Notre Dame de Paris Burned Today

Drawing by Mason Hayek

Notre Dame de Paris burned today,
France’s cathedral, the world’s cathedral,
And mine,
A place of the soul, the heart, my heart
Burning with the toppling spire,
Collapsing roof,
Melting glass,
And now-charred altar.

Parisians sang hymns
As ferocious flames
Flew embers of what had been
Across the City of Light,
Nearly extinguished tonight.

I was in Notre Dame de Paris
On a January Sunday—
The 2nd, according to my journal—
Forty-seven years ago;
The organ’s melodies and harmonies
Billowed into the vaulted roof,
Through the rose windows,
Along the flying buttresses,
Into the Paris evening,
And then a priest chanted Mass.

I was twenty-two that evening
And had craved French and France
At least since I’d been nine,
And there I was:
Paris and her cathedral
Welcomed me to a world
Where desires turned into possibilities,
And then became true.

I wrote in my journal that 2 janvier 1972,
“C’est les fois comme ceci quand je voudrais être catholique.”
And this week I will turn Catholic,
Five days after Notre Dame has burned.

Perhaps from a city, a world, of prayers,
The walls and towers of our cathedral
Still stand;
I hear the organ has been saved,
And some of the art,
Perhaps a rose window;
Already hope has returned:
Notre Dame de Paris
Will one day again be whole,
Not as it was,
But remembered, honored,
Resurrected.

I, too, am not as I was,
But I carry my weeks in Paris,
My visit in Notre Dame,
Within me as I make my way,
Burned and illuminated,
Through time.

Just as the first flames ate into the spire,
I finished my turn as the day’s leader
For our French literature class
Of lifelong learners whose love
For the language and culture
Still burns,
Lighting our aging lives.

And above my bureau
Hangs my father’s drawing
Of Notre Dame de Paris
Beyond the Pont Neuf.

Rising with Lazarus

Vincent van Gogh, The Raising of Lazarus (after Rembrandt), oil on canvas, 1890, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, public domain, from Wikimedia Commons.

In the RCIA[1] Gospel reading for the fifth Sunday of Lent, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.  Through this story, in John 11:1-45, we receive dramatic proof of Jesus’ divinity and his power as the Son of God.  But we also learn that Jesus—and so God—experiences the deeply human emotion of grief.  And it is Jesus’ love and empathy, as reflected in his grief, that represent the greatest of the lessons John conveys through the story.

Jesus weeps, even while knowing Lazarus will continue in this life, as well as gain eternal life after his time on Earth.  Jesus understands and shares the sorrow that Martha and Mary and their friends experience; he takes their grief into himself and weeps for the loss of his friend, however temporary that loss.  Jesus is like us in loving his friends and mourning their suffering.

Yes, the story is also about having absolute faith in Jesus, in God.  And it is about God’s extraordinary, absolute power.  And yes, the story reminds us that after our earthly death comes eternal life.  Through Martha and Mary, the scripture shows us models of faith rising out of doubt.  But it is John’s portrait of a loving Jesus as he performs his miracle that matters most.

Love is the heart of Jesus, and love must be the heart of Christianity and of us all.  Love must be our essence if we human beings are ever to rise from our suffering—our wars; our cruelty and indifference; our bickering and antagonism toward one another; our world filled with violence, starvation, inequality, cruelty, and selfish disregard for our brothers and sisters around the globe; our false value of pernicious power.  When Jesus uses his power, it is for the benefit of others, not for domination over them.

Jesus said, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).  Nothing else—not humanly defined success and not our humanly conceived laws, rituals, and judgments—are as important as love for God and for one another and all of God’s creation.  If we are not acting out of love, we are not acting as Christians.  In what to me is the most moving sentence in the story of Lazarus, John tells us, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.”  Jesus loves each one of us; he loves every single human being without exception.  We must rise to follow his example if we are to raise our world from the near death to which we have brought it.

We should not leave the Gospel story of Lazarus without further considering its implications for us.  Of course the most astounding event here is Lazarus’ return from the dead.  Beyond allowing Jesus to show that he is, indeed, the Christ, the Son of God, the story invites us to let resurrection come into our own lives through our belief in Jesus, his love for us, and the power of love, hope, and faith.

So many of us allow small deaths to enter our lives.  We lose hope because of illness, infirmity, aging, and countless other losses.  We tell ourselves, “I am too old (or too whatever) to learn.”  “I can’t change now.” “I’m just a burden; what do I have to give?”  “I was never any good at ___.”  (And we all fill in the blank differently.)  But Jesus’ love for us teaches us that we do matter.  We wouldn’t be here if we did not have God’s Light within us, if we had nothing to learn, if we had nothing to give.

Let the hope fed by God’s love be rekindled within you.  Follow love’s leading, as Jesus did.  Let God’s love raise you out of any discouragement keeping you from the life you could be knowing—loving others, loving yourself, and using the vast gifts God has given you.  Without your gifts, the world is poorer: whether those gifts are in the kindness of your smile, the beauty of your music, your skill in organizing or inspiring, or your grace in allowing others to help you in your genuine need.  It is never too late to be reborn within God’s love.


[1] RCIA stands for the “Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.”  I am the only convert coming into our parish this year.  If an RCIA participant is present, the Gospel readings for three Sundays during Lent are selected to apply to the RCIA conversion experience and are the focus of a three-part ceremony called the Scrutinies.  This week’s Scrutiny is based on the story of Lazarus and will likely focus on my (and all converts’) “resurrection” from the supposed deathlike state of being a non-Catholic; of course I reject any notion that one religion has a corner on spirituality.  While I see the Catholic Church’s considerable faults, I love the church I am joining as reflected in the beautiful lives of practitioners around the globe, such as the Sisters of St. Francis, who live the Gospel through their service to others and celebration of God’s creation.  And I find great joy worshipping within our welcoming congregation and honoring God through the music I have the privilege to sing in our choir.

