Dear Family and Friends,
I welcome this joyous Christmas season which invites us to catch up a little with each other and our lives. And, during this divisive, even frightening time after the election – more than ever. There is so much more I’d want to say about the aftermath of this toxic election, but I’m grateful that one of my friends has already given honest and poignant expression to it in his own Christmas letter. He told me it’s a Christmas letter it took him three days to write. Francis knew this friend I’m referring to – Dominican, Brother Joseph Kilikevice OP, who, living in Oak Park, Illinois, has been my mentor in the Dances of Universal Peace since 1999. Francis and I even sponsored his coming to Portland years ago when he led a weekend retreat in The Lord’s Prayer, chanted in Aramaic. In any case, because Brother Joseph’s letter expresses what I want to say – before I sign off, I’m attaching his letter to mine.
Last Christmas I quoted for you these lines from my poem “THE HARVEST IS IN”: “Why am I crying / “Joy and thanksgiving!”? / It’s my lot / to leave our legacy of love – (Francis’s and mine) / in poems and prose: three books in five year,/ since he died.”
By now, close to seven years since then, it’s not surprising they still resonate with me: because I have another book in the works! But, here’s a relevant aside: When I heard what a Parisian said, when interviewed on TV this fall, one year after the Paris attacks, I jotted down his words: “I wrote a book,” he said. “Writing puts distance between my pain and me.” Simply in the way I immediately reached for pen and paper, then read and reread them, pondering – it’s evident there’s some truth for me in his expression. But, as my quoted poem notes in pointing out the subject and purpose of my writing: “to leave our legacy of love / (Francis’s and mine)/ ” – that makes the difference! That explains the joy.
In my March 31, 2016 letter “My Next Two Books – No April Fool Joke,” (It’s posted here: http://elaineandfrancis.blogspot.com/) I went into detail about my fourth book, A Friend Who Knows the Tone. But I didn’t say much about the second one, except to announce that I was ready now to take up again the book which I had started, but set aside. I had originally entitled it: “THIS NEW LIFE - Selections from A Widow's Journal.”
By now, however, Christmastime 2016, even though I still plan to use selections from my journal since Francis died, I have a new title and even a new angle for this fifth book: “A Widow Traces Life’s Arc of Love.” As I told a friend, recently: “One of the side things I’d like to do in this book (in the “Tracing,” if I can) is to share (with a secular culture) how what is called the “communion of saints” helped me – wholly spontaneously too, after Francis died. And I can’t believe how much energy is behind it.”
But I’ve had to work at being patient about what has felt like multiple distractions pulling me away from writing time as much as I want. The groundwork for that book has been completed. But recently, just as it’s calling me more and more, besides the distraction of the election, my attention has also been taken up with supporting our indigenous brothers and sisters at Standing Rock. Posting select articles on my Facebook page has somehow helped me deal with these events. And they seem to have helped others also, including former Thornton Academy students, among other friends from the past. For example, after I posted Brother Joseph’s Christmas letter on my FB page, people responded, in essence, with: “Thank you - this helps”!
Here, though, has been the biggest distraction of all: Ever since thick mud seeped into my cellar after a heavy rainstorm, in the fall of 2015, I’ve been necessarily overseeing months and months of work repairing the foundation of my 115 year old house. To say the least, it hasn’t been easy to put up with interminable delays, some of them due to outside complications. But, blessedly, finally – as of December 12 – that major job has been completed! Yay!
To pay for it, I’ve had to dig deep into my savings. Of course it was also necessary repair for my own sake. No more moldy smelling insulation underneath the floor of my bedroom now – not since that modern styled insulation that mice can’t get into has replaced it! I had to vacate the house with my sweet cat Bella for 24 hours until it dried. By then, no toxic fumes. (Luckily Bella and I stayed overnight at Lynn, Lee and Rowan’s house in Portland which is used as an Air BnB since they moved to New Jersey where Lee teaches at Rutgers University.)
But through it all, this year+long house repair job – what was on my mind more than anything else, was the awareness that my goddaughter Rowan will be inheriting this house. That made the challenge to see this project through to conclusion more than worthwhile. It’s my great pleasure and joy that in her, Francis and I (who had no children of our own) have an heir for this sweet bungalow house, now restored.
