If you wish to bring peace to the world, you must first bring peace to your own heart.” ~rvw
I spent the afternoon at Prospect Hill Cemetery here in Towson, six acres of burial grounds on preserved land just feet from the hectic circle joining five of Towson’s busiest streets.
I am working on a feature that will be published September 10, just two days from the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Baltimore.
The feeling here is strong. I am struck with a certain reverence for the men and women who shaped our communities and gave us the opportunities that we now have. Had it not been for the Hillens, the Jarrets, the Bosleys (among others), I doubt we would be so proud to call this our home.
The picture above is, perhaps, the most haunting. It is known on the grounds as “Babyland,” a burial place for infants and toddlers who were taken from the arms of their mothers and fathers long before their time.
These grounds are a part of our familial and community roots. When we release our fears, we begin to embrace that which has always been deep within us, around us, to bring us unconditional strength and love.
My newsfeeds on multiple social media sites stream by me at a too-fast rate, pushing news and updates across my screen faster than I can refresh them. Emails await my replies in an overflowing inbox, and text messages are still unanswered from last night.
The world is too much with us…. wrote William Wordsworth in a sonnet he penned 212 years ago. Talk about words standing the test of time.
It is easy to get caught up in the rush of our digital world, isn’t it? With everything screaming by us at speeds that were incomprehensible earlier in our own lifetimes, we find ourselves feeling the need to keep up and match that speed so that we can stay in the flow of this ever-pressing world.
I think otherwise. In fact, I don’t buy it for a nanosecond.
I’m standing here on the banks of Loch Raven Reservoir in Baltimore, watching the colors of the rising sun sift through a patch of lazy steam making its own ascent from the still waters. There is nothing “fast” about this process. It moves independently, a natural beauty both fluid and brilliant in its display. I am mesmerized by how unfazed it is by my presence. I am a witness to its tranquil unfolding. I am open to all it has to teach me.
I come out here to be reminded of what matters most in my world. At times, like now, I have to remember what I am not, as much as who I am.
I feel my pulse align with my natural surroundings; my muscles relax, and my feet feel rooted in the damp, dewy grasses here at the edge of the waters. This is what life is about; this is what I am about.
A Mindful Intimation
I am not part of a scrolling newsfeed, nor do I need to keep up with one. The speed of my life experience is not dependent upon, or a mirror of, the technology around me. I align myself with the rising mist on local pre-dawn waters. I will not allow the world to be too much with me — at least not the one filled with screaming technology that never rests. I set my pace; I am mindful of my independence and personal solitude. This is my world. This is my existence.
I have just returned from one of the most powerful spiritual experiences in my life with Church of the Nativity, compared only to a late summer afternoon 23 years ago at Chesapeake Presbyterian Church in Calvert County, MD. At Chesapeake, we were running a summer camp for kids, and our theme for the entire week was Beauty and the Beast. As the Beast, I had the powerful role of transformation. That experience, in itself, was both humbling and uplifting.
At the end of the week, all 700+ children joined us together in the auditorium for a culminating celebration. As I stood on stage with the rest of the cast, we were brought to tears from the song of 700 voices as they stood, waving their hands, in grace and gratitude. The energy and excitement we felt in that church was beyond any connection I had ever made, anywhere.
I have experienced great moments of solitude on the top of mountains; I have worshiped quietly among the natural sounds immersed in the woods. I have even stood in meditation on the edge of the ocean, with the subtle roar of the water coming and going, washing my feet and feeling the push-and-pull of the tide in the moving grains of sand. Each of these experiences has brought me great strength, and they will continue to provide energy in the years to come.
These moments serve a genuine purpose in our lives; they allow us to return to the core of who we are. They quiet the noise that has surrounded us, pulling and pushing us this way and that for whatever reason – noble or otherwise.
These bigger experiences, with hundreds or thousands of people, are quite similar. We find ourselves surrounded by an even greater energy, a collective spirit that abandons pain, suffering, and anxiety.
Yesterday, I felt such a communion with about 5,000 others at SECU Arena on Towson University’s campus, where Church of the Nativity held their Easter Mass in an event that took me back to Chesapeake and those 700 hand-waving, singing children who filled the auditorium with love, life, and energy.