Summer Camp Lessons for Life

During my summers at camp in Maine, I learned all the usual things, such as how to do the backstroke and how to climb back into an overturned canoe. I learned to shoot a bow and arrow and grout the tiles in an ashtray. I learned to use a compass, build a fire, and dig a latrine. I learned a new level of humiliation by crashing my sailboat into an opponent’s during the camp regatta. While I no longer grout ashtrays, dig latrines, or sail in regattas, seven of the lessons from summer camp have kept their value throughout the decades.

Lesson One: If you win praise, some folks won’t be happy.

I arrived at camp the first summer determined to master all the camp activities in eight weeks. I was eleven and didn’t have much skill with which to begin, especially in swimming. When I was tested the first day, I closed my eyes, jumped into the lake, and swam in circles while the counselors hollered at me to stop.

By the end of week six, I still wasn’t out of the beginners’ area, but I could swim in a straight line. The counselors awarded me a swimming “badge” for my effort. I came back from breakfast one morning to find the decal had been added to the others on the green felt banner over my bed.

That same morning, I heard my cabinmate Samantha complaining about what a goody-goody I was. She hadn’t received her swimming badge yet, even though she was one of the best swimmers in the entire intermediate unit. The next day during cabin cleanup, Samantha grabbed my tennis racket and hit me over the head with it. Just before rest period after lunch, she hid my toothbrush, my jacks and ball, The Island of the Blue Dolphins, and my regulation green bathing suit. After supper, Samantha and two of her friends chased me around the outside of the infirmary building. When I managed to escape and hide in the shower house, I heard them call me a witch as they passed by.

The following morning after breakfast, Samantha had a swimming badge on her banner. We learned she should have gotten it the day I received mine, but there had been a mix-up. Over the course of the day, my toothbrush, jacks and ball, book, and bathing suit reappeared on my bed.

Lesson Two: If you’re really good at something, people will pay attention to you.

During my first year at camp, I was not very good at tennis or canoeing, but I could beat everyone at jacks. I knew fifteen fancies, like “Pigs in the Blanket” and “Around the World,” and I could remove a single jack from a tangled pile without disturbing the rest. I won both jacks tournaments that summer and was considered one of the camp’s all-time best.

Being tops at jacks did not bring me lots of friends, but practically everyone wanted to play jacks with me. Even if most girls were just attracted by the chance to beat me, I didn’t mind. I never had to play jacks alone.

Lesson Three: Events with the boys’ camp won’t live up to expectations.

One Friday night during the summer when I was twelve, we older intermediate girls put on our Sunday uniforms and traveled by open truck to watch a movie at our brother camp a few miles down the lake. Missy, Laura, and Samantha—the first, second, and third most popular girls in our unit—wore pink lipstick and rubbed some of it into their cheeks. We all curled our hair.

The movie turned out to be a western. The boys sat in the back of their lodge, while we girls sat in front. I barely even caught sight of a boy.

The following summer we were old enough for dances. Truckloads of boys were deposited at our lodge, or we were trucked to theirs. The counselors teamed up for bush patrol. Each year there seemed to be exactly three cute boys, one each for Missy, Laura, and Samantha. I liked it best when the dances were held at our camp because I could sneak back to my cabin and read a book by flashlight. The year I was fourteen, my best friend, Louise, and I survived two dances by hiding in the woods and discussing the Beatles.

When I was fifteen, I did actually spend a dance with a boy, but I found him highly uninteresting. After the last slow song he kissed me, my first kiss.

Lesson Four: Some of the folks in charge simply won’t like you.

All of my cabin counselors were lovely and kind young women, except for Betsy. Betsy let me know I had no hope of ever being popular like Missy, Laura, and Samantha. Therefore she found me boring and not worth her attention. Betsy had been a camper before she was a counselor. I figured she had been just like Samantha. Betsy told me about my flat singing, mousy hair, and feeble tennis strokes. Once when I had such a bad sunburn that my back blistered, Betsy was annoyed because I groaned in my sleep and disturbed her rest.

Each summer on the second-to-last night of camp, we had a special banquet. The counselors decorated the lodge with pine boughs and candles and danced and sang songs they had made up about the summer. When I saw Betsy up there singing about Sports Day and the Fourth of July and all the other now-past times, I started to cry a little. Maybe I was going to miss Betsy. Maybe she was not such a bad counselor after all. Maybe with more time we could have been friends.

When we went back to the cabin after the banquet, Betsy hollered at me for accidentally banging into her foot locker.

Lesson Five: Yes, there can be too much of a good thing.

Every Wednesday evening, we had a cookout and ate hamburgers and hotdogs, with watermelon for dessert. On Sunday nights, if we turned in a letter home, we were given Italian sandwiches, and watermelon for dessert. For the first three summers, I ate two or three pieces of watermelon each Wednesday and Sunday. By the fifth summer, I passed up the watermelon entirely.

I didn’t grow tired of the ice cream we had at noon on Sundays, or of canoeing or sailing a boat, but overnight camping trips suffered the same fate as the watermelon. My first year I was allowed to go on an overnight to a small pine-covered point of land directly across the mile-wide lake from the camp. I was as happy as an adult on a ten-day cruise. When I looked up from my warm sleeping bag, all the stars in the Universe shone out there in front of me, with the Milky Way a nearly solid band of white. The donut holes and French toast we cooked over the fire for breakfast were, to my mind, among the best things I’d ever eaten.

Four years later, I was an experienced camper. As a reward I was scheduled to go on seven trips, most of them for three or four days at a time. That summer was unusually rainy. Between some outings, my sneakers didn’t even have time to dry out. My life was cold rain, dirt, and bugs. I learned about the impossibility of feeling warm and dry sleeping in a tent during a storm, no matter how diligently we had dug the trenches. The buzz of mosquitoes and black flies mingled with the sound of rain hitting canvas.

Lesson Six: Simple pleasures are enduring pleasures.

Right from the first night of camp, I loved singing all the songs. We sang at every meal, during evening program, on trips, and around the campfire. We tried harmony to “Witchcraft” and “Seven Daffodils.” We shouted out the happy songs, especially while we bumped along the Maine roads in the back of a truck. I still remember the words to our favorites.

