Leaf of the Tree

Finding the Divine in the Details


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A season of renewal and hope

Wassily Kandinsky, Murnau: Top of the Johannisstrasse, 1908

Author and friend Reiner Lomb once shared a story about how surprising – and kind – the human heart can be.

Toward the end of World War 2, on Good Friday, some of his ancestors were expecting their tiny village to be overrun at any moment by U.S. soldiers. The German troops were retreating, and my friend’s family members, six adults and two children, were trying to decide whether they should stay put or hide in hills above the village.

In a previous war, their village had been wiped out in a similar situation, with every single person killed, so they were quite fearful.

They also had a family member who was a prisoner of war overseas, one with whom they would later be reunited, and who would become my friend’s father.

All they wanted to do was to be able to live their simple life in terrible times, during a war they’d just as soon had never happened.

They decided to stay in their home, and within hours, several vehicles pulled into their farmyard and U.S. soldiers climbed out and ordered them upstairs while the soldiers took over the lower floor of the house.

Photo: Nelson Ashberger

What my friend’s aunt, who was among those present, most remembers is how young these soldiers looked to her at the time. As she and her sister peeked down from upstairs, she saw that the soldiers were having trouble figuring out how to light the cook stove, and so, to her family’s horror, she bounded down to help them. (Her sister would later tease her that the only reason she’d done this was because those soldiers were so handsome.)

That weekend, they all eventually feasted together on the farm’s fresh eggs and the soldiers’ rations in a shared meal around that kitchen table. On Easter Sunday morning, the family came downstairs to find the soldiers gone, along with a basket of hard-boiled eggs that the family had colored earlier that week. In the basket’s place was a huge stash of chocolate.

“My family hadn’t seen chocolate for years,” my friend says, “and this, combined with how carefully the soldiers had left everything in its place when my family had expected them to ransack the house, gave everyone great heart, and the possibility of believing that maybe things would be all right after all.”

The miracle of his father’s return a short while later was the very best evidence of that, of course, and soon spring bulbs were blooming in the yard and, despite the ravages of the war, his family knew that they’d see green fields again.

It’s no coincidence that the essence of Easter – resurrection — is about restoration and renewal.

Whatever our faith, or lack of it, spring brings that glorious reminder that, no matter what has happened, no matter how long our personal winters may have been, the spiritual pulse of springtime always offers us a new beginning.

 

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

https://www.amazon.com/Life-First-Sight-Finding-Details-ebook/dp/B00B5MR9B0

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The atmosphere in which peace emerges

Words from Richard Bach came up this week as a deep reminder:

“You don’t want a million answers as much as you want a few forever questions. The questions are diamonds you hold in the light. Study a lifetime and you see different colors from the same jewel. The same questions, asked again, bring you just the answers you need just the minute you need them.”                                                                                                                

This prompted a few forever questions as one month draws to its close and another begins:

 

How does my willingness to let go serve my highest purpose?

What freedom does it offer me from the erroneous notions and tyranny of my own thoughts?

What appears when I relinquish something lesser for something greater?

In what ways does its atmosphere and perspective always feel better?

Might it be the atmosphere in which peace emerges? LAFS6377506

 

Floral images courtesy of D. Kirkup Jewelry Designs:

https://www.etsy.com/shop/DKirkupDesigns

 

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

Find more about the book here:

https://www.amazon.com/Life-First-Sight-Finding-Details-ebook/dp/B00B5MR9B0


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There is no such thing as small change

1922492_10153341394052228_6003546863571588601_nAround this time of year, I’m reminded of a story that showed me what a myth it is that people can’t change, that generations of behaving a certain way will only lead to more of the same.

A couple that we know made enormous efforts over the years to help their neighborhood be a better place for kids. Once a thriving, middle-class community to which the husband’s grandparents immigrated, it had fallen into decay with their city’s economic depression. Little by little, the couple’s home — that house his grandparents bought long ago — became a safe haven for the neighborhood’s kids, many of whom had little or nonexistent home life, or parents who just didn’t know how to get up from taking too many hits when they were already down.

11049450_931176180248396_9131258257236031369_nAs our friends and their own three children watched their home evolve into a de facto Boys and Girls Club, they decided to be intentional about it. They bought the house next door (an affordable prospect in a neighborhood where few choose to live) and invested in putting a pool in their backyard. Over the next decade of summers, a lot of kids gathered around that pool. The warm welcome they received there included rules, limits and a chance to develop self-discipline that most would find nowhere else, It was a chance to develop what Dr. King once called “the content of their character” — and to understand that this is the real purpose in life. Dozens of kids who passed through that house, and many of their parents, found possibilities in life they might never have known existed.

