Some years ago I hung a nest box from a branch of the towering pine tree in my backyard. I thought that if I hung it, the wrens would come. They have the largest range of any songbird in our hemisphere. Their numbers remain steady. Still, no wrens. Maybe they missed the listing on Zillow or the price was too high (a tabby cat roams the yard)? Was the neighborhood not suitable?
The small cedar box hung there, drilled only by woodpeckers late in the season who were imagining a winter home.
Then, a few years back, the wrens showed up. First was the male, who I’m calling Fifty Cent because he weighs two quarters but has a priceless song. It’s been called effervescent, rush-and-jumble, loud and insistent—a voice that fills the air with rapid-fire variations, a voice so much bigger than the half-ounce body it comes from.
House wrens aren’t particular. They build nests in any available space—cans, boots, boxes, even the leg of a pair of jeans hanging on a clothes line. Wrens don’t win awards for Best of Nest. Even my cedar box can’t contain the sticks jammed in kittywampus.
Wrens may have inspired Tinder. Males build up to five nests in the hopes of attracting a female to mate. Mid-century modern, colonial, arts & crafts? Talk about options! Yet afterwards, the pair moves on to find their next one-brood stand.
This is how I occupy my stay-at-home days. I observe and read about wrens from my patio. It’s that or be tsunamied by news related to the pandemic. (I had intended to write this post without a single reference to the virus but it’s as aggressive and unpredictable as they say.) Even when a few friends or neighbors come over for an appropriately distanced, bring-your-own-bottle-and-glass happy hour, our conversation veers to the virus.
I read with interest all the ways the pandemic is already bringing about positive changes. Grassroots efforts help neighbors who can’t get out for food or prescriptions. People who have been homeless are sleeping in hotel rooms, enjoying their own bed and a roof for the first time in months. The general sentiment “we’re all in this together” has become the pandemic’s tagline.
But behaviors, especially our own, are hard to change. An article in The Washington Post put it bluntly: “If history is any guide, not much will change in the wake of the covid-19 pandemic.” One of the examples cited was the 1918 influenza, which caused 675,000 deaths. After all that devastation, Americans frowned on public spitting and outlawed the common drinking cup, but couldn’t agree on how to remake our health care system so everyone was insured.
Beyond an inexplicable need to stockpile toilet paper (ask yourself, at the proper moment, does two-ply really make me feel more secure?), will we really drive less or take fewer trips? It’s a sad statement that one of the first acts post-pandemic for some will be to go out and get drunk in public.
When the sky is falling, we panic. We repent. We promise to be better human beings, better neighbors, better believers. We imagine a world where capitalism isn’t king, where, as my former boss said, “we all do better when we all do better.”
Maybe if the sky fell more often, that just might happen. We will likely see a “new normal,” but I’m not betting my stimulus check on a new world order. We remain creatures of habit, more like house wrens than we ever thought.
I sat down recently with friend and mentor Ruth Halvorson to celebrate the publication of her new book, When the Heart Is Stirred: The Transforming Power of Silence. It tells the history of the ARC Retreat Community that she envisioned. Here are excerpts from our conversation.
L: Why a retreat center?
R: I had an experience in 1972 that stirred my heart to do something like this. My husband and I and family moved to Geneva, Switzerland, where he was starting a department of peace and justice at the ecumenical center on behalf of Lutheran World Federation. Days after our arrival we were invited to a welcome lunch. There I met two women who invited me to a retreat. I thanked them but said no, I had too many things on the home front to do to get settled and get our 5 children enrolled in school. But they had powerful persuasive abilities and, surprising myself, I went.
It was a 3-day silent retreat at the Sisters of Grandchamp, the sister community to the Brothers of Taize. I had never been on a retreat. The whole setting, steeped in the understanding of silence, was transforming. It felt real and good but I didn’t know what it meant. The inspiration for ARC began in the womb of that silence.
L: Your title intrigues me. I just finished a memoir that’s also about silence, but a very different kind. For me, it was feeling silenced as a person. Explain how you understand silence in the context of your book and ARC.
R: My childhood prepared me to receive this notion of silence as transformative. I was the youngest of 7 children. The sibling next to me died when I was not quite 4. There was a break of almost 7 years between me and my next sibling, a sister. So my siblings were gone, in high school or college, by the time I went to school. I spent a lot of time alone. I attended a 1-room country school and we lived on a farm. In clement weather I walked home, all alone, 3 miles. It was those long walks on the prairie that prepared me to receive the solitude 45 years later.
