Healing Through Beauty

I may be biased, but Charlestown is the loveliest place to live in all of Boston. It has charm, character, and beauty all wrapped up in a complete package. It is a city space with a small town feel. Neighbors know and care for each other, people say hello as they walk their babies and their dogs, and the owners of the bodega down the street laugh goodnaturedly as I try my Spanish which is limited to Ola! and Gracias!

Though every season is lovely, springtime feels particularly so as forsythia blooms bright yellow, quickly followed by flowering trees, azaleas, daffodils, and tulips. An already friendly place becomes friendlier, the sheer joy of living is present everywhere.

Charlestown helped to heal my heart last spring. As half of me lay in a hospital bed not two miles away, the other half walked the streets of Charlestown with one of my sons, marveling at how beauty, joy, and tragedy could be so mixed up together. Tears that I thought would never stop dried on my cheeks, joy exploding like the blossoms around me.

The Russian author, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, wrote the words “Beauty will save the world” many years ago. Those words became my reality, for in the midst of the tragedy of last year, beauty was exactly what I needed. Beauty saved me.

Beauty healed my eyesight and my heart. Beauty called me into a greater reality than the one that I saw, the one that I lived.

Beauty healed my eyesight and my heart. Beauty called me into a greater reality than the one that I saw, the one that I lived. Beauty tenderly woke me to the Beautiful One and to a coming reality where there will be no more death, suffering, crying or pain.

As I walk the streets today, sun glistening off dew drops on newly sprouted buds, I am in a different place. The tragedy of last year has given way to the hard work of healing. The beauty all around welcomes me as I continue to walk in faith, faith that the pain of today and the fight to see beauty will someday give way to a forever that is far more beautiful and less fleeting than springtime in Charlestown.

Chaste and ardent eros for the Beautiful is the first task of human life, and falling in love with Beauty is the beginning of every adventure that matters

Dr. Timothy Patitsas in The Ethics of Beauty

And so I ask you: When has beauty healed your heart?

Cow Dust Time and Anniversaries of Hard Things

Yesterday evening while driving along the Charles River, we stopped at a traffic light, joining other cars in a long line. It was dusk, those few brief moments where day meets night and melancholy meets mystery. Daffodils dotted the banks of the river, their cheery yellow barely visible in the growing twilight. I gasped at the beauty, longing to capture it even as I knew that this would be impossible.

I love dusk, the whispered end of a day that reaches into the soul. I learned from my brother that Pakistanis call this “cow dust time.” He went on to say “the time around sunset when cooling air makes the dust form a layer a few feet above the ground and little sounds like cowbells or children’s chatter seems to be amplified.” Though I spent my childhood and my late twenties in Pakistan, I had never heard this before. Further reading tells me that in India this was the time when cows were brought home from pasture. Either way, I love this phrase and the description.

Dusk has always been one of my favorite times, particularly in Pakistan or the Middle East, where the call to prayer echoes across sunsets, calling the faithful to leave what they are doing and listen, pay attention, pray.

As sounds are amplified during “cow dust time” so too are the contradictions of a life of faith. The ability to mix joy with sorrow, day with night, contentment with longing. I sighed during the moment, thinking over the past week and all it held, for its biggest holding was the anniversary of a hard time. A time that I don’t want to remember; a time that I honestly wish had never happened; a time that sends reverberations through my body and my heart.

We usually think of anniversaries as happy times. Conventional wisdom brings on images of flowers, candle light, happy conversation, and hearts that could burst from the joy of it all. But most of us know in our bones what it is to face the anniversary of something that is not so happy, something that will forever present as the space between the before and the after. A death, a divorce, a tragedy, a diagnosis, an adult child leaving in anger, the fragile breaking of family bonds, an accident, a job loss – there are many ways in which the world forces us to remember anniversaries that we’d rather forget.

As I thought back to last year I remembered each event as though rewinding a film and replaying it in slow motion. As I did so, a curious thing happened. Details began to emerge that I had previously taken for granted. Details of people walking beside us until the pain and fog gave way to clarity and a spark of hope.

