In the absence of a live nativity at our church this Christmas Eve in the time of Covid, I cannot offer my usual photos of curious onlookers mingling happily with the sweet-tempered camels Samson or Delilah. Or with their other charming cohorts, the brown burro, the velvet-coated humpback ox, the several sheep or goats.
Here instead is this little clothespin nativity that my daughter and I made together many years ago. Simple and humble, made from materials we already had, it seems especially appropriate this Christmas Eve. It points toward what’s important, what’s essential, on this night and every night. The message of Christmas is, in one word, love. Love embodied in a baby. A baby sent by God to grow up and model love not only to his human contemporaries, but to all future generations. The message is so powerful that it remains as vital today as it was 2,000 years ago.
It’s the love that mingles the divine and the human. It’s the love that shines in the darkness. And the darkness, including the darkness of a pandemic, will not overcome it.
In 2013 I wrote a post about decorating the tree stump at the edge of our front yard with a Christmas wreath. In the course of seven years, the stump has changed substantially, as most of us have. I didn’t hang the wreath the past two years, but this year it seemed fitting to do so. The original post appears immediately below, followed by the current update.
Deck the Tree Stump (2013)
This December, we hung a big wreath on the craggy silver maple stump in front of our house. It seemed like an interesting, if unexpected, spot for a wreath. And by decorating the tree, we could send a message to those who might see it as a business opportunity, as well as to those who think the stump is unsightly and wonder why we leave it standing. The wreath says, We love this old tree trunk, and we’re letting nature take its course.
Then I thought a little more about it, and the pairing struck me as even more appropriate in its juxtaposition of life and death. The stump is the opposite of the traditional evergreen Christmas tree. Firs and spruces, retaining the appearance of vitality through the winter, get the privilege of being cut down, hauled into our homes, strung with lights and ornaments, and left to wither and die. It’s tough work, being a symbol. Our maple, though, would be in no such danger. If intact, it would be gray-brown and leafless by now, like its neighbors in our yard. But of course, it’s a stump, a snag, and already dead. Yet it harbors vast, unseen colonies of creatures that go about the business of breaking down lifeless material. It won’t be long before nature’s course is run. The stump may not be here next year; its center is soft. All the more reason to decorate it this year.
My husband and daughter hung the wreath one weekend afternoon, as I was napping, trying to get over a persistent cold. When I trudged out to the road to see their handiwork, a new insight hit me.
I like to think that God works with us for good, despite ourselves, despite our selfish intentions and our vanity. I initially wanted to decorate the tree because I thought it would look pretty, if a bit odd. In truth, it was a way of declaring a certain pride in being different, in having the ability to see beauty where others see ugliness.
But once up, the wreath reminded me of a greater truth, of the essence of my Christian faith. Out of death comes new, transformed life. How better to say it than in the words of John 3: 16:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
And then the snow settled beautifully on the wreath and the tree, on the green and the gray, on the quick and the dead, like a blessing from above.
Update: The Remains of the Stump (2020)
The stump lasted far longer than I expected. But nature, human error, and cars have taken their toll. It’s in a vulnerable spot, close to the narrow road, on a particularly sharp turn that’s proven problematic for drivers time and time again. Several years ago one May morning we were awakened around dawn by a policeman at our door. He asked if that was our vehicle outside. “What vehicle?,” I heard my husband ask in a confused tone, after he’d finally made his way downstairs to the door.
“The one in the tree.”
And sure enough, it appeared that a dark minivan had merged with the tree. While most of the stump remained, it must have been considerably weakened, as its decline soon accelerated.
Two summers ago while we were away on vacation, a little red Honda found its way quite forcefully into the stump, demolishing half of it. The section that remained no longer looked much like a tree, or even a stump. When that final piece gradually eased to the ground one day this fall, we barely noticed. Why not, one might ask, remove it, at this point? One answer is that, even as a pile of debris, it serves as a barrier for future wayward vehicles.
