The Shortest Season

Summer came to us for a few short days, and it has left again. While last week saw us basking in sunny 80-degree weather, today I am curled up on the couch with my warmest sweater pulled tightly around me. A blanket is over my legs and slippers warm my feet. It is 50 degrees outside! We know we have adjusted far too much to New England because we are refusing to put on the heat. The menu for supper will be grilled cheese sandwiches and soup when what I want it to be is grilled chicken and salad, with a drink that has a twist of lemon served in our city yard with the breeze of summer coming over us. I’ll not have my way. It is what it is, and I have no control over it.

Despite this, the flowers continue to bloom the way they do, and right now it is peonies. Peonies amaze me. Big, showy flowers, there is nothing shy about them. Their fuchsia, pink, or white blossoms take over a garden screaming “Notice me! I’ll not have you ignore me!” And then bam! They are gone. It somehow seems wrong. As though I am given this glimpse of glorious beauty and just as I’m breathing it in, it’s gone. Gone until the following year, only a memory to look back on.

I sometimes feel that way about those things that are so beautiful and good in this life. That they come, bringing us into the beauty and glory of the moment and then, like the peony season, they are gone. I stand wistfully watching, not quite believing that the beauty I was offered is no longer present, longing to bring it back. Wanting to grasp at it with my hot little hand, willing it to stay.

Like peonies, the moments come again. Though they may come in different forms and contexts, they hold the same beauty and goodness. The moment in a family wedding, where it is just you and your family and no one else really matters – all is right, and you are fully present in celebration of a sacred union. The moment where the sun is just hitting the horizon and you gasp with the beauty of it. The moment where your son arrives and surprises you, and you didn’t realize just how much you needed this gift until suddenly, there he is. The moment where you feel so fully at peace with your surroundings that you are not quite sure the peace is real, but you want to hold it for as long as you can. Those moments of newborn babies or deathbed love, moments of receiving the Eucharist, knowing that heaven just met earth through Divine Liturgy.

Yet like peonies, they are short and then they are gone. I think as humans we ache for the redemption that seems so fully present during those times. Born to be whole, set in a broken world, we drink in these moments of redemption as those who are dying of thirst. We drink them in, and then they are gone. Yet when life gets terrible and evil feels like it will win, the memories call us back and stay with us, urging us on and reminding us that faith is required to believe that beauty and goodness will come again. Reminding us that redemption is real, that someday all will be restored, beauty and goodness forever present, a broken world put together by a God who calls us home.

A Waiting Sea

Over the long weekend we went to our beloved cottage in Rockport. While most holiday weekends provide us with rest and joy by the sea, this weekend was a work weekend. We have needed to do some renovations to our cottage for some time, and finally made the decision to move forward. Despite our own frequent moves and life changes, or maybe because of them, we were always dragging our feet about changing things in the cottage.

On the same week that I had major surgery, a contractor started in on the cottage, taking the pictures in our heads, and moving those pictures into three dimensional changes. We had not seen the result until this weekend. Instead of going to examine colors, textures, and concrete things like paint, sinks, tiles, and toilets, I boldly picked out everything online. I’m not usually that bold, but it was either that or wait a long time for the contractor to be free to do the work.

The results are beautiful. Creativity and craftsmanship went into every detail, and we are so pleased. Along with the pleasure came the chaos of renovation. Every picture off the wall, every item out of closets, and a layer of paint dust from floor to ceiling awaited us, threatening to overwhelm.

So, the weekend was a lot of hard physical labor, little rest, and no thought that just around the bend was the ocean in all her beauty.

It was the final day that we took a walk to sit by the sea. The sea had been there the entire time, barely a block away, but we didn’t see it. We worked while the sea waited for us.

The day could not have been more beautiful. A slight breeze, bright sun, the deep blue of the ocean and the glorious colors of spring merged together, the perfect setting. It was a moment I wanted to capture even as I knew that there is no way the one-dimensional picture would ever do justice to all I saw and felt. The exhaustion of physical labor, emotional and physical healing, and all around chaos of life broke, like the waves we watched breaking over the rocks.

We go about our busy, fractured lives and all the while nature waits for us, longing to bring us in to calm serenity. We clean, we gossip, we travel across worlds, we work, we work some more, we grow weary, we complain, we stress, we gossip more, we grow resentful, we yell at each other in various ways and on various platforms, we self-righteously judge others, we forget to be curious, we grieve and then pick ourselves back up, we age, our bodies hurt us, our families and friends annoy us – and all the while, the sea is waiting.