L: Does silence have to do with listening?
R: It has a lot to do with listening. Silence opens you to that possibility. You’re freed from extraneous noise and preoccupation.
L: My memoir is about a woman who has struggled to claim her voice and to believe that what she has to say matters and has value. Her doubts and insecurities undermine her again and again. Your gentle, soft-spoken way suggests you are a woman who is timid, unsure of herself. We both know that’s not true. One of the things I so admire about you, Ruth, is your inner strength and courage. Have you always felt the power and the freedom to speak what is in your heart?
R: I don’t think I’ve always had that courage. When I was a girl I did have some dimension of myself that reacted to things that I didn’t think were right or just. I felt that I was born with a feminist gene, and I would see certain relationships that didn’t seem to be fair or just or kind or good. I would comment to my mother about them and the need to change. Her response was, “Let’s not cause any trouble now.” That always stayed with me.
I was a timid little girl. I didn’t speak up in groups. But I’ve gotten more confident in what I believe and in my own truth. Silence helped me discover the God within. I used to think that God was up there, out there, over there. Then I realized that I am the temple of God, and that I was created good and for good. It’s taken a long time to believe in my own truth.
L: Our husbands both died 10 years ago. Since then, we’ve talked a lot about being alone. Has widowhood changed your understanding of silence, or added another dimension to it?
R: I don’t know that it’s changed my understanding, because silence is still a resource and a place I go to. But preparation for widowhood was aided tremendously by the hospice people who cared for Loren over 5-1/2 months in our home. Speaking of death and dying so directly opened it up to me in a new way. It ceased to be such an enemy as it once had been. That was a real preparation for me, as opposed to people who lose their spouse suddenly, as you did. Loren and I had a chance to talk about what we wanted and needed to talk about. After he died, I decided that I wanted to live more with gratitude than with lament. That helps to change the day.
L: On the surface, silence and our need as humans to belong and feel loved seem to have little to do with each other. But my experience has taught me that there is a strong correlation between silence and our need to be loved. The silence I’ve known has come in many forms. There’s the silence of sin that reinforced my unworthiness. There’s the silence of being a good girl, rule bound, who found it necessary to seek the approval of others in order to validate herself. There’s the silence that sometimes comes with relationships, when we avoid the truth or dismiss our feelings so as to avoid conflict. And then there’s the silence brought on by the conventional roles that our culture still promotes for women, as if marriage and motherhood are the only ways we can be fulfilled. Silence prevented me from an essential self-love, which we need in order to be fully present to others. How do you make the connection between silence and our need to be loved?
R: All the things you spoke about, what we think we have to do in order to receive love, I have gone through myself. But in sacred silence, you feel so embraced. That embrace tells you that you are loved. We still struggle with “Am I worthy,” and “Am I this or am I that.” A lot of that spirals back to the early theological words we heard. Original sin. I don’t think of original sin but original blessing. I don’t need to be told I’m bad or I’ve failed. I know that. What does encourage me is to know that I’m loved and supported and held. That gives me the incentive to do things and move forward.
L: It sounds like sacred silence is what brings you closer to the divine. The silence I experienced did the opposite. It created a bigger distance between me and who I was created to be. What a difference. It seems so important to have places like the ARC for spiritual renewal.
R: Some people who go on retreat are afraid of being confronted by their inner self and the shadow side within. But when we do, we realize the benefits to opening up our spirit and to understanding who we are. It’s something we don’t conquer once. We continue to doubt and always will.
L: What words of encouragement would you offer women who have felt silenced in their lives?
R: I think we need first to understand that calling forth our own truth is slow. We have to be intentional about it. For women who have been silenced, it’s been built into their system so deeply that they somehow feel they’re doing something that isn’t right by speaking their own truth. But by speaking our truth, we realize that something happens within us. We realize the strength that comes.
* * *
Only after I was home and read Ruth’s book did I see a connection I’d missed earlier. Ruth and I write about a different kind of silence, but both of our experiences with silence led to transformation. Hers called her to create a community where people can enter into sacred silence. Mine led to a search for the person I had never believed was worthy of being loved. In our own ways, we listened to the truth in our hearts.
The headline caught my eye. It was a direct plea, thematically linked to this blog and my memoir.