This isn’t a recent idea, either , Rowan’s inheriting the house (which also happens to be, since 2008, a permaculture demonstration site). It’s a site Francis and I, with some help, created together . . . (Further digression: Someone told me: “The permaculture is a living legacy of Francis.”). I expressed this house inheritance idea on page 139 of my second book, SING TO ME AND I WILL HEAR YOU - A Love Story. In the section entitled “Permaculture for Rowan and Family”, I wrote: “‘All this,’ I told myself and Francis as we worked, ‘is for Rowan.’ It was for her sake we got our first chicks in the summer of 2009, in time for her fifth birthday. . . . ” (Yes – on page 139)
Rowan was 18 months old when Francis and I started doing child care for her once a week. (She’s now 12 going on 13.) I’d pick her up from school, bring her to our home, let her play with the chickens etc., read some books with her sitting on my lap, then feed her supper until her mother, Lynn, picked her up. The fact that some of Rowan’s childhood memories were created here – picking fruits from the orchard, watching frogs in the pond etc., adds to our joy – her parents’ and mine, as well.
One of the highlights of my year was having a “Permablitz” held here on November 5, that is – renovation work done by the Portland Maine Permaculture Meetup, which Francis and I joined in 2006, the year after it was founded, in 2005. Also known now as “the Resilience Hub,” this permaculture community has replaced several “work parties” used in the past, with a workable, novel approach called “permablitz,” in which all the work is done by a large group – in one day.
When Lisa Fernandes, co-founder, and another person from the Permaculture community came for a “site visit” preliminary to this unique Permablitz – before going outdoors, we sat first in the living room to talk things through. I was unprepared for the joy that would come of this. First, there was the tender moment when Lisa remembered having sat on a particular chair here, pregnant with her only child during a permaculture meeting in Francis’ and my living room, 10 years earlier. Then, what I had not expected was the fact that Lisa’s approach was – not just to restore what IS, BUT – to meet MY needs as I “age in place” !!
Since, in my 80’s, I’m certainly not going to be doing any winter harvesting, we agreed that the aging cold frame and hoop house will not be replaced. Instead, sea berries and goji berries were planted in that area near the pond along with . . . can you believe it? – two hazel nut bushes! (More good things to share with neighbors in exchange for their help, in various ways.)
After the permablitz, I posted a newsy report about it onto my website, right here under “About Us” and “Permaculture”: http://www.elainemcgillicuddy.com/about/about-us/ (Just scroll down till you see: “Permaculture Permablitz 10 Years Later.” And/or here is the link on the meetup’s site for where you can view 20 photos taken during that joyous, daylong unique permablitz (unique because it was the first one done on what someone called “a mature permaculture site” – one already created, beginning with 10 years earlier:
I felt full of gratitude for the love with which I was surrounded, having this community with me again, because – since Francis died, due to my absorption with writing my books, I rarely went to their meetings – only a handful, e.g. like viewing a film like “Gaslight”. But I want to participate more now, in ways that I can, (not in permablitzes, because the work is too much at my age) but in other gatherings. For example, I went to a Permaculture fund-raising meal at b.good restaurant scheduled the week after the permablitz. And that was very moving for me: to meet again with people who knew Francis from our early work party years. That night, Lisa’s husband, David Whitten, to whom I had given some of Francis’ clothing after he died, selected one of Francis’ especially handsome sweaters to wear.
An octogenarian, now, it’s not surprising I’m beginning to hear a “Letting Go” theme in my life. I hinted at it in my Christmas letter last year by noting that, although I was still, once a month, leading the Dances of Universal peace, I had passed on the role of organizer to a younger leader. This past July, however, I let these friends know that this is the last year I will be formally leading the Dances of Universal Peace – after having done so for 20 years.
Of course this doesn’t mean I’ll never do this kind of thing again. As a matter of fact, I was invited in February of this year to give a three hours presentation on the Aramaic Lord’s Prayer at ChIME – “Chaplaincy Institute of Maine.” And three weeks later, responding to another invitation, I gave a similar presentation at the Unity Church in Portland. These were both unsought “assignments.” That’s what happens, I guess, when one has been around for a long time.