Last week, returning from a walk with the dog, I surveyed the battered remains of the once mighty silver maple. It, with five others, was planted the same year that our house was built, in 1920. (See The Silver Maples Say Welcome Home, April 2012.) Several large patches of ruffled pale green lichen had sprouted from the decaying wood. Even in its final stages, the tree continues to serve as evidence of the circle of life. (See Underfoot, and Easily Overlooked. . . October 18, 2013.) I thought of the big wreath hanging neglected behind the hockey nets in the garage. Why not, during this Covid Christmas season, decorate the vestiges of the tree as it’s in the process of transformation? The wreath on the ruins is, to me, a reminder that hope does indeed remain. We can have hope in human ingenuity and resilience during the darkest of times, proof of which is offered by, among other achievements, the development of highly effective Covid vaccines in record time. We can have hope in a divine and loving parent, who created not only maple tree and lichen, but also each one of us human children, unique in our blend of talents, strengths, weaknesses and inconsistencies. We were created for a life that increases in abundance as we love one another and rejoice in our differences. We were created for an abundant life that transcends the boundaries of this flawed and fantastic earthly realm.
. . .and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out on us through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.
Due to the pandemic, our church has not held in-person worship since mid-February. Back then, we thought we’d be gathering again in our sanctuary after a few months, at the most. Certainly by the summer. Now, nearly ten months later, weekly worship continues online. Thanks to dedicated, tech-savvy staff and volunteers, the quality improves weekly. We’ve had several drive-in services, with the pastor and music leaders outside, distanced from one another, and congregants in their cars. Our only inside events have been a few small memorial services. As I said in an earlier post (I Wanna be Sedated, October 21, 2020), our congregation has suffered some tragically sudden and unexpected losses this year. At these indoor services, health protocols mandated by our bishop are followed diligently. Attendance is limited to twenty-five, and seating is distanced, with every other pew marked off with blue tape. Masks, of course, are required.
When I recently accompanied my daughter to record her scripture reading and advent candle lighting for an upcoming virtual service, it was our first time inside the church in months. I hadn’t much thought about what I expected our sanctuary, set up for distanced seating, to look like. So I was surprised when we found ourselves laughing.
Every blue-taped pew bore a sign that gently and humorously declared it to be off-limits.
This one might be especially appreciated by our Jewish friends.
I’m glad to be part of a church that finds a thoughtful way to take a light-hearted approach to a serious situation. I’m grateful that my church is taping off pews and modeling the importance of masking. I’m thankful to belong to a congregation that understands and values this vitally important truth: in keeping our distance and wearing a mask, we’re showing love to our neighbors during these anxious and uncertain days.
As we prepare for Christmas, let’s remember that in living out God’s love, a different set of rules applies in this most unusual of Advent seasons. We church folks have often heard fellow congregants, when faced with the prospect of change, make this protest: But we’ve always done it this way! In 2020, and well into 2021, as the vaccine roll-out progresses, we’re called to do things differently. God is calling us to do so. Let’s keep the faith, and not only talk the talk, but walk the walk.
Redeemer, come, with us abide; our hearts to thee we open wide;
let us thy inner presence feel; thy grace and love in us reveal.
–Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates
Words: Georg Weissel, 1642; trans. by Catherine Winkworth, 1855 (Psalm 24)
The first snow of the season arrived yesterday. The flakes started out fat and fluffy, blanketing everything quickly in white. Even during a global health emergency, a mid-December snow is beautiful. Christmas-card worthy images of red, white and green abounded: cardinals on frosted evergreen branches, nandina and holly topped with snow.
In an ordinary year, our daughter might not have been home yet for winter break from the University of Virginia. But because of the pandemic, she’s been here since before Thanksgiving. As her social life has been drastically curtailed, a walk in the snowy neighborhood with her mother held far greater appeal than in years past. Her presence during this time has indeed been, for me, the best of Covid silver linings.
After a few hours, the snow turned to sleet, then to freezing rain, as it so often does here in Northern Virginia. Branches, foliage and berries were heavily coated in a layer of ice.
This morning, both porch doors and every outside gate were frozen shut. It was a perilous endeavor to walk from our house to my mother’s next door. Yet the sun shone brightly on each treacherous surface. Ice-glazed red berries and deep green leaves gleamed even merrier in the light.
But the perfect image of our Covid winter may be this: clinging to the tips of spiky brown branches of a dying evergreen, the oblong beads of ice, looking for all the world like frozen teardrops.
