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 just finished watching the Apple TV show, Ted Lasso. For the uninitiated, this show is about an American football coach who is recruited to coach a failing British football team – the sport known as soccer in the United States. The show is delightful. While the language is salty and my eyes rolled at some of the innuendo (mainly because both feel lazy) you have this truly good man who is thrown into an impossible situation. He knows nothing about football that is not American (ie soccer),he knows nothing about the UK and their ardent and tumultous love of football, and he is clueless that he is being exploited and used. Despite that, he goes into the situation with optimistic joy. He has this ability to make everyone he meets feel a little bit better about life and about themselves. Even the most cynical character is changed by meeting Ted Lasso.
Very little in the show is predictable. While we humans love a story line of the underdog becoming a hero or the losing team suddenly winning, this is not a story that follows those feel good predictable narratives. Instead, it does something far better: It gives the viewer a sense that no matter how bad things get, it really is okay, that resilience is not developed by overcoming a flatline, but by coping with mountains, valleys, and flatlines. That’s the magic of the show.
A marriage fails, an aging soccer star hangs up his jersey, a scorned woman continues to be completely mocked by her ghastly ex-husband, and a team does not win. But despite all of that, the players, the coach, the assistant coach, the locker room assistant – even an arrogant journalist – all become better people.
The players learn to play as a team. The locker room assistant learns that his observations are worthwhile. The arrogant journalist learns to give someone grace instead of maligning them. The scorned ex-wife/owner of the team learns to apologize and really mean it.
It is remarkable.
The last episode of the season is called “The Hope that Kills You” and it is one of the only times when you see Ted Lasso angry. He’s angry about the phrase. His philosophy is not about winning, it’s about playing – specifically, playing well, playing as a team, and having fun. But this last game is against a significant rival and has far-reaching implications for the team. Over and over he’s told “Hope will kill you.” It’s a phrase that grew out of a downtrodden people and team; a phrase that spoke of hope deferred over and over and over until it was no longer viable. Hope is a disaster, or worse – it’s a fatality. This, for Ted Lasso, is unbearable. He can handle multiple insults coming from every side, he can handle outright and subtle ridicule, but he cannot bear watching people dismiss hope.
This is where Ted Lasso and the current state of the Pandemic world collide. Hope within this pandemic has died. It’s a disaster, or worse – it’s a fatality. We are daily given doses of why we can’t hope, why we must be cautious, why nothing will ever get back to “normal.”
It’s exhausting to have so many voices telling us that hope is going to kill us. And I for one, am done. Not only does the pessimism exhaust me, it defeats every thought, every dream, and every plan. It’s not just a disaster, it’s a fatality.
So I’m going to go all Ted Lasso on you – I’m going to loudly proclaim that hope is not what will kill you, it’s the opposite. No – hope won’t kill you – it will help you live.
Somehow in our world we give gold stars to sophisticated cynicism and educated skepticism. Those with hope are audaciously childish and need to be put in their place. So we put them in their place. We put them in their place with statistics and data, with charts and graphs, with “that will never work” and snide side glances. And if that doesn’t work, we put them in their place with mockery and ridicule. Just like the crowds in Ted Lasso.
He responds with unrelenting optimism, with tireless goodwill, with determined effort to see the good in each human being and situation he encounters, and it drives some people crazy. But he keeps it up.
I want to be like that. And if it’s put on my tombstone “Above all, she had Hope” then what a grace.
What a grace indeed.
“The living can’t quit living because the world has turned terrible…..They can’t because they don’t. The light that shines into darkness and never goes out calls them on into life. It calls them back again into the great room. It calls them into their bodies and into the world, into whatever the world will require. It calls them into work and pleasure, goodness and beauty, and the company of other loved ones.”
I have been thinking a lot about “goodness” lately – that word that speaks to the quality of being kind, virtuous, morally good. What does it mean to grow into goodness, to grow beyond the childlike attribute of being “good” and grow into someone whose character makes you think of true goodness.
As children, many of us hear the words “Be good” on a regular basis. “Be good for grandma!” “Be good to your brother!” It is said so often that it sometimes loses both its meaning and its power. Perhaps the importance of how we can mature into goodness is also lost along the way, lost in a world that doesn’t necessarily reward goodness beyond childhood. Instead, being savvy, smart, intellectual, and quick-tongued and quick penned are what gives us an edge in many spheres.
As I’ve thought about goodness, I came upon the story of Bulgaria’s Jews in World War 2 as relayed in a book I am reading called The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East. In this particular section, the author is telling the story of a Jewish family in Bulgaria who ended up in Palestine. Central to their survival in Bulgaria is the larger story of the Jews in Bulgaria.