I was two hours into reading the Sunday New York Times a few weeks ago. I was on the last page of my favorite section, The Review, which gathers opinion pieces from guest writers and a stable of regulars—Frank Bruni, Maureen Dowd, Nicholas Kristof, and Russ Douthat.
Next to an editorial on the costly nonsense of building a wall along the U.S. and Mexican border were the Letters to the Editor. Except there were no letters, only this headline: “Women, Please Speak Out.”
Letters Editor Thomas Feyer was reporting on the Women’s Project, begun a year ago to correct an underrepresentation of women on the letters page. The stated goal was to work toward gender parity. The results showed little change in the percentage of women whose letters are published (43%) or in the number of submissions by women (25 to 30%).
Kimberly Probolus, the woman whose letter to the editor a year earlier had inspired the Women’s Project, also weighed in, urging men to be better listeners.
Before I finished reading both pieces, my response to both was quickly taking shape. I knew what I wanted to say, and I had 150 words in which to say it. I typed it up, made a few changes, checked my word count, and sent it. This from a writer who likes to spend a day or a week crafting one page, only to delete it the next day and start over.
I waited. A day, two days. Nothing. By Wednesday, I figured I was out of the running. Less disappointed that my letter wasn’t chosen and more pleased that I’d at least pressed “send,” I packed for my trip and forgot about it.
My last day in Washington, D.C., I was in my third museum, the National Archives. I was fast approaching physical and mental overload. I checked my phone for the time. There was an e-mail from the Times. They were interested in publishing my letter and just needed to ask me a few questions. After a quick exchange, the editor informed me that my letter would appear in the online Sunday edition and in Monday’s print version. Unless, of course, late-breaking news preempted it. Always a possibility with this administration.
Yes, I’m thrilled that my words made it into print. But the greater thrill was that I heeded the headline’s plea. I might not have even a year ago. I might have dismissed what I had to say before pressing send, talking myself out of the very act necessary to be heard.
In case I ever doubted the need to speak out, I was reminded of my tour earlier that day at the National Portrait Gallery. At the top of a wide marble staircase is a painting that occupies an entire wall. “The Supremes,” my female guide said, smiling.
One woman lives in Norway in the last years of the 19th century. She is assured, articulate, and well dressed. She exudes self-confidence. But she has unfinished business with the man she walked out on 15 years earlier. The person and career she’s built for herself are in jeopardy if he doesn’t make good on his promise to divorce her.
The other woman lives in present-day New York City. She is an architect and an Iraqi refugee who, with her husband and son, have just gained citizenship after eight years. When she sneaks outside for a cigarette and is haunted by voices from her homeland, she reveals her own struggle between embracing this new life and longing for the culture and traditions that have given her meaning.
Meet Nora and Noura. Both women are unmistakable spinoffs of the Nora that Ibsen made famous in A Doll’s House more than 200 years ago.
This winter, two local theaters staged productions based on Ibsen’s classic. I was fortunate to see both, and was fascinated by the playwrights’ different interpretations. The Jungle Theater is in its final week of A Doll’s House, Part 2, by Lucas Hnath. He flashes forward to explore how the freedom Nora sought and seemingly found is still at risk because of a society that was slow to change in granting women equal rights.
The Guthrie Theater staged Noura, by Heather Raffo, who described the sources of her interpretation. “Noura was provoked by many things. From the fracturing of Iraq to a shifting American identity. From the rise of polarizing ideologies to modern marriage and motherhood. It is at the explosive intersection of these issues that the characters . . . attempt to balance their individual pursuits with a search for community.”
Raffo added, “I believe it is a balance with which many of us struggle.”
The question Nora/Noura face is familiar. Women especially struggle to achieve some kind of balance. As they strive to grow in their many roles—professional, mother, daughter, partner, caregiver—can they be fully realized? Or will one or more of these roles become unsustainable?
Some, like Nora, literally walk away from one life in order to create another. I relate more to Noura, and recognize her ambivalence. Because I often don’t trust myself to make the “right” decision, for a long time I chose to live in the in-between place—to have a conventional life (marriage and children) and, however tenuously, hold on to my personal dreams.
Both plays end in ambiguity. We don’t know whether Nora and Torvald will try to repair their relationship within the context of marriage. We don’t know if Noura will construct a world where she can stop living in exile from herself. Maybe not offering a clear resolution is as it should be.
