The Inner Room

I am at the front of the room, facilitating conversation with the ten teenage girls who signed up for the seminar. I don’t have any experience with youth ministry but I was willing. In a small country parish, that is enough.

I recognize a few of the faces in front of me, members of faithful families who have “regular” pews.  I’m not sure why the others are here. Perhaps someone convinced them to come or they were so desperate to get out of the house during the summer weeks that they showed up. Their faces are a blend of emerging confidence and awkward child-likeness. They are lovely and quirky, innocent and fear-filled.

On brown paper, written in my fanciest handwriting, is our theme: You Were Made to SOAR! The themes are bulleted below: Sacraments, Silence, Service and Renewal, Relationship, Real Joy.  At the moment, I’m setting the stage to talk on the topic of silence.

Some describe silence as going into your inner room. A place inside where you are safe and calm and you can talk to God — even if everything on the outside is crazy.

We flip to Matthew’s Gospel and read about going to your inner room. I talk about the holy witness of people who were imprisoned and couldn’t “do” anything to serve God that we still recognize as saints. Their eyes indicate engagement; the ever-so-slight creases on their foreheads show it’s not quite clicking yet.  

I hesitate for a moment and glance downward around the bland classroom, a little unsure about sharing something vulnerable. When I was their age, I always felt like I was on the outside from my peers. The little girl in me is still afraid: Were they going to judge me? To ridicule something precious?  

“For example, when I am trying to get serious about silence, I envision a cozy cabin in my mind.”  I glance up to see if it will be okay to continue with the illustration. Seems so.8a4c4b877410e253d9c7e52aaa7afd74

I roll up the thick carpet on the floor to reveal a trapdoor. With a candle in my hand, I open the door and descend into the dark cavern below. It’s a cool, safe space –no spiders!– and when I am ready, I blow out the candle.That’s my inner room.”

From the looks on their faces, I *think* the concept has clicked now. It’s okay to transition to the next step.

We walk over to the church, and I prep them, “I am going to play two songs and then, we are going to sit in silence for three minutes. It might feel like a long time but I’d like you to think about YOUR inner room.” My nervous energy hasn’t dissipated. Something in me wants their approval, wants them to think I am cool. I push the arrow button on my outdated technology and the songs fill the space, a musical repetition of the phase: ”Open the eyes of my heart, Lord.”  

When it’s time for us to be silent, the seconds creep by, and the creak of the pews is a telltale sign of the girls shifting uncomfortably in their seats. When I glance around the open space, there is a definite awkwardness lingering in the air; a couple of the girls are giggling into their hands. I’m tempted to cut it short but keeping my eyes focused on the rounded edge of the pew in front of me, I push forward with the plan.

The time of silence blessedly comes to an end and when we walk back to the hall, the girls fall into small groups to chitchat. I trail behind and try to come up with a backup plan to fill time if needed.          

As we settle back into the session, I pose the question, “Would anyone like to share about their inner room?” My voice is upbeat and confident but my spirit fears that awkward silence will again fill the space. A moment passes.

But then, they begin.

“I was at the ocean, the noise of the water blocked out all the other noise.”

“I thought about the couch in my house…I knew my family was nearby but I was alone.”

“I thought about crawling inside the tabernacle in the church.”

“I imagined myself in bubble that was filled with love.”

My heart rejoices at their responses. “Thank you, Lord”, I shoot a silent prayer.

One brave girl pushes back. “I don’t get it. I don’t know what everyone is talking about.”  The blue streak in her long hair is apparent as her fingers seek out split ends.

I affirm her willingness to speak the truth of her experience and try to say it another way.  “You know that voice in your head that can be really mean, that tells you all sorts of nasty things about yourself?!? I am trying to suggest that there is a place inside of you where even that voice is quiet.  And that’s the place that you talk to God.”

Her eyes shift slightly and a flicker of impact is momentarily revealed. She continues to push back but now, it is for the sake of rebelling. “Yah well, I don’t get it.

That’s okay. Stay open to the idea and maybe some day it will make sense.”  

We push on to the rest of the day’s content, talking about how a sacramental worldview and silence help you to understand how you are to serve. Service is a theme the girls connect with easily and the conversation flows naturally. The tension I have been holding in my shoulders begins to release.

At the close, we gather around a candle and I invite everyone to share their prayer intentions out loud.  Their voices ring out in the silence as we make our requests known to God. I am troubled by the magnitude of what they carry.

