Garden of the Spirit

A Love Story: Fianna and Samuel

Fianna and Samuel were my grandparents, and I’ve inherited a boxful of letters that tell their love story. It’s a simple story from a century ago, but their joy and their sorrow is timeless, a tale of love and faith in the midst of pain, a tale for today.

Their romance began in college. There they saw each other daily in classes and clubs, at chapel and in the dining room. She was slender and graceful with a quick smile, and he was handsome with dark curly hair. With similar family backgrounds, a similar sense of fun, and a shared religious commitment, they were well-matched. Samuel reflected later how their union was “the result of much prayer and careful thinking.

Soon after Samuel finished college, they married and began their life together. A year later a baby boy arrived, and, before long, he had a little sister. Samuel worked in a bank and farmed while Fianna cared for the children and managed home, garden, and chickens. Contentment and happiness filled their home.

Then came the hard times. Fianna became mysteriously ill. She coughed a lot, had a persistent fever, and lacked energy to care for the children or do her work. The doctor called it pleurisy and advised rest, but she didn’t improve. Eventually they consulted another physician and discovered the truth.

Fianna’s trouble was one of the world’s oldest killers: tuberculosis. In the early 1900’s there was no cure or effective treatment. A few people survived though, and that kept hope alive for others. (Even with today’s antibiotics, this disease yearly kills a million and a half.)

Fianna and Samuel decided that she’d go to White Haven Tuberculosis Sanatorium, an isolated mountain facility far from their home. There, with rest and a special diet, she might have a chance. The regimen there (sleeping on the balcony in the snow! raw eggs and milk!) and the life among strangers was hard for Fianna. She remained cheerful, but she longed for her family. For Samuel, life at home without his beloved was painfully lonely.

Samuel’s first visit was at Christmastime. He brought gifts, their little son, and all his love. What joy it was to be together again! Although Samuel thought Fianna looked better, the doctors were not encouraging. Filled with both fear and hope, Samuel turned to prayer. “I walked out one day and back of the Sanatorium I found a path leading to the top of the mountain which overlooks the highest hills far and wide. When I came to the top, the occasion and quietude moved me to kneel on the pure snow and pray earnestly for the recovery of her who brought so much sunshine in my life. What more can I do than to pray, Lord I believe help thou mine unbelief.

Fianna remained at the Sanatorium for three months, but her health steadily declined. Finally, the doctors told Samuel she would not recover. They encouraged him to take her home where she could be cared for by her family and surrounded by a community that knew and loved her.

Together Samuel and Fianna prepared for the long separation. They discussed how Samuel’s life would unfold without her. “She took much interest in my and the children’s future.”

Fianna’s gentle gratitude for the care she received and Samuel’s tender steadiness as he cared for her touched those around them. After a house call one day, her family doctor spoke about “her cheerful spirit” that continued in the midst of pain. Fianna’s sister wrote that “a day before she died, she said to me, “If there is an ideal home ours was one.

Fianna’s last words were to Samuel. “I am going to my beautiful heavenly home.” He responded that he and the children would also come sometime, and Fianna whispered, “I will wait for you inside the gates.

In The Prophet, poet Kahil Gibran wrote, “Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.” But I say unto you, they are inseparable.” May we, like Fianna and Samuel, face our grief and pain with courage and steadfastness, recognizing such times are woven into the tapestry of our lives as surely as is joy. May we trust, as Samuel wrote, “our God who can see both the sunshine and the shadows.”

NOTE: Moved by the joy and sorrow I found in my grandparents’ letters, I have written their story into a book, Fianna’s Story. It is available from Masthof Press or through Amazon. Click here to learn about it.

Lives That Are Linked

Life is short. We don’t have much time to gladden the hearts of those who walk this way with us. So, be swift to love and make haste to be kind. Henri-Frederic Ariel

Fifty years ago I was fresh out of college and learning to teach English to rooms full of ninth graders. My challenge was to interest almost 150 teenagers in books and reading, to teach them spelling and grammar, and how to write an essay. Some students were enthusiastic, especially when we borrowed play swords and acted out famous scenes from Romeo and Juliet. Others, I think, simply waited for the bell to ring.

