The Grief We Carry

“No matter what the grief, its weight,

we are obliged to carry it.”  — Dorianne Laux

One of the paintings on our wall is a palimpsest. Layers of color and design overlaying other layers of color and design, it seems a visual allegory of mind or memory—what we carry beneath the surfaces—beneath what Eliot described as a face we prepare “to meet the faces that we meet.” Grief is always there somewhere—the patch of midnight blue later covered by striations of red, the one brushstroke of pitch black that suggests a faultline in the green. We carry it, more or less consciously, shifting its weight as we go, sometimes gently leaving behind bits we no longer need, acquiring new ones.

A friend has been diagnosed with what is cancer, probably already metastasized. Another has contracted pneumonia in the wake of surgery that removed most of one lung. Another, having lost her husband, is coping with severe behavioral disorders in one of her children. And not many days ago seventeen people, most of them kids, were arbitrarily shot in Florida. Public sorrows and private ones begin to mingle in the disorderly mix of memories, physical shocks, media images and waves of feeling we carry. Grief, disbelief, morbid fascination, horror, dread, puzzlement, unsettled stomachs and wakeful nights lie in crosshatched layers, impossible entirely to disentangle, but always teasing us to return and see what we can piece together—see if somehow old stories might shift toward new resolutions.

Dorianne Laux’s poem, “For the Sake of Strangers,” from which the above lines are taken and which I read immediately after reading an article by a doctor who treated patients gunned down with an A-15, reminds me of how “commingled” our sorrows are with the kindnesses in which we find comfort. None of us knows what we bestow in the course of a day—how the merest gesture or word might fall into a well of need. When the need is mine, I am aware of how often occasions for gratitude go by so quickly, there’s no way to express the thanks, except to pay it forward.

Gratitude doesn’t paint over the grief, but it complicates it in ways that allow us to live more thoughtful, interested, curious, attentive lives where losses are not lost, but held and, perhaps just when their weight shifts a little, healed.

The Time it Takes

British doctors do less of everything, writes Lynn Payer, a medical journalist whose lively comparison of medical practices in France, England, Germany and the U.S. offers compelling evidence of the surprising degree to which medicine is culturally imbedded. American doctors do more. If you’re practicing medicine in this country, you’re very likely trained to err on the side of taking action. What Sunita Puri calls “unacceptable uncertainty,” the lag time between observation and action, the time it takes to listen to the inner dialogue between the trained professional self and the ancient elder who knows things, the time it takes to come to a decision, is very short. Doing nothing is precarious and embarrassing. And dying is a crisis—not a time to do nothing.

What I love about working as a volunteer with hospice—an organization that originated, significantly, in England—is that dying is not a crisis. It is a process to be witnessed. The hospice facility nearest where we live is a house in a residential neighborhood, where families can come and be with the dying, make meals, rest, weep, pray, talk, walk in the garden or—since, as one staff member put it, there is “no judgment” there—watch football if they want to. Medical professionals make sure the patient is comfortable and out of pain. People accept that dying is what is happening. There is very little to do.

I hope the rest of medicine, and certainly medical training, may continue to learn from those who work in hospice or palliative care to expand—even a little—the window of acceptable uncertainty, or the time of doing nothing. In this culture both patients and doctors are conditioned, partly by medical soap operas, partly by pharmaceutical ads, partly by a culture that has made outcomes and measurable results on every front a measure of validity, to see illness and death first as problem, then as crisis. The higher tolerance of the British with their cheerful stiff upper lips and their trust in resilience may offer something we can learn from, especially in emergency rooms where people are doing one of the things all people do—dying of natural causes. Shutting down. In due time. In the fullness of time. Taking the time it takes. The dying take their time. We need to learn, again and again, to take ours.

At the Margins

Milling around at a reception recently I lost track of my husband. Everyone was standing, coffee in one hand, some form of questionable sugar product in the other, chatting amiably. I spoke with a neighbor I hadn’t met, a local artist whose work I admired, a lively woman who is adjusting to a new season of life. All these were conversations that might well have continued happily for some time.

