Fall in Love with Your Neighborhood

On Sunday, we are moving to a new neighborhood. We found a little house to rent in a historic area of Boston. It is painted a deep red and has a postage-stamp yard where we anticipate hanging up white lights and sitting on patio chairs during late summer nights in September.

This house has come at a high cost – not money wise, although rents in Boston are high – but emotionally. It is the cost of leaving too soon, the cost of transition, the cost of not knowing what is next. This house is also priceless – it means we have an address, it means we have a neighborhood, it means that we can create a home. The juxtaposition of those two truths has been present throughout the process of finding this place.

As I anticipate moving and creating space and home, I also think about this new neighborhood that we will be exploring. A year ago it was Kurdistan, and a government-issued apartment. Now it’s Boston, and a little, red house. Both take courage, adventure, and being willing to fall in love with place.

Last week my daughter wrote a short piece about her neighborhood, accompanied by a picture. I loved it. I loved the word pictures, I loved the message, and I loved the challenge. I share it today, because it may be just what all of us need.


If you ever feel sad, fall in love with your neighborhood. If you ever feel lonely, walk down the streets and notice what you never do because you’re in a rush or you’re tired or your brain is too full to notice.

Notice the gardens overflowing from the second floor balconies. Notice the kids bikes with training wheels leaning against fences, telly you stories of people trying and falling and still trying agian. Notice the kitschy garden decor, always in season and telling you that someone who has made a home lives behind that fence. Notice the hammock on the porch, begging to be swung in and telly you to hang a lil more. Notice the bees buzzing in the lavender, telling you that nature isn’t some distant thing, but it’s two steps from your front door.

If you ever need to feel anything, to feel connected, to feel less like a stranger, fall in love with your neighborhood.

Talk to the lamp store guy and he’ll give you a free cushion for the rocking chair you bought from him last week and show you how to fix an old lamp. Talk to the cashier and she’ll tell you how to take care of your Pixie Peperomia. Smile at the dog who lays over for a belly rub and give him the best belly rub ever.

Just fall in love with your neighborhood and remember that it needs people to love it so that it always remains as magical as it’s always been.

If you feel sad, fall in love with your neighborhood.

S.S. Gardner

5 Newton Street – a Love Story

5 Newton Street,

Cambridge, MA 02139

It was ten and a half years ago when I first walked through your front door. I will never forget the day – December 18, and Boston was experiencing the worst winter they had had in five years. Snow was piled high around you – your porch barely passable – and it was so cold.

My oldest daughter, who had moved to Boston a couple of months before, came running out your door, capturing me with one of her famous hugs. She hugs like she means it, like she’ll never, ever let you go and it is bliss.

And then I walked through the white painted door and into your long hallway.

You and me….we were an arranged marriage of sorts. You had good bones and I had a good family, and we grew to love each other.

We met each other, shy at first, neither of us were sure of each other. After all, we found each other on Craigslist, and all I knew was that you claimed to be “sunny and bright”. I was moving from Phoenix, Arizona to a bitter cold Northeast winter. You had no idea how much I needed bright and sunny. That first night I think you sized me up and decided that I would do. Admittedly, it took me a while longer.

I traded in a large, open floor plan, designer paint, and a sparkling, blue pool for a city condo with noisy upstairs neighbors. Our oversized, Arizona furniture cramped your style; our massive candle sticks had to find another home. I fought with you for more space, cursing your small corners, but you didn’t budge.

But we began to live together and slowly, like an arranged marriage, I began to love you.

I began to love your location, so close to everything! With you I could walk everywhere! Grocery store, pharmacy, subway – even the beautiful Charles River with its banks that changed with the seasons. I painted your walls and hung pictures that made you shine. I draped white lights on your porch, a bright beacon in the sometimes dark nights of life. I plumped pillows on couches and put furniture in your rooms.

And we began to live, really live within your walls. You began to know our family and your halls and walls heard our laughter and held our tears. Thanksgivings, Christmases, and Easter celebrations brought people from all over the world into your safety and joy. We played games and discussed politics; dyed Easter eggs and carved pumpkins; brought Christmas trees from the Boston Tree Company, and lit candles amidst holiday sparkle. You gave space for graduation celebrations and expanded as our family grew.