The service began with a “warm up” that included sports-like introductions, electric guitars, a lip-syncing contest, and a social media scavenger hunt. This was not your typical Roman Catholic Easter Mass.
It worked. The crowd was engaged, laughing and celebrating as the two hosts, Kristin Costanza and Chris Wesley, welcomed everyone to a service about resurrection and establishing a vision for living purposefully, authentically.
As the band concluded the warm up and Father White watched on stage, I was struck with the beautiful fusion of traditional worship and contemporary praise for recognizing the power of the present, leaving behind the past and all of the pain and suffering that are wrapped up in the archives of those moments long gone. The picture here really captures that fusion for me.
For years now, I have focused on mindfulness and awareness of the energy in the present moment. We carry so many heavy burdens with us from our pasts, and they anchor us into the ground. For some reason, we keep looking to others to break the chains for us; worse, we often feel like we are deserving of the pain, and we become resigned to an existence tethered to what is in the past.
The story of Jesus’ Resurrection reminds us that the past is gone. Rebirth is all about leaving behind what has anchored us from our past.
Still, although we have been released from its pain, its suffering, we wallow in this status quo of what has happened to us, to the ones we love, and to the world. We base our existence on pain and memory. There is great fear in this way of thinking, of living. Unfortunately, it is the premise of an existence for many millions of individuals, struggling every day with depression, anxiety, and pain.
It doesn’t have to be this way for any of us.
At one point in Father White’s sermon, he said, “Excitement overcomes fear; that is what Vision is all about.” This vision that we have for ourselves has to first come from within. The energy that 700 children or 5,000 individuals creates comes from that personal belief, that energy of self-worth and excitement for living today and letting go of yesterday.
This is not easy to do. We are inclined to believe that our pasts have defined us, that we are where we are today because of who we are. But this is not true. This is only who we believe we have been all these years. We have allowed our past experiences filled with pain and suffering to define us. Our perceived self has been a self-fulfilling destiny because we have believed it as if it were truth.
It isn’t. It is nothing more than a false image of ourselves built on fear. Once we realize this, we can begin to diminish the hold this fear has on us, and we can let go of the chains. We can free ourselves to see the beauty and the power of the moments in our present lives.
When we are able to do this, a different kind of fusion happens — the fusion of the self and the greater spirit that is available to all of us. That fusion happened yesterday, as it did all those years ago at Chesapeake. There is a great message here for all of us. We must silence the noise of our pasts and find solitude in quiet worship, but we must also return to our friends, our communities, and share that excitement for our vision of living an unparalleled life.
I offer my thanks to Church of the Nativity for sharing their own vision, bringing excitement back into our lives, and giving us all courage to let go of the fear that has gripped us for so long.
Enjoy this short clip of the final song of yesterday’s Easter Mass, and may you feel the energy and excitement of resurrection in your own life today!
We are all doing our best to carry on, but sometimes fear grips us. We find ourselves paralyzed by a certain event, or tragedy, or simple twist of fate that puts us in a challenging situation. I really believe, too, that the older we get, the more fatigued we become in such challenges. We begin to ponder resignation; we feel too tired to fight again.
It’s okay to feel that way. What’s not okay is to harbor it, offer it a room and free board, and let it take up an indefinite residence within you.
In the past three weeks, I have experienced three deaths: a 20-year-old former student, a 49-year-old former classmate, and a 67-year-old friend. The youngest fought for his life and inspired hundreds of thousands; the middle-aged friend struggled in many ways throughout his adult life to find happiness. The oldest was like a mother to me and a grandmother to my children. These three very different deaths prompted three very different reflections within me.
Individually, the youngest gave me strength, the middle-aged gave me anger, and the elder offered me love.
Collectively, though, their deaths served up a not-so-healthy dose of fear.
I am getting older, too. We all are. The 20 year old lived more fully than most do in a lifetime, even in his battles to defeat cancer. The 49 year old, on the other hand, battled more than most do in a lifetime, but in a pursuit for happiness. The 67 year old lived a life, as I knew her, filled with loving kindness, opening her house and her heart to all.
How well have I lived my life?
The fear is strong within that single thought — nearing the age of 50, clearly not in the best shape, and expending too much energy into areas that are not good investments in my overall health and well-being.
