A Lunar Love Letter

It’s a big day for the moon; or more specifically, it’s a big day for humanity’s relationship with the moon. Fifty years ago today, Apollo 11 landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon while Michael Collins flew the command module in orbit. American kids have watched the spine-tingling recordings of Neil Armstrong since we were old enough to sit still, eyes wide:

https://www.cnn.com/videos/us/2019/07/18/apollo-11-moon-landing-scn-orig.cnn

It took some 400,000 people, working together, to make that miraculous trip possible. Collins said in the Google doodle dedicated to the anniversary that when the astronauts journeyed around the world, the refrain was “We did it. We did it.” Our common love for that beautiful orb and for the courage and ingenuity of our brothers and sisters connected us.

Being a Houstonian, I have visited the Johnson Space Center and stared at the moon rocks, nearly unable to comprehend the distance those rocks traveled. The module the men were in is so tiny, it’s hard to conceive of the courage it required to suit up and shoot beyond Earth’s atmosphere with so little protection.

Last Tuesday evening, after a busy day working, babysitting my grandkids, exercising, folding laundry, and writing, I wearily trod upstairs to my bedroom to soak in a warm bath and go to bed. The blinds in my bedroom were open and the bright, silvery light of the moon caught my eye. I stood at the window, just drinking in her beauty, breathing, and allowing my spirit to settle.

A little later, face washed and teeth brushed, I climbed into my cool percale sheets, fluffed my feather pillow, and curled up with my iPad for a few minutes on Facebook before reading myself into sleepy oblivion. My friend Kyle had posted this lovely, eerie photo:

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Isn’t it heavenly? I commented, “I  stood at my bedroom window to watch the moonrise tonight. Beautiful. Glad to know my sweet friend was watching too.” A few minutes later a mutual friend chimed in from New York City, she had also been taking in the sublime view from her hotel room. Three friends, touched by beauty, connected by a celestial light.

The moon connected the human race in a vast way in July, 1969. She connected three friends in a small way in July, 2019.

We often tell children to wish upon a star. I love the song from Pinocchio, it’s a perfect message for children about having the courage to wish. But tonight, on this momentous anniversary, I am going to wish upon the moon:

I wish that we can love each other more.

I wish that we will learn to listen better.

I wish that we will allow grace to scatter its beams into the dark corners of our lives.

I wish that the moon’s glittery light will light a lost one’s way home.

I wish.

What’s your wish?

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The Value of Art

Marketing Guru Extraordinaire Seth Godin says:

“What it means to make art isn’t always that you get to make a living. It might just be that you get to make a difference.”

As a creative soul who yearns to spend her days writing and photographing, it was a real gift to be relieved of the burden of earning money with it. How many of us artists have been asked, when speaking of our art, “How are you going to earn money with it? What’s the point wasting your time if you can’t make a living?”

Or the ominous: “Major in something practical.” I have heard the dreams of many students crushed with that advice.

The work of art makes the world beautiful, it soothes our collective and individual souls, it creates connection.

Creativity matters. Art matters. Make it.

dandelion 2 Photo above taken by me at Willie Nelson’s Luck Ranch, where artists of                               all kinds are celebrated at the annual Family Reunion.

Follow Seth Godin, who keeps me motivated and fueled to keep doing the work I am called and created for at:

https://seths.blog/

 

Short and Sweet: A Good Mom

I used to think of myself as having “given up” my young adulthood to be a mother. It was a sacrifice. Almost like a burden. I didn’t get the time that so many of my friends did to work for a while, get some money in the bank, maybe get a down payment for a house saved up.

I looked at it as my lost youth.

Not now.

I have had to make a major shift here lately. I had to because if I didn’t, I was going to move into this next phase with a lot of angst and resentment, kicking and screaming. Empty Nest is a big change. I had to shift or suffer, wasting the next 25 (hopefully) years unable to enjoy and appreciate what life was giving me.

So I am changing the way I think: I am glad I started motherhood so young! It means I get to enjoy this new phase while I am hip and healthy. I even have a nose stud.

And, more significantly, I am owning this thing that people keep telling me, but that I have had a hard time believing: I was a pretty good mother.