Then I spotted my husband, sitting on a bench provided for those who found it fatiguing to stand. He was talking with a man whose sturdy cane leaned against an outstretched leg. The bench was near the exit door. People who made their way to that corner were shrugging on coats, disinclined to make one more stop on their way out. Expressing his pleasure in meeting John, the man mentioned matter-of-factly that his visiting occurred mostly on the margins of any gathering he attended. So many “coffee hours” or receptions depend upon standing. Those who sit are hidden behind a screen of vertical figures. They don’t “mill.” They learn, if they keep coming, to accept whoever drifts their way and engage.

I began to think about how many social occasions depend upon health, and how even slight disabilities can change one’s social opportunities, objectives, motives for attending festive occasions, notions of what “friendly” looks like. I remembered a good-natured but edgy essay by a man with AIDS who visited an art museum in a wheelchair. He described his view of the paintings with titles like “Still Life Obscured by Large Gucci bag” and “Portrait of the Artist with Obstructed Face” and “Landscape Interrupted by Backpack.” Disability awareness, like diversity, has received wider and long-overdue attention over the past years, but really developing that awareness—the habit of noticing in situational, sudden, flexible, subtle, imaginative, and compassionate ways—is an ongoing education for all of us.

Years ago when I asked a student who came to class in a wheelchair what was the one thing she’d most like her able-bodied colleagues to “get,” she immediately said, “Whenever you can, sit down to talk to me. I get so tired of being looked down upon. I find myself longing to look someone in the eye at eye level.” Perhaps that stuck with me in a particular way because I’m tall and, especially among other women, I “look down” a good bit. But eye-level encounter matters. When a doctor sits to ask me how I’m doing, it changes the conversation. When I squat to talk with a small child I see how they open up, suddenly aware I’m taking them seriously. “Eyeball to eyeball,” as my husband puts it, is where truths may be told that you’re unlikely to hear anywhere else. I left that bench by the door after the reception resolving to find a similar bench at the next public meeting, or a folding chair in an under-populated corner–and change my eye level. There, slightly beyond and beneath the noise and haste, some lovely, lively moments, unavailable at other altitudes, may find room to happen.

Very Particular

Two different caregivers in the “Care Center” warned me as I set off to meet my new hospice patient, “She’s very particular.” One of them said it with a slight lift of the eyebrows. “You’ll find out soon enough,” he seemed to imply. “Don’t be surprised if you find yourself irritated. She’ll drive you a little crazy.” I inferred all this. It was the eyebrows. They made me apprehensive.

The other nurse, the harried one at the station, when I said the patient’s name, looking for her room, told me the same thing. “Well, she does like visitors,” she said, but then added. “But she’s very particular.”

About what? I wondered. Did she complain about her food? About the way people spoke to her? (I remembered how my 94-year-old grandmother, witty, dignified, and kind in her mannerly Old Virginia way, felt affronted by 20-somethings who called her by her first name.) Was my patient—let’s call her Mildred—particular about how you touched her things? Or her? Was she particular about language?

I don’t mind particularity. I have come to appreciate more than I used to people who are particular about their use of words, or about the way they set the table for company, or about where their food comes from. The word means paying attention to the part—the particle—the trees, for the moment, rather than the forest. Or the bark on the trees. Particularity seems to me to provide a pathway to pleasures that can only be had by means of close attention—pausing, noticing, allowing awareness to dawn “a ribbon at a time,” as Emily put it.

Mildred greeted me with a certain curious satisfaction. “I wondered if you’d actually come,” she said. You said you’d be here at 4:30, but I wondered. So. I’d passed her first test. “Sit there,” she said, gesturing toward the one chair in her half-room, tucked under the built-in desk she will never use, bedridden as she is. As I pulled the chair out, she said, “I don’t know what got on that chair. I thought someone had spilled something, but now I think it’s paint spatters from when they painted the wall. You’d think they’d know to cover the chair.” It was an apology, of sorts. I took it as a habit retained from the days when she was hostess and oversaw all provisions for guests. I didn’t see any paint, but I agreed that one had a right to expect that painters would care for the furniture.

Mildred has lost a good measure of her hearing and doesn’t see well enough to read even large-print books for very long at a time. She loves to talk, and does so with clarity and energy that belies her much-diminished physical condition. If I have questions I have to write them down in large letters. She peers at them them carefully, reading them out loud, and answers with entertaining particulars. She gets quite a bit of mileage out of even the most ordinary question—What were you doing while your husband was fighting in Japan? Where are your kids now? Why did you move back from the east coast?

