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.

For Your Aching Heart – On Blessing & Beauty

It’s been a week. I heard of the death of Dr. Paul Farmer at the beginning of the week and the news of the invasion of Ukraine at the end. This did not include my own struggles and sorrows, made seemingly more difficult in the winter season. A conflict with a hospital, a work struggle, and feeling dismissed at multiple levels had me talking through tears in the presence of a gifted counselor.

I know what most of us are seeing. We are scrolling through news and social media where yellow and blue colors light up our feed. Many of us are oceans and continents away from conflict, yet we feel the heavy weight of invading injustice.

It was not so long ago when our world posted the same messages for Afghanistan; when feeds filled with the Afghan flag and images of fleeing Afghans. And yet, and I think it’s important to remember this, soon the crisis died for most.

It is good to be aware of world events. It is good to be willing to take on prayer for nations and leaders. Yet, there’s a real danger to this kind of emotion derailing us and taking us away from what is in our midst, for giving us license to ignore those things that we do have some control over. Might I suggest that it’s easier for us to post passionate prayers for a country far away than it is for us to love our neighbor with different political views? It was certainly easier for me to bemoan the evil of a world leader than confess the darkness in my own heart that led to yelling at both a nurse and a doctor. And yet, truly respecting their work and loving them is a small but significant step toward peace-building.

In the midst of a broken world’s chaos and turmoil, I continue to believe that one of the best antidotes is seeking blessing and beauty.

A volume of John O’Donohue’s To Bless the Space Between Us sits on the bedside stand in our guest room. I looked at the book this morning in an effort to clear my mind and seek poetic words of beauty. In a passage on page 215, there is a section called “Blessing our World Now.”

“Sometimes when we look out, the world seems so dark. War, violence, hunger, and misery seem to abound. This makes us anxious and helpless. What can I do in my private little corner of life that could have any effect on the march of world events. The usual answer is: nothing….yet the world is not decided by action alone. It is decided more by consciousness and spirit; they are the secret sources of all action and behavior….When you give in to helplessness, you collude with despair and add to it. When you take back your power and choose to see possibilities for healing and transformation, your creativity awakens and flows to become an active force of renewal and encouragement in the world. In this way, even in your own hidden life, you can become a powerful agent of transformation in a broken, darkened world.”

As I read and reflected on this I began to think of images of healing and transformation, of blessing and beauty.

The image of Ukrainians gathered on their knees on the snow covered ground, in prayer for safety and peace; a gifted physician taking the time to hear my anger and walk me into greater understanding and resolution; a cardinal in a snow covered tree; facilitating a retreat with staff who work all day with those at the farthest margins of our city; talking through what helps give us perspective with a colleague; laughing with a friend; and facing my own weakness with an eye toward the One who is strong. All of these are compelling pieces of blessing and beauty.

I don’t know what chaos holds your heart today, but I do know that living in the chaos of despair never adds to world peace. I know, because I’ve tried it. Just as blood, tired from traveling through our bodies arrives back into the heart to be replenished with oxygen and go back again, so do our heart’s emotions need to be replenished with hope, beauty, and blessing. When our hearts are heavy with grief it is difficult to see beyond the grief. It takes courage to step out of despair and connect with the life around us, the life we’ve been given, willing to be filled with the oxygen of beauty and blessing.

If your heart and soul are weary and in despair, I offer you the antidotes of blessing and beauty.

Prayer for Equilibrium

Like the joy of the sea coming home to shore, May the relief of laughter rinse through your soul.

As the wind loves to call things to dance, May your gravity be lightened by grace.

Like the dignity of moonlight restoring the earth, May your thoughts incline with reverence and respect.

May your prayer of listening deepen enough, To hear in the depths the laughter of God.

Verses from The Space Between Us

Prayer for Ukraine and our world from Psalm 46 and words from my nephew:

“Offering prayer in the midst of chaos can seem trivial and unhelpful. I get sick of calls for thoughts and prayers when what’s needed is action. Yet today I woke up to this image…Ukrainians gathering outdoors in February (!) to pray, even as the shells begin to fly. I’m reminded of the solidarity that prayer gives us, both with one another, as well as with the One who put the stars in the sky, yet knows us by name. I’m reminded that prayer is far from trivial. I will pray for the people of Ukraine, as well as for those around the world whose actions may be helpful toward ending this. May they know courage, and may we find the courage to support them.”

