborhood.

When I return to drive through those streets now, I see how short the blocks were, moving west to east, toward “the Lake:”  Lake Michigan.  I think of myself as growing up on the shores of Lake Michigan; it’s not too much of a stretch to think that way.  The shore of Lake Michigan formed my compass-point, my sense of direction,  for many, many years.  “The Lake is on the east,” I think, “so I must be facing north, and to get there, I have to turn left, to the west…”  etc.  Years later, when I land in the Bay Area of California, I find that directions are figured differently.  “Turn right at the second gas station, then get into the left lane.  You’ll turn left at the next stop light.”  When I work at my first job in graduate school, someone hears me giving directions and says:  “You must be from the Midwest.”  Good guess.

That’s how our lives grow, how the edges of our lives expand:  by walking those few blocks to kindergarten, leaving home for the first time.  The edges widen by talking to kids whose lives inside their narrow flats are different.  I hear about dads who are mean, for example, and I hear about mothers who laugh a lot.  Until I leave my house in September of 1954 to walk those few blocks, my imagination does not hold space for those possibilities. 

I am nostalgic for those streets, for those city spaces, for the shadows under the big elms that parade along the streets, for those narrow stairs with the small window on the right at the top, that lead to the second story flat with its small front room, tall windows, its small bathroom with the clawfoot tub that was used by 5 people without a thought that it could be otherwise.   My nostalgia wants to be satisfied, so I ride my laptop via google earth to the front of that flat; I walk with google the two short blocks to La Follette School.  I still see the beauty that was there, and I see the poverty, the simplicity of those flats, as well.

On the way to school one day, I learn that I am not Catholic.  Michelle, my neighbor across the alley (which runs next to my house), a year older then me, asks me one day, as we walk to school:  “Are you Catholic?”  I don’t know.  That night, I ask my mother if I am Catholic, and she tells me no.  I do not know the fraught history that lies behind her answer, and I will not know, for many years, the fraught history and the longing that goes with not being Catholic, in me. 

At LaFollette School, I am introduced to a kind of diversity, for the first time.  I sit near the front, always, our seats assigned alphabetically by teachers in navy blue polka dotted dresses.  In those narrow rows, in those wooden desks with holes for ink pots still marking the right hand side, I sit beside the children of first and second generation immigrants.  I do not know that many of my classmates speak a different language at home.  In my house, I often hear Ukrainian words, spoken with a kind of mysterious wink; from time to time, when my grandma visits, she and my mother speak their native tongue. 

In autumn, the elm trees that line Ring Street turned bright colors.  As  I walk, I often catch a maple seed – a helicopter to enchant children – as it floats to the ground.  Over the street, the trees meet to form a ceiling that arches from one street to the next.  In later years, Dutch Elm disease would take the elms away, and when I see these streets now they are just beginning to be tree-lined again, after many years. 

In winter, snowbanks form a path for children, four foot high, on the strip of land between the road and the sidewalk.  After a winter storm, the tops of the snowbanks form a hardened, frozen, flat sidewalk parallel to the cement sidewalk.   At the corner, I climb that tall bank of snow and stand taller than any adult, until I take the steps – made by other children – down again, at the place the alley meets the street.  After I’ve crossed the alley, I climb the snowbank again.

In spring, I walk to school as the glorious, wide, lilac bushes on front lawns float their purple flowers, their scent into the air.

meb/2021

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A New Rhythm

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.

Driving into Oakland from San Francisco on the Bay Bridge, March 16, 2020. The ship pictured was a cruise ship stranded in Oakland at the beginning of the pandemic. Photo credit: Mary Elyn Bahlert

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Lost and Found

Pacific, Storm, January, 2017 (meb)

3A7D9350-A86B-47E8-9C88-03FE96170983Sometimes, the path is not clear.  What will I do with my one “wild and precious life?”  I continue to ask, even this late in the journey.  The world is mine; I have my whole life of experience behind me.  Much that preoccupied me in earlier years will not arise again (thank God!).  And still, there is this yearning.

If I could do anything, what would it be?  These are the wonderings, the meanderings of a person of privilege in this world, to be sure.  Should I write?  Of course.  Should I travel?  Yes, as long as I can, and am able.  As long as I have other places to explore.  Should I sing?  Oh, yes!

How can I serve?  That has been a question I have held within myself since I was young, and that question alone has been a key that has opened a world to me, a key that broadened my world by measures I could not have imagined.  When I set out to “serve,” to help human-kind (at the time, I thought my service would “make a difference;” now, I think not), I was willing to let go of other things to do so.  Instead, I have discovered that the desire to serve, that alone,  opened the door to another life for me.

As I’ve grown older, I know that the value of service is not a value held by everyone.  I suppose for me, it has been a motivating force.  I thought it was a value of my generation; apparently not.  To serve is a value to some.

Another key to the opening of my life has been something that came with growing up in my family.  Although neither of my parents was “educated,” – my mother received her GED when I was in college, my father went through the 8th grade – both of my parents had a bright and vivid interest in the world.  Where did that come from?  I see now that having that interest in the world has been a shining star that has lit my path.  I see that others lack this quality – they will not “go beyond his father’s saying, and he likes having thought of it so well, he says again:  ‘Good fences make good neighbors (Robert Frost, “Birches”).”

I have an interest in the world that has allowed me to see that others can live differently than me, and that is good, not something that is suspect.  I have an interest in the world that has softened the edges of what I hold as right or good or holy.  My interest in the world has been a doorway – a wide, broad doorway with edges that can expand – has given me curiosity about the lives of others, about the world.  My curiosity has allowed me to question my own values and to see that they are mine, my own.  Others have their own; I may not understand, but it is good.

When my brother Ronn first married, I was still in my teens.  One day he said to me, casually, “do you know that other families are not interested in the world, like ours is?” I shook my head.  I had not thought of such a thing, and even more, I could not imagine it.  Like a child who observes the home of another family for the first time, seeing that things are different here, his question opened my world, even more.

For all of these things, I am grateful.  I am grateful for the call to service.  That call has been a well-appointed entrance into a larger world, for me.  I am grateful for the gift of interest, a simple quality, but a quality that carries within it a curiosity, about people, about life.  That curiosity also carries within it a curiosity about self, and that deeper, inside journey is itself a treasure.

“And God saw that it was good.”  – Genesis, The Bible