On Sundays we could sleep half an hour extra. After breakfast, we were free until service in the pine grove at eleven. Counselors, counselors-in-training, and campers from the three units took turns presenting the service. Even when I was just an intermediate camper, I always felt peaceful in the pine grove. I’d lean back on my elbows against the steep hillside and look up to the very tops of the trees, where the green branches began. The sound of guitars and singing spread through the otherwise silent grove and over the empty cabins and quiet lake below. The motorboats didn’t appear until afternoon. As I listened to the music, my fingers played with the long, thick red-pine needles and the neat little five-needle bundles from the white pines.

After grove service, we were free until lunch, which always included chicken with cranberry sauce and mustard pickles. After rest hour we were on our own again until supper. The only activity scheduled was a free swim at four. As I grew older, I used all the glorious spare time in different ways. The first two years I spent most of every Sunday playing jacks. Other summers I followed my secret path along the lake to a huge flat rock in a clearing hidden from view at camp. I could read all afternoon. Some Sundays, Louise and I looked for frogs or four-leaf clovers while we discussed religion, philosophy, and rock ’n roll stars.

During the cold Maine nights—especially in August, when the first leaves started turning red—I slept under seven blankets and left my bathrobe on for a little extra warmth. The seven blankets served a second purpose. They created a tent under which I could read after “Taps” without being discovered. The dimmer my flashlight, the cozier I was. I read Little Women under the blankets my second summer at camp. I’d already read it three or four times before, but Jo and her sisters were a comforting contrast to Missy, Laura, and Samantha.

Lesson Seven: If you’re in charge, you have to act as if you know what you’re doing.

While I was a camper and counselor-in-training, someone else was always in charge. When I became a counselor, I had trouble with the fact I was the one who was supposed to know just what to do.

On one camping trip with a dozen eight- and nine-year-olds, we ran out of firewood. Sarah, the other counselor on the trip, had never used an ax. She and the little girls followed me into the woods to watch me fell a small tree.

When a thunderstorm broke while I was on top of a mountain with eight junior campers, I wondered whether my counselors had ever felt as nervous as I did listening to the thunder coming closer.

One night about an hour after “Taps,” another counselor, Trudy, and I heard screaming and running feet as we walked near our duplex cabin. Cabin Four was hers, Cabin Three mine. A bat was flying around inside. While Trudy and I were giving the girls a “bats are our friends” talk, the bat flew at Trudy, who screamed and ran out the door. I never did coax the bat to leave, but eventually he settled down and so did the girls. For the rest of the summer, he spent his days hanging upside down from a beam in the Cabin Three ceiling. If you’re in charge, you can’t complain about what lives over your bed.

Seeking Divinity

God is the Light in the oneness of being,
In you, in me,
In the rays of the Sun piercing evening clouds,
Moon reaching out to Jupiter,
Sycamore standing against the sky,
And homeless woman begging sustenance;
In the squirrel patting soil on his acorn,
Fly harassing the picnic,
Horse running free in the field,
And poacher killing elephants for ivory;
In families fleeing their bomb-wracked city
And tyrants unleashing their scorn.

God is the Light in the oneness of being,
In the child who is frightened of guns in his school
And the cowards who hide behind guns,
In gorillas, whales, and wolves,
In a wood-thrush trill and the coo of a dove,
In the killer who’s cruelly taken a life
And those aping virtue demanding his,
In destructive storms and stinging hornets,
Majestic rivers and ancient trees—
Those ruined and those that remain—
Whole countries nearly forsaken,
And an elderly couple in love.

God is the Light in the oneness of being,
Though smothered by cruelty and hate.

Winds of Change?

The whirlwind swirls:
I ride the coiling winds
Around the hollow core;
Flying off frequently
Into nettles on the verge
Or quicksand by the water,
I am, at other moments,
In magic-seeming meadows
Redolent with flowers
Riotous in scent and color
Decorating loneliness
Rather than serenity.

Rousing, I throw myself
Again into the vortex,
Rejoin the reassuring buffeting,
The enveloping pleasures
And constricting turmoil.

Having lost my perpetually sought path,
My road to meaning
Hidden in the tumult,
I ricochet through possibilities,
Jostle against necessities,
And trail beckoning
Attractions and distractions
Through another day, another month,
Through all my years.

So far.

Love at the Met

I had been sorry I’d not reserved better seats to hear Andrea Bocelli perform a program called Three Centuries of Love at the Metropolitan Opera on February 10, 2019.  But as the experience unfolded, I found ecstasy in our lofty perch.  Seated in the Family Circle not far from the opera house’s gold ceiling, my friend and I sent our eyes and emotions out over the entire scene, the chandeliers like constellations, the balconies and box seats filled with admirers of our beloved Andrea, and the stage, the site of the glories to come.

The view from our seats: The audience begins to arrive.

My friend and I had left southeastern Pennsylvania at nine in the morning, crossed the bridge into New Jersey, and then followed the turnpike to Manhattan.  The morning was clear and still, although snow was forecast for late evening.  Near the Newark Airport, we witnessed the New York skyline rise on the horizon like a near miracle.  Choosing the George Washington Bridge instead of a more efficient but somewhat terrifying tunnel, we nevertheless reached the city before noon.

The night before, I’d consulted maps and online directions, checked repeatedly that the concert tickets hadn’t somehow jumped out of my purse, figured out what to wear—and been unable to fall asleep for half the night.  But from the moment my little blue car’s tires touched Manhattan pavement, excited energy made any lack of sleep irrelevant.

A few runners and bikers followed the path between the Henry Hudson Parkway and the river.  A taxi driver honked when I didn’t turn a corner from 79th Street fast enough to suit him.  Two dozen fat pigeons had lined up side by side on a railing, perhaps to watch the funny humans pass by in their vehicles and on foot.  Pedestrians swarmed across the street with no apparent notice of the cars and buses that needed to stop to let them cross.

My friend read aloud the directions to the parking garage that I had copied from the Internet.  Everyone we encountered was helpful: “No it’s not this entrance to the parking garage; it’s around the corner on Amsterdam.”  “No it’s not this Amsterdam entrance to the garage; it’s the next one.”  “No it’s not this barcode on your parking reservation; it’s this one—that’s why the gate wouldn’t open.”  We might as well have had a siren on the car announcing, “Visitors from out of town.”

