“She Shouldn’t Have Worn White”

“My mom says she shouldn’t have worn white”. I looked at my friend perplexed. I was 16 and had never heard the phrase. She was referring to the western Christian custom (brought about by Queen Victoria in 1840) where a bride wears white, symbolic of virginity, of purity. She was specifically talking about a wedding I had been to — a wedding where the petite bride’s belly showed through the satin and lace of a wedding dress; a wedding where the bride was pregnant.

She said it again: “She shouldn’t have worn white” and shook her head. I, daughter of Baptist missionaries, was completely confused. The irony that She, with little church background, was educating me on symbols of purity and virginity was not lost, even at my young age.

They were words of condemnation. Words said in disgust. Words said in judgment.

Suddenly the bride’s gown didn’t seem as beautiful. Suddenly it was stained, all that satin and lace now the color of condemnation.

This conversation has stayed with me since that time. For there are many times where I have heard the words in my head that spoke judgment and condemnation about something I’ve done or said. The words “You shouldn’t have worn white”. 

You shouldn’t have worn white. You’re not qualified. Your past should exclude you. You’re not worthy. You’re an impostor. You’ll never be good enough. You shouldn’t have worn white.

Far worse is that in my mind I have used these words with others, deeming them unworthy. Casting judgment, the first stone, condemning the white until there was no beauty left.

The words made their way into a pocket of my soul unreached by Grace. Grace had to find the way to burrow in and replace words of condemnation with words of conviction. “You shouldn’t have worn white” had to be replaced with words of saving Grace. Words of truth to replace lies of condemnation.

For I have found that true conviction leads me to action while condemnation paralyzes, the paralysis expressed in the phrase “She shouldn’t have worn white”. Satin and lace tarnished, beauty gone, my heart closed to the beauty of Grace.

But conviction? Conviction opens wide the door and makes me long for loveliness, strive for transformation, open to the work of Grace.

“She shouldn’t have worn white” still casts its stain, for sticks and stones may break my bones but words can haunt forever. But words of Grace ultimately win this battle.

Wrinkled Beauty

Female beggar at Haji Ali in Mumbai, wearing a...

She’s Wrinkled Beauty. It’s as though all the years multiplied on her face into wrinkles expressing and describing each year; the hard years defined by pain and tears, the good years adorned with smiles and laughter, the mundane years demonstrated by stubborn “I will not quits”.

As I age I recognize more and more that beauty is about life lived well. Beauty is about wrinkles born of love, wrinkles born of living through the pain and hard stuff. Beauty is about a mind that is ever inquiring. Beauty is about a face where a million stories live in the lines of the eyes and marks by the smile. Beauty is about a heart that knows how to love, how to forgive, how to live.  Beauty is about a faith that sustains and can be seen when looking at the eyes, reflections of the soul. Beauty is about wisdom.

Beauty must be earned. Earned through the wrinkles, earned through the years. 

Young women, with their fresh faces, perfect teeth, and ability to wear whatever they want may be pretty, stunning even…but beauty? Beauty must be earned.

And this wrinkled beauty? She’s earned it!

But I have to ask myself – if I truly believe she is wrinkled beauty – why do I spend so much money on face cream? 

And God Said “Tonight I’ll Give Them….Chartreuse”

By the time we reached our favorite rocks the sun was setting over the ocean. The colors looked as if all the blue, purple, green and gold had spilled out across a canvas, blended yet distinct, in a crash of colors. Standing on the rocks we stared, we marveled. There is no way man could create such beauty.

My husband shook his head and looking toward the ocean said “And God said ‘Tonight I’ll give them….. Chartreuse'” We both laughed. It was just like that. As if God had come out with his brushes and in broad strokes painted the sky just for us, deciding on colors at the last minute to surprise and delight.

Of all the analogies that we try to use to help our finite peanut-sized brains grasp the character and person of God, God as artist is my favorite.

An artist that delights in the work of their hands, that paints with broad sweeps and draws with the infinite detail of pen and ink; that uses clay one day, shaping it into pitchers and bowls, and oil the next; that reaches into a never-ending box of brushes and artist supplies and comes up with the newest creative project.

And the grateful audience sits back in awe. Only we aren’t just an audience – we are participants in his creative process, his thoughtful design. We not only long for and appreciate beauty, we love to create it. Beauty nourishes the soul and revives the spirit.

