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alex-jones-Tq4YjCa2BSc-unsplashGot a problem? “Give it to God,” they say. Only sometimes it’s not that simple. I, for one, tend to be an ambivalent giver. I claim to hand over my trouble, only to take it back obsessively, ruminate on it, rummage through the possibilities, ponder all the “what-ifs.” As if Providence rests in my nervous little hands.

The great and wise Richard Rohr once said, “The opposite of Faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith is control.” It’s a lesson we, like poor Hamlet, learn the hard way. That in the end, “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will—….”

And, as we know, “the rest is silence.”

Of what substance
is hardship made
that, in shaping it
with sturdy hands,
it liquefies, slumps,
refuses to hold its shape?
Persists with devilish intensity
to be captured or controlled?
If only we understood:
That in lifting our hands,
in setting free that which
we cannot sculpt to our ends,
the obdurate thing will fly from us,
ascend to one who will form it.
The shape it takes, no wringing of limbs
will change. It is what it will be.
Swallow it, in pieces, as you can.

My friend Krissy over at Visionarie Kindness Chronicles posted a poem today about her discovery of poetry and how it seeped into her being, helping her make sense of her life. It’s terrific. My origin story is more predictable: My mother read me poetry from the time I was a baby. I remember her reading “The Highwayman” — “the moon was a ghostly galleon/tossed upon cloudy seas/and the highwayman came riding” — and stopping to say, “Do you hear the horse’s hoofbeats?” She tapped out the rhythm of the poem and I HEARD IT. Nothing was the same after that.

I was in bed when poetry first found me,
pierced my heart ear-first, an elf, a thief,
a waif who having found warm welcome
would never leave me. I started hearing it
everywhere, whispering words I kept
hidden in the trunk of a tree, in a shoebox
with my paper dolls, behind the geraniums,
velvet-leafed, that flanked the house I
fledged in. They grew, took root,
cross-pollinated with prayer until
there wasn’t anyone else I could ever be,
so bound was poetry with my blood.
I wept alliteration, sighed in spondees.
I was a Phantom of Delight; I was
alone and palely loitering. I was
The Lady of Shalott in “My heart
belongs to Daddy” pajamas.
Heroes get powers. I got a pen.
But I learned how to fly with it anyway.
Now only God can see me coming.

Today is Mother’s Day, and even though my own mother is no longer with us, I still think of her often. When I was growing up, she made it a point to quote literary giants during the course of the day.

If I was dragging my feet getting ready to go to school, she might ask, “How long, O Cataline?”

If my brothers and I were misbehaving, we might get an earful of Shakespeare: “Assume a virtue if you have it not!”

Now, of course, this was said in a playful way. When we really crossed the line, she knew how to tell us so, in standard, and might I add, quite colorful, New Jersey English.

But it was really helpful to have a former English teacher around when I had to write an essay or got stuck on the origin of a word. “If you know Latin, you know English,” she would say.

On the other hand, I came to realize that I was nowhere near the refined, cultured lady that she was. “Enunciate!” she would say. She tried to improve and educate me.

When she would ask if I knew where that “O Cataline” reference was from, I’d say, “Cicero?” She would nod, then shake her head. “It’s pronounced ‘kick-er-oh.”

I wanted to say, But I’m not some ancient Roman, Mom. We live in New Jersey. Why can’t we say it regular? Or as some of us say in Jersey: reg-ya-luh. Still, I secretly enjoyed those conversations. Sure do miss her.

Let’s implement a new rule: for every memory that crosses your mind that makes you sad, come up with two thoughts that lift you up. It’s what your mother would want you to do.

Happy Mother’s Day to all!

What if we find out Darth Vader was really just a nice guy, if a bit misunderstood? A man in Tennessee whose father was a Star Wars fan was saddled with the name of the dark lord and seems to have a sense of humor about it.

In other off-beat news, it won’t come as a big surprise that Kafka was a terrible boyfriend, would it? Reading his letters to his fiancée, it seemed he saw everything – even love – in a, well, Kafkaesque light.