“For my mom who is fighting for her life with cancer.”  

“For my friend who has to leave her foster home.”  

“For my cousin who is in jail.”    

That night, I open the door of my secret place, the rustic cabin of my mind.  The floorboards creak as I walk to the center of the space.  Lowering to my hands and knees, I roll the thick carpet and raising, stash it in the corner.  My fingers grasp the metal handle of the square door to reveal a wooden staircase and raising it, I descend, bringing the glow of a candle into the space momentarily. 

In the silence of my inner room, I recall each of their faces.  I sit on the cool of the floor in the dark chamber and I pray.

mary bio YAH


Chaos in the Garden

…therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to cultivate the ground from which he was taken.” (Gen 3: 23)

We have been eating zucchini for weeks. It’s that time of year. At first, each squash picked from the garden is cherished and celebrated. Now, we are feeding them to the chickens.

Joy fills my mom’s voice when she speaks of the garden, and when she harvests, she coos all sorts of endearing things. “Well, little one, aren’t you a beauty!?!” and “Oh my goodness! I can’t wait to taste you!


My dad walks past the green beans, climbing in full splendor up the rack he built just for that purpose. The seeds were a bit old when we planted them weeks ago, and thinking they wouldn’t all make it, we sprinkled them close together. Now in full harvest, the plant has filled in thick and lush, bearing long twisty green beans on both sides of the planter. The soil is moist from the shade and regular waterings.

But then, hidden among the beauty of the plants, Dad hears the telltale rattle of a snake announcing its presence. The presence of danger is unavoidable.

The first order of business is to get the dogs inside. The younger of the two, Annie, hasn’t shown any restraint in recent encounters; she has attacked three javelinas as well as a porcupine. It’s better not to tempt her.

Dad yells at the dogs, using a very loud voice, commanding them to obey. “Annie!  Buddy!  Now!”

Hearing my dad’s stern voice is my first clue. It is out of character, not the normal end-of-the-day sound.

Soon, my phone rings and it’s Mom, who has now gotten involved.“Where are you? There is a snake in the green beans…

I am confused and a little sarcastic, “You want me to come look at it?!?!” Snakes are fairly common to our desert property and I am working on something that seems more important.

“We need you. Come now.”

I join the snake hunt, complete with nervous energy and raised voices. The snake is moving around and is hard to keep track of.  

“Mary, go get something long…we need to figure out where he is.”

I return a few minutes later with a twenty-foot stretch of plastic pipe, long enough to keep a safe distance while trying to rouse a snake out of hiding. Mom has a hoe. Dad has a gun. We are ready.

At the far side of the planter, I poke the bottom of the plant, trying to push the snake toward my parents. “Please don’t shoot me,“ I yell, only half joking. I am out of their sight, and the wall of green beans will not stop a bullet.

With a half-hearted laugh and a touch of exasperation, Dad snorts. “Got it.

Suddenly, the snake is on the move, unhappy with being poked and seeking safety. He crawls high into the bush, his movements shifting the leaves.

I use the pipe to lift a branch, and the snake’s crafty eyes and active forked tongue are now in plain view. Two feet off the ground, its body is wrapped around the planting rack.

Dad takes the shot, and 14102730_10154471164007943_7187211199284778346_nthe snake falls to the ground and continues to slither away.

Somehow, Dad now has the pipe and I have the hoe. Instinctively, I move in for the final blow, separating the snake’s head from the long body now wide open in the dirt.  It takes a few whacks to ensure the job is done.

This is the first snake that I have personally killed. For most of my life, I watched this kind of activity from a distance, fearfully.

The body continues to writhe and slither, the mouth bites the air, still on the attack. It is terrible to watch, this snake, seemingly alive but not. I feel the crashing sensation of adrenaline and the clammy feeling of sweat, but mostly relief that it is over.

We stand together, reliving the experience and dreading being the next one to have to pick green beans. I text my boyfriend to share the experience, and true to his roots, he texts back: “I can get $10 for the rattle.  $45 if you skin the snake.

We laugh and, with another whack of the hoe, the rattle is separated. We briefly discuss the possibility of skinning it. It is a big, worthy skin. But none of us is interested in getting that involved.

The mood begins to lift and normalcy settles back in. My dad, anticipating the release of the adventure-seeking young dog, gathers up the snake carcass to bury where it won’t be discovered.