When I doubt the goodness of God I have only to think of the ocean, the waves and the tonight-I’ll-give-them-chartreuse sky.

“Art is as much a necessity for man as eating and drinking. The need for beauty and creation embodying it is inseparable from man, and without it man would perhaps have refused to live in the world. Man craves it, finds and accepts beauty without any conditions just because it is beauty and worships it with veneration…. and it is perhaps in this that the greatest secret of creative art lies, namely that the image of beauty created by art at once becomes something to be worshipped without any conditions…. The need for beauty is felt more strongly when men are at variance with their reality, in a state of disharmony, in conflict, that is to say, when they are most of all alive.” Dostoevsky 

Your Manicure Will Never be the Same – World Refugee Day

Today is World Refugee Day. I had forgotten and did a post on how my life is like a box of crayons. The irony of this hit me.

My life is like crayons because of privilege and choice. A refugee can’t even use that analogy because there is no choice. They leave because they have to. 43 million people leave their homes and countries and begin the arduous process of rebuilding.

Today I have a passport and a home, I have friends and family who have never had to flee any country, I have children who are safe and clothed and when I birthed them I had good prenatal care, ensuring as healthy a start as possible.

Today I get up and eat a healthy breakfast, walk to pick up a rental car and head off to a job that pays well. All this is what the refugee longs for and looks for. In honor of world refugee day I am taking down the post on my “Crayon Box” life and posting on a community that through hard work and resilience has made this transition and built a new life. Thank you for reading!

What do immigrant dreams and Hollywood have to do with your manicure? Turns out – almost everything!

Whether the north shore of Boston, Phoenix, or Cambridge, when I go get a manicure or pedicure I am met at the door by savvy, professional Vietnamese women.

An example of a French Manicure, acrylic nails...

They usher me in and authoritatively say“Pick your color!” I am suddenly no longer in control; instead it’s Linh or Mai or Minh who will dictate where I sit, where I stand and when I’ll leave. They know their business and they do it well.

Like any immigrant story, the story of Vietnamese and nail salons is one of ingenuity, resilience and hard work. It also has the fairytale element of a movie star and a dream.

It begins with Tippi Hedren, an actress best known for her roles in Alfred Hitchcock films. Beyond her stage career Tippi was committed to international relief. She was working with Food for the Hungry in a refugee camp in California when several women, refugees from Vietnam, admired her manicure. An idea was borne that she brought to her manicurist: Could the manicurist come to the camp on weekends and teach women this skill?

She could and she did. Through this seemingly small act, a business and dream was born. The skill set allowed for employment when families were desperate for income and within a short time Vietnamese refugees had both started and captured the market of affordable nail care. Until Tippi Hedron and the women  taught by her manicurist came onto the scene, manicures were an unaffordable luxury, limited only to those who had wealth and time.

A school in California called the Advance Beauty College, teaching manicuring, cosmetology and massage, has graduated over 25,000 students. Clients looking for a bargain benefit from the discounts offered as students work on their nails, able to  clock in the hours needed for a license from the state. While not only Vietnamese attend, they make up the largest percentage of students in the school profile.

It is a classic case study on the igenuity of refugees and immigrants. As I think about nail salons, looked on by most as merely a “service” industry, I am amazed and humbled at their skill, business savvy and ability to build a small empire. Indeed, my manicures will never be the same.

It’s also a good example of the principles of community development. Too often instead of teaching skills and working alongside a community, outsiders dictate to the community what they should do and how they should do it. Taking advantage of an opportunity and learning this skill gave a displaced refugee community a livelihood and a way to start over after dramatic and traumatic events changed their lives. All of this was focused toward building a new life and a future. Would that all could find their niche spots as they ride the waves of grief, loss and renewal in a new world.


Shouts of Pain and Whispers of Redemption

“Is this place always going to cause pain?” This was the question I asked myself as I stared at the ocean from my car window.

I had come to this place because I had an extra hour of time before meeting a friend. It is a place I know well. And it is beautiful. On this day a pristine deep blue ocean reflected a softer blue, cloudless sky. There was a spring breeze and sail boats, newly launched after the winter, were anchored in the harbor. Benches lined the rocky shore, perfect to sit on and stare. You could stare all day at this beauty. A park with a gazebo was to my back, ocean at my front, heart was in the pit of my stomach.