But we visitors had a day we will remember all the rest of our still, we hope, many years to come.

After a quick browse through the Met Opera Shop, we searched for and found our chosen lunch spot—Indie Food and Wine.  The route there took us outside, down some steps, around a corner, and inside the Film Society of Lincoln Center, across from the Juilliard School.  Our sandwiches on ciabatta were large, inexpensive, and delicious.

Back up the outdoor steps we trudged (my friend was amazed by how many steps she added over the course of the day to her Fitbit total).  This time our visit to the Met Opera Shop was more thorough and included buying souvenir programs destined to receive Andrea’s autograph after the concert.  For most of the remaining two hours before we could find our seats, we sat on a marble bench inside the Met’s front entrance and people watched.

A few long-gowned, spike-heeled young women were among the early arrivals.  A see-through, calf-length skirt in gold lace got mixed reviews.  By the time we had a bigger sample to observe, outfits ranged from ready to dig in the garden to ready to greet the Queen.  By three, the hard-core fans were steadily arriving.  We, Andrea’s worldwide massively devoted following, tend to be middle aged and older, although with some exceptions.  In addition to watching the well-dressed young people in the lobby, we noticed the two glamorous, Spanish-speaking young women directly in front of our seats in the Family Circle; they seemed to be rapt listeners during the concert.

Waiting on our marble bench for the opera-house doors to open at four, I kept an eye out for Bocelli fans from Texas whom I’ve known online for years.  We never found each other, but I spotted two other online friends, friends I’d first met at Andrea’s 2011 Metropolitan Opera recital, when my then-93-year-old mother was also in attendance.  During Sunday’s concert, I felt my music-loving parents’ presence, sharing joy in the magnificent sounds.

About the time the lobby became nearly impassably thronged, the doors to the opera house opened, and we found our way up red-carpeted steps, then up an elevator, and then up more steps to our perch.  We had indeed reached heaven, as we would know when the concert began at five.

Just before concert time

The exceptional Metropolitan Opera Orchestra took the stage.  The concertmaster played the tuning note for the other musicians.  Conductor Eugene Kohn entered to applause; he is well known and admired by Bocelli fans.  The orchestra opened the concert with the ballet music “Navarraise,” from Massanet’s Le cid.  The forceful beat and accelerating rhythm fed my state of near levitation as I anticipated who would come next.

The conductor left his podium and returned with Andrea; we, the audience, greeted our hero.  He opened with an aria from Le cid that I don’t think I’d ever heard him perform: “Ah, tout est bien fini . . . Ô, souverain,” an aria rich with melancholy and courage.  As Andrea’s unamplified voice floated through the large opera house to surround us in our aerie, I felt my spirit expand into the rich, pure perfection of his singing.  Throughout the concert, Andrea’s voice was as thoroughly magnificent as I have ever known it to be—and I have loved every note I have heard him sing for the more than two decades I’ve been listening to his recordings and performances.

Next was “La mia letizia infondere,” from I Lombardi, an aria familiar to all longtime Bocelli fans.  During the concert, Andrea was at times joined onstage by Aida Garifullina, later by Isabel Leonard.  Nadine Sierra and Andrea ended the first half with “M’odi . . . Sulla tomba che rinserra,” from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor: very little can surpass the beauty of that lilting, tragic melody.  Before Lucia, Andrea and Aida Garifullina had sung a thrilling, emotion-filled “È il sol dell’anima . . . Addio, addio,” from Verdi’s Rigoletto, and then Andrea had performed “Pour mon âme,” from Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment.  Each of that aria’s nine high C’s was strong and rich, filled with resonance, accuracy, and loveliness.  How, I wondered, can I absorb and seal into memory the blissfulness of every note, the impossible blessing of being in this place of fantasy listening to the voice that moves me more than all other voices in this world?

Every note from the orchestra and from the guest performers was exquisite.  Every note from Andrea was celestial.  His voice never dipped below perfection.  In the second half, he performed arias from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, first a solo—“L’amour . . . Ah, lêve-toi soleil”—and then an extended duet with Aida Garifullina, “Va, je t’ai pardonné . . . Nuit d’hyménée.”  Andrea was in character for every aria, filling the opera house with emotion carried on the blissful, soul-filling quality of every note.  He showed no evidence of nervousness.  Here he was singing for 3,800 in one of the world’s most famous venues—and I’d been nervous simply anticipating the car trip to see him.

The second half included “Il faut nous séparer,” from Massanet’s Werther, sung with Isabel Leonard; “Recondita armonia,” from Puccini’s Tosca—wonderful, too, as an old favorite for Bocelli fans—and finally “O soave fanciulla,” with Isabel Leonard, from my favorite opera, Puccini’s La Bohème.  When Andrea soared high at the end, he did so with all the finesse and elegance of every note that had come before.

Andrea’s two encores continued the delight of the main part of the program.  First he and Aida Garifullina sang the ethereal “Ave Maria Pietas,” from his new recording, .  And then the encore I had hoped would come arrived: “Au fond du temple saint,” from Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles.  Because bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni was profiled in the printed program but did not appear on stage during the listed arias, I think many of us suspected we would get to hear the much-loved duet that, in fact, closed the concert.

The performers again acknowledged the applause.  Andrea applauded the orchestra.  He was presented with yellow roses.  Walking toward backstage, our dear tenor waved his characteristic farewell to us.  The applause finally faded.

The crush of people at the bottom of the red-carpeted stairs made any forward motion impossible for a few long minutes.  Those of us who wanted Andrea’s autograph were told to move to the left.  The challenge was simply to avoid losing ground.  Eventually some of us were ushered into a line outside to wait until the autograph line inside advanced enough to make room for us to join it.  Andrea would be signing autographs in a room beyond the grand staircase.

Looking at night into the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, by Paul Masck – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, from Wikimedia Commons.

We shivered as the employee who was organizing the line inside studiously avoided our gestures and pleas to be allowed back into the warmth.  But finally the door reopened to us.  The concert had ended about 7:20; about 8:40, Andrea, Veronica, and their sweet daughter, Virginia, came into our view.  I thought Andrea by then looked exhausted, and he must have been, but he kept on signing souvenir programs and copies of .  None of the many hundreds of us in line went away disappointed.  Veronica helped position the programs and CDs for Andrea to sign.  Little Virginia greeted us with a smile and said, “Thank you for coming,” in perfect English.  Not yet in water, the yellow roses languished on the table.

