Q is for Question

11266458_10204290210670657_2086933634983810389_oIt has been my custom to reward good questions my children ask with $5. Over the years it has cost me a bundle and I am now gearing up for the next round with Eva and Isabel turning four. For my older children, the monetary reward became quite secondary to the desire to have asked a good question and to their ever increasing ability to discern, (though sometimes first asking, “Is that a $5 question?”) the nature of a good question.

 

Some of the questions my older children asked: Where does the water go when you flush the toilet? If God created the world, who created God? If you were a chess piece which chess piece would you choose to be? Why are there only two types of people, men and women, why not a third type?

 

Questions come in all shapes, sizes and depths. They appear at times from nowhere in the conscious mind, in a dream or a sudden realization. The question that is now permeating my thoughts is all-encompassing one: Why did it take you so long to question this? It is a big question and also a question of depth—what is it for me and others that does not allow them to even “call” the question?

 

There is a wonderful story in the Torah of five sisters who approach the supreme court of their day with a question about inheritance. Their father had died and they were his only progeny. Why, they asked, should they lose out the equal opportunity to share in their father’s estate just because he had no sons? Could daughters not be afforded the status of inheritance? Perhaps the sisters started by asking a few relatives or friends, or they had already gone to lesser courts before presenting their question to Moses (who in turn appeals to God for an answer).

 

While the answer given by God (in this case there were no dissenting opinions) satisfied the sisters–it granted them the inheritance, the full story reveals that this decision only granted daughters inheritance rights in the absence of male progeny. These sisters though did call the question. In order to do so they had to confront, first within themselves, and then with others, the assumed reality that inheritance is passed exclusively from father to son.

 

Change occurs because we are open to questions. Perhaps this is one of the key differentiators between those who adhere to fundamentalism and those who do not. It is as simple as that—are you willing to question the assumed reality (of your family, your community, your religion, your science, etc.).

 

In the recent opinions written by the Supreme Court justices regarding same-sex marriage, questioning is at the core of their differing views. In their respective written opinions Justice Roberts (dissenting) bases some of his argument on our relationship to the past; perhaps, even suggesting that it is not prudent to question the past. Justice Kennedy, who wrote the opinion of the court, expresses the importance of questioning.

 

Justice Roberts: To blind yourself to history is both prideful and unwise. The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

 

Justice Kennedy: History and tradition guide and discipline this inquiry but do not set its outer boundaries…learn from it without allowing the past alone to rule the present

 

Justice Roberts: The Court today not only overlooks our country’s entire history and tradition but actively repudiates it.

 

Justice Kennedy: The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning.

 

The petitioners for recognition of same-sex marriage were calling into question what is the definition of marriage. For some people it is as absurd a question as my child’s question: Why are there only two types of people, men and women, why not a third type? I gave $5 for that question. The Supreme Court gave much more.

 

Strange Fruit

Billie_holiday_pro_1841006cThere is a confederacy growing in the United States whose unified strength will not only lower that flag but have it removed from South Carolina and other southern states—the flag being the emblem of prejudicial states of mind. Hate is a very active energy. If the new confederacy is to overcome hatred it must remain vigilant to what “will not fly” on flagpoles, in police behavior and in the everyday interactions on the streets, in the workplace and in the schools. This new confederacy is an America that is awakening to the need to expose first and then heal the divides that are racial, sexual and religious in this country.

 

Time Magazine designated Strange Fruit, written by Abel Meeropol and sung by Billie Holiday as the “Song of the 20th Century.” What is amazing is that it was not a popular song in its time and may never have been recorded if not for the courage of Milt Gabler, who agreed to release it on his Commodore Records label (I first heard of Gabler and this song from Billy Crystal who was recounting his father and Uncle Milt’s record company).

 

Meeropol’s Strange Fruit was inspired by a photo of the lynching of two black men in Marion, Indiana (the song’s lyrics are below). Billie Holiday’s vocals will reverberate in Charleston this week where the 8 Bible study group members and their pastor, Clementa Pinckeny, will be buried. These men and women of the Emanuel Church, their skin color black, were not lynched but they share in the deaths of so many Americans of color, they were murdered because they are seen as foreign, and what is foreign is seen as dangerous.

