Cheasty Greenspace: A Place of Goodness and Grace

The detective called inquiring after whether or not we had found “anything” in the woods since the fatal shooting that occurred near Cheasty Greenspace/Mt.View on February 4, 2013.  While we have certainly unearthed some curious, and somewhat disturbing, artifacts during our forest restoration work parties (lined up pairs of shoes next to an axe, dismembered dolls, rosaries, and large singular bones to name a few), no, we had not found the weapon involved in this fatal incident.  He went on to inform us that a team of officers with metal detectors and a K-9 unit would be canvassing the area the following day.  Mind you, just a few months ago, there was the horrendous reality check that came along with 40 search and rescue volunteers and cadaver K-9 units looking for the remains of a young women in Cheasty/North, so I was already edgy about the resurfacing street-cred of our Rainier Valley forest.  However, I don’t think I was prepared for the potential emotional unraveling the impact of this dynamic in our beloved forest would have on me.

You see, we have been faithfully involved in the reclamation and restoration of this urban forest for the past six years.  We have hosted over 80 community work parties dedicated to the vision of reimagining this landscape as a safe and welcoming resource for our neighborhood.  We have written for, and received, grants that have funded our hope to build trails within this 10 acre woods that would connect neighbors, encourage walking to public transit, and provide local access to nature.  And the beauty that has resulted from this grand grassroots effort is as real and glorious as the noon-day sun!

What used to be a landscape filled with invasive plants, such as English ivy and Himalayan Blackberry,  and illicit behaviors, such as prostitution rings and illegal drug trades, has been replaced with the balance that true restoration brings.  Our native Northwest understory is thriving due to the absence of ivy.  Children now play in the forest, and their laughter mixes with the chatter of songbirds and the cries of our resident Red Tail Hawks.  The trails are a resource to neighboring youth organizations who now can bring their students into their own backyards to study, learn and just be in nature.  Our neighbors, who have worked literally shoulder to shoulder for years to see the effects of this hope-filled vision, have become a networked community of friends and families.  These woods have become apart of the vibrant, social fabric of our neighborhood.

And so my heart was heavy when I saw dozens of marked and unmarked police vehicles lined up against our trees.  My spirit sunk when I witnessed uniformed men, shoulder to shoulder, working their way through freshly budded Indian Plum, Trillium and Sword Fern.  Their presence conjured up the spirit of negativity that brooded over this place for so many years, the very spirit that we have worked so hard to drive away from this place.  I felt my repose unravel and give way to the erosive work of despair and hopelessness.  “You can never change these woods,” the line-up of police cars seemed to sneer. “These woods will always be the cover for dark deeds!  No vision for hope and help can change that!”

I awoke the next day to clouds over my head and heart, hardly able to utter a morning prayer, but with the imperative to get out of bed and prepare for our monthly work party we host.  Begrudgingly, I set out shovels, buckets and First Aid kit.  Grumbling, I laid out our registration table materials and sign up sheets.  Demoralized, I wondered if this slow and steady, long term effort to affect change in our little corner of the world was even worth it anymore.  Yup.  My little pet dark cloud was beginning to rain on me.

However, contrary to Saturday’s Seattle forecast (and my attitude), sun began to beam on South East Seattle and neighbors began to convene at our home to gather up tools and gloves, and log their dedicated time towards making a tangible difference.  And then Ed approached, scuffed toe-shoes ambling down our sidewalk, threadbare coated-arms raised in greeting and dusty top hat ready to blow away with the wind.  I presumed he was on his way past our home to visit one of our neighbors, who are involved in some unsavory practices…but he stopped.  Right in front of me.  And smiled.  Turns out, he was here for our work party, but his car ran out of gas and stalled in the middle of the street, just up from our main trail head into the woods.  Can I help, he asked?  My heart softened towards Ed; of course, I can help, but give me a minute to kickstart the volunteers and get the work party going.