After returning to our car, my friend and I found our way out of the parking garage, up Amsterdam Avenue to 79th Street, over to the Henry Hudson Parkway, and across the George Washington Bridge.  Eventually we grabbed our ticket at the entrance to the New Jersey Turnpike, cruised along in reasonably light traffic back past the Newark Airport, and congratulated ourselves on the continuing good weather, with the temperature a reassuring three degrees above freezing.

Somewhere in the vicinity of Trenton, we stopped for snacks and gasoline.  It was exactly 11 p.m. and just a few moments after we’d rejoined the turnpike when the snow began and the temperature immediately dropped six degrees.

But our guardian angels worked overtime and kept us from harm.  Salt trucks formed a battalion along the turnpike, turning the wet highway into the Dead Sea and sandblasting the car as we passed.  The Commodore Barry Bridge, too, was merely wet rather than snow covered.  Only when we reached Pennsylvania Route 322, a few miles from home, did we find a snow-covered roadway.  I could sense a lack of traction, but a slow speed—and a few giggles at ourselves for traveling through snow at midnight after an adventure-filled day—brought us safely home.  My friend got out of the car at her building.  I parked and then walked to my building through the swirling snowy night.

Inside, for the next three hours I was too filled with memories of all we had seen and heard to sleep.

Learning from Mary

A dove stood peace in a tree by the lot where I’d parked my car,
And a partner dove held watch and comfort
Over the place where I met my friend.

And now we are visiting the beautiful convent,
Learning from Mary in our elder years,
Opening to God’s invitation to give, to do, to become.

Last Sunday I was welcomed to the Church,
The church of my new parish—
Where I thought I could never belong, fit in—
In a ceremony that once was oil to my water,
A little-known language, customs,
And ways of seeing Creation.

I, we, one can worship everywhere;
The congregation has shown me welcome;
And so I join a community of kind people
With whom I share love and the wish
To give love, kindness, hope,
To one another and the world.

And we sing hymns!
The music holds Creation;
Our notes link spirits and minds
Around the room,
Across time
To the beginning of the world,
To the beginning of my world,
When it and I were whole
And still becoming.

I have walked away from the Quaker meeting
That once joined hands, song, and ministry with the three of us
And other loved souls
With whom we gathered eagerly
Each Sunday
And special days between.

I’ve lost the sense of oneness with those
Who gather in the old meetinghouse
That remains full of memories
But no longer of belonging.

I feel that belonging here,
Among the Franciscan sisters,
Among the dear parishioners
In the church once foreign
That is now the place I sing hymns
And join hands in greeting.

I do not need to deny or distance
Who I have been and am
To enter a new spiritual home
As I go on seeking.

The Church, the church, the history,
Even the creeds, doctrines, and rituals,
Give a setting for building on what is within.

They can be an invitation,
A set of possibilities,
A place for new becoming
Rather than demanding
What and how to be.

The Rite of Welcoming embraced
My heart, my spirit and emotions
Filling with astonishment
For such extravagant concern for me—
One who is inclined, unless performing,
To escape disturbing.

After my more than sixty years in Quakerism,
After the deep gifts of spirit, wisdom, and leading
My parents gave our Meeting,
My leaving was met with little notice;
Can I be wrong to walk into newfound warmth?

Sitting on the sofa one afternoon,
Reading and relishing the day,
I felt a hand on my shoulder;
Sweet Mother sings to me at night,
And both my dear ones knock
To say, “We are still at home together”;
Settings change, but not the essence of souls.

And the great blue heron points her toes in flight;
The Moon waxes and wanes
Even in a sky of absent stars;
New friends link arms
With friends who have gone on,
And love glows in the center,
Expanding like sunrise
To enfold us all.

Namaste

Originally written 12/15/18; revised 1/29/19

Goodbye Goody Two-Shoes

“Of course I know who I am,” we say.  “Of course I know what I think and believe.”  But do we really know ourselves, especially why we do what we do and feel as we feel?  Can we fully articulate our core beliefs?  And how effectively are we able to live our beliefs and the values that flow from them?

Several years ago, I was a leader for a spiritual-life discussion group at the Quaker meeting in which I had spent most of my life.  We were a group of ten or so who enjoyed wrestling with spiritual questions, such as, “Does prayer work?” and “What does it mean to serve others?”  One Sunday morning, I asked, “What do you believe about God?  And who was Jesus: what is the core of his message to us?”

Wilmington (De.) Meetinghouse, pencil sketch by Mason Hayek, from Growing to 80

Everyone had surprising difficulty in articulating his or her beliefs.  I had a similar challenge in a discussion with the deacon who is leading the process through which I am converting to Catholicism, specifically to Franciscan Catholicism.  The deacon asked me to describe Jesus according to my understanding.  My picture of Jesus (and God) is still incomplete in my mind’s eye and understanding.

Everyday Spirituality

Some parts of the picture are filled in in detail:  I believe that what Jesus asks of us, what makes us good people, is our love, kindness, and caring for all of God’s creatures and creation, and above all for our neighbors nearby and around the globe:

And one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, and perceiving that he had answered them well, asked him, Which is the first commandment of all?  And Jesus answered him. . . . thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.  And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these. (Mark 12:28-31, King James Version)

However thoroughly I am ever able to clarify my beliefs, Jesus’s commandments to love God and to love my neighbor give me plenty to work on for the rest of my life.  For instance, how can I simplify my life in ways that will help to protect God’s creation?  And as Jesus taught, loving God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength includes loving every neighbor, everyone everywhere.  Each is a creation of God, is loved by God, and has the light of God within, no matter how obscured or shining.

How can I speak up on behalf of neighbors from around the world who are suffering from injustice and the thoughtless and cruel acts of the powerful and greedy?  And how can I respond in ways that will not merely inflame my near neighbors who think differently from me, inflame without changing minds and actions?  Above all, how can I better share my beliefs through the way I live my life and not only through the words I speak and write?