The kindness of my children, each walking beside me in their own unique ways; the kindness and love of our neighbors as shown through a conversation, a meal, a gorgeous, flowering plant, beauty products, more conversation, and absolutely no pressure to share more than I wanted. Then there was the kindness of dear friends as well as those in our parish, poignantly present during the time of Lent, a season of repentance and lament. As I remembered each person and kindness, long forgotten conversations and the generosity of those who sat and walked with me filled my mind. An anniversary of sadness turned into a collage of grateful memories.

Like dusk itself, these times amplify the contradictions in a life of faith. That an anniversary of sadness can hold so many memories of gladness; that joy and sorrow are so infinitely inseparable, that all of it is summed up in the ampersand that is life.

Perhaps from now on I too will call dusk “cow dust time” and it will remind me that just as sounds are amplified during this time, so too is the broken beauty of our lives. Anniversaries of hard things giving birth to memories of extraordinary love and kindness, God’s goodness always and ever present.

For Your Aching Heart – On Blessing & Beauty

It’s been a week. I heard of the death of Dr. Paul Farmer at the beginning of the week and the news of the invasion of Ukraine at the end. This did not include my own struggles and sorrows, made seemingly more difficult in the winter season. A conflict with a hospital, a work struggle, and feeling dismissed at multiple levels had me talking through tears in the presence of a gifted counselor.

I know what most of us are seeing. We are scrolling through news and social media where yellow and blue colors light up our feed. Many of us are oceans and continents away from conflict, yet we feel the heavy weight of invading injustice.

It was not so long ago when our world posted the same messages for Afghanistan; when feeds filled with the Afghan flag and images of fleeing Afghans. And yet, and I think it’s important to remember this, soon the crisis died for most.

It is good to be aware of world events. It is good to be willing to take on prayer for nations and leaders. Yet, there’s a real danger to this kind of emotion derailing us and taking us away from what is in our midst, for giving us license to ignore those things that we do have some control over. Might I suggest that it’s easier for us to post passionate prayers for a country far away than it is for us to love our neighbor with different political views? It was certainly easier for me to bemoan the evil of a world leader than confess the darkness in my own heart that led to yelling at both a nurse and a doctor. And yet, truly respecting their work and loving them is a small but significant step toward peace-building.

In the midst of a broken world’s chaos and turmoil, I continue to believe that one of the best antidotes is seeking blessing and beauty.

A volume of John O’Donohue’s To Bless the Space Between Us sits on the bedside stand in our guest room. I looked at the book this morning in an effort to clear my mind and seek poetic words of beauty. In a passage on page 215, there is a section called “Blessing our World Now.”

“Sometimes when we look out, the world seems so dark. War, violence, hunger, and misery seem to abound. This makes us anxious and helpless. What can I do in my private little corner of life that could have any effect on the march of world events. The usual answer is: nothing….yet the world is not decided by action alone. It is decided more by consciousness and spirit; they are the secret sources of all action and behavior….When you give in to helplessness, you collude with despair and add to it. When you take back your power and choose to see possibilities for healing and transformation, your creativity awakens and flows to become an active force of renewal and encouragement in the world. In this way, even in your own hidden life, you can become a powerful agent of transformation in a broken, darkened world.”

As I read and reflected on this I began to think of images of healing and transformation, of blessing and beauty.

The image of Ukrainians gathered on their knees on the snow covered ground, in prayer for safety and peace; a gifted physician taking the time to hear my anger and walk me into greater understanding and resolution; a cardinal in a snow covered tree; facilitating a retreat with staff who work all day with those at the farthest margins of our city; talking through what helps give us perspective with a colleague; laughing with a friend; and facing my own weakness with an eye toward the One who is strong. All of these are compelling pieces of blessing and beauty.