The particulars in Mildred’s memory are like jewels pulled one by one from a chest. She enunciates. She corrects herself to make a point more specific—and sometimes corrects me. She notices things. I like that. I have come to appreciate her particularity as a gift in the middle of an otherwise too-hurried and sometimes scattered day. She takes careful notice of the thing at hand—and the person. When that’s me, I feel particularly honored.

Lines that Come When You Need Them

One of the best reasons to read poems, reread them, and learn a few by heart is that lines come back to help you when you need them. A haunting turn of phrase will turn out to provide a fitting response to a moment for which words don’t come easily. An apt image will protect us from the seductions of popular clichés. A clear and simple sentence will speak our sorrow.

I wrote a list recently of answers to a question students have posed in various ways over the years as public events and personal pressures have seemed to render poetry irrelevant: why read a poem at a time like this? (Surely public debate, technical training, good journalism and service at soup kitchens are more urgent, are they not?) I believe the not so obvious reasons to read a poem are especially pertinent at a time like this — in the aftermath of an election many of us fear will unleash a cascade of consequences, especially for the poor and vulnerable, people of color, immigrants, women, and the earth’s ecosystems, that are hard to face.

Rather than recite those reasons, it occurs to me to share lines from poems that have returned to me since November 8 and have given me moments of consolation, direction, clarity, renewed resolve, sober reflection and even laughter in the midst of the torrent of reaction that has been unleashed. My intention is to reflect on lines from particular poems over the coming days in the hope that what comes back to me and gives me encouragement may serve similar purposes for any of you who read this, and perhaps lead you to the poems I plucked them from and receive other gifts offered there.

Here’s the first of several, from Wendell Berry’s “Manifesto: Mad Farmer, Liberation Front”

So, friends, every day do something

that won’t compute. Love the Lord.

Love the world. Work for nothing.

Take all that you have and be poor.

Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace

the flag. Hope to live in that free

republic for which it stands.

I read this poem, and these lines with particular emphasis, to a class of graduating seniors on commencement day a few years back. Some of them had been in classes where I had urged them to “keep one foot outside any institution you inhabit, and a careful, critical eye on its processes.” I have to admit that right now I’m more inclined to denounce the government than embrace the flag, but Berry is right to call our attention to the hope those colors represent, and to reclaim that hope even when, to some of us, the immediate future (and, with climate-change deniers in power, the long-term future) looks bleak. Hope is a form of energy. It is a measure of intention, and of faith. It is a gift and a virtue — a spiritual muscle that operates on both voluntary and involuntary impulses.

To do what won’t compute is a cryptic reminder that what we need most as we struggle to live in healthy communities on a healthy planet is the capacity both to organize our knowledge, foster collective impulse control and also to imagine and dare what doesn’t fit the norms of the moment. Yesterday I read a valuable blog entitled “This is Not Normal” ( that reminded readers that “the one thing authoritarians want you to do is to accept that their conduct is normal, even when it is not.” As norms shift and behavior once regarded as unacceptable by both legal and moral standards is tolerated and, by some, celebrated, the challenge to challenge those norms every day seems pertinent, even if only by saying, in effect, “Wait — what are we doing?”

I love Berry’s lines for their hospitality: he speaks to us as friends. I love them for their openness to others’ imaginations: the “something” that won’t compute could be any of a number of acts of creative resistance to dangerous compliance. I love them for their clear allusion to the Gospel challenge to give all that you have, to serve, to hope. And for their affirmation of a patriotism that knows its place and is rooted in a wider vision of peace and freedom. I recommend the whole poem, which recommends, a bit further on that we laugh, that we be crafty, and finally that we “practice resurrection.”

What Tennis Teaches

Return to the center

Meet the ball in front of you.

Forgive yourself immediately and get ready for the next shot.

Don’t watch your opponent, watch the ball.

Don’t analyze while you play.

Stay flexible and ready.

Finish the swing to full stretch.

Accuracy matters more than power.

Skill matters more than equipment.

Toss the ball higher than where you’ll be hitting it.

Let your partner handle her side of the court.

If you’re playing the net don’t look back.

Stoop to meet the low ones.