“He makes wars cease
    to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow  and shatters the spear;
    he burns the shields with fire.
He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth.”

The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.” -Psalm 46

Today, may your heart be strengthened through blessing and beauty.

On Paying Attention

It’s a late summer evening as I walk down the hill toward Boston Harbor. Jupiter is shining high in the sky, as bright as the street lamp in front of me, yet millions of miles away.

I’m learning to pay attention.

In a recent interaction online, I read these: “Does anyone else feel like they’re in constant transition mode? What helps you keep a good attitude amidst all the changes?”

I responded with these words: “What helps me keep a good attitude? Paying attention. Paying attention to the feelings – they are valid, they are important. Don’t dismiss them for the “this world is not my home” mantra. Pay attention to your surroundings, buy the flowers, buy the bookshelf even if you only use it for six months. Buy the tapestries and beauties from your host country. Pay attention – to beauty and chasing beauty. Jesus cares about place and space. He was born into time and space so of course it is important. That’s my advice from a longing heart living in my 34th house.”

While the post was clearly on transition and temporary home, it got me thinking about paying attention. I thought I knew how to pay attention. I thought I was good at it, but I realize that I’ve needed to be retaught.

With my focus on slow worrying and quick distractions, I’ve forgotten how to pay attention.

My need to pay attention begins with my surroundings. The beauty, the broken, the city sounds and streets, the mid-September blooms, the shorter days. Mornings with their chill, middays with the sun, and cool dusk scented with oncoming Autumn (and let’s be honest, also pot because we are in the city and it is now a legal drug.) Paying attention to the physical world around me is a start.

I then move to the people around me – family, neighbors, colleagues, friends both near and far. What do I really know about their lives? Their hopes? Their dreams?

But in all that, I neglect an important piece of paying attention – the ways I respond, my irrational anger when certain things happen, my heart’s longing. It’s an ironic paradox that the more I ignore or neglect these things, the more they overtake my life and time.

And so I’m paying attention. I’m paying attention to the anger – what’s behind it? I’m paying attention to the longing – why after all this time, after 34 houses, does it suddenly feel critically important? I’m paying attention to my responses – are they reflecting something bigger that’s going on? What do I need to do to heal, to grow, to move forward?

Above all I’m paying attention to God. Do I really respond as one who is beloved by God? Do I lift my heart to him each day, asking him to tell me who I am instead of bending toward others? Am I dealing with the same things that I’ve been dealing with for years, with no change?

I’m not sure of all the answers to those, but I’m paying attention so I can learn.

And, as the gentle teacher that he is, God’s spirit comforts me through beauty and grace, considering the lilies and late blooms, basking in late summer, and learning yet again that he is good.

A Slice of Life – Kurdistan: Volume 3

I woke up this morning to bright sunshine creating shadows on the walls. It is almost spring in Kurdistan. While indoors it is still brutally cold because of concrete buildings and lack of insulation, all of nature is breathing signs of spring. From goslings to buds on trees, life is bursting forth.

We have heard that March is a spectacular month in Kurdistan. It is a month long celebration of life and the new year. Nowruz (Persian and Kurdish New Year) is celebrated on the 21st of the month and we have heard that people picnic both that day and all the days surrounding the celebration. Winter has felt long here, even without snow. The rains come and seep into your bones and through cracks in the walls so that your body and your environment are constantly wet. It’s a bit like monsoons in Pakistan. With the dryer, warmer weather all of life feels easier.

A Daughter Visits…

Our younger daughter visited us this past week and in her presence we felt once again the joy of belonging. We rearranged our schedules to maximize our short time together and let her experience as much as possible.