 

What is unspoken about the tragedy in Charleston is that the murderer sat amongst his intended victims sharing in their Bible study. He was welcomed into their midst, welcomed by Pastor Pinckeny to join them. He sat with them for an hour. According to one report the murderer hesitated to carry out his plan as he absorbed the Bible study. Pastor Pinckeny and the Bible study group at Emanuel welcomed the stranger. They did not assume this foreigner was dangerous. They were wrong in this instance—but not all “white” people are dangerous and not all “black” people are dangerous.

 

If a single photo of a lynching can inspire the song of the (past) century what song can hours of recent videotape inspire this century? Better yet, what will be the words of a new version of America the Beautiful, for what makes a nation more beautiful than the harmonious possibility of a land that is truly “different together” above the fruited plain.

 

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Strange Fruit (for Billie Holiday’s rendition: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4ZyuULy9zs)

 

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,

Black body swinging in the southern breeze,

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

 

Pastoral scene of the gallant South

The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth

Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh

And the sudden smell of brining flesh

 

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,

For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,

Here is a strange and bitter crop.

 

Telling Stories

16SISTERS1web-master675Jonesborough, Tennessee is a sleepy bed & breakfast town that every year hosts an international festival of story tellers. People sit under huge tents and in a revivalist fashion do what small children the world over enjoy—a good story.

 

I have a story from Jonesborough—not one I heard, one that I experienced. It has to do with saw-toothed grain beetles in my cereal but I am jumping ahead. Back when I was a young man, working in Family Medicine, I would visit my colleagues in Johnson City, the university town up the road to devise training tapes for family interviewing. We would stay at the Hawley House—the oldest B&B in town. When our entourage from Colorado arrived for our return visit the following year, our host, a woman known miles around for the best bacon & eggs points to me and says—“You, you I need to talk to.” I thought she may have figured out for this visit how to get kosher food for me; instead she had a story to tell about the embarrassing breakfast incident the year before.

 

You see, when I came to visit the first time I wasn’t expecting to be fed, I brought my own provisions, but the matron of the house wanted me to be her guest so she had a basketful of cereal boxes from which to choose for breakfast. As I poured out the cereal I noticed something moving—grain beetles had infested the raisin bran. Concerned and conciliatory, she removed the whole basket of cereal boxes and begged for my forgiveness. For me it was not a memorable event—there was ample fresh fruit to supplement the food I had brought along with me.

 

What I did not know, and what the matron had herself forgotten was the diamond engagement ring that she had secreted away inside one of those cereal boxes—the ring her son had given to his fiancé—the ring, which upon the breaking off the engagement was returned to her by her son’s fiancé on a Friday. Not having time to place the ring in a more secure place, she fell upon the idea of hiding it in a cereal box—I arrived that Sunday and the rest is history. The diamond ring found its way to the town dump.

 

There is much more to the story but that is for a telling at a story festival. Suffice to say: the story is always there—many times though we don’t get to hear the “rest of the story.” I have not been back to Jonesborough since those visits over 20 years ago—BTW, the couple re-united and asked for the ring back—a story that needed to be revealed over an uncomfortable breakfast meeting between a son, his fiancé and her future mother-in-law.
Did the couple stay together, do they have children? Did a man, combing through mounds of garbage come across a diamond ring which, through permutations of circumstance, now rests upon the hand of a young woman, born in Charleston, South Carolina, the daughter of that would be couple from Jonesborough?

 

Choose to be in the wonder of how intertwined our stories are—and consider the following story of sisters, born a year apart and sent off for adoption to different families, meeting for the first time in a creative writing class 30 years later
Lizzie Valverde and Katy Olson were strangers when they enrolled at Columbia University a few years ago. Ms. Valverde is from New Jersey, while Ms. Olson had grown up mostly in Florida and Iowa.

 

Their lives crossed in January 2013, on the first day of a writing class, when they took part in one of those familiar around-the-table introductions that by the end had led them to a stunning realization.

 

The two women had come to Columbia to learn the finer points of storytelling and wound up in the middle of a doozy: an intertwined tale of their own that they say they could never have conjured.

 

Their shared story line — a chance reunion three decades after being born to the same troubled mother in Florida and then raised by adoptive families in different parts of the country — has been knitted together by years of curiosity on both women’s parts about their origins.

 

The full story: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/16/nyregion/adopted-sisters-find-each-in-columbia-university-writing-class-after-30-years.html?_r=0 

 

 

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