I’ve forgotten most of the faces, but a few rise before me now, and I can even remember where they sat. Mary, for example, sat in the first row on the right. She dressed plainly and wore her dark hair braided and pinned on her head. A Japanese American, she was one of the few students with non-European ancestry. I remember Mary’s smile and friendliness, and how she sometimes hung out in my classroom after school had ended. She was an excellent writer and responded thoughtfully during class.

I moved away after a couple years and left my teaching job. I never lost Mary though. Intermittently through the years, we’ve been in touch. I met with her when she was editing a magazine. Then I heard she had moved west and was passionately engaged in anti-war activism through art and poetry. She hosted music programs on public radio and found her home in Albuquerque’s art world. I read the poems she posted on her website. Once she told me about helping lost street kids rebuild their lives. Reclaiming her Japanese heritage, Mary continued to develop her strong sense of self and her calling to poetry.

And then, almost ten years ago, Mary asked if she could dedicate her first published book of poetry to me. Yes! What an honor! When the book arrived, I opened it eagerly. Under my name was written “my ninth grade English teacher who saved my life.” I did what??

Turning to Mary for an answer, I learned of the other side of her ninth grade life. Behind the gifted writing and her ready smile lay a home life of religious fundamentalism and white supremacy, a place of cruel abuse from which she escaped as soon as she could. I had seen the surface and never guessed what lay beneath. How did I save her life when I was just figuring out how to live my own?

Affirming her gift for writing, enjoying her conversation after class, sending her a postcard from England–these were small things, not life-saving actions. But Mary recounted another small event, one that I don’t remember. Once she was hanging out in my room after school when a couple of the big guys came swaggering in to see me. As she was leaving, they made a disparaging joke about her. Mary remembers me fiercely telling them: You just wait. Mary is the kind of person who is going to change the world!

I wish I remembered saying that, but it doesn’t matter. The only person who needed to remember was Mary, and she did. Her life has been about changing the world, using her gifts and her energy, her compassion and her wisdom to make the world better.

Mary is my teacher now. What has she taught me? I’ve learned that our lives are profoundly linked to others, and the ripples from our small actions and words extend further than we would ever expect. We are never a neutral presence in another’s life. We can do harm, even through ignoring another. (Whose raised hand gets recognized in the classroom?) Or we can be attentive and experience the other as an equal, as another child of God. We may not always save a life, but we always have an influence.

Mary has taught me that gratitude travels two ways. I may have saved Mary’s life through means I will never understand, but Mary has deeply blessed my life by inviting me to participate in hers. In the end, we have both given, and we have both received.

Last week I heard from Mary again. She has been named Poet Laureate for the city of Albuquerque, and she invited me to watch the online ceremony. I watched, I remembered, and I filled with gratitude.

       from I am a poet
i am a poet to reclaim humanity from the ravages of war
not to count the casualties but to heal them

i am a poet and my task is immense
i cannot do it alone
but an army of poets can kiss the world awake
                 Mary Oishi
       from you are here
you should have died
you should have died so many times
i cannot count them all
you should have died but

here you are
still here
still here
still dancing.
                ---Mary Oishi

Justice and Love

Justice is what love looks like in public. Writer Cornel West’s words have been haunting me the last few weeks.

One of my frequent prayers is “God, may I be a channel of your love today.” Sometimes it’s more of a cry for help. “God, I need your loving wisdom to guide me to love today. I can’t do it on my own.” This prayer rises from the heart of my faith and theology: God is a God of love, and I believe actions of loving-kindness are the most important thing we do. Whether through simple friendliness to those I pass on the street, reaching out to someone in need, or giving patient attention in difficult situations, I want to honor others as beloved of God.

My prayer to be a channel for love has focused on individuals I interact with, but Cornel West’s words challenge me to a larger understanding.