Waiting with its beauty, its reminders that long after we leave, it will still be there. Waiting with memories, waiting with solace, waiting – not necessarily with answers – but with peace that we may never find answers. Waiting as God waits – with patient persistence, always there when we finally arrive, exhausted, at its shores.

Discovering Emily

I have just discovered Emily of New Moon.

Those of you who are familiar with her are probably shaking your heads, saying “It took you long enough!” Doubtless there are countless blogs and stories written by fans of Emily. But this is all new to me, and I am captured by the wonder of this enchanting literary figure.

It all happened a couple of nights ago. As often happens after major surgery, the patient (me, but it feels much safer to speak of myself as ‘the patient’) can’t sleep. Insomnia is a side effect and a most unwelcome one. Everything feels more difficult once the lights go out and the moon is up. Tossing and turning, you try to find a comfortable way to lie, and every bone and muscle feels tender. Your emotions go off the charts, starting with sighing, then with anger often followed by tears of both pain and self-pity. You’re quite sure in the history of surgeries, no one has ever felt as badly as you. Finally, resignation floods over you and you decide to either turn on the light and read or in this modern-day age of electronic readers, pull out your choice of reader and scroll through your library.

In minutes, I was immersed in the story of Emily, orphaned at a young age, taken to live with relatives who drew lots to see who must be burdened with her, and who ended up in a place of beauty where her imagination and literary skills could explode. My pain diminished, I didn’t think about trying to find a comfortable position, I just read, and I read, and I read.

There was another reason that I began to read Emily of New Moon by Lucy Maud Montgomery, best known for her Anne of Green Gables series. An article in Plough Magazine called “Into the Wind,” acquainted me for the first time with something that Emily calls “the flash.” The author of the article, Maureen Swinger, writes this:

I had never found words to describe that jolt of beauty so piercing that it hurts, when everything turns silver for the briefest of instants, as if heaven overlaid the earth for a moment and then lifted before I could take a breath.

It was Lucy Maud Montgomery who defined it, as I discovered some months later on a winter evening spent curled up on the sofa with Emily of New Moon

Into the Wind by Maureen Swinger

Despite the article, I did not expect to confront “the flash” so early in the book, but there in the first chapter is the description of something beyond the curtain of reality that came “rarely – went swiftly leaving [Emily] breathless with the inexpressible delight of it.”

Like Swinger and Emily of New Moon, I too have come across the “jolt of beauty” or “flash,” where for just an instant, I lose my breath in the wonder of how the world can contain such extraordinary beauty. Emily talks about how this “flash” comes unexpectedly, and Swinger emphasizes this in her article as well. Though they may be beautiful, “the flash” is not found in every sunset, storm, or encounter. Part of “the flash” seems to be in the holiness of the unexpected.

How many others must know this feeling of walking away wordless, with your soul lifted to the sky?

Into the Wind by Maureen Swinger

For of this I am sure – God is in “the flash.” Maybe that’s why we want to hold on to it, willing the wonder to stay forever. Indeed, my new literary friend Emily believes the same. Later in the book as she is writing in her diary, she says “I think God is just like my flash, only it lasts only a second and He lasts always.”

As the sun began to rise over Boston, it’s red-gold beauty visible through the upstairs window, I finally sighed and put down the book. While I didn’t experience “the flash,” I felt an extraordinary sense of calm and healing that came with the beauty of the words I had read and the benediction to my reading flooding toward me through the colors of the sunrise.

Chocolates, Flowers, Crutches

I had major surgery yesterday. It has been a long time coming, cancelled initially because of Covid-19 and other family illness, and finally after frantic messages to my surgeon about my pain level, I had a date.

With the date scheduled and all pre-appointments completed, at an early hour yesterday, my husband drove me to the hospital. I was registered, questioned, tested, given meds, and given an intravenous line with outstanding efficiency, and the next thing I know, I woke up. Surgery was finished, textbook like in its rapidity and lack of any complications. I have to remind myself that 12 hours of preop, surgery, and recovery time is actually efficient.

I arrived home evening of the same day – not a usual occurrence, but so welcome for me. As I sat in the house, I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness. My mortality and dependence were right in front of me. It was both sad and beautiful. The chocolates from my neighbor Chase, who I joke roams the neighborhood looking for someone to bother, fresh lilacs from a neighbor who clipped them from her lilac bush that is in full bloom, and my crutches – my sure companion in the coming weeks of healing. They are reminders that right now, I need help for everything. My two hands are used on crutches and one of my legs is not in service. It is a humbling place to land, yet all of us at some point will be in similar positions.