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Illustration by Leona Hosack

I thought I knew this couple’s story until, while I was visiting with them, the husband nodded toward a city bus stop as we drove past and said, “That’s where it all began. As they shared the story of their courtship and decision to marry shortly after high school, he described how, as they were standing at that bus stop one day, star-stuck with love and making big plans for their future together, he’d said something offhandedly. A car of men with faces as dark as most of their neighbors today had driven by, and without even thinking, he’d uttered a racial slur. It was something he’d heard fairly frequently among his peers.

“I’ll never forget the look on her face.” His own expression was somber in memory. “That look in her eyes, it was a combination of disbelief and anger, disappointment and sadness.”

That look, he said, had made the biggest impact on him of all, unleashing changes he could never have predicted.

His wife explained that she’d grown up with her family’s foster son, whom she truly loved like a brother, and who was black. The circle of her family’s African-American friends was also wide. Hearing her future husband say something like this seemed unthinkable, and unacceptable. As she turned to him with that look that day, she told him, “I don’t think I can be with you.” bruisenot10628403_896653373691808_2232318852909161472_n

At the time, her husband notes, any remorse on his part was motivated strictly by the desire not to lose her. “But I also didn’t want to lose the love and trust and respect for me that I saw leave her eyes when I’d said that,” he says. “And I knew that I wanted the mother of my children to be someone who had the strength of conviction that she had. It was brave to take a stand like that, because she really loved me, and what I did must have been a big disappointment to her.”

Like the efforts they later made to help their neighborhood’s children, nothing came easily, or overnight. But he did have a kind of epiphany that day, he says. “I realized that I had more choice about what I could do, and think, and believe, than I had understood. A lot of my actions and beliefs came out of the way my family and those who I’d grown up with saw things, and it was my responsibility to recognize where I’d been influenced by that, and to decide for myself.”

Standing at the bus stop that day, he couldn’t have imagined where such a willingness to change would lead him. Not only did that house of his grandparents eventually become an interracial community center, but his own circle of friends and family looks so much different than it might have had he chosen a different path that day at the bus stop.

SONY DSC

The kind of change that moves away from blind imitation of the past is nearly always an act of real moral courage, however small it may appear at first. The smallest action or decision to change based on principle or new understanding can often be overlooked by others, seemingly invisible at the time. But as my friends — and their many friends — can testify, it initiates a quietly powerful momentum that, like the lever of Archimedes, sometimes can move the world.

312q7DGYsbL._SL110_Adapted from Life at First Sight: Finding the Divine in the Details:

http://www.amazon.com/Life-First-Sight-Finding-Details-ebook/dp/B00B5MR9B0/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=

 


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Reading between history’s lines

bad-homburg-vor-der-hohe-d974I recently unearthed a little treasure from family history that’s supremely timely as I wrap up European scenes in my newest novel, The Munich Girl.

Four small pages of stationery with my mother’s initials at the top are filled with her distinctive British handwriting on all eight sides. A prolific writer, she gathered these snapshot recollections from years when my parents and then pre-schooler sister lived in post-war France and Germany. God bless her. We think about doing such things so often. Now I’m a real beneficiary because she actually did.

“I decided then that you’d probably grow up to be a tactful, diplomatic person,” she describes of the time when, on her very first airplane flight (from London to Bordeaux, France), my sister, then 4, made polite conversation with the two travelers seated across from her and my mother. My mother describes them as “dressed in the full regalia of those who live in Arab countries.”

Among many vocations, my sister was eventually a staff member for three Congressmen and a U.S. Senator, which afforded numberless opportunities to practice both tact and diplomacy. Our mother had a knack for being prophetic that way.

A Pretty Meadow near Ashdown forest 174

Photo: Kathy Gilman

She recalls “Tu et You,” my parents’ nickname for the rustic French farmhouse where they were billeted as a young couple. “Toilet was directly off — almost still within — the kitchen,” she writes. “The septic tank, it turns out, was directly under the toilet,” as she had occasion to discover when said toilet malfunctioned and the horse-drawn “Vidange Rapide” (“quick drain”) cart came to the rescue. The operator, she records, consumed a sandwich during the repair, all while periodically jiggling the leaky hose he was wielding. His verdict: “Too much tissue.” Apparently none was the preferred quantity.

Each weekday, from the time my sister turned 5, two military police would arrive at the house shortly before dawn to escort her to school via military staff car, a ride of an hour each way. I cannot imagine what this meant for my mother’s peace of mind. It explains a lot about why my sister’s probably one of the most unflappable travelers I know.