This past weekend, I spent three long days at my daughter’s Finale for her equitation season. In comparison with what she did in those 72 hours, I did very little. I did, however, spend a great deal of time observing her and the work ethic of the other eight riders. They worked well into the night preparing the horses and the trailers, then awoke at 3:30 a.m. for the final prep before the big event began just before 9 a.m.
They did more work and conquered more fears in those 72 hours than I face in a full week — maybe an entire month — and not one of them complained.
I look at the picture of my daughter, featured above, and I see what it looks like when you let go of fear. I see she believes in herself. She has confidence to go from a trot to a canter. She has courage to approach the next jump and soar into the air.
That’s what I need to remember. That’s what we all need to practice. When fear grips us, we need to acknowledge it. Let it in fully. But then we need to do what so few of us are good at doing: we need to let it go. Release it forever. Then get to work.
And what is that work? Living. Fully. It’s all about letting go of the past. Letting go of the fear. Letting go of the what-ifs.
It’s all about realizing the present. Embracing what is. Running full speed into the next moment with belief, confidence, and courage.
We are going to face those challenges every day, and some are going to be tougher than others.
We just need to remember: We can make the choice to let the fear in, then we must make the choice to let the fear go.
What choice will you make?
Saturday morning, January 25. I am working on my syllabi for the upcoming spring semester, feeling pretty good at what I have already accomplished. I pour another cup of coffee and begin to look ahead at what still has to be done.
Still so much to do, so much. So much.
At 11:32 a.m., I receive a tweet notification from the Baltimore Sun:
Immediately I forget about the work I need to do for the semester that begins next week and retweet the Sun’s breaking news. I begin scouring the various news sites for information. Twitter. Facebook. Websites.
Finally, news sources begin to broadcast the news that a shooting has occurred. There are mixed reports – all unconfirmed – that there are injuries. Fatalities.
The journalist in me awakens, and I get to work.
I do my best to inform so that others might be safe, broadcasting factual information that others need to make good decisions, to reach family members and friends. I use the power of social media to reach as many as I can, and I am grateful that this technology exists.
But still, underneath that steel, unemotional approach of a journalist, I can’t stop the thoughts creeping in that this is my school’s hometown. The kids I have taught for over a decade work at this mall; my current students and their families shop there frequently. This is their back yard, and tragedy has struck them on a personal level.
The teacher in me awakens, and I begin to worry.
A friend and former student who is an emergency responder texts me that he is en route to the mall, and I realize that my own current and former students could somehow be affected by this. What are they experiencing? Are they witnesses? Is it possible that they are affected in an even more tragic way?
My oldest daughter is their age.
The parent in me awakens, and I begin to panic.
The names of the two victims are released, and we realize that Tyler Johnson, 25, was a former student of ours. Our social media feeds blow up with RIPs and expressions of utter shock. I hear condolences from students I have taught, from friends I know, from acquaintances around the globe who have experienced similar tragedies.
The journalist, the teacher, the parent, the individual within me merges, and I am left to ponder the enormity of what has happened.
I imagine the same has occurred for countless others here in Maryland and across the country. An event like this forces us to remember similar tragedies in our lifetimes, some of them so personal that we are rocked by tremors of those memories.
I don’t need to list them. We do not need to be reminded again how senseless acts can devastate lives over and over again.
Instead, I consider where we are, and where we can possibly go – as individuals, as a community, and as a country.
In the coming days, we will hear national debates rise up about mental wellness and gun control. We will hear arguments to make our public spaces safer. We will hear and experience fears that copycat killers will rise up and seek some kind of sick glory, riding on the coat tails of this tragedy.
But right now, in these hours that follow, the only thing I want to hear is of people pulling together, of a community rising in faith in each other, of a state and a nation putting aside the debates and focusing their spirit and energy on comfort, healing, understanding.
We will all feel the pull to “be” the journalist, the teacher, the parent, the friend. In the end though, we are all just individuals trying to comprehend the senselessness of such moments.
This is what binds us. It’s our choice – right now – to choose to see beyond the debates of what should have been done and what we should do now.
So much to do, so much to do.
But not today.
What we need to do right now is choose to embrace the ones around us – not just in Ellicott City, Mt. Airy, and College Park. If we truly want to find a solution, to make a difference, it begins here.