I pick up the rattle, the silvery scales electrifying my fingertips, and head toward the house. As he drives by on the golf cart, my dad jokes, “Wait, how much for the skin?!?” He is always interested in a deal.

I shake my head. “No thanks, Dad. I’m going inside.

* * * * *

mary bio YAH


My home is a green spot amidst the brown barrenness of the desert. The wildlife is drawn into the coolness of the non-native trees, to the drip of the water faucet left barely on.

The birds add their notes, twittering and chirping, above the white noise of the wind moving throughout the property. Together, they are an omnipresent sound. At times, whispering. At others, roaring.

Drawn to the sprouts of new plants, the birds bounce around the garden plot, a fact my mother bemoans every year when her vegetables start budding. But she doesn’t leave them defenseless. A system of wooden boxes and rusty metal screens  protect the vulnerable plants in their first weeks.

Tap, tap-tap!  Insistently knocking on the window as if to rouse me from sleep, a roadrunner greeted me the other day. They aren’t know for flight. His appearance on the roof of the second story struck me as curious. And, the pair of swallows have returned to their mud nest on the front porch. They are a sight that comforts my heart, the promise that “the swallow herself finds a home.”

Every morning, my father pours bird seed into the feeder outside the kitchen window and we have the pleasure of watching the large and the small, the colorful and the plain eat together at the base of apricot tree.

Loudest among the music of our property is the bass call of the owl, “Whoooooo, whooooo.” Watching over it all, he lives in the tallest of pine trees on the fence line.

Last week, I pulled up the sandy drive and was greeted by the deep call of the owl as I made my way to the front door. “Whooooooo, whoooooo…”IMG_20160530_113911128

In my desire to respond to his welcome, I imitated the sound and sang back to him: “Whoooo, whooooooo.

To my delight, there was a response. “Whoooo, whooooooo…”   It made my heart flutter and my mind race with thoughts– Was I able to commune with nature?  Was I having a St. Francis moment?  I walked in the door filled with a deep awe at the moment that had passed between the owl and I.

A few minutes later, I heard the back door scrap against the tile. As his steps progressed into the house, my father called out, “Whoooooo, whoooooo...” It reverberated down the hallway and meet my ears.

A moment of realization flushed over my face. My St Francis nature moment had been nothing more than a long-distance communication with my dad, cleaning up for the day down at his shop.

Dad!!!  Was that you?!?!,” I yelled with a pretend accusation in my voice.

He laughed. I debated whether or not to tell him that I had been fancying myself a person with special animal communication abilities.

My parents have taken on the role of subduing the earth around our home. After his morning walk, my father reports on the tracks of animals and with a warning in his voice, evidence of snakes. From the high vantage point of the tractor, he moves dirt across the property, leveling and building up. My mother, when IMG_20160530_114020880_HDRshe has secured the garden’s defense, searches out the perfect combination of flowering plants to bloom on the patio and sweeps the blowing sand from the corners where it gathers.  

To celebrate their 40 years of marriage, my sister and I bought them a variety of plants. All have a red-colored leaf, blooming at different times throughout the year — a pomegranate bush, an elm tree, some others with fancy names that escape me.  Perpetual red; a sign of abiding love. But, really there is no need for the witness. Because doves, a staple of wedding and anniversary cards, eat breakfast outside the kitchen window and roost in the pine trees behind the house.


mary bio YAH

My People

With a demanding sing song in my voice, I yell after Dad as he walks to his shop, “Like items together!

As always!”, he responds while chuckling to himself, “Wouldn’t dream of something different!

It’s our little joke. I try to invite the semblance of order; he insinuates that I’m a bit neurotic.

In Dad’s smudged and hardened hand are ten powerful magnets. He dug them from a rotting plastic crate.  

As he bent over the cracked tub, Mom barked at him, “I already went through that stuff!

But, that just egged him to dig a little deeper. “Ohhhhh…I wouldn’t want you to get rid of any treasures!” When he discovered the magnets, he was vindicated in his search.

An hour earlier, we wrestled Dad’s new welding table off the back of the truck using chains and the tractor. After the steel monstrosity was put into place, Mom wandered over and begun poking through a hidden corner of the property.

That corner had been the home of a battered RV for several years. Frank was in a tough place and my good-hearted parents allowed him to park his RV behind Dad’s shop, a long extension cord providing him with power. He stayed long enough to compile quite the assortment of stuff, mostly leftovers from job sites, or so the story goes.