On some of those schooldays, my mother and a very-pregnant neighbor, also a military spouse, went to the nearby market town to do laundry. My mother handled the French-speaking, at which she was quite adept, and the neighbor provided the transportation. My mother was tasked with planning their route, which she did very carefully, as the neighbor’s Studebaker had no reverse gear.

1011701_514541095267076_944692049_nOn one of those days, Henri the gardener decided to “repair” the coal stove and inadvertently dislodged the stove pipe, which collapsed and blanketed everything in sight, including Henri, in soot. My mother notes that he did not stick around to help clean it up.

On New Year’s Eve at the luxurious Grand Hotel in Bordeaux, the elegant doors to the rooms for “hommes” (men) and “femmes” (women) opened into the same restroom. “And the very fancy chicken entrée still had most of its insides,” my mother notes. As she so often did, she came home afterward and sat on my sister’s bed and shared the evening’s details, including descriptions of the most fashionably dressed women.

Next stop in their tour of duty was Frankfurt, Germany, where most military families had maids, in part because so many postwar Germans needed the work. Ria, the first, asserted her influence with furniture: “Every weekend, your father would rearrange the gigantic German furniture, including piano, and every Monday, Ria would put it all back. ‘Nein, nein — das ist besser’.”

Harriette favored “snail and Crisco sandwiches,” and Olga, who had been a Russian prisoner of war (and suffered who knows what atrocities) hadn’t seen a flush toilet before and thought it a fine device for cleaning vegetables, my mother was horrified to discover one day.

My father, who tended to be the family storyteller, regaled us with stories like these for years and no matter how many times we heard them, they sent tears of mirth rolling down our cheeks.  LAFS6377506

My mother’s dry summaries, rendered with British wit, certainly did too. Yet there’s something that speaks volumes between their terse lines. My father, more often than not, came home to hear about these experiences, while my mother, with a battlefront whose local dialect kept changing, actually lived them.

Humor was obviously a very big part of how she managed that. And while she may have had to dig deep, some days, to find that humor, the effort itself is still a kind of healing balm, even all these years later.

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

http://www.amazon.com/Life-First-Sight-Finding-ebook/dp/B00B5MR9B0/ref=tmm_kin_title_0/181-3985550-85


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The same winds blow on us all

There’s a game I used to share in my conference-planning days because it could quickly unite a diverse group of people who didn’t yet know each other.

Called “The West Wind Blows,” it has players sit in chairs arranged in a circle while one person in the middle calls out different sorts of descriptors such as “The West Wind blows on everybody wearing socks” or “The West Wind blows on everyone who’s ever gone skiing.” If the description applies to you, you stand up and scurry to another place in the circle.

In order to be a good sport and keep things lively, you have to move out of the “safe” comfort zone of simply swapping places with someone next to you and strike out into the circle itself. If the chairs are all filled before you find a new one, you get the privilege of being the one in the middle trying to think up the next description until you’re able to rush to an empty seat again.

11014906_824910567597565_94928212601865149_nAt its best, this game keeps everyone moving around, often for quite some time, and just about all ages can play it together. Within minutes, this resource can weld a motley group of 50 adults and children into a bustling, giggling mass of happy humanity all focused on the same thing. It’s one of those opportunities that gives everyone permission to let down barriers to knowing each other when we’re sometimes not even sure why those barriers exist in the first place.

As many games do, it also offers chances to model or reinforce positive kinds of behaviors. You have to cooperate and pay attention. You have to move skillfully and quickly while being considerate and careful of others’ movements.

And in order for the game to really be enjoyable, it absolutely has to avoid becoming competitive. In groups that can include grandparents, teens, schoolkids, parents, and toddlers, it doesn’t usually take long before big people start helping the very small ones and kids suddenly start giving up their seat to an elder or peer who’s having trouble getting out of the middle. (Not that being in the middle is such a bad thing.)

The variation and balance of similarities and differences is what seems key in this game, what keeps everyone attentive, and ensures that all will be included. Curiously, your best chance at getting out of the middle is to be as inclusive as possible. The greater the number of people you get up and moving, the greater your chances of finding a chair — and the more fun everyone has. You might say that inclusiveness is the game’s objective, and the way you reach it is by focusing on how much more similar we are than different.

A coming together of the world’s peoples in a relationship as harmonious, open, and welcoming as a good game of The West Wind Blows is clearly a need of our times, if a far more complex prospect. There seems little doubt that creating such a universal culture of collaboration and conciliation will require great, persevering effort on our part, as well as creativity, and compassion.

The job is big, the tasks complex, and many of the elements quite daunting. But the promise is big, and the reward unprecedented, if we can find the wisdom and will to truly embrace the diversity with which the Creator has gifted us and let it be the path to unity it’s intended to be.

Bahá’u’lláh reminds: “The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established. … Deal ye one with another with the utmost love and harmony, with friendliness and fellowship.”

And, lest we forget, feel frustrated, or think this all may not be achievable, it helps to remember the darkness it will dispel: “So powerful is the light of unity that it can illuminate the whole earth.” LAFS6377506

No matter what kinds of winds may blow on us, or how hard, it does appear that we’ll benefit far more by facing them together.

From Life at First Sight: Finding the Divine in the Details

Find more about the book at:

http://www.amazon.com/Life-First-Sight-Finding-Details-ebook/dp/B00B5MR9B0/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=


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Eternity is a part of every true gift

FullSizeRender

Artwork: Judy Wright

My friend, Carol, gave me a wonderful surprise at about the last place I’d have expected it — her funeral.

She received the devastating news about her cancer the same day her employer told her that she would soon be out of a job.

Things happened even faster for Carol, after that – fast especially for someone who, like most of us at this stage of life, was never looking to include life-threatening illness in her life experience. By early September, she’d been given three months to live. Her goal was to make it through all three of them, which, God willing, would be just enough time to see her first grandchild.

I made a trip to see Carol that week and brought a small CD player I’d picked up. She’d been feeling so terrible that even reading and watching TV were impossible, but she could still enjoy listening to music. However, her own CD player had broken.

CD playerThere was so much I couldn’t do for her. This, at least, seemed like one small thing I could offer. Knowing how weak she was, I searched for a little machine that was lightweight and, hopefully, something she’d be able to move herself.

The day I saw her, despite the fact that she was essentially drifting between worlds, she, as always, received my gift graciously.

But my heart was saddened by two things that were clear from the moment I watched the home-health nurse call for an ambulance to take her to the hospital: Carol was never going to use that CD player, and she wasn’t going to live to see her grandchild born.

A week later, I sat in a small Victorian church whose beautiful stained-glass windows flooded its pews with rosy light. Waiting for Carol’s funeral service to begin, I was thinking about her life, and all of the things that would never be, when I noticed that among the vases of cut flowers and the pretty candles that had been set out on a small table up front, there was something familiar.

Read the rest at BoomerCafe:

DSCF3564http://www.boomercafe.com/2014/07/14/touching-story-love-friendship/

312q7DGYsbL._SL110_

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

http://www.amazon.com/Life-First-Sight-Finding-Details-ebook/dp/B00B5MR9B0/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=&qid=


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The heart’s own gift

Painted Desert

Painting: Judy Hughey Wright

I once heard someone describe how, while traveling on a bus in Africa, where many roads look like something Americans would reserve for all-terrain vehicles, he’d had an unexpected encounter with the power of encouragement.

As the driver navigated the deeply rutted road, the passengers would repeatedly, and with great enthusiasm, cry out a phrase that sounded like “ay-kushay.” As the American man watched more carefully, he realized that this was a kind of cheer they made each time the driver successfully avoided a pothole.

His story brought to mind the friends I made when I lived in China. Seldom have I seen people work as hard, or live with so little. In addition to showing a generally uncomplaining and positive attitude, they demonstrated something whose effectiveness finally makes sense to me. As they’d wave me on my way, they’d unfailingly call out, “Do your best,” “Take your time” or “Enjoy yourself!” China3.2009 197

It wasn’t until I got back to the United States and no longer heard these things that I realized how much I’d appreciated such sources of encouragement. They had a lovely sound to my ears — and they were empowering.

To “encourage” each other, literally meaning “to give heart,” is one of the most spiritually beautiful gifts we can share. Perhaps the very scarcity of encouragement in daily life is what has so many feeling weary, fearful, and uninspired.

And an especially good reason to cultivate encouragement is that its opposite, discouragement, tends to breed complaint and criticism like weeds. Falling prey to these, which do nothing to draw us near to God, or goodness, is all too easy, leads nowhere new, and feels bad.

But surprisingly, practicing encouragement instead doesn’t require much more effort, other than willingly letting go. IMG_6181

Then there’s the surprise bonus in choosing encouragement, both for others and our own selves. Live long enough and you get to see how offering sincere encouragement to others turns out to be like giving it to yourself at the same time.

I just love when divine wisdom maximizes things in that very generous way.

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

http://rcm-na.amazon-adsystem.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=FFFFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=leaofthetre-20&o=1&p=8&l=as4&m=amazon&f=ifr&ref=ss_til&asins=1931847673″