I don’t know what chaos holds your heart today, but I do know that living in the chaos of despair never adds to world peace. I know, because I’ve tried it. Just as blood, tired from traveling through our bodies arrives back into the heart to be replenished with oxygen and go back again, so do our heart’s emotions need to be replenished with hope, beauty, and blessing. When our hearts are heavy with grief it is difficult to see beyond the grief. It takes courage to step out of despair and connect with the life around us, the life we’ve been given, willing to be filled with the oxygen of beauty and blessing.

If your heart and soul are weary and in despair, I offer you the antidotes of blessing and beauty.

Prayer for Equilibrium

Like the joy of the sea coming home to shore, May the relief of laughter rinse through your soul.

As the wind loves to call things to dance, May your gravity be lightened by grace.

Like the dignity of moonlight restoring the earth, May your thoughts incline with reverence and respect.

May your prayer of listening deepen enough, To hear in the depths the laughter of God.

Verses from The Space Between Us

Prayer for Ukraine and our world from Psalm 46 and words from my nephew:

“Offering prayer in the midst of chaos can seem trivial and unhelpful. I get sick of calls for thoughts and prayers when what’s needed is action. Yet today I woke up to this image…Ukrainians gathering outdoors in February (!) to pray, even as the shells begin to fly. I’m reminded of the solidarity that prayer gives us, both with one another, as well as with the One who put the stars in the sky, yet knows us by name. I’m reminded that prayer is far from trivial. I will pray for the people of Ukraine, as well as for those around the world whose actions may be helpful toward ending this. May they know courage, and may we find the courage to support them.”

“He makes wars cease
    to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow  and shatters the spear;
    he burns the shields with fire.
He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth.”

The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.” -Psalm 46

Today, may your heart be strengthened through blessing and beauty.

Reminders of Death, Reminders of Life

It’s a late February morning as I type this. I am back in cold Boston after a respite in warm and sunny Southern California followed by warm, humid, and sunny Central Florida.

It is never easy coming back to the cold. I describe myself as solar powered, someone who functions best when sun is ever present and palm trees are in the background. Whether you have ever been to Boston or not, I think you all know that this is not my current reality. February in Boston is best described as cold, grey, and lifeless. There are no promising shoots viewable in the ground. It takes faith to believe that February will ever be over and that spring always comes.

Besides being cold, February will always be a month where I pause to remember my brother’s death. It was two years ago this year. Two years since a dreaded phone call and the grief that followed. Two years where we could have used his hard earned life wisdom. Two years ago I walked through the door of the permanent loss that death brings and am slowly learning to embrace an existence where longing is a breath away, and I accept sadness as a permanent fixture of the gladness. Yet, within this is a mystery, because it brings me closer to the One who understands death, pain, and sickness like no other. I don’t understand this mystery, and I never will. But I lean in. 

As I lean into the cold and grey reminders of death, I find reminders of life. These are like dewdrops of surprise after a dry spell and I find I must write them down. I am grateful for long walks in warm weather; for an extended family wedding where a new couple began life together, the sacrament of marriage once more publicly declared before family and friends; for foliage that takes your breath away; for a fresh mango sliced with lime juice and tajine; for a walk through a wildlife preservation, jumping and wary every time someone mentioned an alligator. Yes – and even for a return where today is 50 degrees and my home is filled with sunshine.

I recently heard a phrase in a song that continues to go through my mind. “So always remember to never forget'” and while it has nothing to do with February, the words are gold.

Reminders of death, reminders of life – May I always remember to never forget and may my February days be reminders of the mystery of both.

How about you? How is your February?

On Paying Attention

It’s a late summer evening as I walk down the hill toward Boston Harbor. Jupiter is shining high in the sky, as bright as the street lamp in front of me, yet millions of miles away.

I’m learning to pay attention.

In a recent interaction online, I read these: “Does anyone else feel like they’re in constant transition mode? What helps you keep a good attitude amidst all the changes?”