A Test on Practicing What I Preach

Last weekend, a friend with whom I disagree politically forwarded an e-mail expressing her political position while disparaging mine.  I was included in her distribution list of ten people.  I felt I couldn’t ignore the message, which opened with a request “asking everyone to forward this e-mail to a minimum of 20 people, and to ask each of those to do likewise.”  The message was supporting a national figure who is not loving to many of our neighbors near and far around the globe.  I’d also felt the message was not loving to near neighbors like me: it closed, in part (and in all caps), “No wonder they’re [“they,” meaning folks like me] fighting everything he tries!”

For anyone forwarding on the message, my name might be coming along for the ride, perhaps suggesting that I was in sympathy with the views expressed.  I stated my disagreement—clearly but, I hoped, not angrily—in a “reply all.”  My friend responded in a phone message, and later repeated, that she had not noticed the political tone of the forwarded message’s opening and closing and was only passing along some ideas that looked interesting.  A visit, a hug, and a bit of further misunderstanding followed.  As part of the follow-up, I stayed awake virtually all one night worrying about what I’d done and whether or not I’d been rash, unfair, hurtful: in my response, had I been loving to my neighbor close at hand?

Cover of the 1888 edition of Goody Two-Shoes, by an anonymous author, U.S. public domain, from Wikimedia Commons.

Goody Two-Shoes: Not So Good After All

Regardless of whether or not my e-mail response was fair, respectfully worded, and appropriate, I see another problem behind the uproar: Most of the time, people think I’m an elderly child, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Goody Two-Shoes—and I have been good-naturedly called the latter by the friend with whom I had the differences I’ve just described.  After months or years of my oh-so-cheery-and-sweet persona, I meet a line in the sand, and I make a stand, shocking everyone. If I were clear, direct, and mutually respectful in all of my interactions all of the time, I would be less likely to be viewed, when I do take a stand, as Dr. Jekyll turned into Mr. Hyde.  I am unintentionally engaging in false advertising, a sort of unpremeditated bait and switch.

If I weren’t Ms. Goody Two-Shoes most of the time, if I always spoke up kindly but firmly, if I never brooked nonsense—whether expressed unthinkingly or designed to poke me—I might never have been sent the e-mail that offended me, and if I had, I could have responded with a simple, “I disagree.”  (The good news is that all involved in the political e-mail kerfuffle and its aftermath were together a few days later, and the friendships remain intact.)

Alfred Adler (1870-1937), unknown photographer, U.S. public domain, from the Ann Ronan Picture Library, copied from Wikimedia Commons.

Alfred Adler: A Treasure Trove of Insight

My responsibility to know myself includes understanding why I do what I do, behave as I do.  I have just finished reading The Courage to Be Disliked, by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga, which presents the fundamental tenets of Alfred Adler’s Individual Psychology as a conversation between a philosopher and a young man.  Alfred Adler was a contemporary of Freud but broke with him.  In his approach, Freud looked for the reasons, the history, that explained subsequent behavior, attitudes, and emotions.  In contrast, when Adler looked at behavior, attitudes, and emotions, he found the reasons for them in the individual’s current goals rather than in that person’s past.  Adler’s Individual Psychology also stresses that it is not what happens to us that determines our wellbeing but our views about what happens to us, the meaning that we have attached to the facts of our lives.

My parents, Mason and Doris Hayek, had a deep interest and did extensive study in Adlerian psychology, and I, too, have found merit in Adler’s principles and those of his followers.  I find The Courage to Be Disliked to be not only a helpful quick refresher for Adler’s notable views[1] but also, and above all, a magnifying glass helping me to understand myself and the problems I have encountered periodically over the years—including last weekend—in feeling pushed over the line at the limit of my acceptance.  The Courage to Be Disliked reminds me to ask, “What is my goal in being a people-pleasing perfectionist?”  The book also helps me to understand, “When I feel personally attacked, what are the dynamics involved, and how can I best diffuse the situation?”

Individual Psychology (and Scripture) Applied to Me

Following Freud’s approach, knowing that I was bullied in school can suggest why I’ve adopted people-pleasing and perfectionism as life strategies, but it is, as Adler posits, recognizing the current goals I have for these behaviors that will let me change both my goals and my life.  I can’t change the past, but I can change what I think and do now.  Changing takes courage, as The Courage to Be Disliked stresses, but the results can be worth the risk.  In my Goody Two-Shoes persona, I am trying to avoid criticism; I genuinely want to be nice to others, but I also want to be judged as nice, as a good girl, as smart and talented, as above reproach.

Here are more serviceable goals for me:

  1. Rather than seeing myself as the perpetual child in a world of grownups, practice mutual respect: loving my neighbor as myself.
  2. Speak up consistently—using the principles of love, kindness, and mutual respect—on behalf of justice, peace, the Earth’s wellbeing, and the wellbeing and value of all human beings.
  3. Avoid what Adler calls “power struggles,” even when I feel I’ve been intentionally provoked.
  4. Have the courage to be true to my values and convictions regardless of whether I am applauded or rejected for my words and actions.
  5. Have the courage to be seen as flawed.
  6. Focus on others and my love for them, rather than on their opinions of me.
  7. Understand that others’ opinions of me are their business and not under my control.
  8. Recognize that my value doesn’t depend on others’ opinions of me.
  9. See myself as, and actually be, courageous, strong, loving, and kind.

I think that a person who has these goals will be someone who not only has greater peace of mind than I have now but also is a more useful, effective citizen of the world than I have been so far in my life.  At the same time, living these goals will help me do a better job than I’ve done in living Jesus’s teachings.  I’ll no doubt continue to make many mistakes, and I certainly have lots to learn, but I am mustering the courage required to change for what I think is the better for all concerned.  My friends may not notice many obvious alterations, but I’ll know the difference, and others won’t have to wonder when the next surprise Winnie-cyclone of ire and indignation will be blowing onto shore.

Goody Two-Shoes signing out.


[1] A much more in-depth, scholarly (but readable) presentation of Adler’s Individual Psychology is the Primer of Adlerian Psychology, by Harold Mosak and Michael Maniacci.  The book is expensive to buy, even used, so if you are interested in it, you may want to try getting it through a library.

