Honoring the Holy Spaces Among Us

Honoring the Holy Spaces Among Us

I have just come away from a 4-day writing retreat called “Wild With Words.” It was an inspiring, at times frightening, introspective, rollicking, revealing, holy time for me.

There were 12 of us in the room most of the time. At one point I counted 14. We came from all walks of life –a young mother of a nine-year-old and a nineteen-month-old; a director of church music; several female clergypersons; a corrections officer at a women’s prison; a woman whose husband recently suffered a stroke; a businesswoman seeking direction for the next chapter of her life; a retired engineer; a former executive at a Methodist agency who transplanted herself from New York to Nashville; a retired teacher; a 40ish man who confided he’d gained a lot from attending a Twelve-Steps program; and me, a wannabe writer who lets her editor hat take over too often.

What a week. Our able, sensitive leader (Martha Brunell) was full of ideas for writing prompts, clever ways of getting us to think about all sorts of subjects (mostly it was the luck of the draw from cards, slips of paper, sticky-note hearts,  Snapple caps), and encouragement for us to follow wherever our pens took us and to write in this safe space. The cardinal rule was that we would honor each person’s voice and refrain from analyzing or critiquing each other’s work. I have participated in a similar workshop led by my friend Amy Lyles Wilson, whose motto is that it is the sharing of our stories that saves us. Indeed.

I’ve got to tell you that I think this week may have saved my life and rejuvenated me for the writing I do every day in my marketing job. It was also quite therapeutic, as I ventured into some memories and confronted sometimes painful territory that I didn’t realize I was carrying around with me.

In the midst of it all was the holy spaces I felt touching each other. We came out of our solitude and shared parts of who we really are. The result was a sense of community among us, and I’m excited that the workshop/retreat participants who live in Nashville are planning to continue our journey of discovery together. Who knows what adventures that may bring!

I am grateful for some time away from my daily routine, for my employer allowing me this much-needed space, for my supportive spouse who didn’t complain about spending time alone at breakfast and dinner and who welcomed me with open arms when I came dragging home, exhausted, around 8:30-9:00 p.m. Now if I can just get rid of this damned insomnia…but meanwhile I’m surrendering to it and using it as an opportunity to get my thoughts on paper.

I wish for all of you times to get away from the daily grind, whether it is at a retreat or just a walk in nature. We all need time and space to recalibrate ourselves, get in touch with what really matters to us, and live our lives from that holy space. Oh, and along the way, we just might encounter other kindred spirits who are also trying to figure out their purpose in this journey called life.

In closing, I share one of my favorite quotes from Rumi:

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing 
and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.” 
 Rumi, Essential Rumi


What Makes Me Happy

“Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be,”  Abraham Lincoln is credited with saying. I agree wholeheartedly. While I certainly understand sadness and depression, having spent some time in that desolate territory, I do not wish to pitch my tent and dwell there.

Some days and seasons are hard to live through.  Sometimes you have to recognize when you’re in a situation that’s over your head and you need help. Sometimes you need a listening ear, even perhaps a professional counselor, to sort through all the mess and confusion.

But research has shown that people who focus on happy thoughts and put a smile on their face, even when they’re feeling down, are just happier folks.

Today I’ve been thinking about some things that make me happy. Here are a few, in no particular order:

A child’s laughter

A good belly laugh


The aroma of lilacs

Learning something new

Being able to say something in Spanish or French (the latter, I’m not tres bien at…imagine that accent “eggu” over the “e” in “tres”)

Laughing at myself when I do something silly

Doing something silly just for the heck of it

My kitty stretched out on my lap with her paws extended over her head,  in a posture of complete relaxation

The ditties my husband makes up and sings to me in his slightly out-of-tune voice

Seeing my children do something kind for someone

The smell of molasses cookies baking


Making a dish for a neighbor or someone who’s sick

Having a conversation with what would be considered an old person

Reading a good book

Reading a trashy novel every once in a while

Getting a letter from a friend

Hearing someone giggle

A thought-provoking quotation

Cartoons (both printed and animated)