Don’t let points interfere with play.

Play is not performance.

Mastery is not anxious.

Though I love the feel of a solid hit and the racket in my hand, I’m not a particularly good player. But tennis has taught me some of my more durable spiritual lessons. Forgive yourself immediately, for instance, and wait for the next ball. It’s good to remember that as I make my way through the day’s tasks, trying to remember the adage that if a thing’s worth doing it’s worth doing badly. Don’t just swing with your arm–swing with your whole body. In other words, to quote a worthier source than my inner coach, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). Be fully present, fully invested, fully awake and available. Don’t analyze while you play. Overthinking, one of my more persistent forms of self-sabotage, is like driving with one foot on the brake. Hit the ball and let go of the result. It’s on its way. It will do what it does. Physics has taken over. Tensing and watching won’t help it along its trajectory. Accuracy matters more than power. My brother taught me this when he noticed I was trying too hard. “You’re a girl,” he said, “you’ll never overpower your opponent, but you may outsmart him.” And as the shots come and the pace quickens and you run to meet the wild ones just this side of the line, Always return to the center.

This last instruction, reiterated with irritating frequency by my hippie coach (who also urged me to loosen up and “go for the yogic moment”) began to leak into the hours beyond the tennis lesson. After a mad rush to find keys on the way out the door, after a frustrating encounter with a student, after 20 minutes spent searching for an inexplicably disappeared document on an aging computer, the simple instruction, “Return to the center” comes like a whisper from the wise woman within—who keeps rather quiet a good bit of the time. I like her when she shows up.

So where is the center? It’s the place from which I can remember that most of my problems are “first world problems”—solvable, manageable problems of the privileged that are not life-threatening, and may be offering me lessons I need. The center is the place from which I can regroup and reframe and regain an inventiveness that makes problems into puzzles. It’s the place where I remember my deepest purposes. It’s the place where I breathe.

Breathing takes me there. Every meditative tradition I know teaches this: stop. Breathe. Breathe into your whole body. Receive, Release, Receive. We receive life and release it. Every breath is a new lease—life again. This time. And every serve, every shot, even the missed one, is a new opportunity.

St. Thomas Aquinas claimed that “All knowledge comes through the senses.” Our access to things spiritual, metaphysical, even mystical comes by means of what Mary Oliver called the “five rivers” of the senses. What the body knows makes its way to mind and spirit as we begin the long journey of learning, rising and falling our way to first steps, swinging and balancing and throwing and catching, grasping the pencil and the paintbrush, bending into “downward dog” position and stretching after a long run. Tennis taught me that a tiny change in the way I grip the racquet can make a lasting difference in precision and control. And that skill is rooted in trust. And that finding the sweet spot is worth the work. And that right-minded work is play. And that the moment of grace, when it comes, is always a gift.

(see also at





Beyond Useless

My mother took care of people for most of her life—a blind father, orphan children in a South Indian mission school, children of her own, aging parents-in-law, generations of students, foster children, homebound church members, my father in his final years. I remember her declaring as she washed potatoes at the sink, “When I stop being useful, I want to go. I don’t want to live long enough to be a burden.” Later, in “assisted living,” she became for the first time a reluctant recipient of others’ help. Age and mild dementia required that she modify her utilitarian sense of purpose. She put together jigsaw puzzles, watched movies, let me read to her, and when her energy permitted, played croquet—a gentle sport that she had enjoyed decades earlier on our front lawn. Even then, though her own eyesight was failing, she read the news aloud for a woman down the hall and brought mail to an infirm neighbor’s room. And, as long as she could, she tutored a young man on the kitchen staff who was trying to pass an evening ESL course at the local community college. It was important for her to be able to help someone. Her sense of identity and her understanding of stewardship and Christian responsibility seemed to her rightly fulfilled when she was doing that.

So it was a hard adjustment for her to become less able, unsteady on her feet, uncertain in her memory of daily things, and finally distressingly disoriented. “Uselessness” was the condition she dreaded most. One afternoon as I popped in after work for our evening visit and asked my usual opening question, “How are you, Mom?” she answered with a slightly baffled look, “I’m okay. I just can’t quite understand why I’m still here.” She was nearing her 94th birthday then, and was several months away from going gently, with characteristic grace and simplicity, into that good night.

