Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is mystery. Today is…

Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is mystery. Today is…

Photo of a flooded alley

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

Hank is one of my favorite people. I don’t know him well, but I’m getting there. At the end of most work days I stop and talk with him on my way out. We talk about politics and religion despite conventional wisdom that warns against it. He shares memories of growing up in this city, keeps me updated on jazz events around town. I’ve lent him books and articles, and he drops nuggets of wisdom he’s learned along the way.

The other day we were talking about a recent column I’d written, “Rain, an Icon of Grace,” that shared my experience of God’s Grace always pouring over us, refreshing and renewing us, like rain nourishes the earth.

Chair in rain on patio

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

“It made me think of growing up,” he said. “I’ve always loved the rain and storms. Listening to it on the roof or hitting the windows. When I was little, I used to sit on the porch during heavy rains and watch the water pour down from the overflowing gutters along the overhang above my head. I was mesmerized. You know how it is when you are so young. Everything looks big and amazing. The rain looked like a waterfall. I could sit there for hours.”

From there our conversation turned to Grace and the importance of being present to it, like Hank was present to the beauty of the rain gushing down during the storm all those years ago.

“You know that saying,” Hank continued. “Yesterday is History. Tomorrow is Mystery. Today is Blessing.”

Hollyhock blossom in rain

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

I didn’t know that saying. But since he shared it with me, it has become a constant prayer. A reminder of God’s Grace present in the moment and the futility of fretting over what cannot be changed or worrying about things that may or may not happen. I’m prone to do both. Thanks to Hank, the past and the future are less successful at pulling me away from the present. His short saying became a mantra. “Yesterday is history,” I say to regret. “Tomorrow is mystery,” I throw back at worry. “Today is blessing.” I take a deep breath and remember this is so. And remember a little boy soaking it up on his porch.

Breathe Out Gratitude

Breathe Out Gratitude

Up early, I had time for a walk to the Cambridge Tea House before starting my workday at home. I savored every step in the cool morning air, aware that hot summer days are not far off. Usually, when I stop at the tea house, I’m driving to work.  I pick up a currant scone and eat it in the car. Not Friday. I treated myself to a full breakfast instead. And time to enjoy it.

Sun shining on table set with white tablecloth and two red vases holding succulent plants.

Photo: Mary van Balen

“You have your choice; sit anywhere you’d like,” the young waitress said with a smile as she welcomed me into the just opened dining room.  Sun pushing through a partly cloudy sky brightened the white table cloths and red vases topped with tiny succulents. Beautiful. I passed them by, though, choosing instead to sit at a plain, wooden table with lots of extra space since I planned on doing some writing.

Small celebrations feel good inserted into busy routines. Slowing down to join in friendly conversation and to jot down thoughts in my journal help me cope with disturbing news from around the world and in our country, and to remember the good.  Shortly after I placed my order, the owner/chef came out to chat—one of the perks of frequenting small, local eateries. She works long hours in a small kitchen, turning out delicious food six days a week.

Red teapot, tea cozy, teacup, and journal and pen sitting on a wooden table.

Photo: Mary van Balen

Tea arrived in a bright red pot along with a tea cozy to keep it steamy. Even the cup was heated.  I filled it and brought it close to my face, sniffing the aroma of the Queen Catherine blend. I filled a couple pages in my journal. The long table was the perfect size for a gathering of friends. “Invite people over more often,” I wrote, thinking of the table in my apartment.

Breathe in Grace. Breathe out gratitude.

I was already content when the quiche arrived. Too much food to eat there, I finished what I could, poured what was left in the teapot into a paper cup and snapped on a lid,  bagged up the homemade bread, and peeked into the kitchen to say goodbye.

Breakfast of quiche, toast, cup of fruit, and butter and jam.

Photo: Mary van Balen

Ovens were on, freshly baked bread lined a shelf, and pans and utensils covered counter space.

“Thanks, Mary. Have a good day.” She smiled. “Thanks for coming in. Come back soon.”

The two other women working in the kitchen were busy, too, but smiled their goodbyes.

Breakfast. Ordinary. Extraordinary.

Breathe in Grace. Breathe out gratitude. So easy. So easy to forget.

