cottonwood by riverHow I love the cottonwood trees that grow fast by my window. In spring, the females produce tiny red flowers, then small, hard seeds with cottony coats. The bark on young trees is smooth and white or gray; it wrinkles, as I do, slowly, with age. The shoots are stout, the leaves are spirally arranged, triangular or round, lustrous green on top and pale on the undersides. When the wind blows, the fluttering leaves sparkle like water droplets in sunlight. They slap against each other, clapping, whispering, chattering in the breeze. In autumn the leaves turn to brilliant yellow.

Cottonwoods cluster by the streams and rivers of the plains. The root systems are shallow and spread like long-fingered hands, sometimes outreaching the canopies, soaking up the fresh water they need to thrive.

O God, let me take to the sky like a cottonwood seed. Make me bright and sociable like that tree’s shining leaves. Nourish me with the water of life so that I too might send out long and robust roots that anchor me in storms. Keep me content to grow and flourish where I’m planted.



What Do You Want from Me?

Chocolate Ice Cream Sundae

When I pay my rent, utilities, and phone bill, and I buy the necessary groceries, and I have a bit left over for a small extravagance, do you want my hot-fudge sundae, God?

Do you want me deprived or prosperous? Do you want me confident or needy? When I see the poorest of the poor among your children, do you want my pity or my activity?

Do you want me to volunteer among the elderly, even though it would be (almost literally) the blind leading the blind?

Do you want me to show up for the homeless or at protest rallies or the Red Cross?

Do you want me to take up chanting, make a gratitude journal, or crochet blankets for children in third-world countries?

Or do you want me to be like Brother Lawrence, wanting nothing but what you want in things both great and small… not even taking up a piece of straw from the ground if I thought you didn’t want me to but running to pick it up out of love for you if that is what you want?

Do you want me to wake up every morning and cheerfully to give you the day, confident that you will guide me to the place where joy meets grace, and certain, as I take my rest, that you have done precisely that?

Do you want my sickness and my pain? They are of no use to me except to waken my awareness of your presence.

Do you want my heart? I grant it to you freely, hoping you can chip away the crust and shine your light into the corners.

Do you want my purpose? Here it is, and here is my prayer, too.

All I have I give to you. Amen.

Sunday Prayers


Prayer was a dress-up occasion when I was a child. We did it on Sundays in black patent-leather party shoes, white cotton socks, white cotton gloves, and freshly pressed linen dresses with puff sleeves, smocked bodices, and grosgrain ribbon at the waist. Organ music by Bach or Praetorius reached the loftiest spaces of the nave, and deep-voiced men intoned with piety: “Let us pray.” We wondered if we had forgotten something. Were we fully prepared to become fervent?

No, we must not have been, for our minds wandered. Our ears heard, “Hallowed be thy name,” but our thoughts strayed like children distracted from a well-trod path by ducklings in the pond just over there. And if we caught a phrase or two—“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done”—we shrank back in shame; our hearts were not in it. “Thy will” must surely be something onerous, like being kind to our loathsome brother; keeping our room clean; befriending homely, awkward children; and putting all of our allowance in the offering plate. “Thy will” would never be anything pleasant or fun, according to our Sunday-school teachers, at any rate, whose own children were shrill and quarrelsome and picked their noses.

Our Sunday-school teachers described a judgmental Jesus, frightening us with too-frequent readings from Revelation and making a hash of the parables in the Gospels so that we thought we would burn in hell like the tares among the wheat, never mind that we didn’t know what “tares” were. Our teachers didn’t talk about the magnificent Jesus who loved us no matter what we did or, worse yet, what we thought. They didn’t quote John 16:33: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

We thank you, God, for helping us hang in there! We are grateful for the wise teachers who read to us from Romans 8:26: “…The Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know how we ought to pray, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans too deep for words.”




God, I cannot see. The lids are heavy on
my eyes; they close involuntarily. They
want to send me back to sleep, and I would
readily obey, except the day’s too fine,
the world is busy soaking up the sun.
Am I the only one who’s overcome by
lassitude? Is mine the only drowsy heart?
The children in their back yards kick their
soccer balls from fence to hedge; each
footfall is a separate victory. The new spring
grass is long enough to need a mowing.
Engines chugging, droning, coughing mask
the softer sounds—the women planting
dahlias, petunias, zinnias… roses if they are
ambitious. How I long to be among them
and to have a garden of my own.

I should be so much that I am not. I should
not be so alone. I should be more sociable,
more cheerful, and more passionate for
other creatures’ happiness—for mine is
certified. The robins tell me so, as do the
redbirds and the sparrows. Even raucous
blue jays say aloud, Go out and dance! But
I, you know, am vaguely unwell. I am weary
of myself.