It was a poignant moment. She had taught me that things happen in God’s good time, that God’s purposes are mysterious, and that we were not the judges of our own or others’ value. Still, her own sense of value was faltering. She was, as she put it in her darker moments, “not much good to anyone.”

My efforts to reassure and encourage her were a memorable exercise in practical theology. I realized how deeply I identified with her desire to be useful: I remembered singing at her side some Sundays a vigorous 19th-century hymn, “Work for the Night is Coming,” which may by now (perhaps for the best) have been excised from most hymnals. It purveys a rather insistent protestant work ethic, rooted in an eschatological frame of reference that still shapes much evangelical thought. I quote here the second of three verses that take singers through the arc of the day—morning, noon, and evening—urging work while the light lasts:


Work, for the night is coming,

Work through the sunny noon;

Fill brightest hours with labor,

Rest comes sure and soon.

Give every flying minute,

Something to keep in store;

Work, for the night is coming,

When man works no more.


There’s a lot to be said for the commitment the hymn urges to God’s service in the world; the work was, as I was given to understand it, laboring in “fields white unto harvest”—evangelizing, teaching, caring for the poor, the sick, the dying. Mom had been a missionary in India for nearly 14 years before returning to the states to teach and do long service as deacon in our church. Her response to the call of the Gospel was literal and faithful and full of authentic joy.

So it was a particular kind of pain to see a quiet sadness descending on her when there seemed no work left for her to do.

I gave her a pep talk. “You can pray,” I said. “You believe in the power of prayer, and you have time to do it now.” What she may not have been able to say in response was that it was hard for her to focus on prayer. Her mind wandered. She couldn’t remember the names of people she might want to pray for. The effort to pray was confusing. “You can be here for me,” I said. “I spent so many years living far away from you—it’s a real gift to me to be able to see you now.” I’m sure that mattered some, but I’m sure she also recognized that it was I who was going out of my way most days to come by and visit. She wasn’t “helping” me. All reassurances to the contrary, she felt like something of a burden.

“I just don’t want to be a burden to my children in my old age” is a fairly common sentiment, and one that I share. To the extent that we are able, my husband and I have taken out long-term care insurance and provided for the costs associated with our death for that reason. But as an adult child, I know that the anxiety may obscure another important fact about being an aging parent: the love we give our children may in fact inspire them to want to care for us as we age. They may be eager and honored to do so—or at least wholeheartedly willing to perform what services age and infirmity require as a free exercise of love. We may need to allow more generously for their generosity. Even now, when I go anywhere near the “burden” word, one of my daughters insists, “I want you with us, Mom. If you need care, I want to give it.”

My daughter’s generous reassurance offers a salutary corrective to my own fear of uselessness. The utilitarian idea of individual worth that troubled my mother is widely held, and accounts at least in part for widespread dismissiveness and neglect of the aged. Whether or not it is acknowledged, many otherwise generous souls find themselves bemused and impatient during the long lingering of elders ravaged by Alzheimer’s or other forms of mental and physical debility. What might reframe this last chapter of life when so many live beyond conventional ideas of “usefulness”? How can we help the old—and ourselves while we are not yet at that point—develop a deeper understanding of the ways they are, as the Amish believe, a gift to the community in focusing its caregiving energies? And how can we help those so inclined to consent fruitfully to turning inward, gathering, harvesting, reflecting—doing the “work” of old age?

It may be that for my mother, and perhaps eventually for me, one of the important lessons of age, with its progressive losses and dependencies, is to learn to receive with gratitude and grace, to relinquish the role of giver and consent to being rather than doing. Maybe the final assignment for those who live long enough is to open heart and hands and body to the simple grace of receiving the breath of life, the light of day, the kindness of others—sometimes of strangers—in patient consent to the terms of this journey. Maybe there is goodness in play, so long neglected for work and family–the pleasure of a jigsaw or a game of checkers–or a slow walk in the garden to see which flowers have bloomed. Maybe we need to foster our own delight and our elders’ in those pleasures, slowing into praise, laying aside our preoccupations. Maybe we need some hymns that bring to our human living a wider range of acceptable verbs: open, hold, enjoy, receive, wait, notice, listen, be, love.