In my memoir, I describe my attempts to find space to pursue my own writing while raising a family. I started several book-length projects, took classes at The Loft Literary Center, and joined a writer’s workshop. In one of the middle-grade novels I worked on, the mother-journalist tells her son she’s taking an extended assignment overseas. Even as I explored the emotions that rocked the boy, I was speaking through the mother.
How do mothers give up what they love for what they love?
In our great pursuit of freedom—of expression, to pursue our dreams, to enjoy parity at work and at home, to be ourselves—we do so in the context of a much more complex social structure, whose laws, expectations, and roles of conformity threaten to pull us apart, as individuals and as a community.
Regardless the generation, this question will always be there. For women, there is no simple answer.
Pain is something we often suffer alone, in silence.
My sister and I have different memories of our mother’s pain. Camille recalls Mother going into her bedroom—directly off the dining room—and crying.
I recall Mother going into her bedroom and lying down after lunch. I knew not to disturb her. She’d been on her feet since before dawn and I figured she deserved the rest. I didn’t connect this daily quiet time as a way to manage pain.
Much later, I realized how much our mother suffered in silence. She didn’t complain. She didn’t blame. She didn’t make her pain ours. But pain isolates us. It can make us bitter. It can shrink the world to our small sphere and put us at its center to the exclusion of everything else.
Mother was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in her 30s. It came as no surprise. Her mother had had arthritis, which eventually turned her hands into bent fists. Mother’s arthritis wasn’t just in her hands. Her shoulders, arms, and back ached. As the bones in her feet crumbled, walking became painful. The largely manual labor that constitutes managing a house and 3 children took its toll.
Despite this evidence—heredity and Mother’s hard-to-ignore swollen joints and crippled fingers—I had decided I wasn’t going to suffer. I gardened relentlessly. I carried things much heavier than I should have. I denied a chronic disease that had been in the female DNA of my family for generations. Arthritis was something other people had. Something old people had. Even when my brother, beginning in his 40s, mentioned the stiffness in his neck as arthritis, I refused to see what his pain had to do with me.
One thing my siblings and I agree on, now that we recognize arthritis in our own bodies, is that Mother suffered. When I was in grade school she underwent an experimental treatment. Desperate for relief, she had liquid gold injected into her bloodstream. The gold had been shown to reduce the inflammation that brought on pain.
Instead of the improvement she’d hoped for, she discovered she was allergic to gold. Open sores covered her entire body. Doctors doing their daily rounds gave her more attention than she liked. When she came home from the hospital, she lay wrapped in a white sheet on a lawn chair in our den. She didn’t want to stain the furniture.
After that, Mother returned to the typical oral meds, graduating to methotrexate, a chemo drug that also counters the symptoms of arthritis. The stronger the meds, the harder it was for her sensitive stomach to tolerate. In her last years, she wore a fentanyl patch. It didn’t take away the pain but eased it considerably.
Unused to having much discomfort, I was blindsided this past weekend by lower back pain, neck pain, and swelling in my thumb joints, where my arthritis mostly lives. My hands were on fire.
Pain does something to a person. Pain is something we often suffer alone, in silence. It pulls us into ourselves. Suddenly that seemed too much. I couldn’t hold all the pain myself. I called my daughter and blurted, “I’m scared.” What if this pain persisted? What if I suddenly couldn’t bathe or get dressed or lift a pan off the stove? What if I couldn’t drive? What if the life I had taken for granted was no longer possible?
That’s the degree to which I’d been in denial. I believed that I would fare better than most. I couldn’t accept the full weight of what being human, what aging, entails. My blind faith that I could prove myself again and again ignored one simple fact: my fate is the same as yours.
I trace my back and neck pain back to overdoing it at the gym, but the flare-up in my hands remains a mystery. After a day of much rest and ice packs, I am better.
The person coming out of pain is humbled. I felt myself again, joyfully, not just a dark knot of cells raging inside. How quickly pain caused me to forget, just as quickly as its absence restored me.
As I scrolled through e-mails early this morning, I learned that a friend’s husband, still in his 40s, had died. He’d had brain cancer for 4 years. In the loving arms of his family, he took his last breath. He had had numerous surgeries, many rounds of chemo and radiation, cautious times when he seemed to be winning.
Through it all—the pain, the setbacks, and his brave openness—he loved life and all the people in it. He admitted his fear. In doing so, he didn’t let it defeat him.
My one bad day pales to others’ chronic pain and ultimate loss. But it was the reminder I needed.