When Frank fired up the RV and drove away, there were promises of coming back to pick up his stuff and clean up the mess. But, months have passed. We know it isn’t going to happen but keep joking about it anyway. “You’ll never guess who I heard from” and “Frank will be back any day now.”  

Riding LawnmowerSurrounding the weed-free rectangle where the RV sat, there is a leaning stack of warped barn wood and a small pile of white tile. Tools, left outside, are rusted or hardened. A tower of old-school electronic equipment is balanced on an ancient riding lawn mower. At the edge of the area is a red truck with uncertain ownership. The desert has begun reclaiming some items, burying them into the sand or breaking them down with the unrelenting rays.

No one in my family is very good at throwing things away, the remnants of historical want. Digging through the abandoned stuff is painful at times. Thing after thing, wasting away. It’s hardest to know what to do with the items that still have a small flame of possibility.  

I walk some dirt-covered hangers toward the “keep” pile and mom quickly gestures toward the “dump” pile. I launch a defense in the silence of my head about their merit but place them into the trash bin.  My desire for order defeated by the reality of the time and effort it would require to restore them back to usefulness. Not worth the $.75 of value the old hangers have.

Burn PileBy self-designation, I’m in charge of the “burn” pile. We’ve only just begun the clean-up but the pile is already past the size of a “small fire.”  I will need to figure out a secondary pile before the project is complete.  

Mom is going to call a local guy to see if he wants to pick up the “metal” pile. Waiting for scrap prices increase again, he has been collecting.

Occasionally, after a day of puttering through his projects, Dad will direct the remote to the Kiltchners and say, “Let’s see what my friends are up to.” As the Alaskan homesteaders root through their boneyard of stuff and repurpose the broken down items into something astounding, Dad will smile and say, “Those are my people.

As we lose light in the setting sun, the work quickly comes to an end. In our own little way, we are righting a wrong, restoring the order and dignity of the desert. Working alongside my parents, in a small portion of our family land, I think to myself, “Like items together!”

There is no doubt: these are my people.


mary bio YAH

The Hope That Sustains

Thanacostiae neighborhood doesn’t look that bad…,” I said. There was uncertainty in my voice, trailing off with an unspoken question mark.

To my West Coast eyes, where very few buildings have even turned 100 years old, much of the East Coast had sagging or worn features. It was hard to see a notable difference between the middle class neighborhoods and the struggling areas where my friends did outreach and ministry.

Look at the cars. That makes it more obvious,” Clark noted, lifting his hand off the steering wheel to gesture at the curb on his right.  

It was true, the cars in the neighborhood began looking more beaten down, held together, or rusted out as we drove deeper into the neighborhood.

Notice the store fronts.” Again, my eyes focused: cheap fried chicken, check cashing joints, mom and pop convenience stores advertising alcohol and cigarettes.

I nodded my head and looked silently out the window.

Days earlier, I had phoned Clark to ask if I could come visit his missionary community, A Simple House, for Holy Week. I aimed for casual but failed miserably. Rather, I called every twenty minutes until he answered. If it was going to work, I needed to buy a last-minute ticket from Tucson to Reagan Airport in DC. I spit out my request, over-talking and rambling. After an awkward pause, he responded with uncertainty. Nonetheless, I needed the “yes.” I logged onto the computer and bought the ticket.

I was grieving. Numb. Zoned out. Uncertain about how to face the future.

When I received the news of my brothers’ tragic and sudden death, I was traveling for work. In the weeks that followed, I thought of nothing else than immediate needs. Fly home. Be with family. Plan arrangements. Communicate details. Deal with logistics.

But, weeks had passed since that phone call and gentle probes about when I would return to my duties were creeping into the occasional conversation. I was the leader of a mid-sized nonprofit in the midst of growth. While the others were happy to cover for me, they were starting to feel my absence.

The idea of shouldering the responsibility of my life of ministry was more than my fragile, weepy self could imagine.  Fundraising.  Drama-filled scenarios.  Financial statements.  Staffing issues.  The mere thought sent me whirling.

But, the hugs had been hugged. The cards had been opened and the food from the refrigerator cleaned up.

It was time to return to “normal life.”

In my mind, visiting my friends and colleagues with A Simple House was an inbetween place, a way of tiptoeing back into my life.  I could be surrounded by ministry but not responsible for decisions, or finances, or saying the right thing.  I could show up to all of the liturgies of the holy season without having to face the spoken or unspoken question: “How are you?”  I didn’t know which I was more afraid of, the people who were unable to bring it up or those who did.   I could be surrounded by people who I knew but would be able to leave, people with full lives who cared but didn’t coddle.  I could still be messy and irrational and unraveled without causing concern.