But letting go is good. I was reflecting the other day, along these lines: After 23 ½ years of teaching mostly high school English, I taught yoga at the Portland Yoga Studio which Francis and I co-founded in 1989, until 2011 – for 30 years! Of course I didn’t stop personal practice. That’s something else. I have a long daily yoga practice – simply to keep my problem hip and my arthritic joints pain free. . . . I don’t mean to brag now but listen to this because it might help somebody: I’ve had osteoporosis (the full blown thing, not just osteopaenia) for years. Well, I fell and landed on my right wrist and left jaw and temple, on August 20 this summer – BUT nothing broke. With osteoporosis, some bones should have broken, right? Dr. Babbitt, specialist, now retired, had allowed me to be on NO MEDS – because every day I do what I call a doorway handstand (leaning on one side of the door frame as I walk up the other). The fact my fall did not break bones is big time proof that pressure on bone calls forth those osteoblasts which build bone. Conversely, when there’s no pressure on bone, the osteoclasts eat it up! . . . Ha! Looks as if I’m teaching a little yoga after all – the theory behind its benefits.
30 years teaching yoga, by next June - 20 years leading the Dances of Universal Peace - So that leaves my Peace community and my Permaculture community. Working for peace will go on. How could it not? Francis did this our whole lives together. Even in 2003 when we started the anti-torture vigil, before he took sick. But I’m still clear about preferring to participate in peacemaking actions organized by others, rather than being the organizer. I can’t help thinking that I’ve been organizer long enough.
But now what about this younger vibrant community? Portland Maine Permaculture’s (aka) Resilience Hub? I’ve been a member for 10 years. I feel as if it’s time for me to engage with them more often now. After all, residing on a living, active permaculture demonstration site with an orchard and garden to tend to and fruits of various kinds to enjoy and share as I age in place here, (God willing) it fits right in with my “largely monastic life” which very clearly continues to call me.
With gratitude and love for your precious friendship,
PS Dominican brother Joseph Kilikevice OP who directs the “Shem Center” in Oak Park Illinois, http://www.shemcenter.org/shemcenter.org/Shem_Welcome.html
and who has been my mentor in the Dances of Universal Peace since 1999, wrote such a moving letter at this Christmas time, that, with his permission, I am attaching it to mine, here below:
Flowers silently accompany us in times of joy and in times of sorrow.
- Okakura (1862-1913) Master of Chado, (The Way of Tea)
Christmas, 2016, calls for some deep reflection on what we value in life. What I believe is foundational for us as citizens of the world is simply, respect. This is followed by inclusiveness, kindness, fairness, peace and justice for all people and indeed for creation itself.
Christmas is also a time to savor the delights of the season, summoning lovely memories of happy get
togethers, good cheer, joy and the glee and delight of children. But I am finding that this time, Christmas is different. There has always been trouble in the world but the joy and peace of Christmas always seemed to triumph. I’m finding it hard to shake off the long months of assault on human decency the political campaign brought. We’re being asked to shake off the negative energy that afflicts us and to come together as one nation. Sure, we’d like to do that but it’s not as easy as wishing for it or denying the profound hurt many are feeling. I’m struggling to proclaim the Christmas message of hope while still feeling so disoriented from
the long, tiresome political fiasco.
There were moments when our character as a nation seemed to break through and a sense of our greatness as a people began to surface, but the rhetoric of fear, deception, hostility, disrespect, hate and mistrust trampled on these moments of hope. A deeply divided nation is being asked to come together now. Really, just like that? Can we make our way out of this murkiness into light. It’s at this point that I’m thinking this in not a Christmas letter I want to send my family and friends. Is it better to stay quiet, isolate and deny ourselves the companionship we need to find our way out of our collective heartbreak. Our story has moved beyond victory or defeat, beyond one political party or the other. We’ve been violated as a people and much of the rest of the world sees it. Healing will take time.
So if you’re still reading this letter and have not abandoned my polemic as too hard to take, perhaps my first paragraph has something to offer. It is, I believe, a time to reflect, and to do so together rather than to deny our pain. We deserve the companionship that the honest naming of our wounds and what we still value calls for. What can connect us to each other and what can connect us to God is the question to consider. Can we talk to each other about how we are really feeling, and then reflect and listen deeply to what each of us needs right now? Can we recover respect and kindness as qualities we still value?
I regularly meet with a small group of friends and in a recent conversation, fear, Islamaphobia, racism and hate were sadly acknowledged as the new normal. I brought flowers for each of my friends to take home that night, remembering how “flowers silently accompany us in times of joy and in times of sorrow.” I also read them a favorite poem by the 13th century Chinese sage, Wu Men.
Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter.
If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.
May 10,000 flowers bring you the promise of another spring, and bless your days with courage and hope this Christmas time.
Joseph Kilikevice, OP