Lesson #1: It always amazes me what kind of help shows up in a minute. The momentary pause before immediately responding to a need that you know you can meet is almost an invitation to allow those around you to participate in an assistance that is easy to presume only you can do.  All that to say, when I was able to finally direct my attention back towards Ed, Neighbor Mike had already fixed him up with a five-gallon gas container and a Seattle Parks worker was ready in the wings to tow his truck to safety.  I felt a sun beam penetrate my hopeless haze.  This community that has been created through a hope for the common good, without question, took care of a stranger in our midst.  My heart tried to soar with the pride for my ‘hood, but quite honestly, I figured I would never see Ed again and that sense of being “had” was enough to tether my fragile mood.

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I followed the last volunteers up into the woods and was mentally making a game plan for the variety of ferns we would be planting (grown by spores from a forest friend), and how we would disperse the five cubic yards of mulch, when I was called out of my reverie by the beating of a drum.  The repeated rhythm was coming from the trail head where we would be working for the bulk of our work party.  I crested the trail into view of the forest’s entrance and there was Ed, top hat and all, sitting on a stone, surrounded by a medley of musical instruments and a growing number of children.  Ed smiled at me and proceeded to play music for the duration of our work party.  Trombones, clarinets, bongos, tamborines, all were enlisted to lift the spirits of the volunteers and provide a special joy for the children.  Oh, forgot to mention the unique detail that we were the host-site for a local preschool co-op parent group who wanted to participate in a local Earth Month volunteer opportunity.  We had dozens of preschoolers running around the woods on Saturday.  And it would be important to note, too, that the sun shone during our entire work party.  Sunshine.  Children.  Music.  Ed.  My heart was unfettered and finally flew.

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Now, some who knew of these back to back unique and unplanned occurrences probably could just attribute it to the Wheel of Fortune, for that would explain such a social spectrum in Cheasty Greenspace.  However, I’m one who is always interested in the quiet cadences of God and what one would call a coincidence, I’m eager to see the synchronicity.  Essentially, this means that when you really need something, and often when you really want something, it is there.  Furthermore, the ancient practice of pilgrimage maintains that help, and the divine answer, are most often found in the company of a stranger.  Pilgrimage is this radical practice that turns upside down the ways of the world; in each other and in the strays and strangers en route, pilgrims meet-not the paupers-but the princes.  In the gestures and greetings in gravely roadside places, prayers are answered, and what you are in need of is given.  In this nontraditional way of journey-living, the road taken to a better place is one where divisions are bridged: race, status, and gender are irrelevant.  I would further go on to say that this mode of being also exists in Nature.  For in the woods, all are recipients of the goodness and grace inherent in nature.  All are apart of the greater community of things.  And to a degree, all become Kings.

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Lesson #2: Rough, worn edges and the grime of a harder-than-mine-life under the fingernails are trumpets heralding the presence of a stranger who has the potential to deliver great gifts, should we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear.  Ed transformed my day and realigned my hope-filled vision for Cheasty Greenspace.  He was a vehicle of grace to me and his music was like incense, cleansing and purifying the bullet-weary woodland air.

Following the work party, volunteers (including Ed!) gathered under the large tent we had set up in our drive way.  As the expected rains began to pour down, we shared meager cookies and rich laughter together.  The rains were washing away the sundry steps of the officers and were watering our newly planted ferns.  And we, we were an intimate community of Kings, believing and working together, shoulder to shoulder, for a better place. 


Lenten Walk Series 3

Walking through the streets of Seattle’s New Rainier Vista neighborhood can seem somewhat like a maze.  If you don’t keep your bearings on Mt. Rainier (easy to lose for non-natives on a cloudy day), you can effortlessly get turned about.  As we walked along the sidewalks of this redevelopment, the children picked up garbage; it seemed the only familiar act in which to respond to the ever-present litter lined up along some of these unfamiliar lanes.

red metal labyrinth new rainier vistaWe prayed for this new community that  has both displaced long-time Valley residents and offered new hope for immigrants and refugees from around the world.  We acknowledged that living in this dense urban village must seem very much like a maze for families who come without great resources from war torn countries.  However, we also prayed that, unlike a maze, these souls wouldn’t come here to get lost.  Rather, more in alignment with that of a labyrinth, these many homes and streets would lead to personal transformation and, ultimately, abundant life.

The children played for a bit at a happened upon pocket park surrounded by tall, dense homes.  As we followed the trail to exit the playground, we came upon a grouping of carved stones with labyrinth images.

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Today’s prayers echoed this ancient prayer, attributed to St. Brigid:

God of the Twisting Path, God of the Turning Spiral, God of Revelation, God of Infinite Mystery; may this God enfold and entwine you in every step. 

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The Legend of the Labyrinth of the Minotaur

Upon ascending to the throne of Crete, King Minos prayed to Poseidon to send him a white bull, which he would sacrifice in honor of Poseidon. However, Minos found the bull so delightful that he kept it and sacrificed an ordinary bull, which angered the gods.  Aphrodite made Persephae, Minos’ wife, so desire the white bull that she bore its offspring, which grew to become the monstrous Minotaur, half man and half bull. King Mino had Daedaius, the master craftsman, build a giant labyrinth to hold the Minotaur.

The Athenian King Aegeus was compelled to pay Minos penalties every ninth year by giving up seven young men and seven maidens, who were forced to enter the Labyrinth of the Minotaur and ultimately be devoured. At the approach of the third sacrifice, Theseus, the son of King Aegeus, offered to enter the labyrinth as one of the virgins so that he could kill the Minotaur. He promised his father that on its return his ship would have white sails if he was successful and black sails if he had been killed.

Ariadne, on of Minos’ daughters, fell in love with Theseus and gave him a ball of red string, allowing him to retrace his path to escape. Theseus killed the Minotaur with the sword of Aegeus and led the other Athenians back out of the labyrinth. On the trip home, he abandoned Ariadne on the island of Saxos, continuing home with er sister Phaedra, who became his wife. Theseus forgot to put up the white sails, and when King Aegeus saw the black sailed ship he threw himself from a cliff lookout into the sea, which is now called the Aegean. Thereby, Theseus ascended to the throne of Athens.

Cookie Love

My mom has many glib witticisims that she pronounces as truths; a couple of her most favorites (which I heard often growing up) are, “Pretty is as pretty does,” and “When you think people are looking at you, they are not.”  These were pretty harsh statements for a self-centered adolescent and she even had one more that could trump this lot and go straight for the Ego jugular: “When you are feeling out of sorts, bake cookies for others.”  Considering the emotional landscape of a teenager, you can imagine, I baked a lot of cookies!

The amazing, magical thing that always happened-whether I was sad, depressed, lonely, dejected, or vulnerable-was that this process of baking cookies and giving them away truly sorted me out!  I could be in the most dispirited of states and as the baking ritual commenced, I could feel myself lifting.  My mind would initially focus on the chemistry of the cookie (1 tsp baking soda, 1 cup sugar, 4 cups flour...) and then center on the recipient.  My thoughts were no longer wallowing in self-proclaimed pity, they were reaching out to someone else, and to another’s story, who needed an extra dose of sweetness in their given season.  The cookies created a shared moment that acknowledged another and put life back in perspective.

When my husband, Joel, and I first moved into our home (referred to often and simply as our house numbers: 2809), our block was a sinister sea of unknown stories whose sailors stayed inside, anchored in fear and addiction.  Surrounded by averted eyes, gated windows, and stupefied souls, I could feel myself becoming fettered by the fear that kept our neighborhood silent and shut-in.  My mom perceived this movement away from the eager excitement of a new homeowner and, prayerfully, unfurled her time-worn truism: “Mary, it is time to bake cookies…this time, for your neighbors.”  My spirit knew it too; I began to bake.

After plates of the sweet offerings were assembled, Joel and I headed outside, praying against the cowardice and consternation that were creeping into our souls.  Mutually inspired by the life and work of Dr. John Perkins, we believed we were called to live here, we had felt God’s leading to make our home in Seattle’s Rainier Valley.  And to be quite honest, our naive, privileged ambitions began to crumble at our feet in the face of the very real-and now next door-presence of Other. What remained was the very real question of how were we going to live through and past the fear and BE neighbors to these people who didn’t give a damn about us and our enthusiasm.  Brandishing our cookies like swords, we decided to meet the fear head on and start knocking on doors and introduce ourselves to the neighborhood.