© 2017 Mary van Balen

What Were They Thinking?

What Were They Thinking?

Oil Painting, "The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Sepulchre on the Morning of the Resurrection" by Eugène Burnand 1898

The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Sepulchre on the Morning of the Resurrection by Eugène Burnand 1898
Oil on canvass
Musée d’Orsay

Last spring, while walking down a narrow gallery in the Musée d’Orsay, I looked into a larger room and saw a painting of two men running through the countryside on an early morning. Their dress and faces left no doubt—Peter and John were running to see if Mary of Magdala was  right.

Different gospels tell the story in different ways. In John’s gospel, Mary arrived at the tomb alone in the early morning, saw the stone rolled back, and ran to tell Peter and the others that someone had taken the body. Peter and John ran to see for themselves. John, the author tells us, looked inside, saw the burial cloths, and believed. After Peter and John returned home, Mary remained, and saw two angels who asked her why she was weeping. She answered, turned and saw Jesus, thinking he was a gardener. Only when he spoke her name did she recognize him.

Luke’s gospel tells of the women of Galilee who had followed when Jesus was laid in the tomb and who returned the day after the sabbath, carrying spices and oils they had prepared. They entered the empty tomb and were puzzling over it when two men “in dazzling garments” appeared and told them that Jesus had been raised, as he had said he would be. The women ran to tell the others who thought they were talking nonsense. Only Peter returned to the tomb in this telling and went home amazed. Then comes the story of Jesus appearing to travelers on the road to Emmaus.

Mark’s gospel has two endings. In the shorter one, three women, including Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James (both mentioned in Luke’s story) carried spices to anoint the body. They found the stone rolled back and the tomb empty. A young man clothed in white told them that Jesus had been raised and instructed them to go tell the others. But the women, were afraid and told no one.

The longer ending includes Jesus’ early morning appearance to Mary Magdalene who then told the others who were “mourning and weeping.” The didn’t believe her. Next, Jesus appeared to two disciples walking along a country road. They also told the others, who didn’t believe them either.

Matthew’s gospel is similar. The two Mary’s went to the tomb. While they were there, the earth shook, and an angel appeared, rolled back the stone and sat on it. The guards “…became like dead men.” The angel spoke to the women, told them not to be afraid, and invited them in to see where Jesus, now raised from the dead, had been laid. This time, the women were both fearful and overjoyed as they hurried to tell the others. They saw Jesus on their way, and he reassured them: “Do not be afraid,” and instructed them to go tell the others. There is no mention of how the women and their message was received.

Interesting. It was women who went to the tomb. It was women to whom Jesus first appeared and instructed to go tell the others. And, in two of the gospels that report reactions, the women were not believed. In Mark’s, neither were the travelers.

Why not? Was it just that those hearing the women’s story had a low estimation of women’s ability to be sensible in times of stress?  Thought they were hysterical, seeing things, or hearing voices? Maybe. Why not believe the disciples who encountered Jesus while they were walking, trying to comprehend the events of the past two days? We’re not told who they were, if they were men, women, or a couple. Simply disciples.

Close up of Eugène Burnand's paintining

Detail of Eugène Burnand’s painting

Looking at the exquisitely painted faces of Peter and John in Burnand’s painting, I try to put myself in their situation. If the one I had come to love, trust, and believe was going to save me and my people from the oppressive Romans, or as unimaginable as it seemed, was God’s own face in the world, if he had been executed by the occupying powers, I would be overwhelmed with emotions: grief, anger, hopelessness, confusion.

And then, Mary comes with a story that’s too good to be true. Words that stir the ashes of despair and let hope flicker again. I don’t want to believe only to be disappointed all over again. I know what’s it’s like to be vulnerable and to be hurt. And to allow myself to become vulnerable and hurt again.

Still, there is hope, and so I run to see for myself.

Gazing at the faces in the painting, I wonder, “What were they thinking? What did they fear? What did they hope?”

And today, as I celebrate Easter, believing what many still consider nonsense, I ask myself the same things: What am I thinking? What do I fear? What do I hope?

