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.

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?

Finding My Way on the Freedom Trail

This morning I met with a dear friend at a coffee shop along the wharf in Boston. Blue sky and warm temperatures had us both exclaiming with delight as we sat outside drinking coffee and eating croissants. Our conversation went from Afghanistan to Islam to culture to cultural schizophrenia to the U.S election to Boston and back around again. Though much younger than me, we share our hearts during these times together, finding solace in mutual understanding.

We said goodbye by the bridge that separates the North End of Boston from Charlestown and I headed back home.

I soon found myself in an unfamiliar park and was just about to check my phone for directions when I spied the brick path that identifies Boston’s famed Freedom Trail.

Family and friends who come visit Boston always ask us about the Freedom Trail. Boston’s Freedom Trail is not a hike in the woods as some mistakenly think when they first arrive. Instead, it’s a path that winds through the city taking you to famous sites along the way. Every step of the path leads you into a story from the past and you find yourself immersed in America’s beginnings and fight for freedom.

Churches, museums, graveyards, and a ship are just a few of the treasured sites along the way. The trail begins at Boston Common and takes you 2.5 miles to an ending point at Bunker Hill Monument, an 11 minute walk from our house in Charlestown.

I smiled with relief as I found the Freedom Trail. I now knew where I was! I had a reference point and could follow the path. Instead of feeling a sense of confusion and disorientation, I felt safe and secure. If I just followed the brick path I knew exactly how to get home.

As I walked I thought about how weary and lost I have felt. I thought about the disorienation and lostness I feel when I sink into the abyss of discontent fueled by social media and the isolation it can create. I thought about how tired the world feels with this pandemic. And then I thought about the freedom that a known path allows, even when it winds and twists and turns.

I think a lot of us are feeling lost. We don’t know how to plan and how to walk forward. While the pandemic and the changed plans that it has brought is part of the reason, each of us have our own private reasons as well. These public challenges just make our private worlds more complicated.

Weary. Lost. Frustrated. Sad. Angry. Confused. Disoriented. These are just a few of the words that I have shared with friends and they have shared with me about this time. How do you find your way when there are so many twists and turns?

This sense of feeling lost is when I know I have to go back to the beginning. My life is recentered by remembering that my story, small as it is, is important and fits into a bigger story. As the Freedom Trail is to American history, so is my story to this bigger story. It’s small, but remembering it can remind me how to get home. I have churches and graveyards, ships and museums in my story as well.

As I remember my story, I remember who I am. More importantly, I remember whose I am.

The solid brick path of the Freedom Trail showed me the way today. Somehow, it also centered me in my story. As I walked the trail, I remembered who I was. The Freedom Trail brought me home.

A Slice of Life from Charlestown – Volume 1: A Map of New Beginnings

I’m sitting in the window seat of our little red house in Charlestown. I love that I have already discovered this sweet space for writing, thinking, staring off into space, and yes – even crying.

My view to one side is of fall mums, birds of all kinds, and fat squirrels that shamelessly steal the bird seed. To the other I see our favorite books, arranged meticulously by country. It is a wonderful sight and the treasures and stories that rest in our bookshelves are remarkable. It would take me more than the lifetime I have to read all these books, but I press forward anyway.

It hurt a bit to write the title of this blog. I loved writing my slice of life from Kurdistan posts, bringing you into both the joys and struggles of our world so many miles away. But I am grateful to you who read, because you have not stopped reading just because I have returned. You read Communicating Across Boundaries before I left, you read it while I was away, and you are reading now that I’m back. I may feel deeply that I’ve let you down – but you certainly don’t communicate that back to me. From my heart I thank you.

I have felt my third culture personhood acutely these past weeks. From getting lost to struggling with identity, I have lost my reference points. I am finding this to be a major task in this new space – to find my markers, to establish my map of yet another new beginning.

A week and a half ago, our younger daughter got married. Friends and family came from around the world to celebrate on an island in New Hampshire. It was a privilege to be a part of this. Brilliant weather and a crystal clear lake created a stunning setting for this beautiful couple. There were so many times during the weekend when I watched my daughter’s (now) husband reach out his hand to lend support or wrap his arms around her in complete love. It was more than lovely – it was extraordinary. ⠀

Watching my adult children gather around their sister in love and support was also extraordinary. There are no guarantees in raising children that they will grow to love and support each other, and like any family, we have had our share of fights and anger, of miscommunication and “how dare you”s. But gather they did, helping in every conceivable way. We brought the celebration to a height through a family dance to Mamma Mia, a twist to the traditional father/daughter dance. I looked at my kids during the dance, all of us singing at the top of our lungs in pure joy. Words fail as I try to describe this, but the memory is enough.

How many times in a mom’s life do we want to press the pause button, rewind, and record? Capture the beauty and sweetness for those days when the tears fall and our souls ache with the collective grief of our kids?

During the wedding weekend I longed to press the pause button, freeze frame the joy and relaxation we had together. That wasn’t possible, but breathing and pressing into each moment was possible. There was no manipulation, no desire to control the way we moms sometimes do. Instead, minute by minute passed by in delight and joy. 

After the wedding I lost a full week to sickness – fever, cold, weakness and fatigue knocked me down. I’m slowly getting back up, but beyond that, things are still not clear. I have a few consulting jobs, but I find myself embracing those only in so far as they help pay the bills. Perhaps that is enough right now, a friend reminds me.


I am in my map of new beginnings. I find that though I try to use the old maps, each new beginning has a different map. While some markers may stay the same, the topography changes. Where are the bumps and the traffic problems? Where does this detour go? Do I do this or do I do that? Do I go here or do I go there? What landmarks can I rely on? My personal experiences and bearing witness to events in places creates memory landmarks. I find yet again that it is all about connection to place. While some of these are the same, many are completely new. Not only that, I have changed by being away, and my community has changed as well. This changes the map.