As I walked into the house, one of the missionaries, Laura, welcomed me with a hug, trying to gauge my emotion. Moments later, her co-worker, Ryan appeared in the hallway.  In a few sentences he shared about his experience of death in his immediate family, a conversation that we picked up later in the visit. Whatever he said allowed me to exhale.  It was okay that I was here.  It was weird but, it was okay. My grief didn’t make me a burden.  They would work me into their life for a few days.

And they did.

Over the course of my visit, I heard stories of suicide and murder, of incest and sexual assault. Stories of generations of pain and heroic struggles to mount obstacles.  Indications of tiny steps forward and huge slides backward.

On Easter morning, in my Easter best, I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with my friends in the pew of the small African-American parish. I was standing among a suffering people.  I was a suffering person.

The choir wasn’t perfectly musical but they were singing from their lives–the burden of sin, the joy of redemption, the hope that sustains.  Their impassioned tones broke into my numbness.  From the somber reality of death and disappointment and illness and unemployment and addiction, there was praise.  It was chosen and it was gift. Praise.

With my hand extended to the sky and tears running down my cheek, I joined in.

We rejoiced that death was not victorious.  We celebrated the light, the new life that was promised and given.

As the liturgy ended, we walked out to the parking lot, full of cars in disrepair, and climbed into the ministry minivan decked out with its share of anacostia2 dings and dents.  I gazed out of the window, quietly watching the weary neighborhood, with its sagging porches and bedraggled lawns.

I could see the ugliness.

But, I knew there was life inside.



mary bio YAH


Author’s Note:  This piece is dedicated to the memory of Dave Bender who sold many a car that was beaten down, held together, and rusted out on my behalf.  He would leave with a car on it’s last legs and return with a few hundred dollars.  It was a hidden act of service that Dave did without fanfare or recognition for years and years.  May you be surrounded in the glory of His love, my friend.  Thank you for your service.


A Goose in Church

Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!”, my platinum blonde friend, Christine squealed in a loud, surprised pitch. Four of us us were standing in a wooden pew when her cry erupted.  

It had been a fairly normal day in our world. Donors dropping off supplies; volunteers stopping in to complete projects; the pregnant women heading in various directions for classeSt marys phxs and appointments. We were all live-in volunteers in a community for homeless pregnant women a few blocks away and attending noontime daily Mass was one strategy for coping with the high-drama environment. Those who were available piled into the broken-down car that was used for errands and dashed into “our spot” in the expansive downtown church a few minutes away.

The abbreviated daily Mass progressed, as usual, through the various stages: the reading of Scripture, a brief reflection, the Eucharistic prayers. During the Our Father, we held hands as we joined together in the rhythmic words that spoke of what sustained us: “Give us this day Thy daily bread” and “Forgive us our trespasses.”  

 Our hands dropped to our side as we said “Amen.” The priest invited us to turn to neighbors and offer the customary sign of peace, a ritual reminder to reconcile with our brothers and sisters whenever needed. As friends and housemates, we offered one another a warm hug, not simply the standard handshake.

At my side, CRay-Ban-Sunglasses-Specials-Summer-2015-For-Men-Women-1hristine had a glamorous flair. Her nails were freshly painted and sunglasses were perched on top of her head. I offered my curvy and boisterous roommate an embrace. As our arms released and she turned to the person next to her, I noticed her sunglasses slipping down the back of her head.

With overeager helpfulness, I lunged to catch the sunglasses and rescue them on their descent downward to the floor.

But, I’ve never been a great catch.

Instead of the glasses, I caught a fleshy handful of her buttocks, in a pointedly vulnerable area.

The sunglasses clattered on the hard cement floor.

She squealed and grasped her backside.

I blushed and muttered a few uncomfortable sounds.

Mass continued.

For a few moments, we suppressed our giggles and twitterings, attempting to think holy thoughts and avoid eye contact. The pressure mounted.

I pressed my hand into my mouth and tried to take in a deep breath, kneeling with my head bowed and gazing at the curve of the pew in front of me. As the holy words echoed around the walls of the Church– “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”– and the priest reverently raised the Blessed Host high above his head, the laughter erupted out of me.  

I squawked the odd noise of laughter attempting to be contained.