Injustices happen to individuals, but injustice categorizes groups of people by such things as skin color, place of birth, sexual orientation. A person is no longer an individual but a category. When we stand for justice, we are not blind to our varied humanity, but we see and honor the uniqueness of each person. We want respect, fair treatment, a life free of fear for all people, regardless of categories. Love, wearing its public face, pours its energy into creating that reality.

My prayer to be a channel of God’s love has taken on new meaning as the world once again confronts embedded racism. The work against the sin of racism must involve me–if I am to be a channel of God’s love. Justice is what love looks like in public. I need to acknowledge the public, pervasive wrong of how our world has created categories of people who are automatically seen as less than. I need to help change this.

As a white, middle class woman, my life has not been limited by racial prejudice and injustice. I have not needed that extra alertness to danger for myself or my family as a basic life skill. If I decide on a road trip with my family this summer, I don’t need to plot a route with safety in mind. I have never been trailed by a suspicious security person as I shopped. As my white husband hikes the country roads near our house in his t-shirt and old backpack, his presence has never been questioned. Racism wears a variety of guises, both subtle and brutal, but I have not been required to pay attention to them simply in order to live.

If I want to be a public face of love, I must look at myself and learn how living in a world where racism flourishes has influenced me. I must be willing to pay attention. When my 13-year-old granddaughter sent me a link to her school project on environmental racism, she taught me. Last week I researched “redlining” and found an old map online that showed the official redlining of my town of Lancaster. More learning.

If I want to be a public face of love, I must never look away from the whole reality of other lives. When I see injustice, I must be willing to speak out and to bear witness in whatever way I can. I must be willing to do what is mine to do. I want to be a channel of God’s love through being for justice. How will you join me?

Suggestions for learning and doing appear on Pendle Hill Quaker Retreat Center’s website: https://pendlehill.org/support/news-and-notes/suggested-readings-on-understanding-and-addressing-racism-and-white-supremacy/#action and in this list: https://medium.com/equality-includes-you/what-white-people-can-do-for-racial-justice-f2d18b0e0234.

Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never failing stream. (Amos 4:24)

Days of Uncertainty

In the midst of these days of uncertainty, I have turned to things that remain constant. I bake, knowing I can depend on yeast to create a well-risen, delicious loaf of bread. I plant seeds in my garden that will grow into lettuce and beans and cucumbers. The turn of the seasons is unchanging, and it is springtime. On my ancient sewing machine where I made children’s clothing many years ago, I make masks for my family. Sewing is the same as always though I’ve never sewn masks before.

Engaging in small certainties brings me comfort. My family has been fortunate in many ways. We continue to have work. We have known some who have been ill or died, but we have lived in good health. I know this could change at any time.

The reality of uncertainty, of not knowing what lies ahead, has touched us all, and created much anxiety and fear. We have lived in the illusion of certainty, the security of believing that we knew what tomorrow would bring. I never fully appreciated that blessing. Now I realize that I know less than ever before. Now I recognize certainty was always an illusion even when I trusted it.

Then I could say, “Of course I’ll meet with my book group on Mondays and my writing group on Tuesdays. Of course we’ll take a trip somewhere this summer. We want to visit our family in Seattle, and perhaps plan a vacation to my beloved England.” Then I could say, “Of course my worshipping community gathers together at 10:00 on Sunday mornings.” Then I could say, “I’ll be glad to meet with you for spiritual direction. My little office is on Columbia Ave.”

Now what do I know? Not much. The public discussion is focused on opening up, but no one really knows what we’re opening into–or how to do it well. While some make predictions confidently, the forecasts show little agreement. How do we live with such uncertainty? How do we live with the insecurity of such unknowing?

It’s natural to want to see further ahead. There is wisdom in planning for the future, but if we focus too much on peering through the fog of confusion, we may miss the certainties that we have. We may miss living fully alive now.

I remember Quaker George Fox’s words from the 17th century: Look not back, nor too forward. . . .For you have no time but this present time. All I have is this present time. To look not too forward means I have to accept living with a lot of uncertainty. I have to find a stable footing within the world’s instability.

