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

 

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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.

When a Lion Needs Courage

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The Wizard of Oz is well-known by many. It is referenced in writing and in conversation; called an ‘icon of pop-culture’ for Americans. In terms of characters, there is Dorothy, a sweet cheery girl from Kansas who just wants to get home after she is displaced from the prairies to an unknown land. There is the Scarecrow, who longs for a brain, a Tin Man who longs for a heart, and a Lion who wants courage. Their journey is full of adventures as they set out to find a wizard in an emerald city who can give them what they most want in the world. The story takes us through their journey, until finally they realize that Oz is just an old man from Omaha, Nebraska who is a ventriloquist. He has played into the delusion that he is a wizard for years, but is now tired of it. Ultimately, he shows the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion that throughout the journey they showed characteristics that demonstrate they already possessed a brain, a heart, and courage. Getting Dorothy home turns out to be a more difficult accomplishment.

These characters are used regularly to talk about the characteristics of intelligence, kindness, empathy, and courage.

About that lion- I don’t think of myself as a timid person. I’m loud, strong-willed, and can be stubborn. My family can attest to the fact that I have a temper, and I don’t always use that temper in the right way. But there are times when I long for more courage in writing and in speaking. I long to gently, but clearly, speak into situations.

Early this morning was one of those times. 

Around 6:40 every morning you will find me at the subway station in Cambridge, waiting for a train to take me three stops into the city. The protocol is the same every day: the train pulls up, the doors open, you wait for people to get off the train, and then you step in, hoping there is a seat.

Today as the doors opened, a woman around my age began to step out. As she stepped out, she almost tripped. Our eyes met and I looked inside the doors to see what was blocking her. A much younger man had blocked the door, causing her to stumble and lose her balance. As I realized what was happening, our eyes met and we shook our heads. We were both puzzled and somewhat stunned. I looked at the younger man and said “Whoah!” He turned and shouted out the door “Call the f*&^@in’ police why don’t you?” The door shut and the train began to move.

The man was standing and moved across to the other side. He looked at me and shouted “f’in terrorists! Do you think it’s easy for me? Do you think it’s easy? I’ve seen people die!”  At this point, I got up and walked purposefully over to him. I looked at him and said “I’ve seen people die as well. A lot of us have seen people die.” He looked at me and stomped off to the other door, where he shouted at us again that none of this was easy. At the Park Street stop he got off.

At this point, most of us in the subway were shaking. It was a difficult way to begin a Monday morning. The subway is always a kaleidoscope of color and diversity and everyone was feeling the heavy weight of what went down. As a health professional, my guess is that he had PTSD and severe anger issues.

But it still wasn’t okay. It still isn’t okay.

As I relive the incident, I wish I had calmly but forcefully said “You need to stop.This is not okay.” Or I wish I hadn’t even gotten on the train, I wish I had taken the time to walk with the woman, to make sure she was okay and that she knew she had support.

I feel like the Lion in the Wizard of Oz, begging for courage. Only instead of an elderly man who was living out a delusion, I want courage from God to stand up for what is right, whether in speaking, writing, or everyday living. At the core, I lack courage. I am a people pleaser and I want people’s approval. But wanting people’s approval stifles me and too often leaves me keeping my mouth shut, thinking after the incident of what I want to say.

The incident felt awful and I was in tears by the time I arrived at my office. Thankfully, I have colleagues of many colors and backgrounds who help me process and move forward. There have only been two other times in the nine years that I have been riding the subway where I was truly disturbed, and the reality is, it’s easier to handle when it happens to me than when it happens to others.

But it illustrates to me what my prayer and word for the year need to be. Quite simply, I need courage. I need courage to speak up stronger and better.

And so on this Monday morning, with my heart beating and my soul raw, my prayer is this: Lord have Mercy. Give me courage to get out of the safe bubbles that are so easy to find and crawl into. Help me to  confront the wrong in myself first, and then gently, but firmly, speak up for others.

Still 10,000 Reasons

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I wake up refreshed this morning. My husband and I were invited to a young adult retreat this weekend and were honored to have the opportunity to speak to a group of around 50 college students and young adults. The topic was hospitality, and we watched this topic modeled well for us by an Orthodox Parish that fed us amazing meals, gave us comfortable beds to sleep on, and offered up lavish generosity in every area. The entire weekend was a gift that nourished our souls.

The timing could not have been better. In the United States we are ending a divisive and angry political campaign. There has been an absence of character and virtue all around and it has had a domino effect across relationships, both close and distant.

As I walk to the subway, my friend from El Salvador rushes to catch up with me. We haven’t seen each other for some time. We hug and begin catching up on life. She has been to El Salvador, I have had a grandchild. Before long, she asks me if I have voted yet. I shake my head no, but tomorrow I will. She shakes her head as well and we sigh at the same time. She will vote tomorrow as well. She whispers to me that she doesn’t like either candidate, looking around furtively, not willing to offend. I sigh and nod. We wave goodbye to each other two stops later.

