A funeral at Thanksgiving

In elementary school, I was an altar boy for our Catholic services, meaning I’d help prepare for the Mass and put things away afterward. I assisted at weddings and funerals, too.

One funeral remains in memory after all these years.

A small group – perhaps two dozen people – gathered for a funeral the day before Thanksgiving on a bitterly cold day in Cleveland. At the cemetery, the wind off the lake turned their teary cheeks bright red. Their pain was palpable.

I wondered: What will these people feel tomorrow on a day set aside to give thanks? What does “gratitude” mean in such moments: death, divorce, illness, depression, separation, a lost job, not enough money to pay all the bills?

What is gratitude? Is it even possible in those times?

Our culture has rendered gratitude irrelevant. We’re told to earn everything. Everyone must pull themselves up by their bootstraps. You get what you deserve.

No wonder we skip over the one day annually set aside for thanksgiving. When we convince ourselves that everything is earned, we develop a sense of entitlement – I’m just getting what’s coming to me – that leaves no need for actual thankfulness.

The “prosperity gospel” sells the same illusion that we earn our health and wealth and God’s favor by believing the right things and following the right code of conduct. Some people are worthy; others are not. If someone’s struggling, just tell them to pray harder and live more like you.

Our prayers of thanksgiving can absorb this sense of entitlement: Thank you God that I have a roof over my head … unlike those other people; thank you that we have this food … unlike so many others.

Thank you, God, that I am not like them.

No wonder our thanksgiving is a miserly confinement to one meal on one day in the midst of a months-long Christmas spending splurge.

The illusion of worthiness

We need to get back to gratitude, which is more than a day or a prayer or a meal. It’s how we get to know God.

Gratitude sets aside our illusions of worthiness and grounds us in humility. We recognize all we have, all we are, is a freely given gift – none of it earned.

Creation has gone on a long time without you and me and could have continued just fine without us. Yet in this moment, God decided creation was incomplete without us.

Think of that! We’ve been invited to the divine party — an invitation totally unearned and unmerited on our part. And all we can say is: Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

As we grow in the spirit of gratitude, we become less like the older child in the famous parable, the judgmental one who stands with arms crossed and jaw set, refusing to join the party. He’s not thankful for the Parent’s unlimited and unearned love; he’s only interested in making it an earned reward for those like him.

Like his prodigal brother, he lacks a grateful heart, one that recognizes love and trusts it. Gratitude involves a deep trust.

When we’re in tough times – someone has died, something has been lost, we’re struggling and confused and anxious – we’re reminded to trust that God’s love and presence are always with us.

Gratitude involves a deep trust

The One who decided creation is incomplete without us will take care of us and get us through whatever we’re up against in the moment, including the transformative moment of death. For that, we’re thankful.

Gratitude grows as we get to know God more intimately and trust more deeply. We become less clingy and let go of some of the anxiousness that blocks gratitude from taking root in our hearts.

We relax into God’s love and hear that voice calling us beloved. We’re thankful not just with the words of our prayers, but with the generosity of our lives. We’re grateful not only for what we have, but for all that is in the moment.

For all of it, we humbly say: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Nadia, nerves and just being you

Nadia video

Nadia Bolz-Weber is one of my favorites, a Lutheran pastor who uses words beautifully, shares struggles intimately, and puts flesh and bones on the faith to which I aspire.

So I was excited to be part of a church group that heard her speak two years ago. I expected to hear the Nadia who comes across so polished in video reflections put together with a professional filming crew and as many takes as necessary to get it perfect.

I was taken aback when she began to speak. Instead of smooth and professional, she was really nervous!

Nadia was starting a new phase of ministry, moving from pastoring a church to reaching people on a bigger scale. Her appearance that night amounted to dipping a toe in uncharted waters.

In many ways, she was out of her element. It showed at the outset.

Her posture was stiff. She looked down a lot. Her sentences were punctuated with “ums.” I never expected that. After all, Nadia has given countless sermons and talks before huge audiences.

My surprise soon turned to appreciation.

I’m always nervous before speaking in public, even when it’s with a loving faith community. Her halting words made me feel so much better about myself – she gets a case of the nerves, too. It also made her more human to me.

She began reading passages from her next book, which is about grace, my favorite subject. She relaxed. Her sentences were beautiful, powerful, uplifting. She connected with us.

She concluded with a long question-and-answer, trading life stories with anyone who raised a hand. Nadia was funny, outspoken, humble, thought-provoking, compassionate, affirming, with an occasional cuss word mixed in.

Her nervous-to-normal appearance has been on my mind with all the unfamiliarity we’ve been plunged into. It’s difficult to feel comfortable as a pastor, parent, partner, employee, friend and neighbor when the ground rules and formats for how we interact are in flux.

As an achiever, I want to do it all well, all the time, even as guardrails are removed from our relational roads and there’s more than a little fear of plunging off the side.

So, I’m reminded of Nadia.

Her unintended gift that night was reminding us that it’s OK to be nervous. We all feel unbalanced and unsure in new settings. The trick is to eventually relax into the moment and just be who you are.

That’s what people want from you, what they need from you – to be you, as best you can, in the moment. It’s what they love about you.

It’s all God wants and expects and loves about you, too.

(photo from Nadia’s 3-minute “Cloudy with a Chance of Grace” reflection on YouTube that speaks to the current moment)




Why is all this happening?

eye photo pexels

When things happen as fast as they are now, we ask a lot of questions.

What’s the latest news? When do the newest virus-related restrictions go into effect? Who’s affected by them? Where will I be able to go?

And then the best question which we humans tend to ask most often throughout our lifetimes.


Why is all this happening?

We’re hard-wired to seek explanations – answers to “why” — so we can understand better. Parents know how often a young child will ask that question. Why do I have to do this? Why can’t I do something else?

Why is everything this way?

Sometimes, however, “why” isn’t an especially useful question when we’re trying to deal with a challenge. There are more helpful questions for the moment.

do I navigate this? How do I help others get through it, too?

Right now, we’re all trying to get through our lives being turned upside-down in many ways. We’re full of lots of questions, most of which don’t have well-formed answers.

But we intuitively know the answer to the most immediate questions.

How do we get through this? How do we heal from all this?

Together, as we always do.

There’s so much fear and pain and grief around us and within us now. We’re grieving the loss of how our lives were only a couple weeks ago. We feel pain from losing jobs and routines and connections.

We also grieve the loss of long-awaited events, things we’d worked so hard to achieve and celebrate – graduations, weddings, proms, big events that we’d circled on our calendar.

We fear what might happen in coming weeks and months before we begin to see an outline of our new normal.

But here’s the thing: We can get through by entering into not only our pain and fear and grief, but others’ as well. Once we share it, we no longer shoulder all the weight by ourselves.

And then it becomes manageable.

As Richard Rohr put it, “When we carry our own suffering in solidarity with humanity’s one universal longing for deep union, it helps keep us from self-pity or self-preoccupation. We know that we are all in this together. It is just as hard for everybody else, and our healing is bound up in each other’s.”

Even as we create physical separation to keep each other safe, we need to create shared, common spaces within us to heal together. We can’t withdraw from each other.

(photo courtesy of pexels.com/@magoi)



Tending the garden

hand with leaf

We wrap up our visit to the garden of Eden by noting the most neglected part of the story, which comes very early. We’re placed in this beautiful garden and given an important role in God’s ongoing act of creation.

As the text says, it’s our responsibility to “cultivate and care for it.”

God could have done all the cultivating, of course. But God enlists us as full partners in nurturing her precious creation.

God provides parental guidelines to help us do our part properly. We’re told that we’re free to enjoy the garden and share its fruits, but not all of them.

We don’t have a blank check to do anything we want. There are limits.

It’s not our garden, after all. We’re beloved guests extended a divine invitation to enjoy it, take what we truly need from it, and roll up our sleeves and care for it.

This is one of several powerful and poetic stories early in scriptures that tell us we’re made from the same stuff as everyone and everything else, and we must live accordingly. We’ll all interconnected. What affects one part of creation affects all of it.

When we lose sight of this truth, we go off the rails.

When we think we’re God and can do whatever we wish, everything breaks down at the fundamental level. We withdraw from each other and from God. We damage our relationships. We destroy the garden we were meant to tend.

We fight over land and water and air, which should never be divvied up possessively. We hoard things that were meant to be shared.

We monetize beaches and forests and other natural resources for personal gain. We ignore the destruction caused by our policies.

Instead of protecting God’s creation, we desecrate it for profit.

The Eden story is a cautionary tale from centuries ago that applies to us today. It’s a reminder that we have a role to play, but it’s not the role of God.

It’s not our garden. We’re only the gardeners. And God’s counting on you and me together to do a good job.

(photo courtesy of Daria Shevtsova)

A couple of songs that remind us that we’re living in God’s world:




Every breath we share


An oxygen mask helped Wilma Jean take her final breaths in a nursing home room that was festooned with reminders of her life’s passions.

On the wall to her right was a framed photo of her husband of 59 years, smiling gloriously as he crouched to plant a vegetable garden. Small, round photos of her seven children and five grandchildren decorated an adjacent wall.

Wilma Jean’s family held her hand and shared stories of her life. Like all of us, she had discouraging and frustrating times that turned out quite the opposite of what she intended.

What stood out, though, was how her family’s stories were more about something else. They recounted how she spent her life breathing life into everyone and everything around her.

We’re tempted to measure our lives by the number of years between our first breath and our last, but that completely misses the point. What matters – what makes a difference – is what we choose to do with the countless ones in-between.

There’s much more to this breathing thing.

The familiar creation story depicts God exhaling a breath of life into our lungs, sharing so intimately with each of us this divine, animating force that changes forms but never ends.

Breathing life into one another

The story also reminds us that God breathed life not only into us, but into all that’s around us. Plants inhale the carbon dioxide that we exhale, process it, and breathe out oxygen that we then inhale.

This sacred breathing cycle — all breathing together — sustains life.

And here’s the good stuff: From our first gulp of air we not only have the ability to breathe life into our atmosphere, but into each other as well. We can do what God does on a smaller scale, if we so choose, breathing life into others in ways big and small.

At Wilma Jean’s funeral, family members described how she shopped for Christmas gifts year-round so that everyone would have a big, personalized pile when the day came. She wanted everyone to know that they matter.

At an advanced age, she learned to work a computer so she could make individualized cards, another way of reminding everyone how they’re special and loved.

She literally birthed a family-community and breathed life into it continuously with a love that still abides and animates. With every breath they take, she continues to breathe through them, with them and in them.

This circle of life persists, uninterrupted and undiminished.

So, what about us? One of the defining questions for each of our lives is how we use our sacred, God-given breath.

Use each breath wisely and generously

Some people use it primarily on themselves, essentially wasting their breath. Others use it to belittle, bully and harm, wielding it like a storm wind that batters everyone and everything around them. They undermine relationship, family and community.

And then there are those who try their best to breathe life into the world. They become co-creators with God, building families and communities that endure.

None of us does this life-breathing thing perfectly, but that’s OK. What matters is our intention and commitment. There are many ways to do it.

We breathe a little more life into our world every time we plant a vegetable, care for an injured creature, or show a moment’s kindness to another person.

We breathe life into our world when we get involved in a movement to protect nature and nurture people, or when we defend those who are being mistreated or marginalized.

We breath life into our world when we’re committed to the hard work of creating and sustaining families, faith communities and societies.

A good starting point is to ask the One who gave us our first breath to show us how to use all the others wisely and generously, all the way to the time of our last one and beyond.

Let us breathe.

Sausage, polkas and damned heretics

pierogis and sausage

I grew up in a Cleveland neighborhood known as Slavic Village. Immigrants from diverse parts of Europe moved to the city and formed their own communities. Each had its own churches and bakeries and restaurants and taverns.

The Italians lived in Murray Hill. The Germans were on the west side. Polish, Hungarian, Greek, Russian, Serbian, Croatian, Hispanic – each had their own neighborhoods.

The various immigrant groups had much in common. Their languages were often similar. They dressed alike – babushkas were universal. They ate similar foods – each had their own kinds of sausages, and many loved pierogies. They danced to polkas and other ethnic music that sounded so similar.

They had another thing in common: disdain for the other groups. They brought long-standing prejudices with them from the old country.

Growing up in this immigrant culture, I learned that each group had slurs and characterizations for the other groups. Italians were mobsters. Polish people were stupid. The Irish were drunks. Germans were this, Russians were that.

This group was shiftless and lazy. That group was untrustworthy and dangerous – they’ll fleece you or hurt you, so stay away from them.

They shared a collective disdain for Jewish people and black people. Catholics had slurs for those “damned heretic” Protestants, and Protestants had their own slurs. I remember being caught off-guard the first time a Protestant referred to me as a “cod snapper.”

Jews and black people? They needed to keep in their place. And women, too.

They’re not like us

Of course, the immigrants knew that members of their own ethnic/religious group were dishonest or lazy, but those people were viewed as individual failures rather than a reflection on the entire group. They were the exception.

However, when someone from a different group did something wrong, it confirmed their prejudice against that other group.

See! What did I tell you? Those (fill in the blank) are all that way!

They favored an open immigration policy, of course, but they thought there should be fewer of those people coming into the country because, well, they’ll make the whole country go to hell.

For me, it was eye-opening. As a second generation of an immigrant family, I didn’t have those long-standing mistrusts wired into me. In fact, it all seemed so silly. Bizarre, even. To me, these people were far more alike than different.

While each ethnic group was proud of its distinctive foods, my generation liked culinary diversity and enjoyed trying other cultures’ dishes. To us, it was all food — and delicious food at that!

Same with the music. There are different types of polkas, and different ethnic groups thought their music style was better than others. We enjoyed different types of polkas – and Motown and the Beatles, too, which didn’t go over well with some of our grandparents.

To us, it was all music.

As the immigrants died off, their cultures began to blend and mix in succeeding generations. The stark boundaries they drew between themselves and others softened.

But boundary-drawing hasn’t gone away.

We’ve seen a resurgence. I guess prejudice and hatred merely find new forms, new lines to draw in each new generation.

We hear people saying Hispanics are all dangerous gang members and drug dealers who must be kept out of our society — after all, you know how those people are, they’re not like us.

We saw the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, encouraged by some of our nation’s political and social leaders. Jewish people and black people remain prime targets for old hatreds.

It’s all the same

There’s talk about how gay people are this, Muslims are that. Millennials are selfish and undependable, women can’t be trusted to lead or make decisions about their lives. People from other religious upbringings are great sinners to be avoided and shunned.

People like us mustn’t have any dealings with them, you know.

I heard those things so often in my youth, and I hear them again today. And my reaction is the same: Why can’t we see how crazy this all is? Why do we consider our diversity as a threat rather than an opportunity?

We don’t have to eat only one kind of sausage. We don’t have to dance to only one style of polka. We don’t have to speak only one language. We don’t have to stay in the bubble of our own upbringing.

We’re all God’s children. Our diversity is a precious gift. We can enjoy one another, learn from one another, share each other’s traditions and ways.

We can enjoy kielbasa or mettwurst or a vegan sausage. We can dance to polkas or rock ‘n’ roll or rap.

It’s all food. It’s all music. We’re all people.

Overflowing packets of hot chocolate

hot-chocolate hands

While sipping my first cup of black coffee this morning, I thought about my mom and the many other people in my life who have mothered me. I wouldn’t be the person I am without their grace-filled places in my life.

Each of us has so many people who arrive in our lives at the right time and give us what we need at that moment. They show us what it means to love and share. Often, we don’t recognize all of this until much later.

Through their love and their daily example, they become our fixed points in the sky that help us navigate life’s questions and challenges. They nurture us and help us to grow in the ways we need.

Our many moms teach us what it means to be a real, imperfect, passionate, loving person. Even when we tune them out, they keep teaching until the important lessons sink in.

Their lessons often come in small ways that stick with us and shape who we are. For instance, something as small and ordinary as a packet of hot chocolate.

One of my mom’s many lasting lessons – ones she continues teaching me even though she’s moved into the next phase of life – is the necessity of giving even when we have limited resources or abilities.

It’s important to give generously of ourselves. And sometimes, we’ve got to get a little creative.

Always something to give

My family didn’t have a lot of money. No matter. Mom would walk to the Woolworth’s, buy packages of wool, and crochet scarves for us while sitting on the couch watching the Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour on television.

Later, when she developed Multiple Sclerosis and moved into an apartment building that could accommodate her wheelchair, she enrolled in a pottery class and made ornaments and figurines that became treasured gifts because they were the work of her hands.

Even in the final 10 months of her life when a severe stroke paralyzed one side of her body and left her confined to a nursing home, she devised a way to give.

Mom started ordering packets of hot chocolate with each meal, which seemed odd at first. She didn’t like hot chocolate – her two main food groups at that point in life were bakery and coffee.

She’d tell the nursing home staff to leave the packets of hot chocolate on her night stand. When my sister visited daily, mom told her to take the packets and give them to her two young boys.

The hot chocolate became her gift to her grandsons. Flat on her back, she reminded us it’s still possible to give.

With the hot chocolate, she also taught us that there really is such a thing as too much of a good thing. The nursing home staff learned what she was doing and started bringing extra packets.

Do the math: At least three packets a day, seven days a week, four weeks a month, going on for months … We’re talking hundreds of packets of hot chocolate!

Soon, my sister’s food cupboard was overflowing. Nobody could drink that much! She began farming it out to my brothers and me, and we shared it with others, too.

I’ve kept one packet. It rests on the shelf above my computer and re-teaches me her lesson about sharing every day:


We all have so much to share — our time, our energy, our humor, our love, our compassion, our individual talents, our daily cocoa. We’re never lacking in something to give; we just need to pay attention and get a little creative at times.

And ultimately, her lesson is that I and we can be mother figures to many people throughout our lives. No matter our age or our perceived limitations, we always can give people something that will touch their lives profoundly.

Even if all we have to give is a packet of hot chocolate.

A drink from a different cup

Cup of poison

Next to me sat a minister wearing a collar. In front of me were two men wearing yarmulkes. On the other side of the mosque were women in various head coverings. A nun sat among them.

Everyone in the mosque was in stocking feet, seated on folding chairs or simply reclining on the carpeted floor.

An organizer invited everyone to share the name of their place of worship. Dozens of churches, mosques, synagogues and temples were represented at this gathering prompted by the massacre at mosques in New Zealand this month.

We were reminded that religion – the real deal – is about standing up for peace, compassion and healing. It’s about choosing love over hatred in our individual and collective interactions each day.

The man who killed Muslims in New Zealand is the latest example of what happens when we drink from the cup of hatred. Important parts of us die off. A man whose compassion, decency, and sense of humanity were killed by this poison committed a great evil.

Poison that divides

The various hate-filled men who have violated sacred spaces – an historic black church in Charleston, a synagogue in Pittsburgh, mosques in New Zealand, and many others — all drank the same poison that is readily available these days:

The poison that exalts nationalism and supremacy and privilege.

The poison that advocates war and weapons as solutions.

The poison that stokes fear of anyone who is different.

The poison that builds walls against those who have a different skin color, different religion, different ethnic origin, different nationality, different sexuality, different political viewpoint.

The poison that aims to divide God’s children and turn one against another.

The struggle against hatred has gone on as long as humans have been around, and it will continue after each of us is gone from the planet. But this is our time – our moment — to offer an antidote to the poison in its various forms today.

I’ve been inspired by the many interfaith gatherings in the last couple weeks. People joined hands in offering the world a healing dose of love, compassion and peace -– the shared values of all actual religion.

They renewed their commitment to transform poisoned hearts and divided communities with a love that is undeterred and undiminished.

They offered the world a drink from a different cup.

They prayed for the victims and the perpetrators while recognizing that their thoughts and prayers were only a starting point. Words are never a finish line. Action must follow.

At the gathering I attended, we were reminded that this action must start inside each of us. We need to guard our own hearts against the poison. It’s easy for words of hatred to seep inside and influence us.

Offering an antidote

Next, we have to challenge our leaders – those who have outsize influence — to denounce these acts as expressions of evil. But the denunciations can’t end there; all leaders must emphatically and fully reject the ideologies that produce these acts.

Acts of hatred don’t come out of the blue. They’re shaped by the poisonous words in our world. Any leader who contributes to the poison or who refuses to condemn hateful ideologies is aiding and abetting and promoting the inevitable results.

Finally, we must respond in some way to the poisonous words we encounter in our daily interactions. We mustn’t allow them to pass without offering alternate words – a reminder that everyone is an equally beloved and beautiful child of God and must be treated as such.

It’s not about enforcing political correctness; it’s about offering an antidote to counteract the poison.

As the imam prayed on behalf of everyone in the mosque that day: May we work together so that goodwill dominates, love prevails, and hope spreads through our communities.

There will always be hatred in the world. We’re obligated to make sure there’s always more love.

We offer a drink from a different cup.

Grief, joy and a mom’s ceramic reindeer


My mom had multiple sclerosis and was limited to a wheelchair for her last 15 years. When she couldn’t navigate the house anymore, she moved into a retirement apartment and made new friends.

The apartment offered social activities, including a pottery class. My mom joined and made gifts for family and friends. Each Christmas, we’d receive new ornaments and holiday figures.

She made the Rudolph figure above. She was particularly proud of it. She kept it and placed it next to the small tree in her living room each year. When she died, I inherited it. Every Christmas since, I’ve place it next to my tree.

Holding the figure – the same one she held so tightly and painted so carefully – helps me feel connected to her. I sense her continued presence in my life.

It wasn’t always this way.

The first few Christmases after she died were difficult. Hanging her ceramic ornaments on the tree and setting Rudolph next to it made me miss her even more. It was akin to yanking the bandage off a wound that’s just starting to heal.

I felt I’d not only lost her, but Christmas, too.

Several family members and close friends are experiencing that same feeling this holiday season. They’ve lost someone or some important relationship. Entering a new year feels like closing a door behind them.

Those first years are so difficult! The pain can overpower. Joy seems elusive. There’s an overriding sense that things will never be the same, never as good.

All the talk of good cheer can get swallowed in that black hole.

As I gained distance from my mom’s death, the pain slowly subsided and made room for something else. Pain has been replaced by presence.

Pain replaced by presence

Whenever I look at the reindeer figure now, I think of all the holidays when she was in some sort of pain and yet made Christmas special for us. And now we live in her spirit and do the same for each other.

She’s still here in all of this. The circle is unbroken.

Whenever I hold the reindeer figure, I think of how she held it and put so much of herself into it. How she carefully painted the brown eyes, the long lashes and the red nose, trying so hard to get them just right.

And then she looked at it and smiled, the same way I smile when I look at it now. She put herself into that figure the same way she put herself into her family – so much careful work, so much love, so much attention to detail.

Those things never go away. They form a bond can’t be broken.

That is, after all, the Christmas message: Love is strongest of all, always stronger than hate or fear or the thing we call death. Nothing can separate us from powerful love.

Which brings us to joy.

Joy is mentioned a lot during the holiday season – joy to the world — and yet it seems so distant and alien and elusive when we’re feeling grief and emptiness. But joy and sadness aren’t mutually exclusive; they co-exist. They’re partners, in a sense.