Shake off this torpor, woman trapped in
twilight. You are made of carbon, oxygen,
and other elements like other humans in
their lucent shells. Your spirit shines like
theirs with no exertion on your part.
You are a work of art the angels have
composed, conceived by the Divine, by grace,
for love, not striving, straining. Look your
captor in the eye—it vanishes; your shackles
fall like rain. Earth swallows them.
Look now! They never were, nor
will they be again.


Image: Wikipedia Commons, Jim Ridley

First the Quiet, Then the Dawn


Noli Me Tangere, Fra Angelico, 1440-1442

Creator, speak to us of life, and may your
voice be stronger than the noise of our
confusion. Shout, if shout you must, so
loudly that we can’t mistake your
teaching for the rolling thunder,
blasting guns, or animals stampeding,
panicked, running reasonless except to
separate their heaving bodies from the
pandemonium behind them. May we
turn to you and hear an utterance of
life so clear it slices through the clutter
of the evening news, the arguments, the
blame, the words of fear, the hate, the
litany of retribution.

God of Earth and Heaven, we have
seen too much of death. Now we are
ready; we would hear you: Tell us
where to find this life, however near or
far away. Direct us to the distant
forest or the unkempt field where
living seeds—so generously sown yet
carelessly received, so easily displaced by
clumsy feet, so poorly tended, long
neglected, overcome by brash,
aggressive weeds unchecked—have
taken root and thrived in spite of
lassitude, unkindness, or abandonment.

The rain, it seems, is overdue and ends
too soon; the sky too pale, the sun
irresolute or vicious, alternating days;
the earth depleted, soil once dark and
rich with nourishment now turned to
dust. The gardens that in seasons past
have flourished now send up weak,
scattered seedlings, delicate, bug-ridden,
subject to disease and rot.

And then come summer storms that even
oaks and beeches and the hardiest of
shrubs succumb to. How we long for
spring, remembering warm afternoons
and honeybees, industriously pollinating
cherry trees and making golden honey
thick with sweetness. How, we wonder,
did the yield go tough and bitter? What
now shall we eat for strength and
courage, nature having turned against
us, poisoning the harvest, if indeed a
stalk remains for reaping?

Creator, we were not expecting such an
answer as the one alighting like a
feather on a puff of wind… not even
certain you had heard us… not
anticipating anything like peace or
purpose… just a tiny dose of courage,
strength enough for one more midnight.
First the quiet, then the early dawn;
eyes to discern wheat ripe for cutting,
grapes plump on the vine; ears to hear
wagon wheels turning and the soft tread
of workers who appear as the sun clears the
far hills, ready to haul away decaying
branches and dry leaves and bring in the
crop that bursts with life beneath.
Yesterday was meant for sorrow. Now
you call us to the season and the
work at hand—to serve the hungry,
heal the hurting, carry comfort to the
shocked and grieving, stunned by
unimaginable loss. The time for
feasting will be soon enough. Now
you call: Come, labor on.



I Am Prayer Again

by Rainer Maria Rilke

rainer Maria RilkeI am praying again, Awesome One,
You hear me again as words from the depths rush toward you in wind.
I’ve been scattered in pieces in alleyways.
I sweep myself out of garbage and broken glass.
With my half-mouth I stammer you who are eternal in your symmetry.
I lift to you my half-hands in wordless beseeching that I may find again the eyes with which I once beheld you.
I am a house gutted by fire where the guilty sometimes sleep before the punishment that devours them hounds them out into the open.
I am a city by the sea, sinking into a toxic tide.
I am strange to myself as though someone unknown had poisoned my mother as she carried me.
It’s here in all the pieces of my shame that I now find myself again.
How I yearn to belong to something, to be contained in an all-embracing mind that sees me as a single thing.
And I yearn to be held in the great hands of your heart.
Oh let them take me now.
Into your hands I place these fragments, my life, and you my God spend them however you want.

‘Conscience Is a Jewish Invention’

Sister Alma Rose Has the Last Word

V-E Day, painting by Geoff Bennett V-E Day—Artist, Geoff Bennett

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Loss of Innocence

We are the joyous Hitler youth
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Fanny, the narrator I, Fanny McElroy

Omigosh! There have got to be things that little girls should not have to know about.

I get as much education sitting on the grass-green steps of Sister Alma Rose’s grass-green wraparound porch, drinking Mr. Truman LaFollette’s incomparable lemonade, than I get at school. More, probably, because at school we get the sanitized versions of things, whereas, usually, nothing but the truth is told on Sister Alma Rose’s porch, and truth is what I heard when Rabbi Feintech and Sister Alma Rose were talking one afternoon, which was May 8, which was the anniversary of V-E Day —…

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