I remember those early mornings, waking up before sunrise to see what magically appeared under the tree overnight. I would kneel in front of that magnificent plastic tree, with big colorful lights covering my world with greens and reds and blues. When my sister finally awoke and joined me, we shared those last few moments together in total bliss, waiting for our parents to join us.
These are the memories we make as kids. Magic, merriment, and family all rolled up in a bundle of wrapping paper and colorful light.
As we get older, though, the gifts we receive change. Where our greatest delight once came from the biggest box under the tree, our greatest gifts today come from the lessons of our own children. Here’s what mine have taught me.
Live The Life You Were Meant To Live
Before young children experience fear, guilt, or hurt, they cannot stop being who they are at such young ages. They demonstrate a forthright determination to fulfill a life lived as genuinely as we can only imagine as adults. For my own children, this meant gymnastics, equitation, baseball, and creative expression. It’s bigger than that, though; it’s about tapping in to the core of who you are and just doing it, living it, simply because it is what is inside of you. For me, it is writing, photography, and music. These are my oxygen. My kids remind me every day that I should never sacrifice the air that I breathe, for any reason. This is their first gift to us.
A child’s compassion brings us to tears every single time, simply because it is pure; it is the nectar of our being. We see and feel our own love and innocence in their acts, and we even ask ourselves, at times, when did we become so jaded as adults? As I drive around town doing some last-minute shopping, the strangers around me shoot glares of anger, even threats of don’t-you-dares and get-out-of-my-ways. We complain that the holidays stress us out, but really — we are the generators of that stress. It’s not the stores, it’s not the pressure to buy! buy! buy!; it is simply our choice to abandon the basic principles of love because we feel that it is necessary to fulfill everyone else’s expectations. I don’t see our young children running around all stressed out during the holidays. I see them running around all excited, filled with love and magic and hope. Imagine shopping with a heart filled with those three wonderful things: love, magic, hope. This is their second gift to us.
Get Peace, Give Peace
As I walk through the stores and see frustrated moms and dads with their children, I don’t focus on the anger of the adults. I look at the children and see and hear what they are feeling, thinking, wishing, and dreaming: Peace. They don’t want their moms and dads angry, or frustrated, or stressed out. They want peace. They want the loud words to stop, the endless chain of No’s to finally find their end. They just want us to abandon our frustration, our anger, and receive their peace that they feel, enjoy the joy, and share in the magic. They don’t understand why we cannot see it or feel it. We can, if we only choose to. This is their third gift to us.
When our children were very young, and we would take them for Christmas drives to look at all of the pretty lights that you put up around your houses, we could not savor enough the oohs and aahs that would come from the back seat as they saw and felt and appreciated the magic of Christmas. We need to hear that again and carry it with us, not just in this holiday season, but always. We need to live our lives, love everyone, and participate in peace. These were never dreams of our children; they were their realities, just as they were once our realities as well.
Life. Love. Peace. Once and always within us.
Merry Christmas, everyone.
Are You there? Lately I have been wondering, as a few things have happened around our world that makes me question what’s really going on.
Well, I guess it is a combination of things. I mean, bad stuff happens all the time. No real change there. The change is in us, and the way that we are living our lives.
It’s really beginning to concern me.
I remember when I was in fifth grade, our teacher took us to the library to pick out a book (or two) for the winter break. I was an avid reader by that time, and I was going through the books we had pretty fast. Most of the nonfiction titles were about sharks or ghosts, and I had already devoured them. When it came to fiction, though, I read anything I could find. I walked over to the “New Arrival” shelf, and I found a book that I had never heard of before. It came at a time when I was curious about all things related to God and spirituality. I distinctly remember thinking that this book was there, for me, at that exact time.
I took the book to the librarian to check it out. She read the title, then put the book behind her on a separate shelf. She looked at me with disappointment.
“I’m sorry, dear. You can’t read that book.”
I looked at her incredulously. I had never heard of such a thing.
“What do you mean? I’m in fifth grade! I thought we could check out any book here.”
“You can,” she responded. “But not this one. It’s not appropriate for boys.” She waited for me to leave, but I just stood there. I was an ornery kid.
“Why isn’t it appropriate?” I asked.
All she could do was get angry at my persistence. “It just is! Find another book. Look around you. We have plenty of other titles that you will like.”
I left the librarian, and the copy of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume, remained on the back shelf and out of my reach.
