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

The Space Between


The weak tea in a Styrofoam cup accompanied by two signature Delta airline ginger cookies tasted like a feast. I was sitting on a plane en route to Boston after a short layover in the Atlanta airport. We had boarded at 6:40 in the evening and at 9:30 we were still sitting on a plane that had lost its antiseptic smell long before and was now beginning to reek of dirty socks.

Anticipating smooth transitions and a quick flight I had not changed from my business grey dress and high shoes; shoes that magically transformed me from short to tall, demanding only a blister and achey feet as payment.

Everyone felt the tension when the flight attendant first announced that we would be delaying take-off. He “hoped we’d understand that it was not safe to travel in thunder and lightning”. 

We understood.

A couple of minutes after his announcement, rain of Noah’s kind began pouring down. The tiny oval-shaped window gave a limited view but it was enough to see pelting rain and lightning. The thunder was loud and ominous, adding its stamp of validity to the words of the flight attendant.

And we were enclosed in the space between. There was no where we could go and nothing we could do. We weren’t in the middle. In the middle we at least would have known we were going someplace. We were in the space between.  I was cold and achy and I was in the space between.

The spaces between. Spaces of insecurity and restlessness; spaces of tension and anxiety; spaces where we want to know the answers. Spaces where we ache from shoes too tall or circumstances too big.

The resigned, the practical, the matter of fact would tell me “There is nothing you can do, you just have to wait it out.” And I know this is sound advice – to a point.

But perhaps in the space between I am provided with the best possible context for praying.  Prayer for restlessness to be replaced with rest, tension with peace, anger with calm.

A crowded plane of people growing increasingly perturbed and anxious set the stage for this space between. My heart was the actor, my words a prayer. A prayer that in this space between I would remember there is One whose authority is over all space and time. And in remembering, rest.

Land Transformed

There is an area of land at the corner of Memorial Drive and the Boston University Bridge in Cambridge that reaches from the road and goes down hill to the Charles River.

The area is home to Canadian and white geese who sit or waddle in large numbers beside old railroad tracks, unafraid of the one freight train that comes by every evening. Farther on a small tunnel is covered from top to bottom with beautiful graffiti, city art that brightens the dark inside.

Since moving here four and a half years ago this piece of land has been covered in brambles. It’s known that the area is used by the homeless and those who find it a useful place to get high.  It’s not pretty and I wouldn’t go there after night fall.

In the past months we’ve watched the transformation process of the land. It is quite remarkable. Brambles have been torn down and replaced with tilled earth and fresh new plants, rust-colored pine chips carefully surrounding each plant. These are roped off allowing them to root and new grass is planted throughout this space.

A wide part beginning at the road, narrowing as it goes downhill, is covered with gravel marking walking space. It then slopes further toward the water allowing for easy access, letting the walker have a great view of the river and rowers gliding under the bridge.

It is becoming a lovely piece of land. It is being transformed. It has happened so slowly that I’m not sure when we began to notice it. We first wondered what had happened to the area – something was clearly changing. We wondered what the planners had in mind. We speculated and moaned a bit “Wouldn’t it be nice if they changed this area – made it into a nice park? I wonder why the city doesn’t do something” and off we would go on our walk, forgetting about it.

And then one day it began to emerge. A picture was forming on this bit of land. A picture that allowed us to begin imagining how lovely it was going to be. Slowly the picture, like an artist painting a landscape, is becoming clearer by the day.

It is land transformed. It will be beautiful in the summer and the geese are already enjoying the space as they trespass single file into the area.

This land transformed has been a life-transforming lesson for me. It is so obvious that there is change, but it hasn’t always been that way. We have bemoaned the look of this piece of land many times, not at all willing to believe the transformation would occur.

I am impatient when it comes to change and the transformation process. I don’t want to “see through a glass dimly”, I want to see with clear eyesight and I want it NOW. I don’t want to go through the pain of pruning and having brambles removed; the earth of my heart tilled. I don’t want it to be slow in me or anyone else. My annoyance with the park prior to its slow transformation is telling.