Spring, 1995(2)

When I became a mom, I had to figure it out. I hadn’t had healthy mothering in my childhood, so my tool box was pretty empty. I looked to relatives and friends’ moms to help me figure it out. Carol Brady, Samantha Stephens, and June Cleaver were role models. I didn’t have many peers to emulate; my best friend and I were the first in my college class to get pregnant. She and I had been roommates and pledge sisters, and we had our first babies just six weeks apart. She was just barely ahead of me on the question train: how to get the baby to latch on, when to add cereal, how to manage tummy aches, and such.

I am now the grandmother of a six month-old. I was not ready for this. Because I started my family so young, I was looking forward to the span during which my own kids were grown and independent, so I could be a little selfish with my time and resources. I thought I could pretend to be ten years younger and travel the world, just being indulgent and drinking pomegranate mimosas. Of course, that’s not how it worked. Honestly, when do our plans ever really go like we thought they would?

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When my daughter and her boyfriend left our house after they told us they were expecting a baby, I just leaned over into my husband’s arms and bawled, “I am not ready to be a grandmother.” “I know,” he sighed, “but are you ready to help your daughter be a good mom?” Of course I am. To do that, though, means that I must acknowledge that I was a good mom. It means I need to figure out how I did it. How I still do it. Because I am definitely not finished being a mom. Nowhere near it.

 

What’s a time when you really rocked your parenting? Maybe you created a memory, taught a life lesson, or protected your child. I’d love to hear it.

If you’re a mom looking for a tribe, try Hello Minder. It’s moms with a lot of love and a desire to help each other more-than-muddle through the mom journey:

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Speak Up…If You Can. Part Three.

Recently, I auditioned for a musical. Mamma Mia. It’s one of those show’s I’d really love to do. It wasn’t always, but as I moved into the casting category of MOM instead of ingenue, it became a show that really appealed to me.

It was the first singing audition I had braved in almost five years.

I have been telling a story over the last couple of weeks, a tale in which I, the lifelong vocalist, lost my voice due to a surgical mishap; in my last post, I described the agony of having two specialists confirm damage. There is a moderately happy ending to the whole thing, and I will get to that. Clearly, I couldn’t have auditioned for Mamma Mia if some sort of healing had not occurred. I did manage to do a couple of musicals after my throat was finally repaired, getting to that point was only possible, really and truly, because my husband was the director of the shows and he was willing to risk casting me.

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That first post-repair show, The Drowsy Chaperone,  wasn’t smooth sailing. I had rehearsed for the audition secretly, singing in private to build up strength and flexibility in the cord and in the muscles of the throat. I didn’t want to let on what I was doing, just in case I failed spectacularly. My voice had always been the source of my self esteem. It was my identity. Having lost it, I was bereft, heart broken, my confidence completely gone. So when I went to auditions and announced I was singing the big belt song instead of a simpler, easier one, I saw my husband’s hands clench under the table. He’d had no idea I might be up to this. I did it, I did it well, and that precious man cast me.

The show wasn’t easy, though. In the final week of dress rehearsal I was belting out one of my favorite songs I ever got to sing on a stage, “As We Stumble Along.” In my teal flapper dress, black bobbed wig, and feather boa I glided with ridiculously exaggerated fluidity, then I planted my feet to get ready for the next phrase. I took a deep breath, opened my mouth, and …nothing. Just a choked wheeze. Director/husband’s face froze in horror as I coughed and gasped, follow spot illuminating my panic in all its weird glory. The stage manager ran toward me with a bottle of water, and I drank, but I still could not squeeze a sound out of my throat. I ended the song with tears streaming down my face. There was no voice singing ridiculously hilarious lyrics, just a pitiful actress with drooping shoulders shuffling off the stage. The vocal cord damage I had labored so hard to overcome was my undoing, just two days before opening night, and I felt just as I had on the day I left the doctor’s office in September of 2011.

On that particular day, I cried all the way home because my throat was damaged; it got really quiet at my house, in my classroom, and in my spirit. As soon as the doc gave me the diagnosis, I cancelled an acting gig I had booked for the months of October and November. It put a burden on the show, I know it did. Blessedly, there’s always another actress waiting in the wings, and the show went on.