It’s funny, isn’t it? The way we go through events that feel monumental to us, but others continue in their days, blissfully unaware of births and deaths, of surgeries and tragedies, of family shaking traumas and blinding insights. And of course, we are the same. When things are going at a “normal” pace with work and family, when pain is not ever present, when our lives have not been disrupted by any of the things above, we are the same with others. Though we may show empathy and compassion in the moment, none of us has the capacity to bear constant witness to the ongoing joys and pains of strangers.

As I think about my homecoming last night, I think that is what hit me. That it was a big thing for me, and I am too fortunate in being surrounded virtually and physically by people who care about me, but for others it is like any other day. My sadness came and tears flowed from a place of shared humanity, for the millions of us who had something momentous happen yesterday and are facing the aftermath today – whether others knew it or not.

I wish I could sit with others in this space, and we could swap stories of chocolates, flowers, and crutches, wish that I could know what physical signs they had that made them aware of their dependence, their need, their humanity. Yet even as I say this, I know that not being able to is a gift. These are the places where God dwells and speaks into the pain and into the healing. In creative ways, he urges people who surround those of us with needs to step up, to bear witness. Not to everyone, but to the people in our neighborhoods and churches, in our schools and in our work. The best thing I can do during this season of healing is to lean into this, the God of the universe who cares as much about individuals as he does about the nations.

My first step in leaning in is gratitude for chocolates, flowers, and crutches – all symbols of healing, friendship, and interdependence.

If you are in the place I am in today, for whatever reason, may you feel the abundance of these things and may we be surprised and delighted by the presence of God.

Paschal Reflections – Deeper Magic

This week has been Holy Week for millions around the world who are part of the Orthodox Church. It is the final week before we celebrate Pascha and the world changing resurrection of Christ.

It is my custom to write a reflection before Pascha. Our service begins at midnight, but we generally try and arrive by 11pm to get a seat. We enter into the nave in darkness with only a few candles burning and someone chanting the Psalms. Just before midnight, the bells begin to ring, and the room goes completely dark. At midnight, our priests begin to chant “Thy Resurrection, O Christ Our Savior, the Angels in Heaven sing. Enable us on Earth to Glorify Thee in Purity of Heart.” The senior priest then comes out, a candle in hand and says “Come! Receive the light!” The people surge to the front, candles in hand, and receive the light either from the priest or from each other. It is glorious! It gets even better, but I’ve described this before in this space, so I won’t go into detail other than to say that there is an enormous amount of joy, hundreds of “Christ is Risens” in every language that is present in our parish, and it all ends with a huge feast at 4am.

So now, at 7 pm with several hours to go, I enter my reflective space.

During these last weeks of Lent, I have been listening to the audio version of the Narnia series – specifically The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and The Horse and His Boy.

My connection to Narnia started in childhood when my mom would read to us during the evenings when we were on vacation from boarding school. Dressed in pajamas and curled comfortably in the living room or on my parents’ bed we would listen to tales of an enchantress, winter, and a lion who was not safe but was good. We heard stories of talking horses and boys turned into dragons, of Puddleglum and a giant mouse called Reepicheep, and finally of a poor donkey manipulated by an evil and cunning ape into dressing as a lion and a final battle that opened the door to a new world “farther up and farther in.” These stories captured my imagination, and I would dream of doors in our world that led to worlds beyond like Narnia.

As a teenager and then adult, I began reading the series on my own, never growing tired of the stories and metaphors, the word pictures and wisdom that the Narnia series offered.

As I have listened to this during Holy Week, the author’s brilliance in capturing this timeless story has struck me anew. It has been profound to listen to this during this time of the year.

On this eve before Pascha, I think about the climactic event from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, where Aslan, innocent of any wrongdoing, took on the punishment of Edmund, and was brutally killed at the hand of the White Witch.

But that wasn’t the true climax or the end of the story. The story was bigger, deeper, and more powerful than the White Witch could ever know. And the gift of understanding this was first given to Susan and Lucy by Aslan as he conquered death.

Consider these words:

At that moment they heard from behind them a loud noise—a great cracking, deafening noise as if a giant had broken a giant’s plate…. The Stone Table was broken into two pieces by a great crack that ran down it from end to end; and there was no Aslan.