A friend said recently, “So how do I live the rest of my life–COVID and all?” That’s the big question. We begin living the rest of our lives here and now in the middle of all the confusion and uncertainty. Now is the only certainty we have.

Wendell Berry wrote that It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work. Real work, real living, he says, begins with not knowing. This is where we are, confused and uncertain, so let us begin.

What do I know now? I know that seeds grow into fruit, that yeast expands into bread. I know that online visits with those I love encourage all of us even if we can’t hug. I know that laughter is healing, and so are tears. Perhaps my real work is planting seeds, baking bread, and loving my neighbors. Perhaps my real living is walking with others on the path of unknowing amid the angst of uncertainty.

This is our now. May we find gratitude and love on this path. May the Spirit guide us in our real work, the work of living fully alive in this present time.

Anchored in Place with Julian

As we enter the second month of Pennsylvania’s official shut down, my thoughts have turned to a woman who lived in England a long time ago. The words of Julian of Norwich have often spoken to me, and I believe her life and wisdom have a special message for us today. This is her story.

Julian was an anchoress, a manner of living quite foreign in our century. She literally anchored in one place and was ceremoniously walled-up within one or two rooms. She desired to give herself entirely to God and a life of prayer, and this was her way. While this extreme seclusion was unusual even in the 1300’s, she was not unique. The room of the anchoress (or anchorite) always attached to a church with a window through which one could gaze on the altar and join in worship. An exterior window opened to the street so people could come to receive guidance. A servant attended to her physical needs, and often there was a cat for company – and catching mice.

Julian and her cat

Julian lived secluded but she was not truly separated from the violent 14th century world outside her window. Norwich was a major seaport, and Julian’s church sat on a main street. She lived during a time of ongoing war, appropriately named the Hundred Years War. During her years as an anchoress, the bubonic plague repeatedly swept through her city. Starvation was not unknown, and fierce persecution of religious dissenters sometimes concluded with a burning.

I imagine Julian’s prayers interrupted by the rattle of corpse carts past her window, by the marching of soldiers, by the wailing of the bereaved. I imagine Julian was often called to the window when someone came in search of her wisdom and comfort. Julian lived in the space between two windows, between the suffering world and the holy space of the sanctuary. Anchored in that place, grounded deeply in God, she gave herself as a channel for God’s love in times of plague, starvation, and war.

What did she offer those who came to her window in such times? We know some of what she offered because Julian passed on her experience and understandings through Showings, the first book in England written by a woman. She wrote

He did not say, ‘You shall not be tempest-tossed, you shall not be work-weary, you shall not be discomforted.’ But he said, ‘You shall not be overcome.’

Yes, Julian wrote, you will be in pain, exhausted from the storms that rage and toss you in their midst. But, in the end, you will not be overcome.

Perhaps the most famous Julian quotation is All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. These have always been difficult words for me. How can she say “all shall be well” when it clearly isn’t, when pandemic, economic collapse, and war, like fierce storms, rage around us? It wasn’t “well” in her century, and it’s not “well” in ours! But Julian told a story for times like ours:

God showed me in my palm a little thing, round as a ball, about the size of a hazelnut. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and asked myself: “What can this be?” And I was answered: “It is everything that is created.” I wondered how it could survive since it seemed so little it could suddenly disintegrate into nothingness. And I was answered in my understanding: “It endures and always will, because God loves it; and in this way, everything has its being by the love of God.”

In this little thing I saw three properties.
The first is that God made it,
the second is that God loves it,
the third is that God preserves it.

Today, when it seems our world could “suddenly disintegrate into nothingness,” Julian invites us to deeper intimacy with God, or, as she described it, being one-ed to God. Anchored in the space between all that is Holy and a world of pain and fear, Julian calls us to anchor more deeply. In some mysterious way we don’t need to understand, God is still creating, loving, preserving. The power of Love is still greater than the power of disintegration.

May this time of sheltering in place also shelter and anchor us within God. May we, trusting the mystery, echo all shall be well.