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.
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
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.
I’m discouraged. It’s not uncommon for me during the winter months, but it is still hard. I do all the things you are supposed to do when you are low and feel defeated. I light candles, I chase beauty, I seek out joy. But sometimes no matter what you do, you still feel the weight of life, still feel the limitations of candlelight and beauty. Beauty may save the world, as Dostoevsky claims, but it doesn’t necessarily take away the weight of winter.
Some of this has to do with things that cannot be changed – feeling the sadness of my brother’s birthday coming on Wednesday, knowing that he is not here, that a phone call is impossible. In addition, my own birthday arrives later this week and I feel some of the emotional cost of aging, the heaviness of responsibility coupled with the weight of wrinkles and a changing body.
What do other writers do with the weight of winter? They write. They describe and, in their descriptions, I find comfort. The quote by Andrew Wyeth is perhaps my favorite. this idea of the story being hidden, but still present is something I think about all year long, not just in winter.
If you are feeling the weight of winter on this Monday, I invite you to read these quotes and to write or find your own.
“I prefer winter and Fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape–the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show. “ –Andrew Wyeth
“How many lessons of faith and beauty we should lose, if there were no winter in our year!” –Thomas Wentworth Higginson
“I pray this winter be gentle and kind–a season of rest from the wheel of the mind. “ –John Geddes
“The hard soil and four months of snow make the inhabitants of the northern temperate zone wiser and abler than his fellow who enjoys the fixed smile of the tropics. “ –Ralph Waldo Emerson
“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness. “ –John Steinbeck
What are your favorite winter quotes? How do you face the weight of winter?
I was caught in traffic today. I sat in the driver’s seat just five minutes from my house, craning my neck to see what was blocking cars and trucks from moving more than a couple of feet every few minutes. We inched along, caught in a concrete and steel maze. To my left was an iron fence, the top of it oddly ornamental but lost in the garbage and chaos that is city living. To my right, bright yellow graffiti tried to make a statement, perhaps encouraging those of us who were stuck in traffic to see beyond the city scene.
In the middle of this, I began to think about a talented artist and her ability to take the common of the city, infuse the starkness with colors and shadows, and in her own words “beautifying the banal.” She takes the scene I see in front of me and creates beauty. Chain link fences, stop signs, concrete buildings, barriers, all of it painted with precision and care.
I paint spaces that most people pass daily but don’t notice, like alleyways, fences and parking lots.
Christine Rasmussen is an LA-based artist who describes herself as “painter of the in between.” She is also daughter of one of my dear childhood, now adult, friends. Her artist statement gives the viewer a sense of what she is doing. Beyond the words are, of course, the paintings themselves.
As a painter I investigate the in between, depicting cityscapes that hover between familiar and imagined. In observing these urban spaces devoid of people, I play with themes of belonging versus aloneness; memory versus daydream; and narrative versus abstraction. The “story” continues off the canvas, letting the viewer’s imagination step in.
These themes interest me as a global nomad who has often found myself hovering between multiple cultures, time zones, languages and identities. Close observation of my surroundings in every city I encounter reveals recurring materials, shadows or shapes that I paint as symbols of our shared humanity across perceived differences. Through capturing these commonalities – the wondrous details of urban environments – in my paintings, I explore the many complexities and multiple identities of our rich inner lives.
There are many things in cityscapes that are barriers carrying messages that tell us we don’t belong. Red and white signs that give harsh orders of “Do Not Enter,” stop signs, large concrete structures, traffic lights that dictate when you can go and when you must stop, boarded up buildings, and anonymous drivers in snob appeal cars. That is what makes Christine’s desire to introduce us to these as shared symbols of humanity and eye for beauty in the commonplace of the city unique and imaginative.
In a review of her solo exhibition called “Liminal Transcendence” that recently opened in LA, her work was described this way:
In these paintings, we are getting a view of where the sky meets the earth. The horizon is filled with concrete, metal, glass, shadow and urban stories. The sky in her works is filled with clouds (and chemtrails) Angelenos will easily recognize. Christine is asking us to take notice of that in between space where the magic happens.
Kristine Schomaker in Art and Cake Magazine
Take notice of that in between space where the magic happens.
Pay attention to the beauty in the banal.
Never stop finding beauty in the ordinary moments of life.
It is easy for me to see beauty in the in between of the natural world where the sky meets the earth, where the ocean rises up to the horizon, and where the sun shines through the clouds. Bearing witness to all that beauty gives birth to heart-bursting moments that keep me longing for an eternity where beauty will never end but last forever.
It is more difficult for me to see beauty and magic where concrete meets clouds and chain-link fences connect with the sky, where birds perch on electric wires strung between poles on city streets. And yet, these are part of the sum of where I live. Christine’s work, created from a background that resonates with my own, invites me to see color and perspective, asks me to pay attention and look for beauty beyond my immediate vision. She captures life between far more realistically, precisely because there are so many sharp corners and fences in a life between. Her paintings encourage me to move past the cityscapes and into the coffee shop on the corner where my heart connects with a friend and the saudade is killed. I move from there to my office with sleek black walls and industrial fixtures, finally back to the constant creation and recreation of home and place. And in all of it, the invitation is there – find beauty, look for magic.
When I first began processing a life lived between worlds through writing, it was more about the pain and discomfort of the process. As I’ve grown, I’ve come to see the sharp objects in this life as part of the beauty. Our appreciation for beauty perhaps has more to do with our understanding of suffering then it does with our eyesight.
For all of us, this life on earth is a life lived between. None of us knows what is next. While my faith tradition gives me clues and in faith, I accept those, it also reminds me that this is a mystery. I analyze it and dissect it, but what I really long to do is use my words to articulate the beauty and magic of this life. I want my words to do what Christine’s art does. I want them to say “Look beyond the dirt and garbage, beyond the stop and go, the insecurity and anonymity of the city. Take notice! Pay attention!” Pay attention to the straight edges that meet the cloudless blue sky, or the petunia that grows through the crack in the concrete. Pay attention to the steel objects and the velvet fabrics. Chase beauty like you chase belonging and you will find both.
Let your imagination run with your longing and find rest in a promise far greater than magic, the promise of an eternity better than you could dream it to be, all of our longings and belongings finally fulfilled, wrapped in something far better and greater than we can imagine.
Note – you can see Christine’s work by clicking the link for her website above or by following her on Instagram @christinerasmussenart.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.