fear, love and the jesus i follow

I can’t stop thinking about Jesus. No, this isn’t normal. Yes, I’m a churchgoing Catholic, but I am not that holy. Lately, however, I’ve been envisioning my Lord and savior slumped in the kitchen over his iPhone as he scrolls through the news: xenophobia, Islamophobia, fear of the immigrant, fear of the Other, loathing of all, so much of it fomented by those who call themselves Christian. And as he reads, he’s yanking at his hair and yelling, DIDN’T THEY LISTEN TO ANYTHING I SAID?!?!

Backtrack a week or so to my participation in the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., where I met this guy holding a sign intended to bring people to Christ. We didn’t exchange names, so I’ll just call him The Evangelist. He was hefting a sign emblazoned with scripture: “Jesus Said ‘Unless A Man is Born Again He Can Not See the Kingdom of God.’ John 3:3.”

jesus-signHmmm, I thought. That won’t do. That won’t persuade anyone to leave their nets and follow Him. Not in this crowd.

So I went up to the guy.

ME: Hey, there.

THE EVANGELIST: Hello.

ME: I’m a Christian. A Catholic. And it’s good you’re here. But I gotta tell you, you won’t be making a lot of converts with that sign today.

THE EVANGELIST: ??

ME: The translation. You should have used a different translation. One that doesn’t use the word “man.” Especially today. (Gesturing at the crowd.) Here. Now. At the Women’s March.

THE EVANGELIST: ??

ME: I’m just saying you might want to find a Sharpie and scratch out the word “man.” Replace it with “person.” Or add “woman.” Or something. Because you’re at the WOMEN’S MARCH, right? Which is about including people, not leaving anyone out. And the translation you’re using leaves people out.

THE EVANGELIST: I’m sorry you were offended.

ME: No no no! I’m not offended! I’m trying to do you a favor. I told you, I’m a Christian. But the thing about Christ: His didn’t leave anyone out. His message was meant for everyone, right? Isn’t that the point? Everyone? So, look, if you can just find a Sharpie, and. . .

THE EVANGELIST: I’m sorry you were offended.

And that was that. I gave up.

Afterward, I wondered about these habits of exclusion, small and large — not just the one guy, with his one sign, but all the myriad ways that people of faith can wall off entire populations. When my fellow Christians do it,  it drives me bonkers. Jesus was really, really, REALLY clear about this: He came as a messenger, as a reconciler, as a literal, physical embodiment of God’s love — and he came for every last one of us broken people. We’re all broken. We’re all loved. We’re called to love each other in our brokenness. It’s that simple.

And yet this simple truth gets twisted in service to — what? Self-righteousness? Tribalism? Nationalism? Fear? Consider Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Neither Jew nor Gentile. Nor Muslim. Nor refugee. Nor Mexican.  Nor anyone or anything else.

Or consider the parable of the good Samaritan, the stranger who came to the aid of a beaten traveler. Imagine how unlikely — outrageous — that story must have seemed when Jesus first told it. Samaritans and Jews did not get along. They did not chit-chat about football and kids over the backyard fence. In fact, they loathed one another. But that was exactly the point: human boundaries and prejudices don’t matter, in the end. Anyone who helps and carries another is a good neighbor. Jesus razed barriers. He didn’t build them.

I’m no theologian, and I’m certainly no saint. But the Jesus I follow calls me to love, not hate. To include, not exclude. To see the light in others, not deny it or ignore it or disparage it as darkness.

Jesus didn’t wall people off. Christians shouldn’t, either.

the roar of a million, marching

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Every now and then, like the roar of a massive land animal, the crowd erupted in a wave of sound. You could call it cheering, but that word fails to capture the magnitude of the effect, the choral layering of voices or the way it broke like surf across downtown Washington during the Million Women March.

The first time I heard the Roar erupting from the distance, I thought it was jets soaring through opaque gray skies. But then it swelled, surging forward, passing through this giant clot of bodies like the rhythmic rise-and-fall of an audience wave in a crowded arena.

Did 500,000 people congregate the streets of D.C. to rally and march? Less? More? A National Guardsman near the Washington Monument told me “more than a million” showed up. If you’re counting the Mall alone, the smaller number makes sense. But if you’re including the sum of humanity gathered on Independence Avenue and a spiraling, sprawling network of nearby streets, the larger numbers sound almost conservative. Let’s put it this way: If the Million Women March didn’t actually draw a million people, I can’t imagine what a million people looks like. img_1608

It wasn’t just crowded. Along Independence it was wall-to-wall pedestrian gridlock with no room to move, just arms and legs and stomachs and buttocks crammed up against one another with a spontaneous and unwanted intimacy (oooh, nice! an armpit in my face!) that most everyone tolerated with astonishing calm. Everyone, children included, seemed to realize we were all stuck together as one, so why fight it? There were no strangers in that crowd, a diverse mash of humanity from all points on every conceivable spectrum of age, ethnicity, sexual identity, religion, gender.