More difficult, though, was my classroom. I remember standing in front of groups of 30 or so students each day, trying to quiet them when the tardy bell rang. After a week or so of me standing at my podium, tears in my eyes and jaw clenched in frustration, waiting for rambunctious teens to quiet down, there was a change in the climate of my room. There were kids who realized how I struggled, and they began to get the room quiet for me. I lectured in a whisper, it was utterly exhausting. But then something happened: the students began to hush themselves, without a classmate doing it for me. Even the most stubborn, rowdy kids showed compassion and self-restraint, facing me with mouths closed when they heard the tardy bell. I wish I could say that behavior hung in all year, of course it didn’t. Freshmen and sophomores were particularly difficult to manage. In an effort to save expensive audio equipment in our auditorium, I screamed (an attempt for volume, not anger) at a couple of boys who were horse-playing on stage with our microphones. The pain of that attempt to push air and sound through my throat hurt as badly as anything I have ever, ever experienced. There was a day when, surrounded by misbehaving freshman boys, I couldn’t make myself heard, and I called the HR Department of our school district sobbing, they struggled to hear me as I begged for help on the phone.

Image result for prosthetic vocal cords

For twelve months, I couldn’t breathe without gasping, I couldn’t speak, and my soul simply went into hiding. I had ever been an introvert, but at least I had the power to speak when I wanted to. I could talk to friends. I could advise or comfort my kids. I could teach and act and express myself. I began to hear rumors of gossip, that there were “friends” who believed I was faking my silence as a way to garner attention or get out of obligations. I turned even more inward.

So I began to write. I look back now, at my first attempts at writing, and they amuse me. I had to develop the writing muscle with as much rehearsal as had ever been needed when I sang. While I was mute, I found my authentic voice. In that twelve months of early writing, it was the only way I had to communicate with the world. I started speaking my truth, because words were so precious and painful to articulate that I didn’t dare waste them on false flattery or needless babble. I learned even more powerfully that listening was the key to connection and leaning in to speak so that I could be heard enabled me to draw closer to the people with whom I shared space.

I learned who my true tribe was.

One year, to the day, after the spinal surgery that cost me my voice, Dr. B. implanted a silicone cord, it’s attached to the paralyzed right one. I could, once again, speak and sing, though with not as much power or range. I began to rebuild my confidence brick by brick, I shed relationships with those who had proven during my silent time that they could not be bothered to listen well. I performed in two musicals, then stepped away from the theatre world because it felt unhealthy. I didn’t sing for a long, long time.

Then came a show that tempted me enough to hazard an attempt. Mamma Mia.

That audition? I learned something. As I prepared a recording to send to the director, I kept breaking. My voice cracked, my eyes filled, my throat clenched. My daughter, who was coaching and recording me, observed, “Mom, it’s like you have all those years of silence straining to pour out. It’s all been so tightly held. Your creative spirit just needs the space to let go.” It took us an hour to get a take that I could send, one in which I managed to sing calmly through the one minute clip of “Take a Chance on Me.” That song choice was no accident. But it wasn’t the director I was begging to take a chance, it was my own wounded heart. I didn’t get the part, the director chose to take a chance with a different actress. That’s okay. It’s way more important that I take my own chance on me. It was, ultimately, an exercise in resilience. Gotta keep singing, speaking, and writing my story. You should, too.

 

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Is “Late Night” Worth Staying Up For?

I love Emma Thompson. I have loved her since the early 1990s, when Dead Again, Howard’s End, and Much Ado About Nothing were available on VHS so that I could rent them from Blockbuster and watch while nursing my babies and folding their freshly washed cloth diapers. Emma can play a solitary spinster like no other- even in her characters’ own marriages she radiates loneliness. Witness her restrained break to the strains of Joni Mitchell in Love, Actually. She breaks my heart every time.

I am less familiar with Mindy Kaling’s work, mostly because she’s of my millennial children’s generation. Mindy has built her resume’ in the way that new Hollywood works: write your own damn projects then produce them yourself. Don’t wait for some guy wearing a suit in his posh corner office to give you permission.

Which is exactly who Emma is in this film. The dude in the corner office, wearing a power suit. And I adored her. The film, too.