We visited Darband and looked out onto a brilliant blue lake with snow capped mountains in the distance. We hiked up a small mountain behind the university and took in the expansive views of the area. But the highlight was a friend driving us up a steep mountain road where hairpin turns and switchbacks had us gasping and wondering if we were all going to die. We didn’t die and as we stopped to take in our surroundings it was all worth it. The view from above was magnificent. The sun was setting and the entire area was bathed in shades of fuchsia, gold, orange, blue, and grey. We could see where the lake detoured into smaller pools and rivers. We saw mountains beyond mountains and hills beyond hills. Almond trees dotted the landscape, their small pink blossoms whispering the hope of spring. Kurdistan’s beauty was on full display as if to say “I’m so much more than people realize!”

And it is.

In addition we were invited into homes of dear friends who showed Stefanie the warmth and hospitality we have been bragging about since we arrived in Kurdistan. It was an incredible gift to have her here with us and to show her why we love Kurdistan so much.

Beauty & Kindness of the People,
Stunning Landscape,
Generous Hospitality

There are times when I feel like our life resembles a National Geographic magazine article. Surrounded by adventure, beauty, and uncommon experiences as compared to the Western world, we find that each day holds a story or ten. But far more than that, what I long to communicate from our time here it is the beauty and kindness of the people, the stunning landscape, and the generous hospitality that is shown to us at every turn. I long to challenge stereotypes and show people how much they miss when they are locked into media perceptions. This is why these slice of life posts are so important. They are read all over the world and I can only pray and hope that my small words will make a difference.

But my words are inadequate to describe the beauty that we have seen, so I will leave you with pictures. Enjoy and as you look at them, think of Kurdistan.

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Defying the Definition of Beauty

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I see her when I go to get coffee on a rainy afternoon. In a busy, city coffee shop, you see a lot of things. Black suited business people, musicians, law students, homeless, and tourists are just a few of those who walk in during the day. She is right in front of me with someone who could have been a friend or a sister. Both of them petite, with dark, straight hair. When they turn around, I see the difference.

One of them is beautiful by traditional standards of beauty. The other? Her face is a map of burnt skin and scar tissue. I know immediately that she is a victim of an acid attack. It would seem that the attackers won; that their actions permanently disfigured the woman they set out to punish.

On the morning of December 23, 2014, as a 30-year-old doctor was riding to work in New Delhi, two men on a motorcycle intercepted her scooter. While one grabbed her handbag, another sprayed the contents of a syringe at her face. It was filled with acid. The liquid quickly ate through her skin and facial tissue. She is currently undergoing treatment and may lose the sight in one eye.*

Beauty is an odd thing. We are told it is in the eyes of the beholder, even as we are accosted by subliminal advertising that assaults us through print and picture, telling us what we are supposed to think, what our eyes are supposed to behold as beautiful. We end up victims of a culture that defines beauty for us and dares us to defy that definition. We see ourselves through society’s eyes, our identity too often molded by the shape of our nose, the size of our hips, the alignment of our teeth.

When acid is thrown on a person’s face, the eyelids and lips may burn off completely. The nose may melt, closing the nostrils, and the ears shrivel up. Skin and bone on the skull, forehead, cheeks and chin may dissolve. When the acid splashes or drips over the neck, chest, back, arms or legs, it burns every inch of the skin it touches.*

But the woman I see defies that definition. Daily, she faces a visual world, a world that tells us what beauty is, and what it isn’t. But she is not staying at home, she is out in this world, defying it to define her, defying this world to see beyond traditional beauty to a new kind of beauty that shines from these faces the world calls scarred. Her scars symbolize the beauty of resilience; the beauty of strength; the beauty of survival. Her scars mean she defeated her enemy; she lives on, loved by her friends and family.

I walk away from the shop, hardly tasting the strong roast that I looked forward to. I am lost in thought over beauty: What it is, and what it isn’t. I feel society’s definition leering at me, daring me to challenge her notion of beauty. I suddenly catch a glimpse of my reflection in a shop window and, just like that, I panic. For my lipstick, so carefully applied that morning, has faded.

*[Source – Indian Acid Attack Victims Share Their Stories]

Click here for more information on acid attacks.

On Being Miss Rumphius and Robynn Bliss

 

lupines by Janet Wachter

Today Robynn is taking a day off – I dedicate this post to her and talk about why she’s taking today off at the end! 