December 16, 2020 was our deadliest day of the pandemic yet, with 3,656 lives lost to Covid-19 in the US. The total number of American deaths from the virus approaches 310,000.
If, in the unlikely event that you have not yet voted, and have not yet decided how to vote, here is some last-minute food for thought.
One candidate’s modus operandi can be boiled down to a familiar childhood taunt, based on the lie. The blatant, aggressive, unyielding lie. We’ve all heard it: I’m not. You are! For example: I’m not a cheater. You are! There’s also this variation: I didn’t do it. You did! As in: I didn’t kick the dog. You did! The pronoun “you” is replaced as needed.
For most of us, the ridiculousness of this tactic is readily apparent. We know we’d be called out immediately as a liar and a fraud. But for bullies, who wield power through fear, and never, never, back down from the lie, it’s highly effective.
It has proven to be a surprisingly successful strategy for a president surrounded by a cadre of sycophants. He uses it to shirk responsibility and to deflect blame. It works well when the only objectives are self-preservation and self-aggrandizement. In his words and actions, this president demonstrates, repeatedly, that he cares only for himself. Not for his fellow Americans or the fate of our country. This is especially apparent in his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. And now that he, thanks to health care largely unavailable to the typical American, has survived the coronavirus, he feels more powerful than ever. He uses our Department of Justice to fight his own personal battles, and he seeks revenge on those who have crossed him. Another formidable weapon that works to his advantage is the rabid eagerness of loyal media allies to sow and nurture seeds of disinformation. I had hoped Donald Trump’s election to the presidency would prompt him to rise to the level of the office. It didn’t. Instead, he threatens the very future of our democracy. Think what he might do, unchecked, in a second term.
The other candidate is another human person, who has his flaws, as humans do. He’s been known to misspeak, as humans do. Traces occasionally remain of the childhood stutter he worked hard to overcome. But he is most certainly not a bully seeking to be a demagogue. He is an honorable, capable, experienced, compassionate public servant. Those last two words are very important. Unlike our current president, his goal is serving the U.S. and his fellow citizens. He has done so, for years, as a Senator and as a two-term Vice President. He has a proven record. He pledges to continue to do his best to improve the lot of working Americans, and he will put actual plans in place to do so.
And finally, for my friends who identify as Christian, there’s this warning from 2 Timothy 3: 2- 5:
For people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred. They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good. They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure rather than God. They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly. Stay away from people like that!
Which of the two presidential candidates best fits this description?
I make this modest proposal: Why not follow biblical advice to avoid the candidate so perfectly described here, and vote for the other guy?
The annual Halloween joyride was on. “Come on, kids!,” beckoned Slim. Our pack is a pod, so let’s go!” This may be Kiko’s favorite event of the year. He loves nothing more than to ride shotgun with with Slim.
To Kiko this means settling in for a cozy doze in the passenger seat, the top down, the sun warm, the wind refreshing. He can count on Slim to take his time with the drive; this will be no quick there-and-back trip, but an unhurried, meandering cruise over roads hitherto unexplored.
I can rest assured that Slim and the gang will be back with plenty of time to set up for the Halloween festivities, which this year, thanks to the foresight and organization of young parents, involves a neighborhood parade and safely distanced candy give-aways.
Nearly every year the Halloween joyride yields some unexpected pleasure. This year it was the spotting of one of Slim’s more reclusive pals who happened to be walking along a woodsy section of road. “Trevor!” Slim yelled, braking so suddenly that the chihuahua twins Ruth and Rocky ended up atop Kiko in the front seat, briefly waking him from his nap. “I can’t believe it! Is it really you?,” asked Slim incredulously.
“Indeed, it is I. Trevor Wildermann, III, at your service,” replied the tall, hirsute figure, barely visible among the shadows.
“Unbelievable. I awaken to a covid pandemic and run into the true King of Social Distance, the original wild man himself!,” Slim exclaimed. “What brings you to the suburbs of Northern Virginia?”