©2017 Mary van Balen

The Mug and Me

The Mug and Me

Close up photo of a cracked coffee cup sitting on office desk

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

I fell in love with a coffee mug. Let me explain. It happened on Friday morning at work. I came in as usual, put my lunch in the refrigerator, walked to my desk, lowered my purse into the drawer, and returned to the kitchen to pour a cup of coffee. Then, back to my cubicle.

After signing in and switching IM and phone from offline to “I’m here” mode, I reached for the coffee and took a sip. That’s when I saw them—the dark lines of old cracks. Starting at the pitted rim, they formed a cross whose long vertical disappeared into the coffee.

Immediately, a physical feeling of kinship with the mug overwhelmed me. I’m not in the habit of falling in love with coffee mugs or other inanimate objects, but I couldn’t deny the strong bond I felt with this piece of ceramics. It wasn’t even a particularly attractive piece, just the generic, workplace mug, white with the company logo on one side and a sponsoring company’s logo on the other. Don’t get me wrong. I’m eternally grateful that my place of work provides not only free coffee all day long, but also real mugs to drink it out of; no Styrofoam or paper cups for us.

Still, compared to the collection of mugs that fill my kitchen cupboard, this one was plain. It wasn’t handmade, wood-fired, or a memento from a special place. But, it had my heart.

It was the cracks. The mug and I, we’ve been places and have the scars to prove it. We have imperfections. Weakness in glazes and materials, perhaps there from the beginning, that make us vulnerable. I can’t speak for the mug, but my journey has delivered some significant hits. I’ve taken them, some more gracefully than others, and moved on.

A level of comfort and acceptance connected the mug and me. I had no desire to return to the kitchen and find a newer, unblemished version. It was content to sit on my desk for the day, holding refills and steeping my tea.

Relieved of the desire for perfection, we were two wounded travelers with no need to hide cracks or gray hairs. We were simply taking the day as it came, just as we were.

© 2017 Mary van Balen

King Bhumibol Adulyadej 1927 – 2016

King Bhumibol Adulyadej 1927 – 2016

Close up photo of a the King of Thailand's crest on a yellow "king shirt."I wore my yellow “king shirt” on Friday. No one noticed, but I wore it to remember and honor the beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand who died the day before at the age of 88, after 70 years on the throne. Thailand has lost their king. The world has lost a good man.

I didn’t know anything about the King when I visited Thailand, but one of the first things I noticed was his picture, often huge, displayed everywhere: on highways, in the airport, on the sides of large stores, churches, businesses, and schools as well as in little shops and market places. Sometimes a large picture of his wife, Queen Sirikit, was beside his. It was obvious, the people loved their king.

I learned about wearing yellow shirts in his honor. The King was born on Monday, December 5, 1927, and for the Thai, Monday’s color is yellow. In 2006, to celebrate the King’s 60 years on the throne, and to show respect and love for the King, the people started to wear yellow shirts every Monday. I found one in a large market and bought what I’ve always called my “king shirt.”

Coming from a country founded by revolting against a king, I wasn’t sure why this man was held in such reverence. (Once, while on my way to the airport, I engaged the car’s driver in conversation about the people’s devotion. “It seems genuine,” I said. He looked me in the eyes and replied, “Many people in this country would die for the King.” I didn’t doubt it.)

I did some research and discovered much to like about this monarch. Not in the direct line of succession, he hadn’t anticipated ascending the throne. He was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts while his father was studying medicine at Harvard. He was educated mainly in Switzerland and studied engineering and the sciences, but a series of unexpected events made him king at the age of 18.

King Bhumibol speaking with people on a rural visit

Photo: BBC

When he and his wife became king and queen, he stated that they would reign “…with righteousness for the benefits and happiness of the Siamese people.” They did, visiting small, poor villages across the country. The king carried his camera, maps, and a notebook, listening and learning what was needed.

Photo of Thai women weaving baskets at the Bamboo Basketry Handicraft Centre, Chonburi Thaniland

Photo: Mary van Balen

Queen Sirikt began programs to teach women traditional Thai handicrafts including basket weaving and fabric arts, enabling them to augment their families’ income.

King of Thailand playing clarinetKing Bhumibol was a man of many talents (a jazz musician who jammed with Benny Goodman among others, composer, designer, builder, and racer of sailboats, painter, author, and engineer) and holds patents for inventions including a water aerator and rainmaking technology. He encouraged farmers to replace crops of drug-producing poppies with more beneficial crops and oversaw thousands of rural development initiatives including small dams and irrigation projects that improved the lives of ordinary people.

king-walking-in-the-countrysideKing Bhumibol received the first UNDP Human Development Lifetime Achievement Aw ard presented by then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan for his “…extraordinary contribution to human development” through continuous efforts to help Thailand’s poor and vulnerable people. (Other awards included the Philae Medal from UNESCO, a World Health Organization plaque for leadership and example in the area of public health, and the first Dr. Norman E Borlaug Medallion from the World Food Prize Foundation for his efforts to alleviate starvation and poverty.)

It seems he was well-named—Bhumibol translates “Strength of the Land.”

On Friday, I kept hoping someone would ask about my shirt, certainly not my color or style. I wanted to say why I felt sorrow and loss at the death of a king halfway around the world. I wanted to tell his story. The story of this leader who put the well-being of the people first stands in stark contrast to the story of this year’s presidential election campaign in this country, where the poor are barely mentioned and attention veers to misogyny, scandal, fear, and hatred.

He wasn’t perfect. To the annoyance of some around him who worked to keep the image of the king almost god-like, he said the same in an address on his 78th birthday, partly in response to increasing arrests for violation of Thailand’s strict lese majeste laws:

“Actually, the belief that ‘the King can do no wrong’ is a big insult to the King. Why could he do no wrong? By saying so, you mean the King is not a human being. The King can do wrong. If, by criticising the King means violating him, then I don’t mind the violation.”

If I’ve piqued your interest, search the internet and learn more about him. Here are some places to start:

Glimpses behind the exalted persona of Thailand’s king by David Gray, who has reported on Thailand for the AP for over 40 years.

From the Royal Thai Embassy, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Thailand Bids Farewell to Beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej by Charlie Campbell for Time.

And, if you’d to hear him play a little clarinet with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, check out this YouTube video.

In Remembrance and Solidarity

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

This evening I joined a gathering of people at Trinity Episcopal Church for a prayer vigil of remembrance and solidarity following the violence in Orlando. People of various denominations, faiths, and communities celebrated in a simple service that included silence and music—not too many words. Being together in the Holy Presence of Love, however one names it, was enough.

I felt a profound sense of peace sitting in that welcoming church. Clergy and community leaders spoke and shared their thoughts and voiced prayer for all: an Episcopal priest, Methodist minister, Jewish rabbi, Islamic leader, a member of the LGBT community, and a representative of the Ohio Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

Perhaps the most moving moments were those spent standing in silence, listening to the bell toll 50 times, once for each life lost.

We held candles during the final musical piece and benediction. “What’s a vigil without candles?” rector Rev. Richard A. Burnett asked.

True. Candles bring light into darkness, a symbol of Love, of prayer, which do the same.

a round tray filled with sand and small, lit tea candles

PHOTO:Mary van Balen


As we left the church, a table held information from a number of community organizations that invited participation.  Love is the motivator, the power. But, as Stephen Colbert said as he began his show after the attack: “Love is verb. Do something.” It’s not enough to remember. Each in our individual way must make Love live. One suggestion? In November,  vote, and vote to elect those who will not build on hate and division, but who will work for the common good and protect the civil rights of all.

To the Face of Evil, Bring Love

To the Face of Evil, Bring Love

Old Man in Sorrow - Vincent van Gogh 1890

Old Man in Sorrow – Vincent van Gogh 1890

Before heading out to work this morning, I’m heading to church. Drawn there by grief and not knowing what else to do. The hate and fear that could move one human being to massacre innocent people is unfathomable to me. As is often the case in the face of such horror, I feel helpless.

The temptation is to hate back. But if we do, hate wins.

Facebook is full of quotes and suggestions. One counseled kindness. Be especially kind today at work and as you go about your day. You have no idea who may be “suffering quietly” after Sunday’s massacre. Good advice at any time, but particularly today. How often do those in the LGBTQ community and those who love them  suffer quietly, their pain and struggle held close and out of sight?

Today I will try to love and live in a way that fosters peace. They will be small ways. I’m not a celebrity whose words will be quoted. I’m not in a position of power to make laws or change the ones we have. At least not quickly. Most of us are not.

modern painting circle of five people in an embrace

Painting by Richard Duarte Brown

But we can refuse to hate, as difficult as that can be at times like this. We can refuse to blame entire religions (Some would like to point fingers at Islam, others at Christianity.). We can offer comfort, listen, pray. We can grieve with those who have lost family and friends, who have lost any sense of safety. We can make our voices heard by speaking up and communicating with those who are political and religious leaders.

But I think, most of all, we can live our ordinary lives with love and compassion. We can walk forward calling on the power of infinite Love in the face of evil. And have hope. What else is there to do?


Different Faces of Beauty

Different Faces of Beauty

photo of small street in Paris lined with small cafes

Small street off Rue Mouffetard, Paris
Photo: Mary van Balen

My sister sent me a marvelous photo of a morning on Grand Manan Island in New Brunswick. Sitting in the bedroom of a Paris apartment, I feasted on the greens of trees and grasses, the rocky coastline, and the fog that softened it all. Even through a photograph, the scene “felt good” for my eyes, making me feel like I was looking far.


foggy morning view of coast on the Grand Manan Island

Foggy morning on Grand Manan
Photo: Elizabeth Delphia

Such a difference from walking old, narrow streets of Paris with buildings standing on either side. There is much beauty there, too. It just has a different face.

Isn’t that how it is in our world? Beauty comes in all sizes and shapes. In the tiniest flower or the intricacies of human construction. In the natural world and what we have made.

Close up of the flower Solomon's Seal

Solomon’s Seal Giverny 2016
Photo: Mary van Balen

People, too. We come in many shapes and colors. Standing in line to take an elevator up the Eiffel Tower, my daughter and I were fascinated with the languages and faces of people from around the world who had come to experience the striking monument and the view of Paris spread out around it.

Seeing beauty in its many guises takes practice. We become accustomed to our particular ideas of what is lovely, or our culture’s definition of  what is or is not beautiful.


Paris from Eiffel Tower Photo: Mary van Balen

Paris from Eiffel Tower
Photo: Mary van Balen

If we were able to see the soul’s beauty in all faces, no matter the color or ethnicity; if we were able to appreciate the world through the eyes of a scientist as well as an artist, or a child as well as a tired adult; how different the world might be.

As I travel abroad, the news from home is disturbing. Fear and anger are stirring up the ugliest side of human behavior. Through the dark glass of racism, hatred, and ignorance, Beauty and Grace are obscured.


graffiti in Paris that says L'Autre est ton ami, or the other is my friend.

Graffiti on Paris Streets
Photo: Alan Cummings

If only we could acknowledge that those we see as “other,” those different from ourselves, are also filled with a spark of Divinity, and accept the gifts and visions they bring to deepen our understandings and experience of life and of God.

Walking through Paris, a friend saw some graffiti that, translated, said: “The other is your friend.”  We should heed those words.


Paris: Music in the Air

Paris: Music in the Air

Musicians playing bass, banjo, sax, and trombone on Rue Mouffetard, Paris

Musicians on Rue Mouffetard, Paris
Photo: Mary van Balen

Music is in the air! Often, while walking around Paris, I hear music. Train stations large and small have public pianos ready for anyone passing by or waiting for their connection to play. Groups of musicians cluster on corners, a hat or open instrument case sitting on uneven cobbles to collect coins from those who stop to listen.

The first group I encountered was a foursome playing bass, banjo, sax, and trombone. They stood along Rue Mouffetard, a narrow medieval street lined with small shops, cafes, and fresh food markets. The sax player moved with the rhythm, tapping his foot. The thin, white-haired banjo player stood tall and straight. Lots of people paused to enjoy the sound and a little girl smiled while she twirled and clapped along.