“Why after all these years do I still feel pain?” I first discovered the park when we had moved to the area after living for over ten years overseas. I remember coming with a one year old and a four year old. They happily played on swing sets, slides and other playground equipment while I grieved a life gone. I felt a certain level of peace at this park when I brought them to play, probably because of the beauty, but it was still a place of grief.

As I revisited the park a couple of weeks ago it was like my grief had been buried there, ready to resurface as soon as I returned. It felt so profoundly sad. Tears filled my eyes. Like waves crashing on shore during a hurricane, it shouted of pain.

Why, oh why can’t I heal from this place? From that time? That time of disconnect and feeling ‘other’; that time of being told to pull up my bootstraps when I didn’t even have any boots; that time of trying so hard only to face rejection.

I got out of my car and walked towards the ocean, holding my arms close to my body for protection rather than cold. It was as if by doing so I could shield my heart just a little from pain I didn’t want to feel. I stared out at the ocean willing the beauty to wipe away the pain.

The place shouted hurt and only whispered healing. The place shouted defeat and only whispered hope. The place shouted pain, the beauty whispered redemption;

I don’t know how long I stood, completely lost in memories. A sigh woke me to my present and I realized I had someplace to be, someone to see.

And I had no answers.

I stood for a few minutes longer and realized that there is strength and healing in even a soft whisper of redemption. It was as though my questions were whispered out to sea with the waves. A whisper was enough. Enough to let me know it was okay to have no answers, okay to let the beauty wash over my memories and my heart, and with it to believe that pain is never wasted.

Recently someone with far fewer years than I wrote to me. As she worked through her grief in written words, she said this “I don’t understand the mystery of how Heaven and Hell can be involved in the same pain we face as humans, but they can for what Satan intends for harm, God uses for good. And I just have to trust that even when I cannot see it.”

Heaven and Hell involved in the same pain. These words of mystery shouted of redemption, for Hell may be strong but Heaven is stronger still.





Beauty in Hard Spaces – A Porch Garden in the City

I live in a place where houses are close, apartments are closer and green space is limited. I love where I live, but like Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden sometimes I want to say “Please Sir, may I have a bit of earth?”. Though I love the city, there is a desire to have beauty from nature color my world.

People more creative than I, namely my Chinese neighbor, develop garden spots in the most unlikely places, providing beauty not only for themselves, but for any stranger that happens to pass by. The first year we lived here I would look longingly across the street at So’s porch, so full of flowers and plants I could hardly see the front door.

This year it’s our turn. Geraniums, Impatiens, petunias and a lot of flowers that shall remain nameless (I don’t know their names) are planted in pots of various shapes and sizes. A hanging plant graces the porch pillar and a large bowl-shaped container of pansies is on an old chair. Set side by side at the window  like two mismatched guards are a shefflera and a pot full of varying types of flowers, forcing all who enter to stop and enjoy.

Below the porch a postage stamp yard, tilled by my husband, boasts of newly planted annuals and perennials.

I love this. I feel like I could fill every bit of space with flowering plants and still want more. It transforms an old porch worn from harsh winters, the peeling paint and scuffed steps hardly noticeable as the human eye moves beyond those realities to something more compelling.

Beauty in hard spaces. Those who have lived or visited in poor areas of the world know that it is possible to see beauty in places you least expect. There is often an initial shock and disbelief that people actually live in the poverty that surrounds you, but once that shock has settled into a determination to face reality, you notice the quilt made of scraps of fabric that others had discarded, brightly colored and sewn with little stitches providing beauty in a mud hut. You suddenly realize that the woman you are speaking with is wearing clothes thrown away by the rich, only to be rescued by the artistry of needle work, transforming old and torn into beautiful and bright. And if you’re eyesight really heals, you might even see the single rose, surviving against all odds, in a slum.

And as I look at our garden, our small, seemingly inconsequential garden, I am left without doubt that God, the “beauty for ashes” God, delights in porch gardens in the city, in beauty in hard spaces and places.

Where have you seen beauty in hard places and spaces, beauty where you least expect it? 

"Please Sir...May I have a bit of earth?" Before