I walk to my office slowly as the city awakes, thinking about the weekend, about my friend, and about how there are still 10,000 reasons to get up every morning and trust God.

Every day, people scan the headlines, searching for their daily briefing. What is going on in the world? What do they need to know? What will affect them? But the headlines only tell a portion of the story. Headlines may tell us of Trump effigys being burned in England; of classified emails leaked; of millions of Afghan refugees going back to Afghanistan, uncertain of their future; of U.S backed militias helping to drive out ISIS in Syria — but it doesn’t tell the whole story. It doesn’t tell of the many who give sacrificially to the poor, who tirelessly work toward justice, who pray daily for peace.

Above and beyond any headline is the story that God is telling.

And the story God is telling is not about a country. It is not the story of red and blue, of donkey and elephant, of Clinton and Trump. It is not an American story. The story God is telling is a worldwide story of people and redemption. The story God is telling is far bigger than elections and opinions – it is a story that goes from Pakistan to Tasmania; from Iraq to Germany; from Russia to the Maldives; from Senegal to the United States; from North Pole to South Pole and all places between.

I will only ever know a fraction of the story this side of Heaven. But I know enough to not despair. I know enough to know that God has not left us to drown in our own mess. Instead, he reaches through time and eternity to reorient us to his reality. He reminds us in countless ways that we are beloved; he convicts us that many who we despise are also beloved.

So I walk slowly, but purposefully. To my right, two homeless people are sleeping in the shelter of a doorway, heads covered with grey blankets to keep off the cold. To my left I see the glimpses of a new day dawning and I know there are still 10,000 reasons to trust a God whose definable stamp is on all creation.

The sun comes up
It’s a new day dawning
It’s time to sing Your song again
Whatever may pass
And whatever lies before me
Let me be singing
When the evening comes*

*Matt Redman

In Memory of George

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George was one of those guys that I saw early morning. As I would wander up Tremont Street from the Park Street T Station he would be setting up in front of the Granary Burying Ground. This cemetery is Boston’s third oldest cemetery and the final earthly resting place for the likes of Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Paul Revere.

Outside of this historic cemetery, George would set up his earthly belongings. It was a perfect spot in many ways — never in the direct sunlight, but always in the line of visitors to Boston who might spare a dollar or two for the homeless.

So early morning I would walk by and we would greet each other. No matter how grey the day, George would smile. His personality showed through and as I would pass by he’d never fail to say “Have a good day Babe!” Maybe it’s because I’m daily growing older, but somehow I loved that he called me that. I never gave George money. We would just talk and then I would go on to work and he would continue on in his day.

It was the beginning of August that I realized I hadn’t seen George for a couple of days. Perhaps, I reasoned, it was too warm and he’d found another spot. Two days later as I passed by his place in front of the iron fence of the cemetery I stopped cold. Flowers adorned the fence and there hung a picture of George along with a typed story about him. I gasped aloud as I read it. The picture resembled a magazine cover with a banner over the top that read “Rest in Peace.” The bottom had these dates:

October 7th, 1972 – August 4th, 2016

George Dagraca, 43 years old, had died. 

I felt a sense of shock and sadness. I didn’t know George’s story, I had never heard it. We were early morning greeters and our conversations didn’t go deep. Turns out, he was a heroin addict, addicted to those highs that could temporarily remove him from some of the pain of his youth.

Along with the picture was a eulogy of sorts, by someone like me who met George on his daily walks.

We don’t fully know who we will meet in life, who we will touch and who will touch us. Many like me mourn his death and somehow that gives me hope. Because if we who barely knew him care about his death and mourn our short, daily connection, how much more so does the God who sees a sparrow fall?

My faith holds me tight in times like these. Earthly status means nothing to a Heavenly God. Whether our lives be small or great, he counts the hairs on our heads, the freckles on our noses. He cares about our habits, our diseases, and the addictions that sometimes kill us. This is the goodness of the Lord.

A favorite verse comes to mind many times when I walk on Tremont Street and I think of it today:

“I would have despaired, unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage,  Wait, I say, for the Lord!”*

I walk up Tremont Street, a sky brightening over the Atlantic Ocean. Sparrows sit on the fence above George’s memorial.

In a sky brightening,in sparrows chirping, and in a homemade memorial I see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. And it is enough. 

You can read more of George’s story here. 

*Psalm 27:13-14

Anniversaries and Durgin Park


 My mom and dad met, courted, and got engaged in the city of Boston. They attended college in the city and when we asked Dad when he first noticed Mom, he said “Our junior year, when I was class president and your mom was secretary. I thought she was very efficient.”

And with those romantic words, an uncommon union was born.

So on Tuesday, to celebrate their anniversary of 64 years, we took them to a restaurant they remembered from their college years. Durgin Park is a Boston institution. It has been a landmark of the area since 1827. Their tag line is “We serve history!’ If walls and red, gingham table cloths could talk, they would have tales to tell. Instead, the people who tell these tales are the wait staff. If you want no-nonsense staff who talk back to you and tell you what’s what – Durgin Park is the place for you.