Man in black suit playing accordion on street in Paris

Accordion player, Rue Mouffetard, Paris
Photo: Mary van Balem

That evening, my daughters and I had dinner at a restaurant on the same street. A man dressed smartly in a black suit and hat strolled along, weaving between the outside tables of small cafes, playing his accordion. No wonder the “soundtrack” I’ve heard in my mind when thinking of Paris includes accordion music: It’s common around the city, day or night.

Man playing piano on bridge over the Seine

Pianist on bridge over the Seine
Photo: Mary van Balen

No matter what they play, the musicians I’ve heard are accomplished. Once, while walking home from a day of wandering through neighborhoods on the right bank, we heard classical piano. Sure enough, there on a small bridge across the Seine, a man was playing Chopin on a shiny black piano. People clustered along the sidewalk, called by powerful, familiar music to stop and listen.

Music in, for me, unexpected places reminds me to appreciate, to recognize the power of song and the richness of the human gift to make stirring, soul moving sound.

Early one morning, Kathryn and I walked to our favorite boulangerie to buy a baguette and jam for breakfast. Rue Mouffetard was almost empty. Above us, a curtain billowed out of a window along with the sound of a violinist tuning his instrument. I wondered what he or she would be playing.

string ensemble and vocalist in St. Paul's cathedral, Paris, France.

String ensemble and vocalist in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, Paris
Photo: Mary van Balen

If you want to attend a concert, they are easy to find almost any night in cathedrals around the city. Kathryn and I listened to a string ensemble preform Pachelbel’s Canon and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. They were joined by a vocalist whose powerful soprano filled the church with Schubert’s Ave Maria.

On an afternoon in the Marais area, we thought a store or restaurant was piping opera music into the street. No. Approaching the art exhibition hall, we saw a woman standing in front of the building singing a piece from an opera. I don’t know what it was, but her strong, expressive voice was mesmerizing. Even armed military police patrolling the area had to stop and listen. One let his automatic droop to the side while he held up a phone to record the moment.

Guns and music. The news from the States is filled with hateful, troubling events aimed at transgender people for the moment. We watched TV in a café yesterday as the loss of an Egyptian Airlines plane was being covered. Security and armed military presence here on the streets as well as in airports and train stations reminds us of terrorist activities. Poverty is visible as homeless men, women, and children make the streets their homes.

Over it all, haunting music awakens the question in my heart: What fear and anger, what wounds make human beings, capable of creating such beauty, do such horrible things to one another?

© 2016 Mary van Balen

Morning Prayer in Trosly

Morning Prayer in Trosly

After breakfast of toast—a treat since our apartment does not have a toaster—butter, jam, and coffee, my friend Rick went to morning prayer in the chapel at La Ferme de Trosly. I went upstairs and straightened my bedroom: Sheets and towels were dropped into the laundry basket in the hallway. Bedspreads and pillows were smoothed and clothes packed into the always handy Longchamp bag. I draped a trench coat and sweater over my arm and took the spiral steps down to the welcome desk. Leaving my things with Benedicta, I opened the door into a misty morning for a walk.

Prayer and Attentiveness

close up of tiny flowers growing on a mossy, rock wall in Trosly, France.

Tiny flowers on old stone wall, Trosly-Breuil, France. Photo: Mary van Balen


by Mary Oliver

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.”

close up of a tangle of roots and a snail shell on old mossy stone wall in Trosly, France

Tangle or roots, flowers, and a snail shell on old stone wall, Trosly-Breuil, France. Photo: Mary van Balen


View on a misty morning on Rue des Croisettes, Trosly, France.

Rue des Criosettes, Trosly-Breuil, France
Photo: Mary van Balen


Close up of Horse Chestnut tree blooms, Trosly, France.

Horse Chestnut blooms, Trosly-Breuil, France
Photo: Mary van Balen


close up of dew beads clinging to edge of red leaf

Dew beads, Trosly-Breuil, France Photo: Mary van Balen


Close up of purple and white lilacs

Lilacs, Trosly-Breuil, France Photo: Mary van Balen


The Val Fleuri, Trosly, France Photo: Mary van Balen

The Val Fleuri, Trosly-Breuil, France Photo: Mary van Balen


Close up of green weeds and plants covered with dew beside the road, Trosly, France

Beside the road, Trosly-Breuil, France Photo: Mary van Balen