That morning I’d taken a mobbed metro downtown alongside my sister-in-law, her husband, two of his sisters and one of their wives. I had hoped to connect later on with my oldest daughter and her pop-pop, but I bailed on both plans. Then, when I got separated from my clan, I bailed on trying to find them. I would not locate anyone in this thick and quivering mass of people.

Instead, I abandoned myself to the wisdom of the throng, inching along in whichever direction the people nearest me happened to move. Oh, the person ahead is moving west on Independence? So will I. Oh, we’re crossing 14th, now? Okay, whatever, that sounds good. The inching felt organic. It felt like the langorous twitches of a single colossal creature, or maybe a colony composed of many smaller organisms. I thought, this is what it feels like to be part of a coral reef. And as the ocean flowed around us, we bent to follow it.

Some people sat in trees. Some stood on garbage cans. Many hefted homemade signs emblazoned with creative and amusing slogans — anti-Trump, pro-woman, pro-immigrant, some of them employing profanity, quite a few of them sporting artful renderings of male as well as female anatomy. Among my favorites: “I FART IN YOUR GENERAL DIRECTION,” quoting Monty Python; “Women of Earth Unite,” which had a nice, sci-fi ring to it; “TRUMP EATS PIZZA WITH A FORK,” a damning accusation; and, even more damning for those of us who care about music, “TRUMP LIKES NICKELBACK.” Shudder. img_1643

The most striking poster I saw all day was the portrait of an orange-haired figure grabbing Lady Liberty’s crotch. The sweetest one stated, with fetching simplicity, “MY MOM IS MY HERO.” I told the young man that I liked his sign. “Thanks,” he replied. “I like my mom.”

It was that kind of day, marked with brief conversations (“I flew in from Seattle/Missouri/California!”), briefer admonitions (“watch out for the curb!”) and helping hands. Marchers assisted a woman having a panic attack in the crowd. On a metro platform that morning, a man collapsed — and was quickly attended by two nurses and a doctor, all three women in bright pink “pussy hats.”

16142854_1647466748597112_7802995905091003187_nFrom the time I first heard about the Million Women March, it seemed larger than politics. It seemed more than a sum of its many particulate issues and complaints against Donald Trump. As a mother of two daughters and a son, and as a human being who views the rights of one as the rights of all, I knew I had to be there. I had to get my body down to the masses assembling in D.C.

At some point in the midst of the morning rally along Independence, as speakers bleated out barely audible bits of rhetoric (“this is the upside of the downside,” I heard Steinem say, and that’s about it), word got out that the march itself had been officially canceled. Too many people. Now way for us to move toward the White House, because the entire way was already clogged. But the mass of bodies had other ideas. It marched anyway, the thick clutch of arms and legs and stomachs and buttocks finally giving a little, breathing a little, chanting a lot:

“We want a leader! Not a creepy tweeter!

“We’re women! We’re loud! We’re nasty! We’re proud!

“Show me what democracy looks like! / This is what democracy looks like!”

The mass wound its way toward the White House. But it didn’t stop there. It kept going, bleeding out into the artery of connecting streets. At the intersection of H Street and Vermont Ave I finally dropped, pooped, onto a concrete block and started chatting with a similarly knackered woman and her daughter. They were from Oregon, it turned out. We talked about the day, the thick crowds, the sense of a giant creature moving as one. The Roar. And as we chatted, I glance across the street and saw a statue of Thaddeus Kosciusko, the Polish general who helped defeat the British at the Battle of Saratoga.

Kosciusko. A foreigner who aided the American Revolution. It seemed apt.

So maybe the Million Women March drew a million people; maybe it didn’t. Maybe it was the start of a new revolution; maybe it wasn’t. But as a member of the swarm in Washington, as witness to a vast, variegated gaggle united in hope and human kinship, I will say this: It felt like history.
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how to say ‘i love you’

img_1424A childhood friend of mine dug this up in a stack of family papers: proof that even as kid, I had NOOOOO gift for subtlety whatsoever. It’s also proof that the couriers of the US Postal Service will not be swayed by snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night nor the blockish scrawl of a 6-year-old in love.

Aside from the minimal but emphatic punctuation (“I LOVE you and I hope you LOVE me Paul I hope you liked my note Amy Biancolli!“) what strikes me most about this note is its bluntness. I’ve always had the urge to blurt out exactly what’s on my mind, social etiquette and self-respect be damned. And when it comes to googly-eyed romantic proclamations, blurting has been the least of my issues.