I responded with these words: “What helps me keep a good attitude? Paying attention. Paying attention to the feelings – they are valid, they are important. Don’t dismiss them for the “this world is not my home” mantra. Pay attention to your surroundings, buy the flowers, buy the bookshelf even if you only use it for six months. Buy the tapestries and beauties from your host country. Pay attention – to beauty and chasing beauty. Jesus cares about place and space. He was born into time and space so of course it is important. That’s my advice from a longing heart living in my 34th house.”

While the post was clearly on transition and temporary home, it got me thinking about paying attention. I thought I knew how to pay attention. I thought I was good at it, but I realize that I’ve needed to be retaught.

With my focus on slow worrying and quick distractions, I’ve forgotten how to pay attention.

My need to pay attention begins with my surroundings. The beauty, the broken, the city sounds and streets, the mid-September blooms, the shorter days. Mornings with their chill, middays with the sun, and cool dusk scented with oncoming Autumn (and let’s be honest, also pot because we are in the city and it is now a legal drug.) Paying attention to the physical world around me is a start.

I then move to the people around me – family, neighbors, colleagues, friends both near and far. What do I really know about their lives? Their hopes? Their dreams?

But in all that, I neglect an important piece of paying attention – the ways I respond, my irrational anger when certain things happen, my heart’s longing. It’s an ironic paradox that the more I ignore or neglect these things, the more they overtake my life and time.

And so I’m paying attention. I’m paying attention to the anger – what’s behind it? I’m paying attention to the longing – why after all this time, after 34 houses, does it suddenly feel critically important? I’m paying attention to my responses – are they reflecting something bigger that’s going on? What do I need to do to heal, to grow, to move forward?

Above all I’m paying attention to God. Do I really respond as one who is beloved by God? Do I lift my heart to him each day, asking him to tell me who I am instead of bending toward others? Am I dealing with the same things that I’ve been dealing with for years, with no change?

I’m not sure of all the answers to those, but I’m paying attention so I can learn.

And, as the gentle teacher that he is, God’s spirit comforts me through beauty and grace, considering the lilies and late blooms, basking in late summer, and learning yet again that he is good.

Therapy in a Hair Salon

I feel something oddly comforting as I walk into the hair salon. It smells of conditioner and peroxide, of hair color and shampoo. Everything is black, grey,and chrome. Sleek black chairs with chrome swiveled bases, black framed mirrors, grey baskets on black shelves, shiny black sinks with chrome fixtures, silver sprayed plants, and a vintage grey metal trunk serving as a resting place for a plant and magazines. The look is sophisticated and sleek, luring me in with a vision of all that I am not.

For I am neither sleek or sophisticated and, though I should feel out of place in this space, I don’t.

A lovely young woman with shiny dark hair and smiling brown eyes greets me, laughing as I confess that I look a fright.

“When I saw myself on a video chat the other day, I was so puzzled. I thought my grandmother had come back from the dead only to greet me through 21st century technology, and then I realized it was me!” I said shaking my older than middle aged head.

“Ahh! We’ll get you fixed up in no time,” She said leading me to a chair.

As she expertly worked my hair we chatted and my sad, busy week suddenly felt not so bad, not so sad.

We talked about the pandemic, about masks, about the vaccine hesitation in different communities. We talked about family and loneliness, about fear of others and the sadness of loss. We talked about long summer beach days and picnics on the sand, about her favorite television show centered on Persians in Los Angeles.

None of us has made it through this past year unscathed. Instead, we bear the wounds of disconnection and the discomfort of fraught friendships. We hold this tension in our bodies and our souls. We are more desperate than we know.

We are created for each other, for community, for the kindness and conversation of both strangers and friends. The stylist may never realize the impact she had, the therapy she gave on that black and chrome chair, but in the comforting conversation of a stranger I found myself relaxing. I left more whole, more thoughtful, and less of a fright.

Thanks be to God.