My eldest child, a daughter, recently visited from Los Angeles, and since Booksmart was not playing anywhere in Houston (Texans, we have got to get our acts together. We can have twenty screens of John Wick, but can’t spare one  little screen in the corner for an intelligent female-centric movie? Come on, y’all) we went to see Late Night instead. My daughter happens to be a female-writer-actor-producer-intern-production-assistant in LA right now, so she had a pretty specific mindset going in, that of the young-woman-trying-to-make-it-but-encountering-obstacles-while-she-climbs attitude. Plus, she loves Mindy K., whose career trajectory is one of her models.

In Late Night, written by Mindy K., an egomaniacal talk show host must fight to save her position as the star of an eponymous TV program. In Kaling’s script, the twist is that the host is a woman, and in 2019, this is still nearly as far-fetched as the premise of a teen web-slinger gallivanting around Paris. Irrelevant, though. Glass ceilings gotta break somewhere. Maybe if we do it in fiction first, those who wring their hands in misogynistic woe can get over it. Chelsea Handler (E!) and Samantha Bee (Comedy Central) are leading the vanguard on this, btw. They’re doing the work, they just aren’t household names yet.

Kaling’s script is dialogue-sharp, giving evidence of the comedic chops she honed while writing for The Office and The Mindy Project. Emma Thompson has the gloriously fun job of playing ballsy-just-this-side-of-pure-bitch. Her Katherine Newberry is too smart for the room, and has lost all patience with the men around her, with the sweet exception of her husband, played by John Lithgow. What I loved about Katherine was her complexity.

May I take a little side path for a moment? I happen to teach a film class at the local college, because I love movies and I love to dissect them. I don’t write reviews for the usual reasons, though. I review when I see a film that does modern women well; and I try to equip my students to answer this question from our very first class session is this:

What are we talking about when we talk about a movie being “good?” Or “bad?” We spend the semester asking the question: What were the writers and director and creatives trying to do here? Did they do it well? Measured in that way, we are free from our own personal tastes and able to assess a film based on what its makers meant to do. Of course, sometimes they do it poorly, and sometimes beautifully.

What was the team trying to do in Late Night?

I think screenwriter Mindy K., director Nisha Ganatra, and the entire ensemble were telling us a story of professional women excelling while lifting each other up. They did it well.

These women are real. Emma’s Katherine is prickly, she’s so sure of herself that perhaps only a woman of a certain age can sense the deep well of insecurity underlying every sharp retort, every expression, every fabulous outfit, of which there were many. I felt my own professional bruises every time she went to battle, especially when she faced off with the female studio head. The worst boss I ever, ever had was a woman.  Only an actress of Emma’s caliber could pull it off sympathetically.

Mindy K.’s Molly is brimming with the plucky optimism and opportunism of the go-getters of her generation. These young women have watched their moms and mentors kick stilettos at the glass ceiling. They see the cracks, and they are poised to tap gently or produce a battering ram, whatever it takes, to move upward.

Amy Ryan is fantastic as studio head Caroline Morton. If I had one complaint, it was that we didn’t see her enough. The romantic relationships are beautifully realized; John Lithgow is the conduit for us to see the tender side of Katherine and a long-lived marriage, while Molly’s awkward impromptu visit to her guy’s apartment has all the nonchalant embarrassment that I hear is exactly how dating goes in the millennial world these days.

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There is just enough ease in the film’s characters to make it fun to watch, with just enough tussle to make it worth an emotional investment. It was a perfect way to spend an afternoon with my daughter, it gave us lots of discussion fodder for what a joy  womanhood is these days, when the world is opening up to us. Sure, we owe a debt to Alice Paul and Gloria Steinem and so many others. But we also have to give mad props to the new feminists of the millennial generation, women who may not call themselves “feminist”  but who passionately believe in the freedom to choose one’s own path and earn equal pay. Those women are writing it and living it and laughing it and walking it, too.