Taking a mental health day from work

Puttering around the house

The smell of laundry fresh from the dryer

The feel of folding clothes

Finding mates for socks (the washer usually eats one or two)

Going on a scavenger hunt

Playing volleyball

Taking a walk and stopping to smell a flower or look at a beautiful tree

Good conversations

Meeting interesting people (I gravitate toward musicians and artists)

Trying to figure out what makes people tick (although this is often frustrating)

A beautiful, sunshiny day

Watching snowflakes outside my window

Hiking, especially in autumn

The crunch of leaves as you walk through them

Radnor Lake

Walking on a trail in the woods by myself

Wine with a good friend

Babies after a bath, with their flyaway hair (and hooded towels are just too funny)

Finishing a project and feeling like I’ve given it my best

Drawing, coloring, painting

Enjoying an art show

Reading the Psalms, pondering the Gospels, trying to fathom what in the world the apostle Paul meant by some of his writing

Speaking or writing words of encouragement to lift someone’s spirits

My family having a good discussion around the dinner table

A humble author

Watching TV with our entire family (seldom happens; we don’t have many shows we all like, nor are we all home at the same time)

Seeing positive developments in my children’s lives

Holding hands with John

Hearing Daniel say “I love you” as he signs off the phone

Having lunch with a friend

Watching Julie take pride in keeping her car clean

Laughing together at a joke

E-mail jokes from Jim and Gail

Knowing I’ve listened to someone else and tried to understand that person’s point of view without telling my own story


Making music on the piano

Finally enjoying singing in Latin at church (it took a while for me to get there)

Watching people in my congregation…especially during baptism and Communion

Hearing our children’s and youth choirs sing

A little Bach, a little Beethoven, some Three Dog Night, Elton John’s early music, The Eagles, Mozart, Norah Jones, Latin music, classical guitar…oh, there is so much good music and great musicians, this is just a mere sampling

These are just a few things that make me happy or bring me joy. There are many more that I can’t think of at the moment. Oh, one joy is knowing I’ve got food in the crockpot for dinner and I won’t have to think about it later in the day when I’m tired. This happens about once in a blue moon. 😀

The Importance of Rituals

Today is Ash Wednesday, and I’ve had ashes smudged in a cross shape on my forehead as I heard the words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Repent and believe the gospel.” Somehow I don’t know quite how to respond to that; something within me wants to say, “Amen.” I usually wind up nodding solemnly at the person who’s imposing the ashes on my forehead.

I grew up in a faith tradition that did not observe Lent. Instead, we emphasized Holy Week and the events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. In recent years the church I used to attend has held an Ash Wednesday service as a time of reflection. The closest we got to the cross-shaped smudge was receiving strips of burlap cloth to remind us of repentance.

Now I am a Methodist, and we love rituals. There’s something beautiful, comforting, and challenging to me about the rituals in our worship services, whether it’s saying the congregation’s vow at baptism, speaking the Nicene creed in unison, passing the peace, praying the Lord’s Prayer, responding with “And also with you” whenever a worship leader says “May the Lord be with you” or saying a resounding “Thanks be to God” after someone proclaims, “This is the word of God for the people of God,” or holding out hands to receive Communion after we participate in the familiar liturgy. These rituals remind me of what being a Christian is all about. They connect me with Christians from centuries ago and with Christians around the world; most of all they remind me of the many things all believers have in common.

Today I am remembering an Ash Wednesday several years ago when my dad was in the hospital for a quadruple bypass. That particular day I was feeling exhausted from being at the hospital, and I was downhearted. I found myself wanting to attend an Ash Wednesday service and have ashes smudged on my forehead. I’d already been reminded of my own mortality that week and was more than a little frightened about whether my dad would recover from his surgery. (He was 80 at the time. He’s still alive and kicking at age 88.) I needed to be with other Christians, say the words that remind me of what I believe, and feel the assurance of God’s presence.

