In Harriet’s Footsteps


Well, sort of.

We know that Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery in Dorchester County, MD in 1849 at the age of 27; she later returned to lead many more enslaved people out of bondage.

What we often don’t know is exactly where things happened because these were enslaved people we’re talking about. Even Frederick Douglass’s exact birthplace near Easton, MD is unknown.

This is good to know before you follow the Harriet Tubman Byway on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

Whether the Eastern Shore counties are truly trying to atone for the sin of slavery in their parts, or whether the name of Harriet Tubman is a tourist draw, it is sobering to be in the area where the fearless little woman was such a thorn in the white enslavers’ sides.

The Harriet Tubman National Park area is not a sop to tourism. It has been in the works for many years and was supposed to have been finished by now. The latest projected opening date is spring 2017.

My sister and I did most of the 125-mile Byway, which makes a huge circle unless you go to the end near the Delaware border. I had downloaded and put onto CD the free audio guide, which much enhanced the experience. The narrator and actors set the mood wonderfully, even though many of the stops on the Byway were guesstimates of where something might have happened or were “something like” something to do with Harriet Tubman.

We stayed in Cambridge, where the Byway begins, and went first to the Harriet Tubman Museum. The museum is a grass-roots project that is in need of money to help expand the exhibits and its hours (12 to 3 pm). Even so, the tiny storefront has a very good video about Harriet Tubman, murals of her painted by a descendant,, a large collection of children’s books about her, and memorabilia (yes, I got the T-shirt).


During the drive, we saw a one-room schoolhouse, the Stanley Institute, that had been built by black parents after the Civil War for their children and that was used until as late as the 1960s, when Maryland’s schools were desegregated.

We saw Parsons Creek, originally a canal built by enslaved people for Joseph Stewart to float lumber out to the bay to ships. Lumbering was a major business here. Harriet Tubman’s father, Ben Ross, worked for Stewart and so did Harriet. It is said that she learned her outdoor and navigational skills during this time. It is also possibly how she became so strong, as she had been a frail child.

We saw the Tuckahoe Neck Quaker meetinghouse, a center of Underground Railroad activity in Caroline County.

We saw the site of another of Harriet’s enslavers, Edward Brodess, in the town of Bucktown. Though she had several enslavers through the years, it was from Brodess’s farm that she escaped.

We saw the restored Bucktown Village Store, at which Harriet got caught in the crossfire and was hit in the head by a two-pound weight that a white man was throwing at his slave. It has been recorded that after this time, Harriet began having visions. This hearkens back to the experience of Julian of Norwich, who began having visions and messages from God after a serious illness.

We saw a restored cabin built by a free black man, James Webb. His enslaved wife and four children were allowed to live here with him. Basically one room with a sleeping loft, it must have seemed like a castle at the time to Mrs. Webb.

wmstillWe were very disappointed not to be able to see the William Still Family Interpretive Center, supposedly located at a 4H Park in Denton, MD. We drove and walked around the 4H Park but couldn’t even find a sign referring to William Still. His name comes up often in the Underground Railroad literature. A free black man, he lived in Philadelphia and was a major conductor on the railroad. His meticulous records helped him publish The Underground Railroad in 1871. That detailed work of the more than 1,000 escapees who passed through his station includes firsthand narratives and is still helping scholars’ research today.

A most poignant note about Mr. Still is that in 1850 his own lost brother, Peter, was one of the men he was assisting. Peter had been sold into slavery in Alabama years before.

Despite the disappointments, though, I’m so glad to have been able to follow Harriet Tubman’s footsteps and will certainly be returning when the National Park in her honor opens. I can’t even express how much I admire this woman, who went on to spy for the Union Army, be involved in the women’s suffrage movement, and opened her home to elderly blacks in Auburn, NY. It seems fitting to end with her own words:

“I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say – I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”

Books to Educate and Outrage


If you want to be outraged by something you read this year, you have far too large a choice of new books to accomplish this for you.

Both in nonfiction and novels, a lot of little-known and better-known American history has been revealed that will fuel your moral outrage. You will also meet, though, characters both real and imagined who will capture your heart and soul and help to focus your outrage and perhaps turn it into action. Continue reading

Charter Schools & Dark Money


Charter schools were not on my radar until I heard a presentation by a consultant for the Massachusetts group Save Our Public Schools.