It wasn’t all sparkle. You heard sadness and witnessed anger; sometimes our tears were more than we could bear and you held us in safety when we couldn’t let the wider world know what was going on. But still, you and we held on.

And now, we are taking you – our home – and turning you back into a house. If I wasn’t so busy, and if I didn’t know that this next step is a good and important one, it would break me.

You, with your old wood floors and your non updated bathrooms, hold the magic of Home. And you are being stripped of that magic by me – your nomadic love.

I’m so sorry. You’ve been so good to us. You have loved us well through over ten years of life. You have been a place of safety, joy, and laughter.

Your walls will hold our family stories forever and, like a dear and loyal friend, keep them safe.

Your windows bear the marks of our noses, pressed against them looking out onto the world.

Your hallway and stairwell will echo our footsteps, like ghosts coming back for one last look.

And your porch? Your porch will carry the magic of late summer night laughter and conversation, the sounds of the city a musical background.

You have loved us well dear house. You have loved us well.

And now, I say goodbye. May the joy and grace that has held us be passed on to those coming through your doors.

Goodbye 5 Newton. I will always love you.

The View Becomes More Precious

Days are passing by quickly, and in every situation I am keenly aware that life as we know it is ending.

The other day I sat on my porch in early morning. It has been hot and sticky, with little relief. The small air conditioner in our living room window combined with multiple fans on in full force are no match for the heat wave that has people lolling in lethargy. I looked across at the apartments and houses of our neighbors. So, Christopher, Maria, John, Peter, and the guy that owns the Comedy Club at Harvard Square. It all feels incredibly precious.

I have lived in this condo longer than I have lived anywhere. Ten years ago we traded a house with designer paint and a sparkling pool for a rented condominium in a city. We tried to fit big furniture into small spaces, and laughed hard as we realized it couldn’t be done. We moved from perpetual summer to four seasons; from having to drive everywhere we went to a space where everything is in walking distance; and from not knowing neighbors to using our upstairs neighbor’s space every time we had our family visit.

Each day we have lived here our view has become more precious. And as transition closes in, our view becomes even more precious. I watch the morning light, ever-moving as the shadows and sun dance in perfect harmony. I peek out the window and observe a morning conversation. I hear the sounds of the two little boys next door. I watch, I wait, I observe and I shake my head at the beauty of all of it.

The view has become so precious; the sounds are sounds of Home.

Life has taught me that loss and her accompanying grief are constants. It has also taught me that beauty and daily grace walk beside the loss, pausing to pick me up, always there to comfort and hold the tears that come when I least expect.

I have shared before in this space one of my favorite C.S. Lewis quotes, but it is worthy of repeated sharing:

“The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment He has scattered broadcast.  We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy.  It is not hard to see why.  The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency.  Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.” CS Lewis The Problem of Pain

I am so aware that the calm and grateful heart, the precious view I have now are a temporary gift, a respite from transition chaos. Like a child, I will take this gift with joy and abandon. The yearning for permanence will come soon enough, the moving boxes downstairs are multiplying like baby rabbits and the walls will soon close in on me.

But today? Today the view is so precious.

A Black Girl, A White Girl, and a Lemonade Stand

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My subway stop in Cambridge is Central Square. I’ve written a bit about Central Square before, but the truth is, it’s difficult to describe this area. While Harvard Square boasts history and sophistication and Kendall Square hosts Massachusetts Institute of Technology and nerdy innovation, Central Square is a cacophony of chaos. The community of homeless are many and loud, challenging anyone who would demean them through pity. The smell of curry from a couple of Indian restaurants is strong on hot summer days, and there is always some sort of crisis that involves police presence.

It is dirtier and grittier than other areas of Cambridge, with a cross-section of people who defy any stereotype. Recent and older immigrants speaking everything from Amharic and Arabic to Portuguese and Punjabi; every age from infants in strollers to the elderly heading to a community center or the library around the corner; and the sassiest and saltiest homeless people you will ever meet – all of these converge in Central Square.