Once noise was emitted, Christine lost control as well.

In this most sacred of moments, we sputtered and croaked, desperately trying to stop but unable to regain the prayerful silence proper to the moment.  

Our efforts to contain the hilarity only spurred it onward. One small noise sent the other into fits and starts. Christine’s face turned red from the efforts to hold the laughter in, and happy tears ran down my face. Other people in the Church glanced at us out of the corner of their eyes, trying to understand what was happening without turning their heads.

We did battle with our laughter through the remaining minutes of Mass.

As it blessedly came to an end, we were released from the hold of sacred silence in holy space.  We pressed our weight into the large door at the back of the Church and walked into the light of street life and bright sunshine.

Among the small group of women gathered on the elevated landing, the clucking began:  storytelling, teasing, retelling, analyzing.  

And the release of happy laughter.




mary bio YAH

The Bride and the Maid of Honor

I watched from a few feet away, holding her bouquet of gray lavender roses, as she gazed into his eyes and said those sacred words of promise, “I do.”

It was the destination wedding that we had daydreamed about years earlier, laughing and letting thoughts run wild. I had trouble going too far into my hopes for the future, but she was clear: a refined wedding, intimate with only a small group of friends and family. Now, in the glorious splendor of the Colorado mountains, her dream had just come true.

In our first days of college, she turned to me and extended her hand, “Hi, I’m Sheri.” Her eyes sparkled with confidence and energy.  

Mass was over and people were in small groups chatting. I had been trying to shyly sneak out the side door when she caught my eye. “Hey,” I replied, fumbling a bit, ”I’m Mary.”  

Oh!!!” she replied with a small squeal, “Sheri! Mary! They rhyme! We should do dinner!

Hmmmm, yah, okay.

And so it began.  

In the dark basement of the student union, she chatted freely. Basketball. Classes. The dorm. And, she did her best to draw me out. Home. My major. The university. I was a bit taken aback by the dynamism of her personality and sat deep in my chair, a bit shell-shocked. But that dinner connected us, the first link.  

Soon, we were meeting up to walk to Mass together and dinner afterward became a norm.  Eventually, we started to talk about very real things, storing each other’s thoughts and pains in the vault of friendship.  

Among the things that I learned at college, Sheri taught me how to be a friend.

As the years passed and our friendship remained, I gained the confidence to refer to her as my “best friend.” I was honored and humbled when she asked me to be her maid of honor, but in reality, it wasn’t much of a surprise.

As she prepared for her wedding, I enjoyed getting regular updates, hearing about the details as they unfolded. There were a few mini-dramas planning a wedding a few states away, and I listened attentively as the bumps got smoothed out. The right paperwork got into the hands of the deacon, the cake baker started returning phone calls, and the awkward conversations about the abbreviated invitation list were carefully handled.

Somewhere in the process, a thought began to irritate me, a tiny sliver under my skin that kept pricking me during the joyous preparations, even though I tried to ignore it:  What would marriage mean for our friendship?  It was right and good that he was now the one to plan things with, the one to hold her hurts and dreams. Would I still have a place?

I made light of this tiny fear, raising my glass to toast the newlyweds at their reception. In front of all the guests, I presented her husband with official recognition that he was now entitled the title “best friend.”  I would retain the rights to the girly stuff.  

I gave that toast a little over a year ago, an eventful year of Friendship Cardups and downs.  A year of phone calls sharing good news and tears.  A year of advice as decisions were made and support as hard times were confronted.  A year of visits and gifts and travel.

The stuff of gold, our friendship remains:  a relationship with history and weight, with vulnerability and trust. The sliver of doubt which nagged me during wedding preparations is gone, the tiny wound has healed. My place is secure. In becoming one, Mick has been joined into our bond of friendship.  He is a wonderful man–gentle, insightful, authentic. He loves Sheri and I love him for it.

Last week, I sat on the couch of their living room and held their first-born daughter, less than three days old. She was perfect, a truly beautiful baby. Her limbs were still curled up as if she were contained, the occasional stretch exploring new-found room. They recounted her birth story, filled with the intimate details that you only share with a tight knit group.

Sheri Mick MaryThey are calling her “Lizzie”, in short for Elizabeth Marie.

I asked about the process for choosing her name.  In the confiding voice of a long-time friend, Sheri leaned her head just so and said, “Mick loved the name….and when he learned it was your middle name, he said, ‘Even better!’”