One of my favorite children’s books is Miss Rumphius. 

The book begins with a little girl named Alice on a grandfather’s lap. There she would sit listening to exciting stories of faraway places. She would listen and listen and then say to her grandfather “When I grow up, I too will go to faraway places, and when I grow old, I too will live beside the sea.”

Her grandfather says ““That is all very well, little Alice”….“but there is a third thing you must do…You must do something to make the world more beautiful.”

“All right” says Alice. So Alice becomes a librarian – A librarian named Miss Rumphius. As a librarian she helped children find books that told them all about far away places. When she retired she decided to travel herself to see some of those far away places she had only visited through books. She travels and travels, gets tired, and finally ends up in a small cottage by the sea. But she still hasn’t figured out what to do to make the world a more beautiful place. Miss Rumphius ends up with a terrible back ache and has to have complete bed rest. It’s while laying in her bed that she knows what she wants to do to make the world a more beautiful place: she will plant lupine seeds. That way lupines will grow all over the country side.

So when Miss Rumphius is well again that’s what she does. She walks all over spreading lupine seeds. And the next year the ground is covered with beautiful lupines. She is now little and old and people call her the “lupine lady.”

The book ends delightfully with Miss Rumphius telling her nieces and nephews stories about far away places. And when they say they too want to go live in far away places and have houses by the sea she says to them exactly what her grandfather said to her:

“That is all very well….”but there is a third thing you must do…You must do something to make the world more beautiful.”

The book is based on the author’s great-aunt. It is a delightful read no matter what age you are and should be on every child’s bookshelf.

Today I was reminded of this beautiful book when my friend Janet, an amazing photographer, posted pictures of beautiful lupines. On this Friday the idea of lupines and making the world a more beautiful place makes me smile. And it makes me think of Robynn who is taking this week off as she transforms a house that is not beautiful into a place that is beautiful and warm, a place where she can love her family and care for her mother-in-law. And I love this. I love that she is transforming a house. I love that the ugly mural on a wall is being covered with fresh paint. I love that she is in the business of helping to transform lives and souls. 

So here’s to you on your day off Robynn! Keep on making the world a more beautiful place — through your writing which we get to enjoy weekly, through transforming your house, and for being a person used to transform souls. We love you.

Today how can you make the world a more beautiful place? 

Picture Credit: Janet Wachter who is also making the world a more beautiful place. Thank you Janet!

Readers – stay tuned for a book giveaway next week! 

 *Check out the book Between Worlds:Essays on Culture and Belonging – Available at Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon GermanyBarnes & Noble!

 

Beyond the Window at Fish’s Eddy

Those of you who are regular readers of Communicating Across Boundaries know that we go from provocative to poignant to profound quickly in any given week. This week is no exception — today we move away from TCK’s into a totally different arena with more glimpses of New York City in this post by Stef. 

I’ve now lived in New York City for two years. In urban settings beauty doesn’t always come naturally – you have to look for it. Sometimes it comes in the form of a building, other times through a shop window.

For months I passed by one of these shop windows. I would peek into the window on my way to Union Square and promise myself that one day, when I wasn’t in a hurry, I would stop in. That shop is Fish’s Eddy.

When my parents came to visit me for Thanksgiving, I finally got a real peek at the store I was so fond of.

I went beyond the window.

Fish’s Eddy is a gorgeous pottery store. Gorgeous doesn’t begin to describe it. Every inch is covered with jars, plates, bowls, cups, platters, etc. The shapes, colors, and textures are charming in every way. There are plates with crossword puzzles on them, platters with bridges spanning the length of the dish, coasters in the shape of artist’s palettes, and more. The pictures below don’t do the store justice, but let’s just say my future home will be full of Fish’s Eddy dishware.

It’s also a reminder that sometimes I need to slow down to see what’s beyond the window. 

Take a look at the wonder of Fish’s Eddy through these pictures.

Fish's Eddy - cups, teapots Fish's Eddy - Hands Fish's Eddy - hanging cups Fish's Eddy - Vintage China Fish's Eddy -Close up of cups