My instincts this morning told me to get to the exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts before it closed tomorrow. I did. Write-ups in the paper had mentioned powerful images. One person who shared his impressions with me panned the raw explicitness of the art, which included nude public demonstrations. In Chances Are, a novel by Richard Russo that I just finished listening to, the Vietnam War’s impact on young men’s lives is a strong undercurrent.
Call it coincidence or convergence, but I had to see the exhibit, “Artists Respond to the Vietnam War.”
For a fully immersive experience, before entering the gallery I donned a headset so I could listen to a playlist that included “Purple Haze,” “We Gotta Get Outta This Place,” “Riders of the Storm,” and other songs written during and inspired by the war. The soundtrack had the added benefit, I discovered, of drowning out the chatter of others so I could concentrate on the art.
Of all the garish colors, bold graphics, and gruesome images included in the exhibit, “War Room” moved me the most. It is an actual room that viewers walk into. The walls are layered in black. The space itself isn’t small—maybe 10′ by 10’—but the overwhelming darkness feels claustrophobic, or, as the artist intended, boxed in, as America had become in Vietnam.
The first image I thought of was the Vietnam War memorial in Washington, D.C., which I saw with my son 20 years ago. Also black on its surface, this artistic work had a quite different, but no less powerful effect on me. The smooth granite wall extended beyond my vision, as if taking in all of history with its list of names that we were drawn to touch, and the other monuments reflected on its face.
In both installations, understatement is still a statement. Or, as Toni Morrison said, “All good art is political.”
In a particularly moving video at the end, several Vietnamese artists were interviewed. They explained how and why they created art in the context of the horrors of war. For some it was a way to preserve a sense of humanity and beauty. Some hung their pictures like clothes on a line to dry, a kind of portable gallery for soldiers to see and be heartened by before going into battle. Mostly these artists portrayed individuals. Almost sketchlike in their simplicity, with a minimal wash to bring dimension and life to the faces, these portraits were a counter narrative to the thousands who died.
I was a mostly oblivious 15-year-old from the suburbs when demonstrations broke out in my home town of Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The only recollections I have of that riot, Kent State, and other protests are based on what I saw on TV, just as the war itself was curated for those of us at home.
My age group just missed the draft, so I didn’t know anyone who went to Vietnam or was killed. Somehow, I didn’t see myself as political. But war lives on—in me, in art, in our understanding of what it means to be human. When I recalled the newspaper’s headline this morning—”U.S., Iran, Escalate Threats”—I realized that “War Room” is as relevant today as fifty years ago. War lives on.
I lingered longer than most at the video of the artists being interviewed. They described themselves as warriors, a term I never would have considered for myself. Their weapons were pencils, brushes, paints, paper, camera. Their role was to document war, bear witness to what they saw, portray the truth that is at once painful yet necessary to remember. Art lives on, even if people don’t.
I came home newly inspired to finish the book proposal I’d set aside during the holidays. Or was it more than that? Had the exhibit stirred the political in me, made me a warrior in my own right?
I describe my story as part memoir, part manifesto. Memoir because it’s my experience of loss, grief, and self-discovery. Manifesto because it documents the many, often insidious, ways silence has kept women from fully realized lives.
To write about that and hope the world listens: that’s political.
At a recent exhibit at The Museum of Russian Art, I saw a serigraph by American artist Ben Shahn (1898-1969) entitled “Alphabet of Creation.” In it he depicts the Hebrew alphabet as stylized, interlinking shapes, stark black on a white background. As a writer, I was intrigued. Words are my tools, and letters the building blocks for how we communicate. We cannot tell or hear a story without them.
Shahn saw beyond the alphabet’s functional purpose. He believed that letters hold a spiritual meaning as well. The alphabet represents nothing less than Creation itself, a way to feel intimately connected to God.
John makes that same connection when he opens his Gospel with “In the beginning was the Word.” God is the source of all creation. We cannot speak without calling forth God’s name. When we tell stories, we often start with “Once upon a time . . .” and use 26 letters in endless combination. This first verse of John uses a mere 13 letters to announce the only story that matters in our lives.
All year we long for this story of love, and Advent prepares us for its Incarnation. Jesus’s birth marks our own beginning in a fundamental way. Beyond daily injustices, beyond a dying world, beyond our broken hearts and fractured language, a New Creation awaits.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The story of Jesus’ coming is the one Word we desperately need.