Later that day, I found out from a girl friend of mine that the book had stuff in it about bras and menstruation, and I immediately decided that I had heard enough and would be happy to find another book before we left for the break, even if that meant rereading about sharks and ghosts.
I admit, though, I was pretty bummed. I thought that the book was about God, that it was there for me, on that shelf, for a reason. And that librarian? She could have recognized why I was interested in the book in the first place. A little redirection to the God shelf would have been pretty appreciated.
I’m wondering how many fifth graders today are wondering about God and looking for answers. I know that, if I am now, at the age of 48, then others must be as well.
So, God, instead of going to my local library (where, by the way, I can now read any book I want without being questioned because it’s all self-serve when it comes to checking books out), I thought I’d come directly to You today.
Are You there, God? It’s me. Rus.
I want to tell You why I am so confused right now. It’s not about these tragedies that are happening around the globe and, terrifyingly enough, right here in the States. Like I said before, I get that (I don’t like it, but I get it).
I am confused because I feel like I know too much. I have read too much about the history of religion, and I question the validity and the motivation of our historians to capture certain religious events. Even more specifically, I question the timing and the similarities between the development of Christianity in relation to other religions.
Or should I not get too hung up on all that stuff? Should the hows and the whys regarding the past not matter to us in the present?
To be honest, God, If it were a purely historical thing, then I don’t even think I would have the need to write you. Wam, Bam, Thank you for the facts, Ma’am. And I’d be on my way.
(Probably not too appropriate here in this context, God. Sorry ’bout that.)
Anyway, this is why I am hung up on this.
I feel Your presence. I feel Your love. In all things. I listen to the holiday songs, and I feel You. I see the icons of Christmas, and I don’t see dollar signs or material goods; instead, I feel You.
When I don’t think about all the things that I have read, and when I stop comparing it to how historical or significant events are archived today with so much bias and subjectivity, where seemingly unrelated agendas govern the accuracy of actual events, everything is different.
But I do think about them, and that’s the problem. I’m finding it so hard to follow my feelings when my head is telling me something so different. It’s just so hard to let go of all of that thought stuff and just believe.
Isn’t that how it worked before we had all this stuff written down? Why did it have to get so political about who wrote what, and how?
Earlier today, I asked a few friends about how they knew You existed, and the answers that I got were right in line with us believers having a personal relationship with You that transcends the written word.
Believe me, God. As a writer, it’s very hard to acknowledge that anything should transcend words. But when we write, we are just trying to understand, aren’t we? To put things in a relative context that makes us understand something a little better? In this case, I think it has done just the opposite.
Anyway, here’s what they said.
Mark offered a quote from a band called, Live: “I don’t need no one to tell me about heaven. – I look at my daughter, and I believe. I don’t need no proof when it comes to God and truth, I can see the sunset, and I perceive.”
That’s pretty clear to me, God. You exist in all things, now and forever. Check.
Natalie went deeper with her thoughts, bringing to light in a strong reminder that Nature offers proof that something greater than us exists. “Why does something greater than ourselves (nature) have to be attributed to a deity? I believe there is a higher power than mere humans, but I think nature in all her glory is more than enough to believe in. That way, I can remove judgment and feeling from the equation and just accept what is.”
I couldn’t agree more that the spirit of the higher power existed long before we could write anything about it. It existed, and we as humans reacted to it in the best way we knew how.
Bernadette: “Something inside a belief, a feeling and yes faith. Who or what created all this? Even scientifically speaking, all this energy starts and ends where and why … I know in my darkest hours that my faith and God carried me through it. I don’t believe in “my god” or “your god” over Allah or any other named [deity]. I believe in one God who does not discriminate; he/she loves everyone “as is”; the rules I find to be man made and not God driven at all. The God I know is for all people, all of the time. Even the nonbelievers.”
Again, we are back to the origins being before any written documentation. Beautiful, Bernadette.
Adam: “The quest to understand ourselves as spiritual beings requires belief in a spiritual realm, one which explains the origins of the universe, the world and of us as individuals, and our relationship with the creator. My belief comes from an understanding that we are spiritual beings, created by a spiritual deity. This is the framework through which I see the world. I understand maths and science as manifestations of the creative language of a creative God.