With silent joy, warmth filled my heart.  Tracing my finger down Lizzie’s cheek, there was no doubt.

Love multiplies.


mary bio YAH

Homeless Stuff


At closing time, we count the daily till.  $22.50 in coins and small bills.

During our time volunteering in the store that day, five people made their way through the door. A young man, clearly mentally ill, rambling in a stream of consciousness. A single mom, in cowboy boots and a white t-shirt, prowling through the clothes. A woman with a long, gray braid down her back, carefully eyeing the mess that I’ve created. A talkative man walking with a cane as he searched the store for yarn; his companion standing near the front of the store trying to be patient.

Folks making ends meet.

In our little town, where many are struggling, that is a feat.

A ragged copy of the poem “Footprints” is thumbtacked askew to the wall under a detailed plastic crucifix. An indication of origin and intent.

We’ve thought about washing the front windows. “I’m not sure the glass is strong enough for a deep cleaning,” Mom fretted.

The landlord recently made some repairs after the vintage tin roof gave way, sprinkling insulation dust over a third of the store. The improvement added fresh paint to one wall, bringing the number of visible paint colors to seven.

I try not to wrinkle my nose in judgment when I walk through the front door. I try to remember the committed souls who volunteer their time to keep the doors open, and the humble funds that are poured back into community. But looking around kicks my “fixer upper” streak into high gear. “We should have a day of service,” I blurted out a few weeks ago, “and get rid of some of this stuff that will never sell.”

There is plenty that won’t sell. A constant stream of assorted junk and treasures arrives on the doorstep. To sort one from the other requires discerning eyes and a fair amount of heavy lifting. With a holder for floppy disks in hand, I ask, “Is this junk or will this be vintage at some point?” Hard to say.

The clothing racks are made from 2 x 4’s and silver pipe and wire. Functional and clunky, not beautiful. I spend an hour digging clothes out of a garbage bag and hanging things that pass my two second scan. Many have initials or a name marked in black Sharpie on the collar. Later, scanning the obituaries in the weekly newspaper, I recognize the letters. His earthly belongings were for sale before his body was laid to rest.

Everything in the store once had a home, perhaps even an important purpose or a place of honor. For a buck or two, they might have a home again. The confines of the thrift store are a temporary shelter, an in-between place. I pick up a decorative mirror with cracked edges from a crumpling box to set it on the display table. My image is reflected back at me. I, too, am in an in-between place.

The store is a place of creating small pockets of order within chaos. It is work that serves but doesn’t demand. It is what I can do right now.

I find a pair of black shoes in my size and slip $2 into the register.  

I’ve always had a heart for the homeless.

Cactus PhotoMary lives in her childhood home at the base of a small mountain range in southern Arizona.  She is daily torn between “inside work” (i.e. consulting and coaching maternity homes) and “outside work” (i.e. home improvements and helping her dad.)  She is a founding member of You Are Here and a regular contributor.

A Thorn In My Side

AAAAAAhhhh-chooo!”  (That’s me, sneezing!)

My eyes water.

My nose runs.

Desperate thoughts drive me to find the quickest access to a Kleenex.

Yep, I’m the girl with wadded up tissues in her purse, the girl with skin that is raw and sore from from wiping her nose with toilet paper or a napkin in a pinch.

I have allergies.

My eyes begin to itch.

My throat begins to scratch.

Clumsy fingers scramble to unlock medication from it’s protective bubble and I wait eagerly for it to take effect as I gulp it down.pollen-allergies-clip-art-1909082

A whole chain of events is triggered with a simple inhale. Unseen particles of fragrance or pollen float around in the wind until they find their way into my nose.  Then, I’m a goner.

Recently, I moved away. Remarkably, my allergies were gone.  But now, they are back with a vengeance. Thus, I must sadly conclude that I’m allergic to home.

The landscape that I call home is loaded with plants who have adapted to survive. Unrelenting desert sun forces native plants to develop a toughness.

The most annoying are sand burrs, a long grass that looks innocent enough but secretly lodges nasty little spikes into soft spots in your skin.  In an effort to avoid a carpet full of prickers, brought in on shoelaces and rubber soles, we choose to fight against the persistent plant and its painful thorn.  Eradication from the surrounding area is our goal.

Dad starts with a flamethrower as his instrument of destruction, attempting to conquer the seed pod by a fiery death.  After hours of work, contained to a small patch of land, he declares defeat.  “The plants are too green,” he grumbles, “the seeds just fall on the ground and I’m wasting time and fuel.

