Leaf of the Tree

Finding the Divine in the Details


My first teacher is still 21

Photo on 2-17-14 at 7.48 PM #2My mother didn’t have a “real” birthday except during leap years, which means that even when her death certificate recorded her age as 80, she was still technically only 21.

Mothers truly are our first teachers, which may explain why we can feel so inexplicably alone once they’re gone. With each passing year, so much of what I value can be traced back to my mother, a military spouse whose life didn’t turn out anything like her 21-year-old self imagined it would.

MumDuring the years that the war ravaged Europe, my young British war-bride mother held down the fort in her family’s home in England’s remote north. She cared for my newborn older sister, along with an elderly relative who was in the end stage of cancer, plus several children who’d been evacuated from London. Somehow, she also found time to hook rugs in order to generate income to compensate for the meager wartime rations on which her crowded household had to subsist. She had compassion for those young evacuees, both because they’d had to leave their families, and because she knew the life they’d face back home. Her own face already wore nasty scars from her service as a fire warden during the infamous “Blitzkrieg.”

If anyone modeled for me how to welcome change gracefully, it was this woman who came to a new culture to meet her Boston-Irish in-laws, then proceeded to make a home for her family—over and over—in locations all over the world, wherever her husband’s military orders took us next. Her dedicated “nesting” efforts gave every place we lived that consistent feeling of home, however often we were uprooted and forced to start over.

Schwan73586_10201817493622394_728135709_nLife in a military family meant I had to keep making new friends and my mother, as with most everything, encouraged me in this and did her best to turn it into an adventure. She made it easy to nurture friendships by always welcoming playmates at our house and charming them with her warmth. (They usually loved her accent, too.)

Because she was such a canny yet unobtrusive ally in assisting our friendships, my sister and I now find it easy to make friends wherever we go, to be the one to go talk to someone standing alone at a party, as we often saw her do. With her lively mind, she always had friendly, interesting questions that would gently coax people into the nicest conversations, even if she had to ask them in a language she was struggling to learn.

Long before the days of what would come to be called Women’s Lib, military spouses were already demonstrating versatility and capability, offering strong models for their children. Their spouse’s presence was often shadowy and intermittent, which tended to make these wives adaptable and decisive, and give their children resilience, as well. That’s very likely why I wound up marrying the son of such a mother.IMG_0433

Among her many gifts, my mother was able to listen in a way that made you feel as though listening to you at that moment was the most important thing in the world, the only thing in her world. She also taught me how to value and use my own time—not just to be efficient and accomplish things, but also savor and enjoy something worth enjoying.

“A father and mother endure the greatest troubles and hardships for their children; and often when the children have reached the age of maturity, the parents pass on to the other world. Rarely does it happen that a father and mother in this world see the reward of the care and trouble they have undergone for their children,” the Bahá’í writings acknowledge. “Therefore, children, in return for this care and trouble, must show forth charity and beneficence, and must implore pardon and forgiveness for their parents.”

After my mother’s death, the one thing I heard most consistently from the many who loved her was how much kindness and help she had always shown them. It’s very clear, therefore, how I can best honor her memory. Her kindness and generosity are the most important lessons my first teacher ever gave me.

So, thanks for everything, Mum. You’ll always be twenty-one, to me.


Adapted from Life at First Sight: Finding the Divine in the Details:



The real universal language


A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men.

It is the bread of the spirit, it clotheth the words with meaning,

it is the fountain of the light of wisdom and

understanding.   ~ Bahá’u’lláh

When I saw the Chinese New Year decorations in a favorite restaurant this week, I was transported back to one of the most powerful lessons I ever received, from one of my youngest teachers. During the semester that I taught English to kindergartners in China, the curriculum I used also introduced another more universal language that I believe all human beings are pre-programmed to speak: the language of virtues.

China3.2009 216When you live in a place where you can’t speak the language, you gain new appreciation for spiritual attributes as stepping stones for communication. Kind looks and encouraging smiles are something we can all recognize and such gems of human goodness became more visible when we can’t fall back on words alone.

This happened for me one day in China when, right before the five classes I was scheduled to teach, I was hit by sudden illness that left me weak and dizzy in the midst of Shanghai’s spinning streets, on the verge of collapsing. I arrived at the school with no idea how I’d get through the afternoon of classes ahead of me.

2005 China Trip 248I was greeted at the classroom door by a five-year-old who, upon seeing me, took my bags and carried them to a place where he pointed for me to sit. Then he disappeared into the next room and returned with water in a beautiful clay teacup. He presented this to me with marked kindness, good manners, and concern, then stood beside me companionably, patting my back gently a few times as I sipped slowly.

He spoke only a few English words he’d learned from me (none of which applied very much in this situation) and I spoke virtually no Chinese, but the unspoken communication between us in those moments was unmistakably deep. Settled in the hospitable embrace in which he immersed me with such unspoken wisdom, I felt my symptoms lifting off of me as I basked in the oasis of calm he had created. Then I experienced a surge of energy that lifted and carried me through that class and those that followed.

Storm 205Remarkably, I can feel that same warm, healing strength today as I remember his kindness.

More than ever, humanity needs a universal language. Though I don’t know what it will be, I feel as though I’ve caught a glimpse of what must surely be one of its essential ingredients: the vocabulary of virtues that God has treasured inside each of us.

It seems to find its best expression in actions and gestures of kindness, and needs no translation at all.


Adapted from Life at First Sight: Finding the Divine in the Details: