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Thursday
Dec042014

Find the Good and Praise It

Photograph by Mary Van Denend

Her name was Samira, Samira Salih al-Nuaimi. She was a courageous human rights lawyer who worked on behalf of political detainees and poor families in her home city of Mosul in Iraq. She came from a prominent family and had a popular Facebook page where her commentary was widely read, even by Muslim clerics who supported her. But she dared to openly criticize the destruction of ancient, historic landmarks and religious shrines in Mosul — a “crime” she paid for with her life. One day masked ISIS rebels kidnapped her from her home, tried her for apostasy, and five days later publicly executed her. She was the mother of three children, who along with her husband have fled and gone into hiding. If you search her name online you’ll see a serene woman in a dark blue robe with kind, intelligent eyes and an otherworldly radiance. She could be a medieval saint. 

I stood in my peaceful Oregon kitchen in late September trying to make supper, but instead I was slamming drawers and cursing under my breath at the men who did this. I had just learned of her tragic death hours before. There would be more bad news that week: Ebola cases by the thousands in West Africa, gruesome beheadings, and another fatal school shooting in a neighboring state. The gunman was a well-liked freshman prom king. I know people who don’t own a computer or smart phone, never pick up a newspaper, and only watch The Weather Channel and Home & Garden TV. Some of them are my relatives. Though I wouldn’t choose this level of intentional ignorance, I understand why they do. Some days the news is unbearable. The whole world seems awash in misery and rampant with evil. 

Like it or not, I have been fine-tuned since childhood to feel the weight of the world’s woes more than most, perhaps like you who read the Art House America Blog (or write for it). Luci Shaw calls it the poet’s curse, this heightened sensitivity to life’s joys and sorrows. We can’t not feel what we feel. I couldn’t agree more and yet the nagging question for me comes down to this: how do we find the good and praise it in the midst of so much suffering? How do we flesh out our callings with lives of deep joy and courage?  These questions haunt me year after year. I can’t promise much in the way of satisfying answers, only glimmers, a semblance of peace. 

Celebrate Beauty

Every time I paint a room in my house or gather brilliant leaves on a walk or make a meal with fresh ingredients and serve it to people I love, I am celebrating beauty. Every time I browse a bookstore lined with “the sacrament of print” (to borrow a phrase from Gregory Wolfe), I am celebrating beauty. Every time I read stories to my grandchildren, I am celebrating beauty — not only the shapeliness of books themselves but the imagination of young, curious minds. 

Yesterday I created a slender tower of children’s books in the upstairs hallway by moving a few shelves around and gathering my collection in one spot, at accessible levels for an 8-year-old, 5-year-old, and 3-year-old. Even the baby, who’s not quite one year old, has her own niche of books. My tower fits smartly in its small corner near the rooms where they stay when they visit. There was nothing profound or political in my action, but it felt meaningful just the same, a little enclave of beauty for little people. 

Often we assign beauty a minor role. We dismiss it as fluff, like ribbons on a package or calligraphy on a page. It’s the content that counts, we say; it’s the words that matter. True, but even small efforts at making beauty lay claim to another inch of territory we won’t surrender to those who would trample all we regard as worth preserving in the world: education, civil rights, religious liberty, gender dignity. I am sure they matter to God. Kathleen Norris, in her wise little book The Quotidian Mysteries, reminds us that we honor the One who cares for us by the simple routine of caring for things, like laundry. Washing, drying, folding — these acts of domestic tedium, find a way to create order from chaos and beauty from disarray.  

Bear Witness 

Her now iconic words resonate across the globe like a bell we might keep on ringing until we believe it: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” Julian of Norwich, the 14th-century English anchorite, lived in an age not so different from our own. She too experienced brutality and the scourge of Black Death, innocent lives cut short by warfare, disease, and poverty. Yet in her mysterious waking visions, her ”Revelations of Love” as she called them, the world was whole and put right again, resting like a small brown walnut in the very hand of God. I take comfort in her words on those days when nothing seems well about my own violent century. Dame Julian reminds me that every time I worship within any holy community, I am using my voice to bear witness. Every time I recite The Lord’s Prayer or sing the liturgy, I am bearing witness.  Every time I sing at all or write a poem, I am bearing witness. 

Several years ago I wrote a poem based on an article I’d read in The New York Times about a troupe of actors in Iraq. They spoke of how difficult it was to be artists in a country with so many barriers to creativity and free thought. In the poem I invented an artist, a dancer by training, and tried to imagine what her life might be like as a young woman in that repressive culture. Ironically, I called her Samira. I submitted the poem to a competition that Luci Shaw judged, and, happily, it won runner-up: 

Rehearsals

Samira remembers carefully watching
her mother’s hips turn and dip
across the stage where she danced
like a veiled bird long into the evening.

Her mother’s arms glittered in hoops,
her huge almond eyes ringed with kohl.
Samira fancied herself on cool marble floors
with restless daughters of Baghdad,

twirling and spinning, brief shooting stars
shining their lights for a welcome world.
But a new Ayatollah pronounced the
folk dancing haram—always for women.

No one comes to watch the dancers
performing now. The National Theatre
sits empty as a dry pool in the desert,
where once it was filled with flocks

who came to wade and drink deeply.
Samira remembers when her mother
danced in Paris and Cairo and Rome.
Once she even danced for the United

Nations—but no one is united anymore.
Now the mosques share mortar rounds
and palace walls reek of dried blood.
Yesterday she received in the morning

a letter, but not a real letter with news
of a friend’s wedding or the birth of a
cousin’s first child—it was instead
a warning, a bullet wrapped in soiled cloth.

Samira rehearses four hours each day
pretending errands at market, she slips
from her house wearing a veil and all black
to hide her dancing from fond neighbors,

who know nothing of her destination.
She slides into the dimmed theatre where
empty seats stare like tombstones, where
faces of companions wait like masks.

Soon the choked and barren streets
shrivel and disappear, now her velvet
hair tumbles over a sequined dress and
her mother’s far-off voice begins to sing.

As I write this essay, Thanksgiving Day is a mere week away. The older I get, the more it becomes my favorite holiday. I choose to ignore rising pressure to buy early and often, and focus instead on a house full of wonderful smells and beloved people around a table. Afterwards, I envision a roaring fire and board games, children running in circles and spilling things and asking for more pie. Some will be crying because it’s long past nap time. Barring a downpour, a few ambitious adults might take a walk to the river downtown or a nearby covered bridge. We will bring along Oskar, our shelter rescue, who continues to teach us more about unconditional love than any human we know. We’ll have this gift of a whole day to reflect on all that is good and praise-worthy in our busy, complicated lives. We will hug each other and watch our loved ones drive away.

On the other side of the world people will wait for food and blankets to arrive at the refugee camp, while others will walk many miles to a near-empty clinic in search of medicine for their sick child. In frightening places, there will be trucks and gunfire and blood and silence. And my old, festering questions about justice and mercy, and who seems blessed beyond measure and who doesn’t, will rise again in my heart and mind. Would that writing a poem about one Samira could save the life of another by the same name. Would that peace and justice were that simple. The Franciscan Richard Rohr, one of my favorite spiritual writers who helps keep me grounded, tells us that we aren’t in charge of the outcome. Our work is fused to something much grander than ourselves: 

Find some way in which you can join in the life that is greater than your own. Participate in a vigil, sharing the grief and hope of your neighborhood or world. March with others to bring visibility and voice to an important issue. Make a pilgrimage to a sacred or violated site to connect your small place in time with a history and a broader meaning. Rest in the knowledge that God’s spirit weaves your participation as a single thread within a life-renewing pattern. You are connected to the source of Life! 

I suppose the undercurrent of this essay has to do with living a balanced life. How each of us in our own way, according to the gifts we’ve been given and temperament we possess, must find the fulcrum between an inner life of rest and beauty (where I clearly lean), and an outer life of service to the world. But even these are not strict polarities, they flow in and out of one another. It was Roots author Alex Haley who championed “find the good and praise it” as his life motto. Goodness abounds in this world if we only have eyes to see it. It resides in the making of beauty and in risking something for the sake of others. Father Rohr again: 

Yet Jesus the Christ has still planted within creation a cosmic hope, and you cannot help but see it in so many unexplainable and wonderful events and people. The “problem of good” is just as much a mystery as is the oft-bemoaned “problem of evil.” (from Eager to Love, page 221) 

What more is there to say? This is what I want to believe. Some days I can, some days I can’t.


Mary Van Denend writes poems and essays from her home in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. She is the author of Watermarks, a chapbook from Finishing Line Press (2013) and is at work on a full-length collection of poetry. She was part of the very first cohort to receive an MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. She considers herself semi-retired and divides her time between creative work, managing the house, traveling, grandchildren, and volunteering for her local hospice organization.

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Reader Comments (3)

"Some days I can, some days I can't." I've never quite understood faith, but more and more I see it as a kind of...plowing onward with the acts of beauty and care and witness you write about. A stubborn hope, maybe that the days of can will outweigh the days of can't, and that all will be well. Thank God we can encourage each other to keep plowing. Thank you for articulating the pain and hope so clearly, Mary--and the belief that goodness matters.

December 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterStacy

Thank you, Stacy, for your generous words. I love the image of "plowing through" that you offer. It's very helpful.

December 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMary Van Denend

Thank you for this meditation, Mary. I think a good way to go about a day would be to start by writing your two directives one on each hand – Celebrate beauty and Bear witness – as reminders of these simple but profound actions.

December 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNancy N

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