A deportation order had been written that would deport all of Bulgaria’s 47,000 Jews. Unlike most of Europe, this planned deportation was never carried out. It wasn’t carried out because ordinary people and leaders found out about it. The Metropolitan and the Bishop of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church stood up for the Jews, approaching places of power and “imploring the king to demonstrate compassion by defending the right to freedom and human dignity of the Jews.” A member of parliament (Dimitar Peshev) publicly went against his government, gathering signatures and approaching the king stating that a deportation “would be be disastrous and bring ominous consequences upon the country.” Along with these, leaders of professional organizations and businesses, and ordinary people across the country stood by the Jewish population.
The deportation order was stopped temporarily in March of 1943, and then indefinitely in May. The Jewish population of the entire nation of Bulgaria did not die in gas chambers.
The author goes on to say this:
“None of this would have happened withough what the Bulgarian-French intellectual Tzvetan Todorov calls the ‘fragility of goodness’: the intricate, delicate, unforeseeable weave of human action and historical events”
Evil spreads quickly and virulently. Like a virus, it is hard to stop once it takes root. Todorov says that once it is introduced into public view, it spreads easily, whereas goodness is temporary, difficult, rare, fragile. And yet possible.
I have been thinking about this story and the idea of the fragility of goodness all week. Each person in Bulgaria who spoke up for the Jews, people who were their friends, their neighbors, their business partners, and their community members, is a chain in the link of goodness that ultimately preserved life and human dignity. While Tdorov speaks to the fragility and the “tenuous chain of events” that led to a stay in the deportation order, maybe it is not as tenuous as he supposes. Maybe what appeared tenuous and fragile was far stonger then he could imagine.
In my experience, goodness is far stronger than we know, far more powerful than it may appear. Its power is in its moral strength and its stubborn refusal to quit. That’s what I see, not only in this story, but in the small ways that goodness moves in, refusing to give up, determined that evil will not have the final word.
There are two areas where I am deeply challenged in all of this. How can I chase goodness the way I chase beauty in my daily life? When will I get to the point where I choose good without even thinking because it is so much a part of me? Secondly, Like many of you, I’ve increasingly felt disillusioned and discontent with social media. In its best form it serves as a connector, a friendship builder, a way to challenge, build bridges and encourage. In its other forms, it is none of that. It builds anger, doubt, mistrust, discouragement, discontent, and convinces us that we will never have what others have. Where is goodness in our online selves? Why do we usually head for the lowest denominator, convincing ourselves that it really doesn’t matter.
How can I chase goodness the way I chase beauty? When will I get to the point where I choose good without even thinking because it is so much a part of me? I don’t know. But it gives me hope when I think of ordinary people going about their lives in Bulgaria in 1943, deciding that they would speak up and out, never knowing that they would be a part of a chain called the fragility of goodness.
In all this, I am reminded of Christ, the author of goodness, the one who strengthens the fragility of goodness making it into a force that challenges and destroys evil, for it is he who daily calls me to chase after goodness, truth, and beauty.
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.
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
In the city of Cairo twin minarets stand tall, their silhouettes marked against a clear blue sky. They stand distinguishable from a thousand other minarets because of their fame as a city landmark. The minarets frame a gate still standing since the 11th century, the gate of Bab Zuweila. The minaret towers are so high that they were used to look out for enemy troops coming up to attack the city. Now, centuries later, the minarets of Bab Zuweila provide an unparalleled view of the old city of Cairo.
Climbing up the minarets is a journey. Around ancient steps you walk – farther and farther up, dizzy from the spiral and half frightened from the dark staircase. You make it to the first area where you go out and stand looking over the vast city of 18 million people. But you’re compelled to go farther. So on you go. And it gets more rickety and frightening, the centuries-old steps become even narrower and darker. You can see nothing and you are grasping on to the steps in front of you for fear of falling. But you keep going.
You arrive at the second level. And it’s even more magnificent than the first. To your right you see Al Azhar Park, significant for its large and beautiful green space in a city that has so little. In this 360 degree view you see vast numbers of minarets, you hear the call to prayer going off at split-second intervals across the city – a cacophony echoing around you. You see thousands of tiny people, walking about as they go from bazaar to mosque to bus. You see the tent makers bazaar and even from this distance, you can see the beautiful colors.
It’s the view from above. And it is glorious, breath-taking and conversation stopping. But you can go even farther. And once you get to the top, you don’t want to leave – because it took a while for you to get there and you’re so tired. And the stairs going down are still rickety and treacherous, they are still centuries old. But mostly you don’t want to go down because you want to continue to look out over the view, the view above the city, above the chaos. The view from above.