Paul — and yes, he okayed this public exposure — was not quite the first in a long line of males that I admired and so informed. Number one was Alex, the kid whose paintbox I smeared in pre-K. THAT went over well. Next came Paul. Then, in 3rd grade, I got a crush on a boy and as a result felt it necessary to sucker-punch him on the playground, with unsatisfactory but predictable results.

For some years thereafter I adopted a more nuanced approach and expressed my desires by gazing dreamily at crushees from a distance, be it across an eighth grade science lab or the all-night reading room at the Hamilton College library. This approach bore no fruit whatsoever. Since then, I’ve declared undying love via snail mail, email, phone conversations and in stilted interpersonal tete-a-tetes that nauseate me with anxiety to this day, and I have enjoyed subsequent degrees of romantic success/soul-crushing failure as a result.

My late husband and I first swapped “I love you’s” on a darkened Northampton side street on one of the happiest nights of our lives. Then it became one of the most painful when Chris, giddy with joy, bent over with laughter and I bent over too, thinking I might kiss him on the top of his head but instead colliding with his face as he snapped suddenly upright. I am trying to remember if in fact I broke his nose. It’s possible I did. If so, the incident ranks up there with Playground Boy.

I am not sure what tack I’ll take the next time I fall in love. Probably I’ll go easy on the guy. Maybe I’ll write an eighteen-word letter and send it to his parents’ house. At the very least, I’ll try not to punch him in the stomach or mess with his paintbox, at any rate not before the first date. But say ‘I love you,’ then break his nose for emphasis? It’s been known to happen.

my mother’s bach

Lately I’ve been listening to Mama.

I mean her music. Specifically, her Bach: a performance of the Partita No. 2 in D minor from a 1984 concert in New Milford, Conn., preserved — sort of — on wobbly cassette. Very wobbly cassette. Give it a listen:

 

I dug it up for an upcoming podcast on pioneering female violinists being prepared by Elfenworks Productions. Asked for recordings of her, I set about unearthing some of the cleaner old tapes from the stash in my attic. They’re all from her little Connecticut concerts in the 1980s, and they’re hissy, fuzzy, incomplete. One of them — the Bach — awes me while it breaks my heart. The awe comes from her artistry and impact, from the immediacy and modernity of her playing, and from her stunning proximity in the room after all this time. She died in ’94 but lives in the fullness of her music, her voice on the violin as recognizable to me as her laughter or her speech. For the first 15 minutes or so, listening feels like visiting with her. Mama, I say aloud. Mama.

mama-poster

Check out the critic’s blurb at the top. Who’s that guy? Biancolli?

Then the heartbreak sets in. There, the final stretch of Bach’s towering masterwork, smack in the middle of the stunning, celebrated, intricate “Chaconne,” the tape begins to stretch and yaw and teeter. I howl NOOOOOOO and swear loudly in ways Mama would not approve. But I remember that recital. I remember that piece. I remember her poring over the urtext, its pages spread on the dining-room table, as she determined the precise bowings and fingerings and emphases to bring out Bach’s intent.

In performance, she didn’t pussyfoot around; she played with fire and spit and a brilliant, muscular fearlessness. She was a force. Her music was a revelation. It remains forceful and revelatory, even decades later and warped by sagging tape. The ravages of time and aging technology were not her fault,  just as the premature end to her career was not her fault. It was fate’s fault. Sexism’s fault. The fault of a million little things that might have gone her way, but didn’t.

The Dutch label that signed her to a contract folded shortly before releasing her first recording. Then she became a mother, a move that many women have paid for with their careers. She took a small break from her international tours — from her recitals at Carnegie Hall, from her solo stints with the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy — to bring two little girls into the world. When she wanted to return to concertizing, she learned from Ormandy that the global stage had room for just one female violinist. Someone had taken her spot while she was away. Door shut. End of story.

But it wasn’t, really. Mama was never bitter: That’s simply how it was for women who set out as soloists. And she never stopped playing, never stopped reaching for the elusive musical ideal, instead bringing it to little rural audiences. She taught, worked at her music, grew with it, never lost an ounce of creative drive. The music meant no less to her than it had at the height of her career. It became no less in her hands.  What a vibrato she had. What a soaring tone. There was a power and a poetry to her work at the fiddle — and a personality behind it — that informed everything she played. She was both Romantic and Baroque, utterly expressive and yet utterly unsentimental. She never uttered a false word or played a false note — even in the wobbly heartbreak of that “Chaconne.”

I hear in Mama’s Bach all the strength and truth and love in my mother’s voice, all the authenticity and authority in it, the way her faced used to flush and her muscles used to knot and her small, strong, fleet, exquisitely careful hands revealed all that the music had to say.

I listen, and I miss her.