By Maureen Kalbus
Sheltering at home over Memorial Day weekend, I have been thinking of the men and women, throughout the world, who have given their lives and lifestyles in the many wars, in order that others may have freedom and life. Their families were forever affected. Decades ago, I visited the trenches in Northern France, from where soldiers fought in World War 1. Being below the level of the ground, and seeing messages that the soldiers inscribed in the cold, muddy walls, was a profound experience. Each year, there is a Memorial Day Concert televised from the Capitol. It is beautifully presented, and features all of the Armed Forces, acknowledging all of the wars in which they fought. The evening is interspersed with stories about those killed and those who returned dreadfully maimed, and meaningful, stirring musical performances. This year’s concert was virtually presented, and as soulful as ever. The immense courage men and women faced on the battlefield and upon returning home was captured. They had mighty hills to climb.
The second half of May’s Women’s Retreat focused on “The Hill We Climb” which Amanda Gorman, America’s first National Youth Poet wrote for the 2021 Presidential Inauguration. Describing herself as a “skinny Black girl descended from slaves”, Amanda found reading and writing poems helped her overcome a sound sensitivity and a speech impediment, while growing up. She went on to study Sociology at Harvard. Her first volume of poetry was “The One For Whom Food is Not Enough.”
“The Hill We Climb” was completed the night after rioters sieged the Capitol Building on January 6th. Amanda explained to “The New York Times” that “In my poem, I’m not going to gloss over in any way what we have seen over the past few weeks, and, dare I say, the past few years. But what I really aspire to do in the poem is to be able to use my words to envision a way in which our country can still come together and can still heal. It’s doing in a way that is not erasing or neglecting the harsh truths, I think America needs to reconcile with.”
She believes that the United States is not a ”perfect union”, but is a country that has the grit to struggle with its problems. Progress is sometimes slow and sometimes a “painful” “climb” up the “hill” of justice: a climb that takes justice and humility. Dedicated Americans can “see” and be the “light” of a better future.
The poem’s themes are hope and progress, and racial justice versus Black strength.
Amanda is grounded, realistic and optimistic, believing change is possible yet difficult, and taking her inspiration from the Bible and great Black thinkers like Maya Angelou and Martin Luther King Jr. We all need to see our own choices, and our own lives as part of a gradual collective effort.
As you read through “The Hill We Climb”, printed at the end of “Sheltered Reflections” # 27, I suggest you look for the themes and ponder the questions Rev. Charlotte Russell posed at the Women’s Retreat:
What words and phrases caught your attention? Why?
When the poet draws attention to Fierce Self-Compassion, to what is she saying “no”?
What are you saying “no” to in your life?
What is it that you are called to do, grounded in compassion for your own suffering?
How are you supporting and encouraging yourself to move forward?
In the Bible, John the Baptist quoted Isaiah: “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Luke 3 v 5-6
My husband’s favorite Psalm is 121:
“ I lift up my eyes to the hills- from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord, who has made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved, He who keeps you will not slumber…
The Lord is your keeper, the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun will not strike you by day, nor the moon by night..
The Lord will keep you from all evil; He will keep your life.
The Lord will keep your going out and coming in
From this time on and evermore.”
During the course of our lives, we all have hills to climb, figuratively, and in reality. Some are steeper than others. Of my less daunting ones, were the hills I faced fitting into new cultures, when emigrating to Australia, and then America. Although English is mainly spoken in both, it is not the “Queen’s English”! I also had to delete Irish turns of phrase in order to be understood. In Australia, I had to become used to barbies [barbeques, not dolls], being bushed [lost or tired], looking for a dunny [outside toilet], or things being “fair dinkum” [honest or good]; I would read about “five finger discounts” [shop-lifting], see cars move “like a possum up a tree” [fast], be greeted with “ G’day mate” and farewelled with “Ooroo.” In America, I have had to adjust my spelling, although, when writing to family and friends around the world I spell as I was educated.