As I’ve gotten older and experienced loss, I’ve realized that joy isn’t a feeling. It’s more of a mindset or a lifestyle grounded in the recognition that life and love endure, even when they change forms.

Joy is a close relative of gratitude and appreciation. It encourages us to step back, realize we’re still in good hands, and smile through our watery eyes.

One more thing about joy: It’s not personal, but collective. We create and share joy together.

Love is strongest of all

Joy involves helping each other through our pain. We sit with each other, hold hands, remind each other that we’re never alone. We don’t tell each other to cheer up or smile or be joyful; we simply give each other our presence.

That’s joy at work.

One of my favorite descriptions of this work comes from Francis of Assisi, who reminds us so beautifully and poetically that when we encounter hatred in someone’s heart, we bring love that can transform it.

Where there is doubt, we bring faith. Despair, hope. Darkness, light.

And where there is sadness, joy.

Not a joy that minimizes or ignores the sadness, but a joy that sits down next to it and listens to it. A joy that’s strong enough to help us through those moments and transform them.

A joy that’s expressed through something as simple as holding a hand. Or holding a ceramic reindeer.

On the square: Lives written with the same words

Market Square

Market Square in downtown Pittsburgh was vibrant on the autumn afternoon that Gloria and I visited. Folks got a cup of coffee or a sandwich from one of the surrounding shops, sat at a table and enjoyed the company of strangers on a delightful day.

Some read books. Some listened to music. Some talked. One couple chased their young boy around. People made eye contact and smiled. Everyone was in their own space yet sharing this space.

I couldn’t help but wonder about each person’s story.

For instance, there was an older couple sitting nearby, holding hands and sharing one cigarette. How did they meet? What tough times have they overcome? What is it about each other that makes them smile?

Oh, and why only one cigarette?

Each one’s story

On the other side of the square, a couple doted on their young boy, encouraging him to run and watch the pigeons fly away. Will this moment become a fond memory for all of them? How many times have they been to the square already, enjoying the miracle of watching a child grow step by step?

Soon, a group of high school boys walked briskly through the square on their way home. Two boys in front were teasing one of the others. A boy in the back of the pack hung back a few steps and looked unhappy. Had he been teased? Does he get teased often for being different? Did he have that teenage feeling of wondering if you’ll ever fit in?

From the other direction came a student from the nearby college. She walked briskly and appeared troubled. Was she away from home for the first time and feeling homesick? Missing someone who had always been there for her? Wondering how she was going to get through the semester?

A family of Middle Eastern descent found an open table. They spoke in their native language. How have they been treated lately in their adopted country? What do they tell the children about our times? Do they live in fear?

A young man set up shop on a corner of the square, offering to draw portraits for $10. He was an extrovert, happily welcoming anyone who walked by. How did he learn to draw? Who are the most unforgettable people he’s met in this place?

As I looked around, I wondered how many of the people on the square had overcome cancer or some horrific health problem. Which ones were grieving the recent loss of a loved one. Which ones just got good news – a clear scan result, a promotion, a pregnancy test that came back positive – that had them feeling more alive than ever.

Each of us was in our own little world and also sharing our world with everyone else. Places like Market Square reminds us of our innate connectedness.

The same words

We give into our tendency to fixate on superficial differences, and we create opposing categories — young or old, male or female, gay or straight, single or married, black or white, Democrat or Republican, this religion or that one, this sports team or another one, and on and on. We draw many lines between ourselves and others.

As we do so, we overlook how we’re so much alike at our core. We’re all made from the same ingredients. We’re all doing our best to try to navigate through life at any given moment, in our own unique and yet universal way.

Our stories differ in their details but not in their genre. All our stories fit on the same shelf marked “human,” tucked snugly next to each other, cover to cover. When we listen to others’ stories, we’re reminded of our similar experiences and familiar feelings.

In swapping stories, we recognize that our lives are written with the same words.

As the shadows grew longer in the late-afternoon sun, the older couple got up – still holding hands – and walked away, taking turns sharing drags off that one cigarette.

They were walking each other home. Like all of us.