True confession? I hate needle point for this very reason. It’s so slow. I know the result is amazing and beautiful, but it takes too much time for tiny stitches from different colored thread to emerge on the cloth as a picture and I’m not willing to go through the process.

Human hearts and souls are like this land, heavy with brambles that make access difficult. Yet even as my heart sits, there is this Master Planner at work, slowly but confidently seeing something that most passers-by, unaware of the process, do not see. Until one day, brambles have been pruned, the beauty of transformation emerging from beneath and I realize it’s been happening all along.

In Praise of Green Space

On a trip to London this past March, I looked around one day and exclaimed to my children “Look at all this green space! London is so lucky to have this green space.” The remark came as a result of living in metropolitan areas with no green space and no funds for developing or maintaining green space. In a city like Cairo you realize very quickly that green space is a luxury. A luxury that only the wealthy can afford. Take for instance the Gezirah Club on the island of Zamalek in Cairo. Developed in the 1880’s this club was frequented by “Anglo-Egyptians” and British colonialists. By 1929 it had a tea pavilion, squash courts, polo grounds, golf and croquet. The Gezirah Sporting Club has massive amounts of green space, 150 beautiful acres and all available for a price.

Desperate for green space in the early 90’s and with five children living in a 5th floor apartment in Cairo, we had the luxury of joining this club. It was an expensive mistake. While it gave us occasional relief from crowds and traffic, joining was only the first cost. Once inside the gates, every activity cost more money. I am quite certain my children remember me arguing passionately in 1st year Arabic that I was not going to pay extra for my children to swim in the pool. (Incidentally I won.) With around forty percent of Egyptians living on two dollars a day, the green space of the Gezirah Sporting Club, or any other club in Cairo, is not affordable. One study found that the amount of green space in Cairo was about one foot print per person.

Al Azhar park, 74 acres of lawns, gardens and restaurants, was developed in a historic area of Cairo in recent years and has provided more availability to green space. The park was given as a gift to Cairo from the Aga Khan, a gift born from an “Islamic belief that we are all trustees of God’s creation and therefore must seek to leave the world a better place than it was before us” (from Tour Egypt). The gift was presented in 1984 during a conference on coping with Cairo’s growth but fully developed only in the past 10 years. Though built for Cairenes, even this park has a price tag.

It was this that I was thinking about when I commented on London’s beautiful green spaces – the likes of Kensington Park and Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park, St. James Park – too many parks to name. These spaces are beautiful, green, lush and free. A plane ride back to Boston and I was reminded that around the corner from where I work is Boston Common and bordering this, the Public Gardens. Beautiful, green, lush and free. As I walk in my neighborhood in Cambridge there is free green space on both banks of the Charles River. There are so many parks I haven’t seen them all. Within walking distance from my home are three parks, all varying in size, seating, and play space, but all free green space. This green space is a gift that is easy to take for granted.

My brother, Ed Brown, is someone who loves green space, loves to preserve green space as well as remind people that it is a gift and as such needs to be cared for. In his fifties he took a leap of faith (no, more like a sky dive of faith) and began an environmental missions organization called “Care of Creation”. It was a financial and career risk but it is his passion and a reflection of his faith in a God who creates. As is often true with siblings, we see them as our siblings, not as entrepreneurs or artists, visionaries or scholars. They are just Ed. Or Stan. Or Tom. Or Dan. They are my siblings. Because I am a sibling, I am slow to learn from the passion of my brother, but the more I look around, the more I see the benefit of caring in one place vs. the absence of care in another.

As our family has taken advantage of green space and beautiful beaches this summer with picnics in meadows and long walks watching the tide go out, I am grateful to my brother for increasing my awareness of green space, of outdoor beauty, of creation itself. And though I am a slow learner he has won me over in his passion to not only enjoy, but also care about green space and the world that God created.

Bloggers Note: Care of Creation (Madison, WI), has taken an active environmental role in the U.S as well as internationally. A seminar called Our Father’s World; Why Christians Should Care About the Environmental Crises, Care of Creation and led by Ed Brown helps the church learn about why caring for creation is important and a critical part of loving the world. Ed Brown has also written a book called “Our Father’s World: Mobilizing the Church to Care for Creation.”