Here in America, my car has a hood [bonnet], a trunk [boot], and is filled with gas [petrol]. I carry a purse [handbag], wear panty-hose [tights] and pants [trousers], and walk on side-walks [pavements]. In both countries, I was introduced to pot-lucks, and the expectation of bringing food to a meal to which I was invited. When first in Australia, I was invited to dinner, and asked to ‘Bring a plate.” I did, assuming that the host didn’t have enough china. Once there, I realized I should have brought food on it! In Ireland when someone is invited for a meal, the food is supplied and cooked. I have held onto this approach to entertaining, because it is inherent in my culture.
The highest, most exciting hill I ever climbed, was to the top of Mount Etna, the active volcano on the island of Sicily. It was dormant at the time!! Ten thousand, eight hundred and ten feet above sea level, the ascent was in stages. Firstly, the group was taken by coach, up the steep hillside to a ski lift. Before getting into a gondola, we were kitted out in ex-army uniforms [to keep us warm and unscathed if we fell] and boots [to protect our feet as we later climbed the rugged, cinder covered terrain] We were then whisked up the sides of the smoking volcano, where we eventually dismounted, and hiked the rest of the way to the mouth. Breathing was labored because of the height we were at, and the sulphuric fumes filling the air. It was a fascinating experience, and, amazingly, a butterfly fluttered by! Butterflies can be signs of new beginnings.
What are the hills you have faced, figuratively and in reality, in your life?
How did you react?
John Muir in “The Mountains of California” wrote:
“ Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like leaves of Autumn.”
Vera Nazarian wrote in “The Perpetual Calendar of Inspiration”:
“If you are faced with a mountain, you have several options.
You can climb it and cross to the other side. You can go round it. You can dig under it.
You can fly over it. You can blow it up. You can ignore it, and pretend it’s not there.
You can turn around and go back the way you came.
Or you can stay on the mountain and make it your home.”
Barry Finlay in “Kilimanjaro and Beyond”: said:
“Every mountain top is within reach if you just keep climbing.”
As Covid restrictions ease in Marin, and you face a different world, every good wish as you approach new hills to climb,
"The Hill We Climb" by Amanda Gorman
When day comes we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade? The loss we carry, a sea we must wade. We've braved the belly of the beast, We've learned that quiet isn't always peace, and the norms and notions of what just is isn't always just-ice. And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it. Somehow we do it. Somehow we've weathered and witnessed
a nation that isn't broken, but simply unfinished. We the successors of a country and a time where a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president only to find herself reciting for one. And yes we are far from polished. Far from pristine. But that doesn't mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect. We are striving to forge a union with purpose, to compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man. And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us. We close the divide because we know, to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside. We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another.
We seek harm to none and harmony for all. Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true, that even as we grieved, we grew, that even as we hurt, we hoped, that even as we tired, we tried, that we'll forever be tied together, victorious. Not because we will never again know defeat, but because we will never again sow division. Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree and no one shall make them afraid. If we're to live up to our own time, then victory won't lie in the blade. But in all the bridges we've made, that is the promise to glade, the hill we climb if only we dare. It's because being American is more than a pride we inherit, it's the past we step into and how we repair it. We've seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it. Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy. And this effort very nearly succeeded. But while democracy can be periodically delayed,
it can never be permanently defeated. In this truth, in this faith we trust. For while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us. This is the era of just redemption we feared at its inception. We did not feel prepared to be the heirs of such a terrifying hour but within it we found the power to author a new chapter. To offer hope and laughter to ourselves. So while once we asked, how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe? Now we assert,
How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us? We will not march back to what was, but move to what shall be. A country that is bruised but whole, benevolent but bold, fierce and free.
We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation, because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation. Our blunders become their burdens. But one thing is certain, If we merge mercy with might, and might with right,
then love becomes our legacy, and change our children's birthright. So let us leave behind a country better than the one we were left with. Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest, we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one. We will rise from the gold-limbed hills of the west. We will rise from the windswept northeast, where our forefathers first realized revolution. We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the midwestern states. We will rise from the sunbaked south. We will rebuild, reconcile and recover. And every known nook of our nation and
every corner called our country, our people diverse and beautiful will emerge, battered and beautiful. When day comes we step out of the shade, aflame and unafraid, the new dawn blooms as we free it. For there is always light, if only we're brave enough to see it. If only we're brave enough to be it.”