My mother’s father, 62 years old when she was born in 1913, was, in his early years, a pioneer pastor in the Minnesota outback where conditions were rustic at best and winters often life-threatening. A letter he wrote during one of those winters has survived in our small trove of heirlooms. After describing the blizzard that kept his family snowed in for many days while supplies dwindled and the pile of firelogs shrank, he concluded his letter with these words: “How precious it is to wait on the Lord.” I am convicted by that kind of faith. And I think how good a word that is to keep close when life drives us into “uselessness” by age or accident or illness. Waiting may be our work—more precious than we know in the sight of the Lord.



“Hear me.”

I found all three speeches given on the first night of the Democratic National Convention—Michelle Obama’s, Elizabeth Warren’s, and Bernie Sanders’—moving, consoling and reinvigorating. For Sanders and Warren, both of whom dwell further left in the liberal territories than Hillary, it was a moment of publicly relinquishing something they publicly hoped for—of regrouping, reframing, reiterating, and redirecting. They’re not giving up pursuing what they (and I) believe matters; they both went through the list again, in case we’re inclined to remove it to the back burner: meaningful immigration reform, healthcare for all, corporate responsibility, overturning Citizens United, living minimum wage, a tax system that reduces income inequality, equal rights and protection for marginalized groups . . . . They kept their eyes on those prizes, and rose memorably above personality politics. They made it more possible for me to do the same from my own small corner of our embattled constitutional democracy.

I was especially impressed by what they didn’t say. Though they made some important points about Trump’s incompetence, ignorance, insularity, and egomania, they didn’t mention the fact that Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chair of the DNC, committed multiple breaches of ethics to try to insure that Hillary won the primary. They didn’t yield to whatever temptation the moment offered to point to troubling evidence of election fraud and tampering. They chose to unify.

But neither speech was a mere capitulation, and in that, I am stirred to particular admiration for what they exhibited about leadership. Sanders’ concession was generous and gracious; I believe he has thought long and hard about supporting Hillary, and that it wasn’t an easy decision. He taught me something about what it means to compromise with integrity: he gave her every benefit of the many doubts he’s raised and shared about her political positions and uses of power. He will keep challenging her and the party. He’ll stay in the conversation. And he helped me want to do that, too, and to keep finding ways to have it that don’t degenerate into mere complaint.

I was moved in other ways by Michelle’s speech. She had a different kind of fine line to tread. She is acutely conscious of the hostilities that have met her husband’s administration at every turn, but she, too, spoke from a place beyond the pain and resentment and defensiveness she must often have felt. I was stopped, near the end of her speech by this: “We cannot afford to be tired, frustrated, or cynical. No, hear me – between now and November we need to do what we did eight years ago and four years ago . . . .”

A black woman saying to an audience so full of white men and women, “hear me” made me suddenly aware as if a bolt of electricity had shot through my body of how huge a thing it is for her to utter that little imperative with such command and confidence. “Hear me.” She has to know, whenever she rises to speak, that one constituency she represents are those who for generations remained painfully, humiliatingly unheard and invisible. To have mentioned that she wakes every morning in a house built by slaves testifies to that abiding awareness. “Hear me” seemed to me a moment almost as stirring as the moment Obama’s election was announced. That she was heard—and with enormous respect, attention, and gratitude—that her authority was recognized and honored with such applause, and that she could speak as a wife and mother about raising and protecting children as an essential focus for our collective efforts to live rightly—restored for me what had been waning. I have been getting tired, frustrated, and cynical about political process. But though I still believe it is a deeply flawed process, and that in other things than politics lies the salvation of the world, I feel summoned again to citizenship. I’m grateful to be an American insofar as it means working alongside these three and others—Bill McKibben, Amy Goodman, Chris Hedges, Joanna Macy, Wendell Berry, Toni Morrison, Cornell West, Noam Chomsky, . . . and others in my personal hall of heroes—to work locally and think globally and listen hard to those who deserve at long last to be heard.


I was talking the other day with a book club participant who mentioned the familiar problem of predictable conversations that lack surprise, even when they’re about rich and exhilarating books. I think prompts help. These are some that help me when I’m reviewing, talking about, or just thinking about a book I’d like to share. It occurred to me others might find them helpful.