Lent is a time to step back and step up; a time to see the view from above.
That glorious, breath-taking, conversation stopping view. That view that sees the broken world that Jesus died for, the world that Jesus loves, knowing that each day that we fight this fight is worth it.
That view that remembers the words a Son called out to a Father “Why have you forsaken me?” A view that sees the grand Salvation narrative, taller and grander than a million minarets, a love that calls to us louder than a billion calls to prayer. The view where all ‘this’ will make sense, wrong will be made right, tears will turn to laughter, and sorrow to joy. We are invited into this view from above, a view where our story falls into the shadows for a time, and God’s great, redemptive narrative is remembered around the world. A story of mercy and grace, where good triumphs over evil and wrong is made right.
Whether we live in the shadows of a Hindu temple or near the courtyard of a grand cathedral; in a small village or are one of millions in a large, modern city, we know what it is to see poverty and suffering, crime and inequality, evil and difficult circumstances. We learn to love when it’s hard and others learn to love us when we’re hard. We know failure, we know pain, we know how human and flawed we are. Yet daily we experience the persistence of God’s redemptive process.
And today no matter where we are in the world, we are invited to remember this view from above.
“Finally, as if everything had not been felt enough, Jesus cries out in an agonizing moment in the most powerful words that we will read in the world: ‘My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?’ And I am utterly convinced that the reason he said those words was so that you and I would never have to say them again.” – Ravi Zacharias
Note: This piece has been adapted from a piece written for A Life Overseas.
The Whirr of fans. The chirp of crickets. Distant sounds of our Greek neighbors. The low hum of cars on Memorial Drive. Fading light filtered through lace curtains. Cats lolling lethargically on couches and cool, wooden floors. The cry of a baby.
These are the sounds of late summer. Each day ends a tad sooner, dusk coming and bringing with it the chill of what will soon be Autumn.
With that introduction I want to welcome you back to #Onlythegood – Volume Two. In this week’s edition we have articles and thoughts on home, using tragedy for good, eclipses, an #onlythegood picture, and additions from readers like you!
Please submit #onlythegood items for consideration to communicating blog (at) gmail dot com.
Rachel Pieh Jones writes a beautiful essay about home in the spaces. Rachel has lived overseas a long time and is raising her children between Djibouti and Kenya. She knows what it is to wander, sometimes longing but never lost. Her piece is beautiful and resonated deeply with me.
Here is an excerpt:
When I release my perspective of home and Djibouti and put on my daughter’s, when I find myself living in the holes and looking out from them, I see the back of God. I hear the voice of God declaring his goodness and glory.
I’ve read that many TCKs don’t consider a place home, but rather people. I love that. A home can burn, be flooded, be evacuated, sold. But TCKs find home in the space around people they love and in the space that people they love give to them.
For my TCK then, she finds home in the space to be her Kenyan self that drinks Chai and counts in shillings. Space to be her French self with the perfect accent and all the information you never wanted to know on King Louis the 14th. Space to be her American self that wears skinny jeans and craves adventure and laughs loud. Space to be her Djiboutian self that leaps into the Gulf of Tadjourah and savors the suffocating heat.
Home, for TCKs and their parents, is not a building or a place and probably not even a country. We won’t live here, or there, forever and they know that.
We live in the holes, the spaces, the in-between places, and we watch for the passing glory of God.
Parents who lost daughter to cancer now raise money for other families in need. This story comes from Columbus, Georgia where a couple has organized a foundation in honor of their six-year-old daughter who died of cancer in 2015. They know what it is like to have their lives completely change with a child’s diagnosis, so they want to help other parents navigate the tough journey. It’s a compelling picture of moving forward with compassion for others, despite your own tragedy.
Mom I’m Fine! Jonathan Kubben decided to quit his job and travel the world. He travels the world with a “Mom I’m Fine” sign. His mom was both skeptical and worried that she would lose contact with him. He decided to stay in contact through pictures with his sign prominently displayed in each picture. To date he has carried the sign with him to 22 countries and counting. And I have to say – I’m so envious of his mom! I wish my kids would do this when they’re away.
Imagine if we saw maps in fabric and tapestry instead of in lines and numbers? This map of Pakistan is so beautiful! It gives a complicated country a beautiful presence and for that, I love it.
Last week was full of news of the Eclipse. Annie Dillard’s essay called “Total Eclipse” was available to read for free for a few days from The Atlantic. Here is a quote that I loved:
We never looked back. It was a general vamoose, and an odd one, for when we left the hill, the sun was still partially eclipsed—a sight rare enough, and one which, in itself, we would probably have driven five hours to see. But enough is enough. One turns at last even from glory itself with a sigh of relief. From the depths of mystery, and even from the heights of splendor, we bounce back and hurry for the latitudes of home.