“I just returned from early voting. It’s the last day for it locally. I’m a citizen now, of course. Have been for some time. My house is just there among the trees. Mostly quiet eccentric types in this neighborhood. They’re discreet. And they know not to refer to me as “Bigfoot.” The vulgarity of the common parlance offended Trevor to his core. His feet weren’t even especially big, considering his height. “I’m confident that the secret of my whereabouts is safe, unless perhaps you, Sir, decide to reveal it to some goofball at the Travel Channel. You wouldn’t, would you?”
After Slim pledged total silence regarding his friend’s Virginia residency, Trevor invited him to pull the car around back and join him on the open-air courtyard for drinks and snacks. While Kiko and the pack explored the artfully landscaped gardens and drowsed in the sun, the two old friends indulged in a leisurely catch-up. Luckily, Slim had planned the joyride for early in the day.
The two had met in Bavaria during one of Slim’s Grand Tours of Europe in an earlier century. Trevor’s family has owned and operated the historic Hotel Wilder Mann in the Danube River town of Passau since the mid-1500s. It’s his custom to spend the spring in his charming hometown, where the Easter season, very dear to his heart, is so beautifully celebrated. The covid outbreak prevented his return this year, much to his disappointment. The fortuitous encounter with his old friend offered a welcome bit of consolation.
As the afternoon shadows lengthened and the pups began to get restless, Slim felt the tug of duty. It was time to get back to prepare. The two friends said their goodbyes with reluctance, yet rejoiced in knowing that this time next year, they would meet again.
Upon his return, Slim got to work. We had decided to greet trick-or-treaters from my mother’s house this year, as it’s more easily accessible for the parade. Slim placed two tables near the street on which to lay out a wide array of candy. He made sure to include goodies that the nut-allergic could enjoy. He set up chairs for everyone at the top of the driveway, so we could watch the festivities from a safe distance. Kiko, who didn’t know he’d be spared the constant doorbell ringing of a typical Halloween, had retreated upstairs earlier to his night-time bed.
Before long, the first vehicles of the parade began to approach from the nearby cul-de-sac. While there were plenty of walkers, other kids were conveyed in decoratively festooned golf carts, cars and SUVs. There were riding mowers and Radio Flyer wagons carrying puppies and toddlers. Parents and kids were masked and careful about maintaining distance between family groups. Most neighbors participated, with candy-laden tables set up at the base of driveways. The happy, expectant spirit of Halloween flourished, despite the unusual circumstances.
Slim was buoyed by the treat of seeing his dear friend, the elusive Wildermann. Even if that chance meeting had not occurred, he claimed, he would still have dubbed the evening a satisfying success. As he reclined again on the swooning bench, his mood was one of jubilant calm.
Before he retired for the night, our wise October companion offered these reassuring words: “Never underestimate life’s capacity to surprise you and to cheer you, especially when you least expect it. I’ll go back to sleep soon, and I’ll dream sweet dreams. Meanwhile, you’ll get through this thorny patch. I’ve got a good feeling about it. Cheers to 2021!”
Our skeleton friend, Slim, was crestfallen, but not surprised, to awaken at the beginning of October and learn the news of covid-19, or as he refers to it, “the latest pandemic.” He thought he’d misheard at first when I told him there had been nearly 230,000 deaths in the U.S. since February. He remembers the 1918 flu epidemic, when he and my grandfather were taken ill that fall. “Sam and I were hit pretty hard, but we were lucky and managed to pull through. We were young back then, and among the most vulnerable, for some reason. One of our best buddies was not so fortunate. We heard later how worried Nora had been about Sam. So glad he made it!” (I am, too, or neither my mother, nor I, would have been born.) My grandfather was thirty then, a new father to my mother’s older brother, Leland, who was just over a year old, still an only child. Neither my grandmother, nor the baby, was sickened. “After we were out of the woods, Sam and I swapped stories of our wild fever dreams,” Slim recalled. “For two full days, I was in a fox hunt. I was the fox, the hound, the horse and the hunter, all at once. I hadn’t thought about that in years.” Slim is always a gentleman, and he chooses his words with care, typically avoiding expletives. “That was some crazy $#*%,” he said, shaking his head.