Your Story in Verse

The distinction between poetry and prose is not as fuzzy as it might seem, in spite of the prevalence of contemporary poems that neither rhyme nor have a fixed rhythm (meter).  Compared to prose, poetry is typically more focused on

  • The significance and impact of individual moments, singled-out slices of time
  • Images appealing to the senses
  • The essence of an experience
  • The connotations of words (their emotional overtones)
  • The sound of words
  • The rhythm of language (even without a formal meter)

Many poems of the past and present do rhyme and have a fixed structure, of course, and these qualities can have a powerful impact on the reader.  But whether you choose to write a formal poem or free verse, poetry can be an effective way of sharing your memoir—a single story or an entire book.

One of the best-known recent memoirs written in verse is Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson.  Brown Girl Dreaming earned the 2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, but the book also appeals to adult readers.  If you think you might want to write a short or long memoir in verse, I recommend reading Brown Girl Dreaming to get an idea of the possibilities open to you.  Another approach to memoir through poetry is Ekaterinoslav: One Family’s Passage to America: A Memoir in Verse, by Jane Yolen.  As you will see by looking into these books and others (try Googling “memoirs in verse”), the possibilities range from writing an extended, coherent narrative that reads like a novel to writing individual short poems that, together, reveal the author’s experiences.

Telling stories in verse is an honored tradition.  Shakespeare, for instance, often wrote his plays in blank verse—unrhymed iambic pentameter.  (He added rhyme for various desired effects, such as closing a scene with a memorable rhymed couplet [two lines of poetry].) In iambic pentameter, every line has five “feet” of iambs, which each include two syllables, the first unstressed (short) and the second stressed (long).  As you will note, Shakespeare sometimes varies the pattern, often to create emphasis.  Here, with the stressed syllables in bold capital letters, are Juliet’s most famous words from Romeo and Juliet (Act 2, Scene 2):

Watercolor by John Massey Wright (1777-1866) of Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2, Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection, copied from Wikimedia Commons

WHAT’S in a NAME? THAT which we CALL a ROSE
By ANy OTHer WORD would SMELL as SWEET;
So ROmeo WOULD, were HE not ROmeo CALL’D,
ReTAIN that DEAR perFECtion WHICH he OWES
WithOUT that TItle. ROmeo, DOFF thy NAME,
And FOR that NAME which IS no PART of THEE
Take ALL mySELF.

You can see that each line (except the last) has five stressed syllables.  Iambic pentameter is a meter that readily matches the natural cadences in English.  Shakespeare built on those natural cadences to make his words even more powerful than they might otherwise have been.

You can do the same, whether through adopting a formal pattern such as iambic pentameter or through simply paying close attention to the sound of your words and the way they work together.  And you don’t need to know the poetic terms to use poetic techniques.  Read your writing aloud and tinker with it until you like the way it sounds.


Moving from literary heights to everyday efforts, I’ll share a memoir poem that I wrote.  While I make no claims about the poem’s merits, I’ll insert notes in italics pointing out poetic techniques (also indicated by bold type within the poem) that you may want to try.

How I Got Lost
(We lose ourselves in different ways.)

Parallel wording helps readers link thoughts:

Until I was seven,
I was happy to be as I was,
To live as I did,

By considering the rhythm of the words as they’re chosen (here a slow line followed by a flowing line), writers help direct readers’ attention:

Giving and receiving love
In a life made entirely of blessings.


Of course snags came from time to time—
Limitations on going to Sally and Sheila’s,
Mean boys who scared me
(But Mother always chased them away),
Sally’s haircuts for my dolls,
The need for subtraction when I preferred addition—
Yet once past,
Obstacles stayed past,

Here a rapidly moving—anapestic (short-short-long)—line helps, I hope, to conclude the stanza in a way that is satisfying to readers:

Ne-ver TOUCH-ing my SPIR-it and JOY.


But by second grade,
The boys who had been my first-grade pals
No longer played with girls,
And I found that most of our class’ girls
Did not want to play with me.


Now I know what happened,
But I was bewildered then.


We were a nice family—
Mother and Daddy and I—

Alliteration (repeated consonant sounds) can add emphasis:

A comfortably fortunate family
Living in a pretty home
With a yard filled with flowers and my swing set,
Wearing Wanamaker clothes,
Eating Mother’s delicious cooking
After welcoming Daddy home at five.
Santa brought my bike;
Kind Dr. Wagner made house calls;
Ballet lessons had begun when I was four,
Years after I first heard stories and poems
On Mother’s and Daddy’s lap.
We sang at the piano in our living room
And drove to Kentucky to Nannie’s house.


Although most of the poem is unrhymed, the addition of rhyme calls attention to these lines:

Nothing was missing that I could see,
But many of my classmates’ parents
Saw gaps in my pedigree.

Daddy was a DuPont chemist with a PhD,
But the parents of popular Hannah and her court
Envisioned their daughters’ debutante balls

I’ve added more alliteration and another rhyme for emphasis:

Filled with DuPont family familiars,
A future not to be lost:
Tolerating plebeian playmates like me
Could bring too great a cost.
Jane Austen’s world of fiercely rigid social rules
On where to visit and whom to frequent
Had survived 150 years
And crossed the ocean to land in our school.


Hannah and her circle knew:
I was one of the not-our-kind,
And so she critiqued

A repeated phrase structure and another rhyme have, once again, been added for emphasis:

My plaid dresses and buckle shoes,
My classroom questions,
My answers,
My broad-jumping proficiency
And dodgeball deficiencies.
In third grade, she nominated me for class president:
The gesture was a taunt,
Not an affirmation.


By my second grade, Mother and Daddy and I
Had moved to an even lovelier home

A little more alliteration and the use of “and” in place of a comma link the images and improve the line’s rhythm and flow:

With woods and rocks and paths for playing
And neighboring children who played with me,
But being me
No longer felt sufficient.


If Hannah and her friends
Did not like me,
I would work to change;
If not popular, I would be smart,
Even as smart as the boys in arithmetic.
With vigilance,
I might evade censure,
Anticipate every judgment
And match what others
Appeared to prefer.