Central Square is a colorful box of crayons that I get to walk through every day.

Diversity is lived out on these streets. You don’t think about it, it’s just there. But on Tuesday as I was walking home, I happened on a scene that has stayed with me. Just outside a blue house on Magazine Street, two mini entrepreneurs were selling lemonade. They had a couple of large pitchers that were sweating in the heat, and big glasses. At fifty cents their price was excellent and below the going rate.

Their voices were loud as they shouted to everyone who passed by – “Lemonade for sale. Come get your ice-cold lemonade!” And so I did, and it was the best lemonade I’ve ever had from a lemonade stand.

One little girl was black, one little girl was white. Why do I mention that? There’s nothing strange about the fact that a black girl and a white girl are together in this neighborhood, but in the current climate in the United States it felt way more important than just two kids selling lemonade. It felt like a glimpse of the future; a future that repents of wrongs and seizes opportunities to bridge racial and ethnic divisions. A future that fights injustice and seeks opportunities to work together providing sweet, refreshing lemonade.

There’s a lot to be depressed about in our world these days. It’s rare to find people who can disagree in civil ways, each giving respect to the other. Fractured relationships are everywhere and we are in deep need of healing – as individuals, as families, and as communities.

But then I meet two little girls on a summer day right in my neighborhood selling lemonade, and I know that all is not lost.

There is no “better place” than this, not in this world. And it is by the place we’ve got, and our love for it and our keeping of it, that this world is joined to Heaven. . . .Wendell Berry in Hannah Coulter

 

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.

Monday Morning Resilience

 

In the United States there has been another mass shooting. As bad as it is to wake up and hear this news, it is nothing compared to those who lived through it and are even now trying to make sense of the horror.

I began the day by reading about refugees and resilience. The specific article I was reading is a fascinating study on refugee care. The authors want to move refugee work away from being completely trauma-focused and instead focus on the strength of the refugee, changing the focus of care from trauma to resilience.

I was thinking about this as I drove on Memorial Drive in Cambridge. Monday mornings you will usually find me waiting for the subway at 6:30 in the morning. Today I will be in Worcester guest lecturing for a class at UMass School of Nursing, so I had the rare privilege of driving in brilliant fall sunlight by the Charles River.

As I was driving, lost in thought and thinking about resilience, I saw a young man running along the sidewalk.

Seeing a man running  on the banks of the Charles River is a usual sight in our area. No matter what the temperature, and it is definitely getting colder, you will see runners of all sizes, shapes and abilities.

But this man was different. Because he had no legs.  He was running, faster than I ever could, on two metal prostheses. In an instant, my day changed. I sat at a traffic light as the man ran past. I caught up with him, but just barely, in my car going 35 miles an hour. His strength was incredible. I wanted to stop and ask him his story. How had he lost his legs? When did he get the prostheses? What was the recovery like? How? Why? When?

I slowed down, just so I could see him in my side mirror a bit longer. It was this incredible picture of strength in the midst of adversity. This guy wasn’t sitting at home whining, angry at life and at his circumstances. He was out on a beautiful fall day, using his artificial legs on his God-given body.

I thought of the article I had read earlier, and of the man who I had observed running. It all connected. Resilience, strength, moving past your circumstances and forging ahead with what you have.

Alain de Botten says that “A good half of the art of living is resilience.” I think about this and realize that I tend to focus on the trauma, on the hard, on the seemingly impossible. But those whom I’ve recently met, they focus on the strength. They know their stories, they are not in any sort of denial, but they also recognize that they survived their stories The trauma was significant, their resilience more so.

One of my closet friends is a gifted counselor. She specializes in kids and teens – those who are the most wounded in the population of children. She has seen and heard about more horror, evil, and trauma than I can imagine.  Yet she remains calm and gifted in her work. I asked her one time how she does it, how she continues to counsel those who are so hurt. She responded “In the worst of situations, I see and am amazed at the strength and resilience of the human spirit. And that reminds me over and over that we are made in the image of God.”

It reminded me again of how much I have to learn about resilience and hope on a Monday morning.