The vivid memories of the nightmarish experience, and his shock at so many lives lost in 2020, prompted Slim to take to the swooning bench at my mother’s. As he draped himself in a comforting shawl, he mused. “How many died in what we used to call the Spanish Flu, even though it didn’t start there? Always gotta play the blame game. About 675,000 in the States, over the course of two years? And this pandemic on track to rival it? I thought we’d have learned to do better by this point. What year is it again? Goodness gracious. People know about masks now, right?”
Though knocked for a loop by the grim state of our current covid world, Slim rarely lingers long in life’s valleys. Encouraged by his loving pack, happy to reconnect with our family, he rallied. Soon he was ready to engage in more pleasant reminiscences. . .such as my grandparents’ celebratory wedding dinner at the Canary Cottage in Louisville, on the first day of 1915. . .
. . .and to hear from us about a few good things that happened in 2020, such as the whirlwind trip my daughter and I made from Charlottesville to New York City when she unexpectedly got tickets to Saturday Night Live. . .
. . .and to anticipate a better future, post-pandemic, post-election, posthaste.
By Halloween morning, Slim had the usual spring in his step. The air was invigoratingly chilly, and it was time to get down to business. Halloween would be different this year, but it would still be Halloween. “Onward ho, pack!”
Last week, as I was considering how, when and where to go about figuratively hiding my head in the sand, I realized that, for the moment at least, I was already in a place of relative sanctuary. The house was quiet. I had refrained from checking the news online or on TV. My mother’s Washington Post was still baking in our oven (a half hour at 200 degrees, an anti-covid precaution we adopted in March). Kiko was snoozing in his bed after our walk. From the window adjacent to the table that has become my desk in the former playroom (now that my husband has taken over our home office), there was a swirl of constant motion as birds flocked to the feeder in the side yard. The morning had been foggy and overcast, but now the sun was breaking through.
The early afternoon light created a golden glow on the thick carpet of pine straw, and the scene was suddenly idyllic, like something from an old-fashioned children’s book. There were so many birds. The usual little ones–the chickadees, tufted titmice, sparrows and house finches, a downy woodpecker–were fluttering about. A couple of nuthatches were plummeting headfirst down the pine tree trunk. A pair of wrens engaged in loud, excited communication. Similar chatter from humans would be annoying, but from these compact, spunky birds, it was charming. Several cardinals perched in a row atop the fence, stately and dignified. Was that a hermit thrush? I think so. A red-bellied woodpecker and a bluejay took turns swooping in dramatically, wings extended, briefly scattering the smaller birds. A family of doves foraged patiently on the ground. They mingled contentedly with the squirrels and chipmunks, apparently unperturbed when the furry ones scampered in circles and popped up, as though spring-loaded. The bobtail squirrel was among the group, as confident as ever. I first noticed this particular squirrel in the spring. He clearly once had a tail, but all that remains is a bit of uneven fur, as from a bad haircut. I hate to ponder what sort of traumatic and painful event he must have suffered in the past. But he’s notably bouncy, and his fellow critters don’t seem to treat him any differently.
A view toward our front yard showed a spectacular blaze of orange and red as the tri-lobed leaves of the sassafras tree caught the light.
Atop the frame of our old swing set, next to an intensely red Virginia creeper vine, a bluebird couple eyed the ground for worms.
Despite the ugliness and outright evil that currently afflicts so many human aspects of our world, the beauty of the season, and of the natural world, remains. At least for a while. Serenity, if pursued, can still be attained. At least for brief periods.
And hope still remains. Every time the sun’s rays stream unexpectedly through a bank of leaden clouds and turn the autumn colors incandescent, I know this is true. I know it every time I see the bobtail squirrel bound lightly across the yard, able and undaunted.
Let’s keep hope alive.
Vote, if you haven’t yet done so. Vote as though your serenity depends upon it.
Is anyone else yearning for a safe place to hide from the ongoing malaise that is 2020? There is so much from which to seek refuge: covid-related illness, anxiety, depression and deaths (221,000 as of today in the U.S. and 1,126,000 worldwide). There are the ongoing climate disasters, including fires, floods, droughts, scorching heat, and even plagues of locusts. Tornadoes, derechos of intense ferocity, and so many hurricanes that we’ve started through the alphabet again for storm names. Then there is all the conflict, free-floating anger and polarization. Extreme economic disparity. Drastically contrasting perspectives on issues of race and class. Weighing heavily on my heart and those of my immediate family is the mind-boggling range of opinions among fellow humans on some of life’s essential questions. On the meaning of decency and morality, on American ideals and what our country stands for, on what it means to call oneself a Christian, what it means to love one’s neighbor. Even on the meaning of truth itself. How can there be such pronounced and heated disagreement? How can some view such questions merely as issues of politics?