ThornMom advocates for weedkiller, the heavy duty kind that comes in a five-gallon jug from the feed store.  As the sickly orange fluid pours into the plastic sprayer, the odor wafts up. It’s a cross between vinegar and cough syrup. Not pleasant. Strapping the plastic jug of poison to his back, Dad walks around the front of the house, carefully directing the nozzle to the dreaded plant.  As the poison does its work, we discover that killing the plant just knocks the burrs to the ground. Next year, we will pay the price.

Shovels are our last hope. Hauling large garbage barrels to the edges of the back yard, we point the steel tip at our target, the shallow roots of the grass.  My dad and I, with gloved-hands, walk slowly through the field, analyzing each weed and attacking our common adversary.  With a light shake to remove the dirt from the roots, we toss the de-earthed plants into the black plastic of the bin.  Pressing my arm down to compact the growing stack, the smell of cut plants and dirt and plastic merge and begin to tickle my nose.  Two sacks later, we darkly joke that we could play an awful trick on a neighbor by leaving a bagful of seed heads in their grass.  

By that time, I am a wreck.  Those hours, spent in close relationship with the native weeds, did a number on my allergies.  Between the hot sun, the allergies in full force and the stickers working their way into my socks, I am grumbling between sneezes, brought low by an unseen enemy.  


I take off a glove, remove a thorn from my fingertip, and dig a Kleenex out of the pocket of my stained work jeans.  At least the tissues smell of baby powder and momentary relief.


Nails in the Wall

I was on the phone with a friend of mine. She quipped, “You and I—we’ve just got a nomadic spirituality.”

Her tone was half-joking and not necessarily complimentary. Nonetheless, something in me latched onto it.

We joked about our nomadic ways for years. Because giving a gift to a nomad is hard, I made her a playlist of songs about wandering one year. There are a lot of options to pick from.

At the time, I was moving a lot, living wherever was most convenient for the ministry that I was doing.  Because the charitable work was connected to many properties, I had many options. I became the master of the power move—the quick pack without boxes, the shift to the adjacent neighborhood, as few trips as possible.

A friend needed a place to recuperate after serious illness. I moved out.

A donor made a house available. I moved in.

A friend’s husband was writing his dissertation and their family was on a serious budget. I moved out.

The home for homeless mothers was understaffed. I moved in.

And so on.

The moves were a form of loving. If it made more sense for someone else to be living where I was living, I would move. If I was needed somewhere, I would move. If a good opponail-sticking-out-of-wallrtunity opened up, I would move.

Settling in meant hanging pictures.  Forget buying furniture, putting a nail in the wall evoked a sense of stability.

During this season, space and place weren’t interchangeable. My “place” was the community of service that I was a part of. I belonged there. I was rooted in the work.  In all its beauty (and rough edges!), it reflected a big part of me. “Space” was where I happen to live at the moment.

But, something shifted.

Early this summer, I pulled up the dirt driveway of my childhood home with my car full of belongings.  I made the decision to return home and live with my parents, at least for a season.

As I went to fill the closets of my bedroom, I found box after box of childhood trinkets, school memories, and college mementos.

Little yellow baby shoes with daisies. My class photos from elementary school. My sequined costumes from dance classes. An enormous quantity of t-shirts. A binder of research from my college capstone.

Sorting through it all had a weightiness that was hard to bear.

But it made it evident. Here space and place intersect.

Here my hands were pressed into concrete as it hardened. The image remains. Here I notice that the roadrunner population seems higher than normal. I have watched the trees grow; I can see the shift in my own body, aware that I can no longer work as hard as I once could. Here pets are buried in the yard and the turtles return to the porch each season to be fed a piece of fruit.

I’ve been helping my parents with some building projects.  From their imagination and sweat, they are calling into being a place that can welcome others, a place of celebration.  We have different approaches toward meeting the goal.  We’ve bickered and hurt each other feelings as we try to work together.

Maybe I bring city ways to getting things done—I want to work a timeline, not waste people’s time, and stay a step or two ahead.  It’s not clear if I am helpful or annoying.  Maybe both.

Nonetheless, I’ve arranged all the furniture upstairs to suit my sense of form and function. I recently bought a bookshelf and I’ve been eyeing the sales on papasan chairs.

My artwork, however, is still piled up on the table, waiting to be hung.

It’s just so hard to put a nail in the wall.