©Marilyn McEntyre

— One of the most distinctive features of this writer’s style is . . .
— One of the writer’s main objectives is to . . .
— Basically, the writer’s strategy is to . . .
— The opening paragraphs already lead me to . . .
— The kinds of detailing I remember are . . . and they work to . . .
— One lovely bit of characterization is . . .—effective because. . .
— The images that remain with me most vividly are . . .
— One line I remember verbatim is . . .
— One of the most (surprising, unusual, provocative) insights this author offers is
— One of the troubling aspects of this work is . . .
— This writer’s approach is noticeably different from . . .
— I wish the writer had developed . . . further . . . because . . .
— I found myself in disagreement with the writer about . . .
— One question I am left with is . . .
— Reading this I had to reconsider . . .
— I wonder why the writer . . .
— This is, among other things, a work about . . .
— The work’s evident limitations are . . .
— I hadn’t before realized that . . .
— I am still of two minds about . . .

— The writer . . .
explains . . .
argues . . .
describes . . .
questions . . .
discloses . . .
assumes . . .
reframes . . .
criticizes . . .
elicits . . .
distinguishes . . .

— The writer makes me . . .
rethink . . .
wonder . . .
appreciate . .
critical of . . .
uncertain about . . .
want to defend . . .
want to learn . . .
want to look harder at . . .
delight in . . .


I heard an NPR interview recently with a mother in Flint, MI who was getting donations of bottled water to bathe her three-year-old. She was one of many. Amy Goodman did an hour special in which other adults, many of them mothers, were doing the same things. Strategies for living in a state of acute public health crisis range from those who are organizing free distributions, sharing their own resources, and going house to house to make sure people have enough water for the day to those who are hoarding. One particularly compassionate organizer, asked to comment on the evident fact that some people were hoarding water, said generously, “I don’t want to blame them. If it were my family at risk (this was a white organizer who didn’t live in the most severely affected area) I’d be tempted to hoard, too.
I’ve heard with some regularity since 2003 that our next wars won’t be about water, but about oil, and they’ll be here. As I follow drought statistics and watch the American River dwindle and read about the salmon die-off, I think about this prophecy—more so when I read about ranchers in the Central Valley actually engaging in water wars—poaching, spying, litigating, threatening each other, often with a good measure of righteous anger about the fact that it’s in the public interest for them to have the water. No water, no farms, no food, as the signs say, posted along the length of Highway 5. What the signs don’t say, and what slogans always elide, is that it’s more complicated than that. How Agribusinesses irrigate, what distribution measures have been legislated and by dint of whose lobbying, why we don’t have water rationing that applies both to individuals and to corporations are questions that need to be asked more frequently and answered more adequately.
Flint holds a magnifying mirror up to all of us who inhabit an infrastructure in which clean water (and other resources needed for survival) is unequally tested and distributed. TV specials like Goodman’s put a face on poverty, outrage, and take some measure of the loss of a sense of the common good. Recently my husband and I led a five-week series of discussions called “Reclaiming the Common Good.” We began by offering a little history of the term (one which goes back to ancient Israelites, among other communities. There farmers were expected to leave part of their harvest for the poor to glean, to contribute to shared stores, to care for widows and orphans, to extend generous hospitality to strangers, to forgive some debts every seven years, and all debts every 49 years. These were not matters of generosity, but of law and common culture. When Jesus famously said, “The poor you have always with you,” it was not a dismissal of the poor, but something more like “Duh. Of course. Of course you care for the poor. That’s not even in question.”
I am increasingly troubled by how deeply even those of us who think in systemic terms and understand institutional racism and exclusion (here I’m talking about myself) literally buy into the philanthropic model. We feel good about contributing “our” money to good causes. But one economic historian pointed out, in those traditional cultures where care of the poor was an axiomatic responsibility, supported by law and the teaching of elders, no one even thought it was “their” money—not in the sense in which we use that pronoun in a place where capitalism verges on a point of logical absurdity.
What can I do about Flint? Contribute, obviously, though I don’t want to support the companies whose bottled water are a huge part of the problem. So educate myself about where to contribute what I can. Consider which part of the chorus I want to add my voice. And in the meantime drink my own water with more mindfulness. I’ve stopped saying, “I’ll just have water.” I’m trying to remember to say instead, “I’ll have water. Thank you.”