But wait. There’s more. Or is it just my dreary outlook that makes me see the world as a meaner, sadder, more dangerous place than usual in other ways, as well? Is it that the high points that typically offset the to-be-expected bad stuff are rarer these days?
I’m not sure. But among my interconnected circles of friends, sudden, non-covid related severe illnesses and frightening medical diagnoses seem to be popping up with alarming frequency. For some, it’s that health conditions, previously under control, have taken a sharp turn for the worse. What was expected to be a short hospital visit turns, on a dime, into hospice care. Or the typically healthy member of a couple, the long-time caregiver for a chronically suffering spouse, abruptly falls ill and succumbs. A friend’s husband complained of back pain, and three weeks later, he was dead. Another friend, the beautiful image of health and fitness, simply did not wake up one recent morning. A promising high school senior in our neighborhood took his own life on a lovely June afternoon. The sign in front of our church frequently honors the memory of another brother or sister “called home.” Never before have I been so constantly aware of the wispy, gossamer-thread fragility that separates life from death. And never before has this earthly realm seemed so inhospitable.
I see my mood reflected in the behavior of the creatures around me. When I find my elderly dog curled up and surrounded by stuffed animals in our daughter’s shaggy beanbag chair, I tiptoe away quietly. I hope his old bones are finding the comfort and consolation they need. I wish I could join him, but he wouldn’t allow it. My perfect pandemic dog is a social distance snuggler, unless there’s a chance of thunder.
When I discovered a tiny frog sheltering in a bright yellow chrysanthemum on our front porch steps, I tried not to disturb the little fellow. As I spotted him beneath a bloom while watering the plant, he opened one eye cautiously but remained perfectly still. I checked again later, quietly, and saw that he appeared to be asleep again. I hope he was able to enjoy his leafy nest for as long as he liked. And when I see the blue-tailed skinks basking on the warm flagstone of our patio, I tread lightly. These little lizards need their place in the sun, just as we all do.
As this year remains mired in the messy muck of tragedy, I long to cocoon myself in a cozy refuge. To hibernate for as long as necessary. At least until mid-November. And dream of emerging into the light of a more hopeful world.
The Ramones said it well:
Nothing to do, nowhere to go, oh
Bam-bam-bambam bambam-bam-bambam, I wanna be sedated.
With the passing of the Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg last Friday, this world has lost a tenacious and tireless advocate in the cause of justice for all. The second woman elected to the Supreme Court, she served for twenty-seven years, rarely missing a day despite recurring cancer treatments in later life. Last week she lay in state at the U.S. Capitol, the first woman, and the first person of Jewish faith, to do so.
The woman who would become known as the Notorious RBG was born Joan Ruth Bader in working class Flatbush Brooklyn in 1933. Her father, a furrier, had come to the U.S. from Russia at thirteen. Her mother was born in America to parents who had recently emigrated from Austria. She was the second of the couple’s two children. Her older sister Marilyn died of meningitis at age six, when Ruth was just over a year old. Once she reached school age, there were several girls named Joan in her elementary school class, and it was decided that she would use her middle name.
Ruth’s mother, Celia, was a powerful influence on her only surviving daughter. Celia was highly intelligent, inquisitive, and hard working. She graduated from high school at age fifteen, but limited resources prevented her from enrolling in college. Instead, she went to work at a garment factory to help pay for her brother’s education at Cornell. Celia was determined that Ruth pursue the educational path that had been denied her. She secretly put aside money each week in a college fund. Happily, Ruth, like her mother, excelled academically. Celia was diagnosed with cervical cancer when Ruth started high school. Surgeries and radiation treatments prolonged her life for four years, but she died the day before her daughter’s graduation. Ruth was valedictorian of her class, but she missed Commencement to mourn at home with her father. Celia’s college fund had grown to $8,000 by that time, but Ruth gave most of it to her father. She didn’t need it for her education, because she’d earned a full scholarship to Cornell.