That group is pushing for a “no” vote on Massachusetts state ballot question #2, which seeks to lift a cap on the number of charter schools that can be created each year. A “yes” vote would allow up to 12 new charter schools every year. Continue reading

Music as a Moral Compass


I spend about 46 weeks of the year preparing for six weeks of music around the world. Berkshire Choral International choristers have been performing the standard repertoire for 35 seasons now. Most of the concerts I’ve heard in eight seasons have been wonderful, but only a few stand out as illustrations of how music and lyrics can reset our moral compasses and make a lasting impression on singers, conductor, and audience alike.

stephen paulus

Stephen Paulus

Such was the oratorio To Be Certain of the Dawn by the late Stephen Paulus (composer) and Michael Dennis Browne (librettist), performed August 6 under the baton of Minneapolis-based Kathy Saltzman Romey. She has been a passionate advocate for the work, and I believe that everyone who sang it with her will testify that her passion is not misplaced.

Michael Dennis Browne

Michael Dennis Browne

To Be Certain of the Dawn, which premiered in Minneapolis in 2005, started with the Reverend Michael O’Connell of the Basilica of Saint Mary in that city. The Basilica commissioned the piece as a memorial gift to Temple Israel synagogue on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps and the 40th anniversary of Nostra Aetate. The Second Vatican Council released that landmark declaration to call for Christian repentance of anti-Semitism and to foster dialog between Jews and Christians.

vishniacWritten in three parts, To Be Certain of the Dawn opens with the blowing of the shofar and the traditional prayer, Sh’ma Israel, followed by the chorus singing in effect the intent of the Nostra Aetate. The second part of the composition, called “Remembrance,” is a collection of songs and blessings whose lyrics were inspired by photographs taken by Roman Vishniac of Jewish life in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust while storm clouds were looming. This section ends with the haunting “Hymn to the Eternal Flame,” recalling both the children’s memorial at the Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem and the ages-old image of “God with us” as a flame.

In the final part, “Visions,” Mr. Browne wrote in 2008, “. . . we hear several themes in layers: Jews and Christians desiring to walk together ‘in the country of justice’ (wherever that may be found); B’Tselem Elohim, the Image of God, which suggests that the human face reflects the invisible face of God in the human world; the voices of the children. . . the voices of survivors; the return of the theme ‘You should love your neighbour as yourself’, and the sounding of the shofar, with which we began.”

During the performance, slides of some of Mr. Vishniac’s photographs of children were screened. For me, the moment of tears came as soloist Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek sang “I don’t want to live in a world without children” as a picture of several smiling children appeared. One had to wonder how many of them survived the Holocaust.

Unbeknownst to staff at the time, a child survivor of the Holocaust was in the audience. A friend of the survivor wrote me that the gentleman, now 82, was a hidden child in Belgium. He and his brother were taken in by a Christian family with 12 children of their own. He and his brother said good-bye to their parents not knowing they would never see them again.

“(He) does not make a display of his story,” the friend wrote. “He said that he seldom attends events like last night. We were not aware ahead of time of what the evening held in store, except for the Bernstein.


“He was one of those little boys.

“(He) arrived in the USA with 2 garments that had stars attached, both now donated to museums.

“You never know the power and impact of music, or the effects of weeks of hard work and preparation.

“Last night you made an impact on one old man who had lost everything and almost everyone who was dear to him in the Holocaust.”

“We honored them tonight.”

I was not the only person there seeing the relevance of the piece to the political climate in this country and the violent rhetoric of the Republican candidate.

I was not the only one re-dedicating myself to the command to love my neighbor as myself regardless of religion, ethnicity, race, gender identity and sexual preference.

And I am sure I was not the only one re-orienting myself to the struggle for peace and justice for all.

Read more about Roman Vishniac and view the US Holocaust Museum’s collection at


Thoughts on the DNC


What a gorgeous tapestry the Democratic National Convention presented to the world!

Black, brown, and white faces, hijabs and turbans and flag-adorned straw hats, young people and old people, almost like Norman Rockwell’s iconic “Golden Rule” painting.

golden ruleWhat America is. What America needs to be.