“Who’s done it?” cried Susan. “What does it mean? Is it more magic?”

“Yes!” said a great voice from behind their backs. “It is more magic.” They looked round. There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane (for it had apparently grown again) stood Aslan himself.

“Oh, Aslan!” cried both the children, staring up at him, almost as much frightened as they were glad….

“But what does it all mean?” asked Susan when they were somewhat calmer.

“It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.”

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

“There is a magic deeper still”,,, I don’t for a moment believe that my faith is magic, but I do believe in my deepest soul that there is a mystery so big and so deep that I will never fully understand it in this life, that the greatest love imaginable in heaven or on earth has been given to us through the Resurrection. I do believe that before time dawned Christ “the only begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages” the Redeemer knew what was to be. This is one of the glories of Pascha, that I get to both experience and bear witness to a collective, community gathering of celebration, entering into the timeless truth of Christ’s resurrection and what it means for the human race.

“Looking back into the stillness and darkness before Time dawned…” As I enter into the wee hours of the morning, I will once again reflect on this mystery and what it means for me and millions of others around the globe.

And with that, I will say:

Xristos Anesti! Χριστός ανέστη
المسيح قام Al Masih Qam
Khristos Voskres!
Hristos a Inviat!
Christo Ressuscitou!
Christ is Risen!

Indeed, He is Risen!

Image – Coptic Cairo, 2016

Hospital Waiting Rooms: “I have heard your prayers; I have seen your tears”

“Anonymous, liminal spaces where broken and hurting people go to get fixed.” That’s what I am thinking as I sit, silently people watching in a hospital waiting room.

It’s early morning in this particular waiting room and the still mandated masks contribute to the anonymity. It’s a busy place with ages spanning 10-month-olds to late life. The large and small, fat and thin, old and young, physically fit and not, black, brown, white, and all colors between are either finding their way to their appointments or waiting in chairs under glaring fluorescent lights.

In the western world it is unlikely that anyone will escape having a hospital waiting room experience at least once in their lives. The experience is a weekly experience for some, a once in a lifetime for others, and daily for a small but significant few. Unless we enter into conversation, we have no idea of the stories that have brought people into this place despite the fact that it is a shared space. Some people hide their anxiety and stress inside while for others it is out in the open, verbal and strong.

Adding to the general melancholy of the waiting room is the grey day that comes through the lobby windows. For now, the sun is covered, almost like hope itself is gone. We are all on hospital time, that unique time that begins the minute you enter a hospital and will continue throughout your stay. Minutes and seconds are replaced by procedures and diagnoses, bad news and good news, when the doctor comes and when she leaves. It has nothing to do with real time, and the quicker you accept that reality, the better you are.

In my reading the other day I read about King Hezekiah’s illness and recovery in the book of the prophet Isaiah. Hezekiah is what is described as mortally ill. He is going to die. He is in a waiting room of sorts when the prophet Isaiah comes to him and tells him that he won’t recover and that he should put his house in order. Hezekiah’s response is to weep bitterly and cry out to God saying that he had walked with and loved God. The subtext is clear – “God, give me more time. I’ve been faithful. I’ve obeyed you. I’ve tried to please you.” God’s beautiful response is in verse 5 of chapter 38.

I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears, so I will add fifteen years to your life.

Isaiah 38: 5b

I read those words in awe, because isn’t that what all of us want in a hospital waiting room? Don’t we all want God to look at us and say those life-giving words “I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears.” For these are words that tell us we are seen, we are known, and we are extravagantly loved.

As I leave the hospital waiting room and look around for one last time, I pray these words over all those I see: “May God hear your prayer and may he see your tears.”

Making Something is Hopeful

I’m in Rockport today, taking a break from what has been a busy, crazy schedule. Fog covers the area stretching out over the ocean, creating a thick blanket over both reality and imagination.

We drove up yesterday, one of the many cars leaving the city during afternoon rush hour. While the morning offered bright sunshine, clouds rolled in during the afternoon and a light rain was falling by the time we arrived. The minute we drove over the bridge on the highway leaving the mainland and heading into Gloucester and then Rockport a deep peace always settles over me. Gone is the frantic pace of city living. Gone is the worry about contacting people who need to be contacted whether it be via email or phone. Gone is the sense of urgency or guilt of not doing enough.