If you’d like to hear several viewpoints on the movie, some really liking it, some not so much, “Pop Culture Happy Hour” just covered it on their podcast. Have a listen!

https://podcasts.google.com/?feed=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cubnByLm9yZy9yc3MvcG9kY2FzdC5waHA%2FaWQ9NTEwMjgy&episode=ZjQ5MmY0NjgtYmU2NC00MGNhLWI0ZGItMzQ4NDJhMzdiOTkx

 

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Cathedrals: Fifth of Series

I saved St. Patrick’s in New York City as the finale of the series because it’s the first cathedral I ever saw. I was raised in the suburbs of Dallas, where evangelicals dominate the religious life of the community, and smaller church homes were the norm. Dallas suburbs haven’t really been around long enough to have storied, historic cathedrals. But a visit to the Big Apple opened my eyes to a whole world of diversity and art. I love New York City more than any other in the world.

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One of the things I appreciate about St. Pat’s is how crowded it is, tucked in among the Fifth Avenue crush of skyscrapers and traffic lights, cab horns blaring, tourists gaping, and black-clad New Yorkers hustling to work. It’s not quiet inside, one doesn’t feel an immediate hush inside its walls. Nevertheless, holiness is there.

One might wonder why, if I have left behind organized Christian religion, I have been photographing and visiting cathedrals. What draws me, beyond the intricate gothic architecture, the turrets and gargoyles and limestone? It is simply this: I still love God and Goddess. I know, without a doubt, that the Divine One still loves us. She grieves for us. She waits and watches for us to love.

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Speak Up: Part Two

September is a great month, isn’t it? The light is just starting to shift from high-octane sun to a softer diffused version of itself, breezes begin to tickle cheeks and make leaves dance. Rain falls and the scorched earth of August relents. The grass is verdant again and shadows lengthen on the pavement ever so slightly. School is back in, students are, for the most part, still excited to be back in the classroom, and teachers have renewed purpose and fresh, unmarked lesson plan books. In our family, we have two birthdays to celebrate, the Astros are still playing, and we are usually preparing to open the Renaissance festival that we’ve worked for twenty years now.

I love September. I have been a teacher/professor for twenty four years now, and I always look forward to the opening of school (which technically happens in late August here, I am taking a wee bit of poetic license- the relevant stuff happens in September, I promise). It was no different in 2011, when I opened a new year with a black eye because I dropped my first gen iPad on my face while checking Facebook before getting out of bed. Those early model tablets are no joke in the weight category! Each class began with excited chatter that quickly silenced when I took to my podium after the tardy bell. My poor new high school students were afraid to ask what had happened, so I began each of six class periods with an introduction and an explanation.

IMG_9669I spent the first week of school swallowing Gabapentin pills (as prescribed) to numb the nerve pain that tingled from the base of my spine to the tips of my fingers and back again, all while learning students’ names, playing warm up games, and preparing young actors and student directors for the fall play auditions. We were putting up the Don Zolidis farce The Greek Mythology Olympiaganza, and some seniors were going to assistant direct the various scenes, to give them a bit of practice applying what they’d learned in three years in my program, but also to give me much-needed assistance since I’d be recovering from spinal surgery.

My assistant principal had endured the same procedure just a couple of years before, she assured me that she was back on her feet and working within a week. I requested the day of my surgery (a Tuesday) and the Wednesday and Thursday off from work to recover, with a plan to return to my classroom on Friday.

On a warm, sunny September first, I walked into the nearby hospital, all prepped for spinal surgery, which went well. My spine was fused, and the extreme, debilitating pain I had been suffering for months was gone.

On an equally sunny day, just two weeks later, my world was rocked by a new doctor’s diagnosis: paralyzed vocal cord.

When I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago, I included just one mention of what I had been since childhood. Just one word. One measly word to tell you, dear reader, who I had always, ever been: a singer.

Not just a sing-in-the-shower singer. A state-level soloist and all district, area, and region choir qualifier in one of the most vocally competitive states in the country. A voice major in the early years of college who switched to elementary music so she could get married and have babies instead of pursuing a grueling performance career. A singer that brought some listeners to tears, others to laughter, and a few to envy.

I sang on stages and in sanctuaries and by cradles.

In recording studios.

On the radio.

I sang. It was the only thing I thought I did well. My only gift.