I love light-hearted stories like these. But I really love reading stories that start out on the dark side and end up reaffirming my faith in humanity.

A distressed man on the autism spectrum who had attacked his elderly parents was admitted to a Chicago hospital. Instead of sedating or subduing him, the security officers sang to him, calming him down and defusing the situation.

When a teacher saw her 7-year-old student riding his bike on a busy highway, she found out his diabetic father had collapsed at home. When he couldn’t unlock his father’s phone to call 911, he got on his bike to ride five miles to his grandmother’s house. The teacher called for help, and the boy’s father recovered.

Every bad news story starts from a place of pain, doesn’t it? The person involved may be called by different names: gunman, perpetrator, criminal. But it all starts with a “dis.” Disrespect. Feeling disenfranchised. Dismissed. Pain is like a chain letter. Someone feels slighted. They take that pain with them and slight someone else and it spreads like a virus.

The antidote to the “dis” is to not react in kind, but to unpack the pain behind the anger. Will compassion put an end to the cycle of pain? We can only live in hope.

Roxane Gay recently released her memoir, “Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body” and it’s interesting to see how such an accomplished author can be defined – by some – solely by the number on the scale. I came across a quote of hers once that stayed with me: “When feminism falls short of our expectations, we decide the problem is with feminism rather than with the flawed people who act in the name of the movement.” The same can be said of politics and religion.

As the world seems to be more and more a constant headline of Us vs. Them, I found the author’s insights to be timely and true. There’s always a story, isn’t there? Something led a person to this place. Sometimes that place is one of accolades and applause. Sometimes it’s to impulsive actions based on flawed perceptions.

After the Manchester attacks, mosques in my home state of New Jersey opened their doors to the public. “We want to tell them we are against extremism, we are against terrorism, we are against violence, and we are against discrimination of any type against anyone,” said Imam Mohammad Moutaz Charaf, spiritual leader of the El-Zahra Islamic Center in Midland Park.

The fact that the we need reminders that not every Muslim is a terrorist is astounding. It always amazes me that people online feel they have some kind of birthright to make evil comments about people they don’t even know. Sometimes whole groups. You may not agree with a person’s ideology, or faith, or even their hairstyle, but how does it really affect your life, anyway?

Someday your story will be told. It can be a tale of compassion and courage, or of blame and bigotry. How that story unfolds is really up to you.

From the time we were babies, my mother read to us. Not just children’s stories, either. She read poetry: Poe, Wordsworth, Eugene Field. My favorite of all was “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes. It is a poem about a dashing criminal and his ladylove, who, in order to warn him that the Redcoats are waiting for him, kills herself. Despite the warning, he is gunned down “like a dog on the highway/ with a bunch of lace at his throat.” Not exactly Dr. Seuss. Still, I loved it. Part of that love came from my mother’s analysis and explanation of rhythm, rhyme and meter. “Listen to the way the words sound,” she said. “It sounds like a horse galloping down a road.” I listened. I heard it. My whole world changed.

From these early experiences bloomed a love of language. I’m fascinated by what words can do. Onomatopoeia thrills me. I dig a good palindrome. Anagrams are amazing. I consider language a gift from God. In communication, we are brought together. Imagine a world where each one of us were bound in his or her own metaphoric prison, unable to communicate our feelings or experiences! How lonely we would be!

So, in the spirit of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty,” I offer this paean to the world of words.

Blessed be to God for the look of letters!
The curve of the “s,” the slick feel on the tongue.
The piquancy of “p,” the feel of “r” as it resonates, roars.

Blessed, too, the sounds —
heavenly diphthongs! Glorious blends!
The sunny way “yellow” glints from the page,
the blank stare of “morose.”

And, oh, for the way words bridge our gaps,
fill our chasms with sound and sense,
bring together the unlikeliest of minds,
smooth over our offenses.

Letters become sound become meaning
and a way is lit to heaven;
we need only to follow them
to find You.

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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