Ahead is peace, quiet, order, and rest. I am well aware that this is a luxury not shared by so many in our world, well aware of the privilege of rest and peace. I have found that the necessary response is not guilt but gratitude. Not anxious worry that I’m not doing enough but inner peace that will allow me to do well in whatever task is put before me.

As often happens when I stop, I find tears close to the surface. The tears spilled over into a conversation with my brother and sister-in-law and after the phone call ended, I sent a text thanking them for holding my tears. We all need tear-holders in our lives. It’s amazing how much peace I feel after a good, long cry, the weight and burden of tears finding a shared space instead of staying bottled up in isolation.

We are heading into the home stretch of Lent in my faith tradition, with Holy Week just one week away. I am ready for the Paschal celebration of all things new, and if I’m honest, the accompanying eggs, milk, and meat that signify that Lent (and the vegan diet accompanying Lent) is over.

Things outside of me and my control feel difficult. Whether front page news or the resulting commentary from all of us about the front-page news, or actions of others that can’t be controlled, it all feels too much. In a word – it feels hopeless. And this is why I write. Because when I write, I never feel hopeless. I feel hope and joy. I feel ready to move forward. The act of creating is a catalyst that propels me out of sadness or grief into a world full of imagination and hope. So today, I needed to write, to get a few words out to you, but mostly to me.

One of my favorite recent reads is the book Everything Sad is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri. I had begun reading the Kindle version when I received the print version from one of my sons for my birthday. I had already decided I wanted to buy the hardcopy, so it was a surprise and delight to receive it as a gift. I could never write a review of this book. It far too original and creative, and my words would never do it justice. But I want to end with a quote from the book that describes what I feel about the world and about writing.

Does writing [poetry] make you brave? It is a good question to ask. I think making anything is a brave thing to do. Not like fighting brave, obviously. But a kind that looks at a horrible situation and doesn’t crumble.

Making anything assumes there’s a world worth making it for. That you’ll have someplace, like a clown’s pants, to hide it when people come to take it away. I guess I’m saying making something is a hopeful thing to do. And being hopeful in a world of pain is either brave or crazy.

Everything Sad is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri

I write because there’s a world worth writing for. May your weekend hold hope and life and may you make something, anything actually, because it’s a world worth making something for.

The Comfort of Cafés

I’m not sure when I first discovered the comfort of cafés. Perhaps it was years ago when I discovered the Marriott Bakery within the Marriott Hotel on the island of Zamalek in Cairo and found the best brewed coffee in the city. Perhaps it was a bit later when I discovered another bakery walking distance from our flat in that made amazing croissants.

Or perhaps it was after that, when cafés became more available, coinciding with more freedom in my life as my kids got older.

But it has been through writing that I have discovered the true magic and comfort of cafés. When I began writing 11 years ago, I found it difficult to concentrate if I just wrote at home. I would sit with my fingers hovering over the typewriter, my mind blank for things to say. I’d pack up my things, walk out the door and down the street to Central Square in Cambridge, find a café and with a coffee by my side my fingers went from hovering to furiously typing words and sentences.

Though I sometimes struggle with insecurity in public spaces, all that insecurity leaves me as I sit in a café. I am surrounded by life, by music, by sounds from the kitchen, and by conversation but within that noise I’m completely focused. Usually, I hear English as the dominant language followed by Spanish and then others. Living in a busy city it is never English only.

There is something deeply comforting in the anonymity of sitting and working, or reading, or simply enjoying a hot drink by myself in a café.

I write, I look around, I stare into space, I think, I get ideas, I type the ideas into a document, I pray, I wonder, I repeat.

These public spaces help me pay attention to life around me even as I get immersed in my writing. They envelope me with the joy of people watching and remembering the shared human story. And describing the human story and experience is one of the things I love best about writing.

I know I am not the only one. As I sit in a cafe today, I am with several people who came in before I did and will probably stay after I leave. This shared experience of those I may or may not meet does not feel lonely. It feels companionable, as though we have membership in an invisible club.

I also know this is not accidental. We are human beings who are connected not only to each other, but also to place. Place attachment and forming emotional bonds to place begins early in life and there is a lot of research on what makes a place meaningful for people. Places root us to the environment around us and form a context for us to flourish.

But it’s not the academic nature of this that I care about. It’s the physical and emotional nature. For in a world that often feels restless, frantic, and fractious, it’s the wonder, the peace, and the comfort that comes with finding my space in a café.