Behind each answered door were stories of sordid suffering and profound human resiliency.  Doors peeked open, chains were released and eyes were filled with skeptical curiosity; every face seemed etched with the same bewildered question, “Who are these crazy people delivering COOKIES!?” And yet, we were invited into our new neighbors homes where it was clearly evident a guest hadn’t crossed the threshold in decades.  We were invited to sit on a settee and offered dark drink and twisted delights in the company of anonymous tattooed faces.  We received blank, baked stares in exchange for the no-strings-attached-cookies and we received the very clear message that the suggested packed gun would be unloaded on us if we didn’t back away with our “f*cking cookies.”

After delivering the last plate, we returned home with less fear and more knowledge of those who resided in this neighborhood.  We didn’t know what would come of this culturally foreign gesture, but we did now know our neighbors’ names and they most certainly knew ours.  And that is one of the first steps to loving, folks.  For you cannot know what you cannot name…and you cannot love what you do not know.  The baking had already begun to sort things out: I had no time to cower behind closed doors, I had a neighborhood to get to know!


My oldest son, Orion, was wisely “invited” by his teacher (whom we love and adore!) to have a home-day this week in response to a recent situation where he threw a rock-laden mud ball in the face of another class mate-ouch!!  Our charge was to spend the day together working on what it looks like to be a caring friend.  Orion was querulous about staying home; and I…well, I did what we always seem to do in these situations: I became my mother and said, “Orion, I think it is time that you bake some cookies.”

The ritual had begun; we baked heart-shape cookies and read 1 Corinthians 13 until it became our mantra. “Love is patient.” (1 tsp baking soda) “Love is kind.” (1 cup sugar) “Love never fails.”  (4 cups flour)   Orion made construction paper heart notes to accompany the plates we were assembling for our now-common neighborhood cookie delivery.  Orion knocked on the familiar doors of our neighbors homes and greeted each of them by name as doors swung easily and happily open.  As I hung back, wanting him to own every second of these moments, I heard him say how grateful he was they were his neighbors and wished each of them a Happy Valentine’s Day.

Door to door we went.  We had one last plate to deliver; it was the same house that eight years ago a gun was almost aimed at us for doing this exact same thing.  Our Laos neighbor, Manichanh, flung the door open with a hug and gave Orion kisses for his sweet gift.  Without hesitation, she grabbed her gardening gloves, and began to unearth some of her urban daffodil bulb bounty to gift us in exchange for our delivery.  With our cookie basket now filled with soon-to-be flowers, we returned home to plant this generous neighborly token in our garden.

As we planted each bulb, we continued our 1 Corinthians 13 mantra: “Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” I scanned my eyes up and down our block while my son dug in the earth, planting very real “seeds of love.”  I raised my eyes and sighed a prayer of thanksgiving for each of my neighbors, whom I know and love.  And I quietly laughed in response to my mom’s deep wisdom she taught me so long ago.  For it is both cookies AND love that never fail.  Never.  Ever.


Living in Fear

We all live in fear to some extent or another.  There is a spectrum of this emotional response and absolutely, there are situations and contexts that warrant this self-preserving stance.  If we were to do a broad-stroke generalization though, what is the typical object of this fear?  I daresay that the average common characteristic of these fiends is difference.  Think about it: when someone or something is different than you, something inside bristles a bit and puts you on defense.  And perhaps there is a good evolutionary reason for this.  Because, very likely, a million years ago difference would have denoted danger and you could’ve tried to eat my kids or kill my clan!

Please understand, I am not making light of very real, very tragic events and circumstances that absolutely generate fear.  My heart cries with what I read about in the news and cringes when I hear gunshots and wailing sirens in my neighborhood.  These situations should spur us to live with vigilance and a keen eye for safety. To a very real degree, our lives and the lives of our children, depend on it.  But what I am interested in exploring is the kind of fear that causes us to dig our chin deep into our chest when passing a stranger on the sidewalk, that compels us to close our curtains to the chaos of our community and has us not knowing the very name of our next door neighbor.  I think it has everything to do with difference and those unknown, misunderstood behaviors of Other that cause consternation instead of a courageous, compassionate response.

One day, not so long ago, I was playing in front of our house with our children.  While they think nothing of this (to them the front of the house is appealing because we live on a hill and they love to take anything with wheels down our front sidewalk), this has always been an act of resistance for me.  For good reason, there were times when I hid behind our curtains, double bolted every lock and wished that everyone on our block was like ME.  But I’ve found over the years that this kind of hiding response doesn’t necessarily increase safety; it feeds the fear and kills the community.  And so we play out front of the house.  I’ve intentionally planted curb-side gardens so that I have to be outside, out front, present to my neighbors and praying for opportunities to engage those who are unknown and different than me.

And then she walked up the hill.  Lunging is likely a more accurate description-all the same, coming towards us was a stranger, someone unfamiliar and not at all like me.  I shielded a shy smile with my shoulder.  My boys, called out to her in a vigorous greeting and asked her for her name.  She slowed her pace to a stop. There was a very strong something in me that immediately wanted to hush them, to swoop them under my wings and whisk them away from this now pending encounter with this foreigner…because…I was afraid.  I inhaled.  I exhaled. And I reminded myself of something I firmly believe: The Spirit resides in (I would say even thrives in) that grace-filled gap between being afraid and being known.  That is a space that only the Holy can handle, hold and heal.  It is a place that, while scary as hell, I want to be; I’m challenged here to see, to hear and to know Other.

Her name is Manichanh and she is an immigrant from Laos*.  I’ve never seen her before because she rarely leaves her home, which is just five down from my own.  She occasionally does exercises on our dead-end street when most people are at work and the roads are quieter.  She lives with her six year old grandson, Alexander, who also doesn’t play outside; indoors, TV and video games offer safety once he returns home from school.  I ask her if she ever goes walking in our neighborhood woods, “There are trails in there now, you know,” I gently offer.  Manichanh emphatically shakes her head no, points to the woods and firmly states, “Bad. Scary.”  I take a deep breath knowing that I’m about to step into the gap: “Want to take a walk with me in the forest?” I ask.

Two strangers stare at one another.  We have nothing to rationalize an excursion such as this other than the fact that, plain and simple, we are neighbors and I’m struck with the value that that still holds even in our isolated, urban existences.   And I believe that our woods are healing and are active participants in a great agenda for God’s common good.  So, this seems as good a place as any to engage my new neighbor.  For a reason greater than us, she agreed.

We-Manichanh, myself and the children-approached our woodland trailhead.  She grasped my arm.  I laid my hand over hers.  This time I didn’t hide my smile, and as we entered the woods together, these woods that once truly were a place of which to be legitimately afraid, she exhaled.  We walked for a time in silence largely due to our language barrier, the children ran ahead and about, bird song lilted in the leaves of the waving trees.  We clasped hands and completed our walk, a walk that took us so much farther than simply through the woods, it took us through the gap and to the beautiful place of being known.

When we made to depart from one another, Manichanh brought her palms together at her chest and bowed deeply, while murmuring a phrase repeatedly.  I asked her what she was saying and she said it was like a ‘thank you’ but her native words carried a depth of gratitude that our mere thanks simply cannot touch.  I knew she wasn’t just thanking me.  With her words and gestures, she was responding to me and the woods and The One who upholds us all, with a deep seat of gratitude.  Both of our fears were relieved and in its place stood relationship.

The next morning I discovered home-made Lao cuisine on my porch.  Manichanh’s grandson, Alexander came over later for a play-date and a romp through the woods with my boys.  These are the kinds of blessings that arise from living in fear, living close enough to the edge of what is known that reliance on the Spirit is critical to get through to the other side.  And the other side is where the goodness resides, folks–therein lies the beloved community, where all are known, all are welcomed, and all are gloriously different.

The Spirit is calling: “Come!  Step into the gap with Me!”  Will you go?

*Mentioning Manichanh’s ethnicity is important to describe the dynamic of this story.  In this context she represents Other to me and I, and the forest, are Other to her.


Quietly Waiting (Advent)

I anticipated having a lot more creative inspiration during these early Advent days. I assumed that because of both the personal challenge to write reflections and the richness of this season that epiphanies would be snowballing me. This has not been so. In fact, it has been uncharacteristically quiet.