We climbed out of the car on Saturday night to a dark sea of shining stars. The night was clear and perfect, there was no light pollution to block our view. “Let’s lay on our backs and look at the stars!” said my younger daughter. The 25 year-old negotiated with the 57 year-old and we opted for chairs on an upstairs balcony. We settled in and gazed upward. All those glorious stars, light years from where we were…..
Emma Ahmed brought my attention to the group she works with in Pakistan – Ansaar Management Company. Their mission is to provide good quality, affordable homes for the hard-working people of Pakistan. Check out their Facebook page here.
Jo Hoyle sent this lovely story of a man who built a pool in his yard for neighborhood children to use. Lonely after his wife died, he decided to fill his yard and heart with noise. Take a look at the article here.
Readers, in light of the overabundance of tragic news from around the world, I am beginning a new project. Every Thursday I will be posting links to things that have happened in our world that are good; activities and people who bring humor, light, and justice to our world. I would love for you to participate.
Each week I hope to bring your attention to one picture and five different articles, essays, or events that speak to that which is good.
If you see something during the week that stood out to you, that made you smile and say “this is good!” then please send it on! I will feature it and attribute the content to you.
On Tuesday, high above the city on the 102nd floor of the One World Trade Center, 30 immigrants were sworn in as citizens of the United States. A judge who is the son of a refugee from Nazi Germany presided over the ceremony, the first ever to be held at this observatory.
“How fortunate we are to have you here, contributing your hopes, your aspirations, your skills, your heritages, your music, your culture, your literature, your food to the tapestry of this nation…The American story is your story.” Judge Katzmann, chief judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
Football (Soccer for Americans) star, Neymar, who made a huge move from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain earlier this month, is using his fame to promote Handicap International’s work giving dignity and empowering those who live with disabilities. Neymar will be acting as ambassador for Handicap International.
Neymar, wearing a T-shirt with “repair lives” written on the front, appeared in Switzerland on Tuesday, standing on top of a 39-foot wooden sculpture entitled “Broken Chair,” which the organisation said was “erected 20 years ago by Handicap International in front of the United Nations headquarters in Geneva to call for a ban on antipersonnel landmines.”
“I would like to begin by thanking you all for what you do for the least visible in the world, so they become more visible. I have to say that I am very pleased to be here and to be the new ambassador.”
It’s not surprise how much I love my adopted country, so I read this article about a British mountaineer with a smile. Vanessa O’Brien is a 52-year-old American-British mountaineer who recently scaled K-2, one of the highest mountains in the Himalayan range and a mountain that is more difficult to climb than Mount Everest. Only 400 people have made the climb, and Vanessa is the 20th woman to successfully reach the summit. She carried both Pakistani and America flags to the top. On Tuesday, she said that the warmth and love she received in Pakistan was matchless.
O’Brien told media in a news conference at a local hotel here that she had found Pakistani people loving and caring. “I love Pakistan, its people and will like to travel it again,”
Blogger’s note: If you would like to see some beautiful pictures of some of the mountains in Pakistan, take a look here.
I still remember writing the story in 2012 about Malala called 14-Year-Old Courage. As most of you know, Malala was only 14 when she was shot in the head and neck while leaving her school in the Swat Valley of Pakistan. And today the news comes that she is going to Oxford! It is an amazing accomplishment by an amazing young woman.
“Amid the rush of joy, disappointment or dashed expectations for the thousands of students across Britain receiving their A-level results, Ms. Yousafzai’s news carried special weight on social media. The author Emma Kennedy wrote simply, ‘Take that, Taliban.'”
We laugh in our family. A Lot. Nothing is beyond humor, there is little that is so sacred or sad that we can’t see a lighter side. In fact, I believe that laughter is a holy gift and I often wonder what it would be like to sit with Jesus and enjoy laughter – not at someone else’s expense, but just to laugh at the whimsy of life.
“The signs of stress are all too familiar: the quickening heartbeat, tense muscles and explosive reaction to something small. Avoiding situations that test your patience may be impossible, but it is possible to reduce stress accompanying these unpleasant events. The secret, say the experts, lies in one crucial art: finding the humor….Humor and laughter are not the same, explains Dr. Steven Sultanoff, Ph.D, clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Berkeley. ‘Humor is something that triggers laughter. Laughter is a physical response.’ Although research has found that laughter can lessen the effects of depression and reduce stress levels, focusing on humor is the best starting point. Looking for the humor in a moment, says Sultanoff, changes how we think, feel and process difficult situations.”
Lastly, I want end with a beautiful poem that speaks to our great need for healing.