Each culture has its sacred texts, including atheists, to explain origins and meaning. The opening chapters of Genesis do not explain how the world came into being, but explains why it came into being, because God wanted relationship with the creation. And the resultant Bible is the history of that relationship.
How do I know God exists? I know the relationship I have with him and the communion with the saints. I have seen, and heard, many physical miracles of healing; have heard prophecy and words of knowledge, which, like a scientific theory, must be weighed carefully and proved.
The natural world is therefore a reflection of a creative God, a sign to direct me to the one who made it. I see it and know it most when I see people enacting the commandment to ‘love thy neighbour.'”
God, isn’t Adam awesome? (whoa– If there are no coincidences, I’m pretty excited here about mentioning God and Adam in the same sentence, and knowing you both). When he says that the natural world is a reflection of a creative God, it makes perfect sense to me.
I don’t need the words as much as I need to connection with the natural world, the communion with all that transcends us as humans. And yet, as Adam says so eloquently, we can also see You through the kindness of others.
Katie couldn’t agree more with what Adam shares: “Grace, any moment of someone else sticking their neck out for you or lending a hand, especially when we don’t deserve it, to me is a reflection of the original, ultimate example of this kindness. It’s something that even in today’s world, none of us have time for, goes against ‘every man for himself’ survival instincts, and yet its still everywhere.”
Deborah sees you, God, in everything around her: “You need only to look around to know that God does indeed exist. He is there in all of nature, in the falling of the leaves off the trees in autumn, and in the budding of leaves in spring. When you truly look around and realize what nature has to do in order to complete this cycle each and every year, than you know that a higher being is in charge.”
Jim, ever succinct, agrees as well: “The balance of chemicals in your blood stream, the Natural Order of the Universe, the Beauty of Nature – all evidence to me.”
So God, I guess writing does help us get closer to you in some ways. When my friend Lisa wrote, “That’s why it’s called ‘faith’; I just know,” it’s probably one of the simplest, yet most convincing statements I’ve read in a long time. Tonight, writing helped me understand more of what I believe, and why. As well, my friends’ writing put to shame my concerns that you might not be there anymore. Through their words, I feel Your love. And that’s probably the greatest way to receive Your love, through the kindness of others.
Phew! I feel better already!
Thanks for all You do (this is getting awkward).
(p.s.: I think I might write an “Are You There God?” book for boys. All of this might have been a little simpler if that had been on the “New Arrival” shelf all those years ago.)
Last night, just before 5 (well, at 4:53 p.m. to be exact), my wife was in Target picking up a few things for dinner and tomorrow’s lunches.
I sat in my car, waiting.
I could have been checking my Twitter feed, or trying to advance beyond level 80 of Candy Crush. All important things, of course.
Instead, I took the time to turn off the radio, put down the phone, and just observe what was around me.
I could not have been better rewarded. Just outside my window, the setting sun was painting a brilliant canvas across the sky, as ice crystals in the clouds were capturing the sun’s final moments on the horizon with uncompromising colors of red, purple, orange, and yellow.
It lasted for just a few moments, and I purposely stayed “unplugged” from my phone to first enjoy its beauty, a fire in Baltimore’s sky that was not only harmless to its citizens, it was uplifting and empowering in every way imaginable…
…If you took the time to look up and savor the show.
I snapped this shot before heading back to the store. Although it doesn’t replace the experience of seeing it in person, it serves as a constant reminder to me of the beauty that exists around us, all the time.
The holidays are approaching. Stores are opening earlier and earlier on Thanksgiving Day. Don’t let the retail rush distract you from looking up every now and then. There’s plenty of beauty abound, and its magnificence is greater than any tweet or App imaginable.
Last Sunday, I was fortunate enough to drive along Mt. Carmel Road in northern Baltimore County. The stretch from Falls Road to York Road is one of the most meditative and breathtaking rides close to home. When I looked out my window and saw this view, I had to pull over to really enjoy its natural beauty. I think the turkey vulture in the sky (although I would love to romanticize it as a soaring eagle, but I won’t) adds to the whole concept of perspective, and viewing our lives in different, unique ways.
Imagine that eye from the sky appreciating Baltimore’s patchwork quilt of autumn reds, yellows, oranges. I believe that my only fear would be to remind myself to breathe every now and then. Surely, I would be too swept away to do much of anything else but appreciate its natural beauty.