Now that I think about it, that is the purpose of rituals: these repetitive actions and words  remind us of what we believe. They comfort us and reassure us that God is indeed present where two or three are gathered together. They are  important links to our history and markers toward our future. Perhaps most important, they remind us that everything we do together is a sacred action–and that we are all connected in this journey called life.

Love and Lilacs

I  nearly missed it. A glimpse of grace among all the random events of a crazy day.

Yesterday morning when I walked into my office, the aroma of lilacs hit me as soon as I opened the door. I breathed in the divine scent and saw a blue water bottle filled with lilac sprigs sitting on my desk.

Suddenly I was transported to my mamaw’s house in Kermit, Virginia, and I felt like I was eight years old. Mamaw Leonard had a huge lilac bush in her side yard, next to her white painted clapboard house. As a kid I ran around barefoot in her yard.

I spent many pleasant hours at Mamaw’s house in my childhood. I remember being fascinated by the way she lived: she had no indoor plumbing, so there was a chamber pot sitting under her bed. Behind her house was a weathered gray wooden outhouse, and outside her creaky screen door was a rusty old well pump with a long handle that I used to love cranking up and down.

Mary Maggie Leonard was my grandmother’s name. Her face was leathery and wrinkled, and I remember when she kissed me, I instinctively drew back because she had brown juice around her mouth from dipping snuff, but then when the deed was done, I loved her sticky kiss and the strangely sweet smell of her breath.

My dad, mom, and I used to go visit my grandmother every Friday night. In the wintertime her living room was unbearably hot because of the woodburning stove which glowed from the coal she used to heat her 4-room house. I can see her living room in my mind: a tiny room about 10 by 12 feet,  withher rocking chair sitting beside the stove and an antique sewing machine with a black iron foot pedal placed near a window. On the wall hung a sepia-toned portrait of my dad as a 19-year-old Army private in World War II.

Funny, I remember Mamaw’s rocking chair and the screened door that slammed loudly, but I don’t remember what kind of couch she had. Probably a bristly maroon worn-looking overstuffed couch that later sat in our basement.

I remember sensing that my mom didn’t want to go to my grandmother’s, and she would be strangely quiet and I just knew she hated being at Mamaw’s house. I think she felt like Mamaw clung to Daddy too much, and it also irritated her that Mamaw sounded kind of whiney when she talked. My mother was an outgoing, positive person, and she got impatient with people who were “sad sacks,” as she called Mamaw.

Now I understand why Mamaw sounded the way she did. She led a hard life. When she was 13, her mother died, leaving her as the oldest of five (?) children responsible for cooking and supervising other household responsibilities because her dad, a farmer, needed her help.

Mary Maggie Blessing married James Campbell Leonard, who worked for the railroad in their mountain valley. They had six children, four girls and two boys. One of their twin daughters died from diphtheria at 18 months. Papaw Leonard contracted tuberculosis and died when my dad, Walter Paul Leonard, was only 9.

Mamaw was left with four children to raise (the oldest, Kate, was married by that time). She worked hard as a farmer, selling milk from her prized dairy cow and vegetables from the garden to eke out a living. She also worked as the postmaster at the Kermit post office.

When I was born, she was in her 70s. I remember hearing about her getting struck by lightning once when she was down near the wellhouse. It threw her to the ground and left a scar where it blazed up her arm.

Somewhere along the way, Mamaw had an accident that cut a tendon on the ring finger of her right hand. Her finger was permanently curled into her palm, and her knobby fingers were swollen with arthritis. Still, she had a smile for me every Friday night and freshly made molasses cookies waiting.

So…the smell of lilacs takes me back to Mamaw’s house. And I feel grateful for my friend Doug, who brought me the lilacs after I posted a simple comment on Facebook under a picture of a lilac bush blooming outside his bathroom window: “Bring me some lilacs if you get a chance. Lilacs are my favorite scent…they remind me of my grandmother.”

Thank you, Doug, for helping me remember.