We were fortunate to have Gina – the head hostess – as our server. Gina is Sicilian and has worked at the restaurant for over 40 years. Behind her quick tongue and biting retorts is a heart that loves people and it warmed our hearts to find that she was sincerely interested in who we were. As we ate Yankee Pot Roast, Boston Baked Beans, and corn bread she sat with us and told us some of the history and stories of Durgin Park.

The restaurant served sea men who got off work at 6:30 in the morning. They would come over after long shifts to eat and drink. After a few drinks, they would say all manner of things to the women who worked there. After a while, these women tired of it and decided to give it back. And give it back they did and they do. You do not mess with Durgin Park wait staff!

Don’t go to Durgin Park if you want a quiet, romantic evening. Go if you want to find out more about Boston and experience the Boston that is so much better than the arrogant academics. Go if you’re tired of business men and women who rush through the streets in their chic black uniforms. Go to Durgin Park if you want old Boston. Go if you want to talk and be talked at; go if you want to be served history.

On Tuesday, we chose to be served history as we celebrated my parents. It has been 64 years of marriage on two continents and many houses and cities. The results are obvious. Five children, seventeen grandchildren, spouses of grandchildren and soon to be ten great grands. But there is so much more. The years of prayer and stubborn commitment; the years of travel that included too many goodbyes and hellos to count. And always the years of joy that were woven through all of it.

Durgin Park was witness to one more important thing in history – the celebration of my parent’s life together.

So if you get to Boston this summer, head to Durgin Park, ask for Gina – and tell her the family who celebrated their parent’s 64th anniversary sent you. If she needs further reminders, ask her about her hair dryer.

Marathon People

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In the seven years that we have lived in Boston, we have rarely missed the Boston Marathon. The one exception was two years ago when we returned from Istanbul on marathon day only to find out that the tragic Boston Marathon bombing had occurred, changing the day from festive to fearful. The days that followed will not be forgotten and the marathon will be forever changed.

The other exception was this year. We were tired. We needed to remove ourselves from the urgent so that we could focus on the important. So Friday night we packed the car and headed to the Cottage and some time away. It’s early for us. Usually the Cottage is rented to others at this time of year, but this year things changed and so it was our weekend to reclaim this precious space.

And reclaim we did. From looking at the stars, to decorating and sorting, to having dear friends over for dinner and Dutch Blitz, we rested and reclaimed the gift of Rockport and the Cottage.

As we made our way back to the city, we saw some marathoners shaking slightly though covered in their silver warmth blankets. They had a proud, self-conscious look about them. They did it! They did this race and their silver coverings and marathon numbers still attached to their clothes are outward proof of this huge accomplishment.

These are the marathon people and I am in awe over what they have done. This is a world-famous race and people have worked and trained long, hard hours to be in this race. I am not an athlete, but I still know some of what it takes to train the body, to do things you never thought possible. And these marathon people? They have worked and willed their bodies and minds to achieve a goal.

Marathon people. If their coverings and numbers didn’t tell the story, their bodies would. No matter their age, they are fit, their bodies muscled and toned because of the discipline of training.

I realize as I look at them that I want to be a marathon person. I want to have goals and to do whatever it takes to meet those goals. I want to do whatever I’m doing with those thoughts in mind, with a discipline and tenacity that gets me through the difficult parts. I want to be a marathon person.

In the book of Hebrews in the Christian New Testament there is a chapter that is often referred to as the “Faith Hall of Famers.” It’s really a chapter about marathon people. Marathon people who kept on going, who didn’t give up, even when they didn’t get what they longed for, what they ran for. Their names were Abel and Enoch, Noah and Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and so many more. The list is long and the stories are compelling. These were marathon people but they never took home a prize.

“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.”

Their’s was a faith worth pursuing, a marathon worth running even if what was all around them seemed contrary to what they believed.

The stories of these Biblical marathon people make me think of a place in the Boston Marathon called Heartbreak Hill. Heartbreak Hill is famous in these parts. This is the last hill in the marathon. It rises a half mile and once you have come to the top, you can see some of the highest buildings in downtown Boston. You know that you have made it. It is considered the most difficult, absolute toughest part of the marathon course because runners reach this hill at mile 20 and 1/2 and they are so tired. But they have been trained and warned, and so they persevere, and at the top they know they’ve completed the most difficult part of the race.

In the Hebrews chapter I mentioned, all the people listed had many heartbreak hills, many points where there was no way they felt they could go on. Points where they questioned God and life. But they did it. They kept on going. Because they were marathon people. Some verses later in the chapter tell us that they were commended for being marathon people.

“These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.”

When it comes to life, I want to be known as a marathon person – someone who meets the difficult parts of life head on without fear and trembling, instead with determination and grit. I want to have at it with God’s grace and strength. I want my number and my silver blanket for warmth.  I want to be one of the marathon people. 

What about you? Have you run marathons? What does it take to be a marathon person? 

Verses from Hebrews 11, New International Version

Photo Credit: http://pixabay.com/en/sports-marathon-race-racing-start-210661/