At the university, Ruth Bader met fellow student Martin Ginsburg, whom she described as “the only young man I dated who cared that I had a brain.” Outgoing, jovial, and the life of the party, Marty was a foil to Ruth’s more serious, quiet personality. They married in 1954, shortly after graduation. Marty was drafted into the Army, and their first child, Jane, was born before long. After two years in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, they moved back east, and both enrolled in Harvard Law School. Ruth was one of nine women out of a class of five hundred. Coping with adversity and maintaining an academic focus while dealing with the illness of a loved one were skills that Ruth had mastered as a girl. They came in handy during her early married life when Marty was diagnosed with cancer. Ruth managed, somehow, to maintain excellence in her demanding studies, help her husband stay afloat with his, all the while caring for him and their daughter.
Marty made a complete recovery, graduated, and took a job at a New York law firm. Another year of law school remained for Ruth, so she transferred to Columbia and continued her studies. She made Law Review at both Harvard and Columbia. In 1959, despite graduating first in her class (she tied with a male student), and the glowing recommendations she received from her professors, she found it difficult to find employment. She’d had a summer job at one of New York’s premier law firms, but no permanent offer was forthcoming after graduation, from that firm or the other twelve with which she interviewed. After several rejections for clerkships, also because of her gender, she attained a position as a law clerk at the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York. Facing the fact that the doors of major law firms remained closed to women through the 1960s and 70s, Ruth’s career path turned toward teaching. She taught first at Rutgers and then at Columbia, where she became the first woman to earn tenure.
Along with her academic responsibilities, Ginsburg began to litigate gender discrimination cases referred to her by the American Civil Liberties Union. She co-founded the ACLU Women’s Rights Project in 1972, which was created with the goal of removing impediments toward equal opportunity, such as those she had experienced herself. During the 1970s, she argued six pivotal gender equality cases before the Supreme Court. She won five. One of these involved a male plaintiff, a widower who had not been awarded the Social Security benefits to which a widow was entitled. One of Ginsburg’s most fiercely held convictions was that neither women, nor men, should be held to narrow, confining gender stereotypes. Her husband agreed, and their loving fifty-six year marriage was marked by the sharing of household duties and the raising of their two children. (Their son, James, was born in 1965.) When President Jimmy Carter appointed Ruth to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1980, Marty quit his prestigious and highly paid job as a tax lawyer in New York to become a professor at Georgetown University Law School. Marty, by all accounts, was Ruth’s most dedicated supporter and ardent cheerleader.
When President Bill Clinton nominated Ginsburg to the Supreme Court in 1993, she was easily confirmed by the Senate, in those less partisan days, by a vote of 96-3. During her nearly three-decades long tenure at the high court, she became known for her powerfully and beautifully worded dissents, which Justice Ginsburg regarded as “appealing to the intelligence of a future day.” With the passage of time, the minority opinion (as, for example, in the cases of slavery, civil and voting rights), is likely to become the prevailing one. In the words of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”*
Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt’s eulogy at Friday’s memorial service for Justice Ginsburg focused on a phrase from the Torah featured in a framed artwork in the judge’s chambers. One of the core tenets of Judaism, from Deuteronomy 16: 20, it reads: “Justice, justice, you shall pursue.” The repetition of the word “justice” emphasizes its significance. The verse makes clear for Jews that one cannot be in right relationship with God while mistreating fellow humans, including the widow, the orphan, the servant, the immigrant, the least and the lost. For the Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg, her life’s goal and guiding light was the meticulous perseverance, step by step, case by case, in the pursuit of justice, justice, for all people. May her legacy live on. And may the “intelligence of that future day” be quick in coming.
*King’s words condense and paraphrase a passage written in an 1853 sermon by the Unitarian minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker.
Many thanks to my friend, the Reverend Dawn-Marie, for providing the beautiful photos documenting the honoring of Justice Ginsburg in Washington, D.C on September 25.
A blog about motherhood, marriage and life: the joys and frustrations, beauty and absurdity, blessings and pain. It's about looking back, looking ahead, and walking the dog.