There are spiritual implications to this map of new beginnings and I find myself clinging to my faith. This is a landmark I understand. Though I have doubted in the past, I have always returned to this light. It doesn’t change the feelings, but it does provide a solid foundation where the feelings can rest and find a home.

In this map of new beginnings, my heart knows that I will find my way. It will take time. There will be tears and I will get lost. But today, as I made my way to a coffee shop to meet with an old friend, I didn’t look at a map.

I found my way there and I found my way home.

A Morning Walk and Being a Flâneur

A few years ago, Rachel Pieh Jones did a blog series called Let’s Go Flaneuring. The series was based on a French word flâneura word that was popular in nineteenth century France, particularly among writers. Essentially a flâneur was someone who walked (or rather – strolled). As the flâneur strolled, they observed. So they strolled and observed, and then they strolled and observed some more, and often they took notes or recorded their observations in their heads. But basically, it seems like a writing technique based on strolling and observing.

As I read more about the flâneur, I was fascinated by this idea of strolling in the familiar and in doing so, being able to craft stories from the commonplace. To take a step away from glorifying busy lives and instead embracing the idea of a slow and thoughtful stroll seemed not only delightful, but also wise.


I think about this today – a Wednesday morning. Usually I have one thing on my mind as I walk to work, and that is coffee. Coffee is my morning medicine, my adrenaline push, and my comfort in a cup. But I’m approaching a birthday, and suddenly I want life to slow down.

The sky is beginning to lighten as I get off the subway at Park Street and step out into Boston Common. Though the sun has not yet risen over the Atlantic Ocean I know by the light in the sky that it will be a bright, sunny January day.  I stop and look around. To my left is the State House, it’s gold dome already reflecting the morning light. In back of me, the Boston Common stretches toward the Public Gardens with tall buildings looming large in the distance. In front of me is the steeple of Park Street Church, a historic church that spoke out against slavery in the early days of the abolitionist movement.

I begin strolling from Boston Common up Tremont Street. I pass the famous Granary Burying Ground, Boston’s third oldest cemetary where the likes of Paul Revere and Samuel Adams are laid to rest. As I reach School Street, a florist delivery drops off its morning boquets at the Omni Parker Hotel – cherry blossoms and light pink tulips. They are stunning, a sign that sometime down the road the bright and beautiful colors of spring will come. A woman nods at me, as though she knows what this flâneur is thinking.

I turn at School Street and head down to Washington Street. At the corner of Washington and School Streets, the bronze statues commemorating the Irish famine look at me in mournful memory. I smile. My family could tell you a story about my misunderstanding of these statues, but that’s for another day.

My office is a half block shy of the Old State House but instead of my usual “pick up the pace, there’s coffee in sight” I slow down.

Today I am a flâneur, and I don’t want it to end too soon.

But it does end. I’ve reached my office and the Starbucks right next door. It’s the end of this stroll. Work is calling, and I don’t get paid to flâneur. 


The problems of the city are not lost on me. Homeless still huddle in doorways. There is always an argument going on, even at early hours. Garbage is still wadded together, made mushy by the recent rain. City grime is ever-present.  But what better way to confront these and seek the welfare of the city than by taking a step back, turning my quick steps into a slow stroll, and learning to observe.

In the the middle of my morning prayers, there is a longer prayer about being raised up from sleep and despair by God’s compassion “that at dawn I might sing the glories of thy Majesty.” Taking a step away from busy and entering into the stroll of the flâneur gives me time to sing the glories of God’s majesty in the midst of Boston’s city streets.

Reflections on Morning and Evening Prayers

 

neighborhood sunflowers

It’s early morning. The day is waking to summer in all its blue-skyed glory. Birds sing and chirp loud in chorus  – a liturgical chant to welcome the day.

I am standing at our icon corner, the place in our home where we say our morning and evening prayers. It is here where I try to begin the day. It is here where I take a few moments from the frantic busyness that can take hold if I’m not careful; here where I thank God for the morning, for a new day. I shake my head in wonder as I read the words “at dawn I might sing the glories of thy Majesty” – this is what life is to be.


It is less than an hour later when my morning peace is challenged, where I shake my head in frustration at someone who jostled me on the subway, where I hold my breath because the smell of urine is so strong in the Park Street T stop.

This is my life. Perhaps it is yours as well – peace and contemplation forgotten as we face everyday life wherever we are. My everyday life is the city, where homeless find shelter in door ways and tourists meander, their faces hidden by maps and sun hats. My everyday life is data mixed with stories, real people who need cancer screenings, real communities that face various difficulties.

I stop for a moment and think of the words of Frederick Buechner: Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. 


It’s at the end of the day when I hold out my hands in a physical gesture of surrender. We are doing our evening prayers, a discipline we began three years ago. We stand with our faces lifted toward icons: The Christ Pantocrator, the Theotokos, and our particular saints – St. Sophia, St. Mary of Egypt, and St. Isaac the Syrian. A tall, thin beeswax candle made by nuns at a monastery is our only light, but it is enough.

There is something about this evening prayer time, something about this physical opening of my hands in release. Those things that I have worried about and held tight, the backpack full of burdens, even the pain in my body is held out to God. It’s during evening prayers that I fully accept what I know to be true – I can’t do it alone. This thing called life is too much for me. There is too much hurt, too much sadness, too much pain. I cannot go to bed with all this – I must release it.

So I do.

With hands lifted up, I give it all to God. I pray the words “Visit and heal our infirmities for thy name’s sake.”

For those few moments, all that matters is this time where earth drifts away and Heaven seems a bit closer.