And in that way
I met the years ahead:
Elementary school and junior high,
High school and college
And every job in my career.


Shorter lines call attention to themselves:

And so I lived,
Even with the love I knew at home
And all my opportunities,
Many realized.


Wherever I found myself,
I could endure the expectations
Only so long,
The barely attainable demands
Required of me,
Or so my fear believed;
The risk was too terrible
For me to test my truth:

Long words can likewise add weight to a line:

Because I am mysteriously but irredeemably flawed,
Matching others’ mix of weaknesses and strengths
Will never be enough
To win acceptance
And sufficiency.


Readers notice and are pulled in by patterns (here and in the closing stanza):

I always tried again:
A new job,
A new romance,
A new plan for finding meaning,
A new spot on the Earth that seemed to promise
Satisfaction and, finally, peace.


I will try again now,
Though, this time,
I pray,
Not in my usual, ever-since-Hannah way.


She was a child and did not understand;
I was a child and did not understand.
Now I am nearly old
But never too old to renew
The Winnie I was
When loving and being loved,
Enthusiasm, courage, and resilience
Were fully enough for anyone,

And finally, as in Juliet’s famous what’s-in-a-name speech, I end with a short, emphatic line:

Even me.

For comparison, here are two paragraphs from my essay “Our First Little White House” that cover some of the same territory as the early stanzas of my poem above.  The poem looks at how my idyllic childhood went awry over the span of my years, beginning in second grade.  In contrast, the essay narrows the focus to examine the joys of my early years within my family.  For both pieces, I hope, the form supports my purpose.

For all of us little girls and boys, our mothers were at home, ironing our clean and well-made clothes, driving the carpool to kindergarten, and protecting us from the bullies. My mother invented games for long, rainy afternoons and read me stories and poetry—about Reddy Fox and the West Winds, and about the elephant whose trunk got tangled in the telephone. To celebrate my birthday, she gathered a dozen neighborhood children to join in eating a cake she had decorated with gumdrops.

In our community, the fathers, too, were exactly the fathers we would have desired. My father pulled me on the sled; repaired my wooden dog that wouldn’t stay upright on its wheels; built me a jungle gym, a marvel where I could do gymnastics; and took me to the ballet.


Will writing poetry—writing free or formal verse—release your creativity and help you to tell your story?  If the approach interests you, why not give it a try?


Next: So where do I go from here?

Boundaries

The voice in the essay may be that of my literal guides or may be the Inner Light that shines inside each of us.

Kentucky Stone Fence, drawing by Mason Hayek

You say your boundaries are too porous. If you would strengthen your boundaries appropriately, you will ask yourself why you are erecting barriers between you and others of God’s creatures. It is not really barriers, or boundaries, that you seek. It is a stronger sense of self.

            And how to achieve that stronger sense of self? The way is by knowing your values and needs, as well as those of others. Sometimes it is hard to tell what is fair, but the only way to judge is by looking inside yourself and asking, “Am I trying to give more than I have to give at this particular time?” If the situation is an emergency, you do all you can and more. But most situations are not emergencies, and you have time to think and plan: how will you renew yourself sufficiently so that your soul and body are able to flourish and grow, along with those of the person you are trying to help?

Brandywine State Park, Wilmington, Delaware, drawing by Mason Hayek

            It is not much good to help another and harm or destroy yourself. God wants all of his creatures. You are not more important than the next, and not less important. Give all you can but not more than you can without draining your reserves and denying your gifts to the world, for we all have gifts, every creature, heavenly and on Earth; we are responsible for saving and healing ourselves, as well as others. We don’t rob Peter to pay Paul.

            Remember the Parable of the Talents, and think of those as literal talents, your talents. They are not to be buried under arduous work or sacrifice that robs them of their value and gloss. Build your talents to serve and serve through your talents, not by denying them and burying them in the burden of every day. Your kindness and love are talents, too, and giving them helps them to grow unless you are giving more than your body and mind can afford from their store of energy and time. This is the way the Lord wants you to reason—not that you must give and give and give so that there is little left in you and you are half destroyed from fatigue and exhaustion of your nerves and patience.

            We your guides are with you and will help you to understand if you are not doing your share. Generally that is not a problem with you, but we know that it worries you. You think you are not being fair, not doing your part, not helping enough. When you are exhausted or have not released your creativity through valued outlets, say so and do so, rather than plowing ahead. This is the way the Lord wishes for you to do so that you help others and respect yourself at the same time.

My parents following their inspiration

            Ask in prayer if you are uncertain, or come back to your journal and write, for that will free you and sort out your mind so that your spirit is unencumbered—so that you are able to give without pain and receive from God your talents and their multiplying on your behalf and that of others. You are not a slave. No human being was made to be a slave, literally or figuratively, and do not enslave yourself through your own misunderstanding of who you are and what you must do to give to others balm for their needs, their worries, and their suffering.

            We are with you. We care. We are not telling you to be selfish, and being selfish is not your nature even though all people are selfish from time to time. But we are telling you that treating yourself right according to your gifts and your physical limitations and possibilities is not selfishness. The adage of paying yourself first is appropriate, if we may return to the money metaphor. More accurately, we would say to be sure to pay yourself as you are giving to others—not in the sense of payback or bribe but in the sense of adding to your fund of energy, enthusiasm, ideas, and inspiration. This is our recommendation, and it has stood the test of the ages.

            So try, even if the advice does not seem easy to follow. Actually it is easier than you think, and the guidelines are here. If you are too tired physically and/or spiritually, and if your creative outlets have not been followed sufficiently to stem your frustration and sense of self-denial, you need to “pay” yourself before continuing unless a true emergency situation exists for another. And even then you must return to yourself as quickly as you can—to renew yourself for your sake, God’s sake, and that of others. You will give far more from a base of fulfillment and physical wellbeing than you ever can from an empty vessel of self.

            We speak truth, and we will help you to follow it if you turn to us with your doubts. We leave this subject now but can return to it when the need arises, after you have given these principles your full attention and effort. Blessings to you and to all of God’s creatures. We love you. Love both yourself and others.

Namaste