Chorus 1985-1986

I had warned my neurosurgeon that my voice had to be protected when my throat was pushed aside so he could get spinal access, I asked if he could access my cervical vertebrae from the back of my neck instead of the front of my throat. His answer: “No. but in the twenty years I have been doing this surgery, no one’s voice has ever been damaged. Of course, I can’t make you a promise, but the likelihood of your voice being affected in any way is negligible.”

I went for my follow up appointment with my surgeon three weeks after my surgery, when I had already had my throat scoped by an ear, nose, throat specialist. When Doc entered the examining room and cheerily asked how I was feeling, I beckoned him to lean near and whispered, “My voice is gone. The cord is paralyzed.” He went pale, his eyes widened, he was clearly and authentically horrified. All he could say was, “You’re a singer. Oh, no…this has never, ever happened to one of my patients, and it had to be a singer.” He couldn’t say he was sorry, that’s something doctors really can’t do. Apologizing is like admitting guilt, or a mistake, which can become a legal liability. No, he couldn’t apologize with his mouth and his perfectly working voice. But it was in his eyes.

The ENT who had made the initial diagnosis referred me to a specialist in Houston, a physician who has dedicated her practice to saving voices. I made an appointment, my husband drove me as I worried what she would say. I doubted my own ability to remain calm enough to navigate Houston’s infamous high-traffic freeways. It was good he was there, because the news was not good.

Dr. B. sprayed my throat with vile banana-flavored numbing medicine, and ran the camera through my nasal passages, down my throat. I attempted all sorts of vocalizations: vowels, consonants, sung tones; nothing came out. The cord didn’t vibrate even a tiny bit. It was dead. Kaput.

The physician wanted to wait a few months, see if the nerve endings would wake up on their own.

I left the office, bereft, silent tears ran down my cheeks and dripped off my jawline for the hour of the drive out to our suburban home. I climbed into bed, and I despaired. My throat was silent, but my spirit screamed; I was, as Shakespeare described, an empty vessel. Though I made no sound that was audible to the world, my inner world was a cacophony of noise as I railed against fate and wept out all my world-shattering grief.

I wouldn’t speak again for a year.

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Short and Sweet: Mushrooms and the Force of Good

Just last week, I found this little mushroom circle out on a walk at work. It’s already brutally hot here in south Texas, and these little fungi were bravely popping up out of the dry, rocky soil, a visible testament to the sheer determination of our planet’s flora to survive and sustain.

A few days later, I cued up the next Supersoul podcast on my app, and it was an interview with cinematographer Louie Schwartzberg, a renowned pioneer of time lapse photography. He specializes in nature time lapse, he’s very passionate about it, truly (isn’t it fun to encounter people who are passionate about what they love?). He described a film project about a phenomenon of which I had never known: mushrooms are but the visible part of a vast underground mycelium network that connects plants over miles and acres. The plants share nutrients and information. Isn’t that staggeringly awesome?!

Paul Stamets, an environmentalist at the center of the film, says, “I believe nature is a force of good. ‘Good’ is not only a concept, it is a spirit. And so hopefully, the spirit of goodness will survive.”

Even at the ripe old age of 52, I find myself newly amazed by our planet, and with a refreshed love of it. Ocean, tree, water, mushroom…mycelium. All miraculous. All connected to the Divine One. As are we.

http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20141111-plants-have-a-hidden-internet

 

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Cathedrals: Fourth in a Series

Ah, the Grande Dame of churches, the towering structure that has loomed over the Seine for around 900 years now. 900. As an American, citizen of a country where we’re amazed to find a building still standing from just two centuries ago, a country where we demolish the aged to make room for the new (in architecture, in cars, in people…), this church just rocked my world. It’s crawling with tourists now, I would have loved the opportunity to visit in stillness.

In April, much of the world watched in horror as the cathedral burned, we worried about the safety of people, but also we grieved what seemed to be a complete loss of a monument to faith and architecture that’s been visited and loved by countless children of God for nearly a millenia.

But praise and blessed be! Only her roof was destroyed.

Do I understand that the Catholic Church has some things to answer for? Yes. And rightly so. But I separate the Godly house from the inhabitants who have abused. Instead, I think of the penitents and faithful who have found comfort, wisdom, and fellowship within those stone walls. May we all find our own holy place, be it cathedral, woods, meadow, or home.

 

Notre Dame Cathedral Paris

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