This isn’t to say that my daily activities have been still. My interior home-life has all the markings of December; my children and I have been enjoying creating in the kitchen, and our freezer full of Christmas delights speaks to this. My knitting needles are keeping up pace with the envisioned gifts I have still yet to make. Christmas canticles have been sweetly singing and candles are aglow throughout our days and evenings, and indeed, we are all very much aware of the deepening darkness in these weeks leading up to the Winter Solstice and the celebration of the Christ child. Try as I might to center in on all the rich symbolism of the season and capture an essence of the deep truths that annually call us out to celebrate, squeals of boy-children laughter, running-on-hard-wood-feet, and sibling drum circles (six hands chaotically attempting to play along with The Little Drummer Boy) dissipate the reverie and my inner-writing-voice is, again, quiet.

Beyond our doors the urban streets surrounding our home in Southeast Seattle are far from quiet; they are full of life and noise. Our city’s light rail train runs just one block from our front door and our home resides directly underneath SeaTac International’s most popular flight path. The road in front of our home is a main arterial to Seattle’s interstate highway and hospital; the wailing sirens of ambulances, police cars and fire engines charge this street at all hours of the day, in every season of the year. Christmastide doesn’t lessen these lights of pain and sorrow; if anything, the blinking rainbow Christmas strands alighting these city-homes seem an ironic backdrop to the grand-scope reality of urban life. It is a practice to offer up a murmured prayer for the ones impacted by the siren’s story; but the high-pitched decibel of these warnings leaves me aching for peace and silence.

But just behind our house is a small parcel of forested land. When the banter of the children grows too big for the confines of our home, or when we are needed to exchange the concrete under our feet for the soft, spongy feel of the earth, we dress for the weather and go into the woods. And it is most often here, in this green space that is adjacent—and under! —all the aforementioned urban realties, that we find a deep sense of quiet and Nature silently offers up testimonies affirming this Advent season.

This past weekend, while giving a tour of our recent trail work to a volunteer, we were discussing the mutual frustration at the lack of creative writing during this wintertime. During our walk through the woods, I observed how quickly the forest had quieted into its dormant stage—it was just a few weeks ago that these self same woods were vibrant with the flaming colors of autumn. Heedful of a surfacing truth, I felt a message from the woods settling into a deep place in my heart: it is this time of year when the earth goes quiet. It is in this season that all of creation huddles inward; drawing its energy to its core as it awaits the time to unfold again into new life. This isn’t the time of creative displays of springtime colors or the heady scents of sultry summers. This is the month of darkness; this is the month of quiet dormancy. This is the tide of wordless waiting. I felt a comforting invitation from the trees: “Wait with us”, they seemed to say, “as we do not wait passively in vein!”

A popular prayer poem that comes by way of the Iona Community in Scotland begins:

When the world was dark and the city was quiet, You came. You crept in
     beside us. And no one knew. 

It is easy to expect much from this time of year (and so we should!); the lights, the music, the bows—all seem to loudly proclaim the Life that is to come. These merry seasonal accoutrements, while certainly pointing to the day when the Ultimate Gift was given, can also be that which confuses the energy with which we move through these Advent days. With every Christmas light, tree or gift we see, we find the anticipation growing, the excitement mounting, the frenzy swelling, until—just like the energy of our home with three small children drumming along to carols—we have an emotional spiral in complete contradiction to the season of Christmas. I expected that all of the preparations and plans would inspire and nurture creativity; that the cookies and canticles would give me a fresh perspective on Christ.

Yet this prayer poem, with great simplicity, describes the ideal context for the Christ child to come: “When the world was dark and the city was quiet You came.” Our greatest Gift, our deepest Inspiration, the seat of our conceiving comes to us not because of the fanfare of Christmas, but out of the quiet, expectant, hope-filled waiting to which we are called. The One for whom we wait WILL come…will we know? Will we allow ourselves to be still enough to sense Christ’s presence? Perhaps if we accept the invitation to dark quiet from the trees, we will be among those who know of The Arrival.