Hearing Anastasia Somoza and Gabby Giffords and the mothers of young men and women killed by police or vigilantes, survivor of the Charleston massacre: profiles in courage, all.

Michelle Obama: dignified, articulate, on point always, passionate.

Joe Biden, who knows too well what loss and grief are, but always optimistic, decent, and on fire this week with hope and encouragement.

Elizabeth Warren, tearing DT a new one in the most wholesome, goshdarnit way, my own senator who I am so glad will continue to serve us in the Senate.

Bernie Sanders, my first choice, making it clear to his supporters that they must not sit out this election; the stakes are too high.

Sarah Silverman, oh my goodness, Sarah, I love you!

And of course, our beloved President, who I really do wish could serve a third term. He will be so missed, and I’ve no doubt that the annals of history will mark his tenure as our finest hour.

Why the feelings of unease, then? Why the nervousness listening to Michael Kelly and Leon Panetta and General Allen go on and on about our military prowess and American exceptionalism?

Yes, I know that the strategy was to show the country that Hillary Clinton will be as hawkish as Donald Trump. But I already knew that. That was why she wasn’t my first choice.

Brian Williams, how dare you criticize the people chanting “No more war”? “Sadly,” you said, referring to them as hecklers, they couldn’t be quiet. You, who lied about being under fire when you have never been under fire, except from your NBC bosses. How hypocritical can you get, when the theme of that convention was supposed to be that EVERYONE is welcome in the Democratic tent?

Yes, history was made at the Democratic National Convention this week, and I was able to watch it without yelling any epithets at the television as I had the week before. I will vote the Democratic ticket no matter what. But I pray, I really pray, that the philosophies expressed to the ideals of justice for all, liberty for all, the pursuit of happiness for all were not just lip service, and that the lip service to military power and aggressiveness were not the real philosophies that will be given priority.


Everyone Belongs in the Kingdom


My little garden in a little town in a little state is my refuge, my haven, my glimpse of the Kingdom.

It is in shade, yet there are flowering plants and lots of green foliage. I did a little work and nature did the rest. In the near distance are trees dappled in sunlight in the late afternoon and a glimpse of the churchyard next door.

Robins and catbirds and sparrows and swifts sit on the fence and call to the universe or fly and dart about. Honeybees cover the cimicifuga and they are more than welcome. Fat bumblebees fly up into the heart of the hosta blossoms. I sit with my coffee and my book and my mature, overweight cat lazes nearby.

A chipmunk runs across the paving stones from one clump of vegetation to another. A poodle pup named Rory charges up the path from next door, tail wagging, to greet me. Onyx flips her tail and eyes him warily. I give him a good patting and send him back to his owner.

Yes, the Kingdom, the harmony, the peace despite a busy major route just yards away. For 45 minutes a day most days I can come to my retreat and, ideally, shed the tensions of the work day.

It is more difficult to shed the tensions of the world. Even more difficult is that I am ever mindful of the fact that there is no haven, no blessed retreat, no Kingdom for so many people on this Earth, our island home spinning through a universe of wonders and horrors.

Is it neurosis or social conscience that never lets me forget how privileged my life has been? I have known loss and grief. My mother died when she was the age I’ll be in September, a short, violent battle with liver cancer that took her before we could even get our minds around what was happening to her. My beloved brother died when he was the age I am now, a long, drawn-out battle with pancreatic cancer that left him a bag of bones loosely covered in flesh, and it was almost impossible to recognize the athletic, handsome, dignified youth and man he had been.

People, pets, jobs, relationships, the losses that are the normal stuff of most lives.

But no one I love has ever been executed because of the color of his skin. No one I love has so far been in the path of a terrorist. No child of mine has ever lived in a war zone or had to risk drowning to reach a shore of safety.

In the late 1980s, the African National Congress toured the world with a documentary called “Every Child is My Child.” Along with all the political and economic and humanitarian efforts to end the evil called apartheid, it galvanized people to look at the struggle in a new way.

For me, it reinforced the feeling that I have known as long as I can remember, that every person is my child, my sister, my brother, my mother, my father, and the Kingdom is not mine alone to enjoy. It won’t be the Kingdom until everyone can live without fear, in safety and peace, in the sure knowledge that when they wake up to a new day, they are not risking their lives by stepping outside their doors.