Leaf of the Tree

Finding the Divine in the Details

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In the borderlands

strasbourgI recently returned to Europe for the first time since the release of my novel, The Munich Girl. Though my husband and I travel there a lot, this trip’s itinerary included places we’ve seldom or never visited.

Our route followed the natural border of the Rhine River, which means we repeatedly encountered those curious amalgamations of cuisine, culture, architectural styles, and attitudes that occur along divisions that humans decide ought to exist simply because geography seems to suggest them.

photo-2In the building dwarfed by its neighbors in the photo to the right, we, in a scene like something out of The Pink Panther, spoke three languages with the server in the course of his taking our order. As we all tried to accommodate each other, one or more of us kept shifting to a new one at exactly the wrong time. But I think we all appreciated the spirit of our intent.

We still wound up with some of the best Alsatian cooking I’ve had in a long time, generous with onions, cheese, and light buttery pastry I’ve found nowhere else.

833602_Food-KitchenWise-Alsatian-OThis section of France’s border with Germany is long-accustomed to shifting back and forth between nationalities and languages. As our tour guide explained why it is that even the youngest schoolchildren here have their classes in at least three languages, she described how, between world wars and other upheavals, her grandfather’s nationality changed four times in his 20th-century lifetime, though he never moved from his home city.

Much like clouds and changes in the weather, political insistence and other demands that humans impose on each other can come and go, often with great extremes. Within individual lives, challenges can arise in this way, too.

thHow we face and meet our choices — and what that helps us become — seems the vital focus in it all, however dire or uncertain things may appear.

And in that experience, though we walk the path of our individual lives alone, we also seem inextricably linked. This is one of the themes that I hope the story of The Munich Girl manages to convey.

Traveling along the borderlands of this river reminded me that navigating shifts in our circumstances is one of the main opportunities we receive to hone and develop some particularly pleasing qualities. I encountered them over and over in our stops along this route: a spirit of acceptance, flexibility, adaptability. Resilience. Relaxed openness. Even, delightfully, a kind of good-humored playfulness.


Image: Charity Elise Designs / Charity Pabst-Hofert

It was as if over time, through all of that practice with change, people have adopted something of the flow that the river embodies.

“Thou wast created to bear and endure,” one passage from Baha’i writings states, while another declares that we are “created for happiness.”

These might sometimes seem nearly contradictory.

Perhaps the people I observed as I traveled have begun to reconcile what joy and hardship have to show us when we don’t impose a border between them; learned to understand that, like the waters of the river, each comes and goes, like the clouds and waters — and even invading armies.

But we get to decide how we embrace and anchor our own happiness.



Climbing to the sun

Kathy at the Top of England 171


Good friend and writer Kathy Gilman of New Hampshire is climbing into the heavens above the fells in the part of northern England that was my mother’s home, and my sister’s birthplace.

For lovers of the natural world, England — and life — as well as keeping faith, I am delighted to share her words and images:


Guest Post: Standing on top of England

By Kathy Gilman

It is overcast at 8:30 a.m. and I am prepared for wet conditions. Light mackintosh in the pack. Waterproof over trousers. Yet I am encouraged by Wunderground’s prediction of clear skies at 1 p.m.

    Stone steps beneath my feet slanting at different angles, each step a different depth. I wonder if stepping up is more difficult than walking on a flat incline. Little Lamb Laying Low 31
     I reach a stream that must be crossed. I am afraid of getting my boots and socks wet.  I notice others going over in different spots, balancing on the slimy mossy rocks, charging over without stopping. I am timid and unsure. I take off my boots and socks and throw them across the stream.  I roll up my pants. I feel more secure with my feet curling over the tops of the rocks.
     I make it across without getting my feet any more wet than they do from the rocks. Having dried them off with my shirt, I move along up more stone “stairs”, built into the side of the fell. Rain mists and I don my mackintosh. Small pebbles of hail start to fall.
Creeping Clouds 71      A party of three ahead of me turns back, saying they wouldn’t go any further in the hail. I cling to the image of the sun icon that I saw that morning on my computer, and press on.
     The hail does not last long. The misty rain stops. The steps end and turn into a rough stony path with boulders from time to time. A continuous steady climb upward, sometimes zigzagging back and forth, like an uphill slalom on a wintry mountain.
     Nearing the top, I come across mounds of black angular rocks that are piled up on one another, as if dumped out of a huge sack from above. I am not able to walk on any ground at all, but must pick my way over and through these rocks to the top and to a stone shelter to eat some lunch.
Here Comes the Sun on the Summit 211     By noon, I am at the top and in the clouds, save for one direction that will offer views from time to time. Undaunted and confident in the weather prediction, I wait out the hour for the certain clearing, eating at a leisurely pace.
     After one hour, the clouds thicken.  I begin to lose hope, and decide to make my way over to the platform and cairn for pictures before descending.
     At 1:30, the clouds miraculously lift as predicted, the crowds begin to appear up to the top, as if magnetized by the sun, and I get a 360 degree view from Scafell Pike, the top of England.
     The hour and a half wait at the top has been worth it, and my faith in the forecast proved successful.