Image by bigpromoter from Pixabay

The Fragility of Goodness

I have been thinking a lot about “goodness” lately – that word that speaks to the quality of being kind, virtuous, morally good. What does it mean to grow into goodness, to grow beyond the childlike attribute of being “good” and grow into someone whose character makes you think of true goodness.

As children, many of us hear the words “Be good” on a regular basis. “Be good for grandma!” “Be good to your brother!” It is said so often that it sometimes loses both its meaning and its power. Perhaps the importance of how we can mature into goodness is also lost along the way, lost in a world that doesn’t necessarily reward goodness beyond childhood. Instead, being savvy, smart, intellectual, and quick-tongued and quick penned are what gives us an edge in many spheres.

As I’ve thought about goodness, I came upon the story of Bulgaria’s Jews in World War 2 as relayed in a book I am reading called The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East. In this particular section, the author is telling the story of a Jewish family in Bulgaria who ended up in Palestine. Central to their survival in Bulgaria is the larger story of the Jews in Bulgaria.

A deportation order had been written that would deport all of Bulgaria’s 47,000 Jews. Unlike most of Europe, this planned deportation was never carried out. It wasn’t carried out because ordinary people and leaders found out about it. The Metropolitan and the Bishop of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church stood up for the Jews, approaching places of power and “imploring the king to demonstrate compassion by defending the right to freedom and human dignity of the Jews.” A member of parliament (Dimitar Peshev) publicly went against his government, gathering signatures and approaching the king stating that a deportation “would be be disastrous and bring ominous consequences upon the country.” Along with these, leaders of professional organizations and businesses, and ordinary people across the country stood by the Jewish population.

The deportation order was stopped temporarily in March of 1943, and then indefinitely in May. The Jewish population of the entire nation of Bulgaria did not die in gas chambers.

The author goes on to say this:

“None of this would have happened withough what the Bulgarian-French intellectual Tzvetan Todorov calls the ‘fragility of goodness’: the intricate, delicate, unforeseeable weave of human action and historical events”

Evil spreads quickly and virulently. Like a virus, it is hard to stop once it takes root. Todorov says that once it is introduced into public view, it spreads easily, whereas goodness is temporary, difficult, rare, fragile. And yet possible.

I have been thinking about this story and the idea of the fragility of goodness all week. Each person in Bulgaria who spoke up for the Jews, people who were their friends, their neighbors, their business partners, and their community members, is a chain in the link of goodness that ultimately preserved life and human dignity. While Tdorov speaks to the fragility and the “tenuous chain of events” that led to a stay in the deportation order, maybe it is not as tenuous as he supposes. Maybe what appeared tenuous and fragile was far stonger then he could imagine.

In my experience, goodness is far stronger than we know, far more powerful than it may appear. Its power is in its moral strength and its stubborn refusal to quit. That’s what I see, not only in this story, but in the small ways that goodness moves in, refusing to give up, determined that evil will not have the final word.

There are two areas where I am deeply challenged in all of this. How can I chase goodness the way I chase beauty in my daily life? When will I get to the point where I choose good without even thinking because it is so much a part of me? Secondly, Like many of you, I’ve increasingly felt disillusioned and discontent with social media. In its best form it serves as a connector, a friendship builder, a way to challenge, build bridges and encourage. In its other forms, it is none of that. It builds anger, doubt, mistrust, discouragement, discontent, and convinces us that we will never have what others have. Where is goodness in our online selves? Why do we usually head for the lowest denominator, convincing ourselves that it really doesn’t matter.

How can I chase goodness the way I chase beauty? When will I get to the point where I choose good without even thinking because it is so much a part of me? I don’t know. But it gives me hope when I think of ordinary people going about their lives in Bulgaria in 1943, deciding that they would speak up and out, never knowing that they would be a part of a chain called the fragility of goodness.

In all this, I am reminded of Christ, the author of goodness, the one who strengthens the fragility of goodness making it into a force that challenges and destroys evil, for it is he who daily calls me to chase after goodness, truth, and beauty.


Note: all quotes are from The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan