Holiness in our Midst

Holiness in Our Midst: Sharing Our Stories to Encourage and Heal is a monthly online feature created by Janis Pyle to facilitate sharing of our personal experiences, thoughts, beliefs, and spiritual practices with one another, especially through stories. Barriers are broken down when we begin to see all persons, even those with whom we disagree ideologically, as sacred and constantly attended to by a loving Creator. Each column is accompanied by a “story circle” prompt and study guides for personal and group reflection. To share your stories, contact Hannah Button-Harrison at communications@nplains.org. Janis Pyle can be reached at janispyle@yahoo.com

SESSION CXLII: ON ‘NATURAL DISASTERS’

July 2024

Story Circle Prompt: How have you or your family been affected by recent natural disasters? 

I have been deeply touched by recent natural disasters disturbingly close to home. It was frightening enough going through the May 20 EF2 tornado that hopscotched over the assisted living center in Nevada where I was sheltered, but even more so after I learned it touched down mere blocks away.  And it has been disorienting to note the loss of local landmarks from that same storm, places that had grown dear to me on my drives through the countryside. The farmhouse that marked the turn off from Highway 30 onto S27 is gone. Likewise, the picturesque barn that housed llamas was blown off its stone foundation on E29. (The llamas survived they tell me!) The swath of old growth forest in the Indian Creek valley that beautified the drive to Colo on Lincoln Highway is flattened and grey.   

But the intensity of my nostalgic loss pales in comparison to what other Iowans are experiencing. In mid-June, I bore witness to the aftermath of the EF5 Greenfield tornado where a mile-long and mile-wide swath of a town was destroyed. Homes, cars, belongings, neighborhoods, gone! My private grief stirs empathy for those whose loss is unspeakably immense. I long to do something to make everyone and every place whole again. (I am so grateful for Brethren Disaster Ministries, whose volunteers repair or rebuild damaged homes for disaster survivors who cannot recover on their own.) 

This morning (June 25, 2024), I awoke to news of more widespread river flooding in Northwest Iowa. Oh, no! Entire towns under water. Impassable roads. Crops destroyed. Where do I begin to be there for others in such loss when I declare an emergency when my sink is plugged? My beginning points are:

What are you called to do in these situations?


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SESSION CXLI: ON ‘SEEING WITH CHILD-LIKE EYES’

June 2024

Story Circle Prompt: What was your experience of the April 8, 2024 eclipse…or a previous one?

On May 3, 2024, I wandered out of bed to shut off my phone alarm. Walking past the big picture window in my living room, I stopped cold. I could not see a single thing at exactly 7:30 a.m., because fog had enshrouded my apartment building. During that week, I happened to be under the influence of poems written by and for children*. I was looking for openings to view the world through child-like eyes. Right in front of me was the perfect opportunity to play the game: With my Little Eyes, I Spy.

For 45 minutes, I watched a beautiful spring day come to life! Because my snooze alarm went off every five minutes, I was able to keep track of the time. I pulled up my mini-blinds and beheld numerous seamless scene changes by Mother Nature, reminiscent of those pulled off by the production crew in the Broadway production of “The Lion King.” The first images appeared like primitive children’s drawings, the last ones like richly detailed photographs. That morning, I spied:

7:30: A WORLD OF WHITE—Whirly, swirly cotton ball clouds came down from the Heavens to dance a number called Zero Visibility. 

7:35: THINGS THAT GLISTEN—Suddenly, only two images were highlighted against a hazy background in an Abstract Artwork. Patches of light against shades of grey could be beautiful! I gazed long at a single dandelion puffball and a lone bright streak of wet pavement on the driveway across the street.

 7:40: SHAPES AND OUTLINES: The Artist penciled in the rooftops of houses in the subdivision yonder, a tree canopy against the horizon, and the stop sign on my street. A single car, lights on, slowly made its way across the grid.

7:45: SILHOUETTES—The scene was now set for the Lighting Director. Darker objects began appearing as shadows against a white canvas. For a few moments, everything was in pantomime. A black and white photograph had livened into a moving picture show. Dog walkers crisscrossed the screen. Cars, identifiable now, moved a bit faster. 

7:50: PASTELS—The Colorist, who woke late, came running on the scene, experimenting with light shades at first, using soft blues and greens for the sky and trees, and pink for the stop signs. 

7:55: PRIMARY COLORS-- Then, finding her stride, Mother Earth took out her full palette. Landscape features came alive splashed with color: barn red for the stop sign, robin’s egg blue for the sky, and forest green (accented with dewdrops) for the ash tree that had survived the Derecho and wood-boring beetles.

8:00-8:15: DETAILS, DETAILS—The picture puzzle of The Day was finally complete. The houses had windows, flags, and bushes.  Birds flew from the trees. Whole patches of dandelions appeared. Cars and trucks sped by. The morning had risen to greet me before I ventured out to conquer it. I had seen it in all its stages, awed by its simplicity and beauty. 

Would that I could stay in my state of awe! I noticed, though, that with the sun’s glare, my adult tendency to impose my judgments rose up too. My questions came unbidden: 

Why doesn’t law enforcement crack down on the speeders? 

When will building management mow the grass again? 

Will nice weather hold for the weekend? 

Will the dog walkers passing by each other ever meet? (The dogs seem to be more interested in greeting each other than their owners.) 

Are the neighbors’ flags political statements?

Finally, who can I get to wash my windows? I didn’t realize how dirty they are!! 

I can’t stop those pesky questions, I know. But when I allow the Earth to greet me each morning, I lessen my desire to impose my narrow viewpoints on it. That was the big lesson from my morning of spying on the world with my little eyes…

*I recommend “Festival in My Heart: Poems by Japanese Children” translated by Bruno Navasky (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1993) and “Poem in your Pocket for Young Poets,” selected by Bruno Navasky (Harry N. Abrams, Inc, 2011).


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SESSION CXL: ON THE SOLAR ECLIPSE 

May 2024

Story Circle Prompt: What was your experience of the April 8, 2024 eclipse…or a previous one?

My answer is in this essay, a version of which appeared in the Sunday, April 21 Ames Tribune: 


How, then, do I live? I live to neighbor

This was the juxtaposition of events: I had just witnessed the solar eclipse the Monday before and was approaching my morning rounds still filled with celestial wonder. On Friday, April 12, 2024, I finally had a pure day off, one free from work and other obligations.

I had recently finished the thoughtful book “How Do You Live?” by Japanese author Genzaburo Yoshino and translated by Bruno Navasky, a novel first published in 1937. As a teenage boy ponders life’s big questions, he is mentored by a young uncle, who employs history, geography, physics, and ethics to instruct him about living a great life.

First stop: Casey’s on Lincoln Way in Nevada. Talk still centered around the awesomeness of the eclipse, lending sacredness to my routine. The staff knows me as a “regular” and makes sure my wavy cheddar sour cream potato chips, zero sugar orange pop, and daily papers are stocked. We share ups and downs; life and death are constants in my work as a server in an assisted living center.

Then off to breakfast at LaFinquita (meaning “the little farm”), the Mexican restaurant on Highway 30 up the road near Colo. It had been at least five years since I frequented this space; most recently, it had been The Country House. Over a Chilango omelet (with extra pico de gallo), I pondered the next five years: Who will have won the 2024 Presidential election? What if the Party I Don’t Want to be in Power wins? Will rights be added or taken away? Will journalists be allowed to write freely? Will America be at war? (As a news junkie, I am all too aware that Ukraine and Gaza are relatively recent household words.) Will another virus go awry? Fortunately, my “what-iffing” was tempered by a good chat with my waiter Mario Flores, whose family from Honduras owns the restaurant.

Next stop: The Colo Public Library. Spending 15 minutes there, I witnessed true community as we loyal patrons engaged in book talk covering multiple genres. I shared about the book on my mind, which falls into the young adult category. “It has lots of parallels for our times,” I asserted. As I left with a big bundle of Amish novels (and an historical fiction novel recommended by library assistant Pam), librarian Joanie Jamison offered me a cookie in celebration of National Library Week. “They’re from Bricktown Bakery in Nevada,” she proclaimed. She, too, is a neighbor-er and promoter of good books, local places, and big ideas.

Back home in Nevada for lunch. My reflections were a variation on the title of my book-of-the-moment: How do I live my life? It seems I live to neighbor. As I munched on my library cookie, a miniature work of art featuring white icing and sprinkles with the word READ piped in red, I paused to be grateful for my daily rounds of precious stories. I realized the convenience store line, the restaurant booth, the library setting, and the prep station at work can be platforms for building community. The stories that wash up on the shores of the oceans of our minds each day are beautiful seashells meant to be shared. In the telling, neighborliness and goodwill can prevail.

I am eternally grateful to my co-worker Ray: On April 8, she met me at the door, thrust a pair of dark sunglasses with confetti-colored frames into my hands, and said: “I’ve been waiting for you. You have to see the eclipse.” I immediately fell under the solar eclipse’s primordial spell, knowing my Earth time would probably be used up by the time the next one rolls around in 2044. I can still feel the pull of forces and powers that measure time in eons, not just campaign seasons. There are spiritual mysteries that unite all of us, whatever lever we pull in the voting booth. I will still be transfixed for weeks and months, guided by this quote from “How Do You Live?”: “We are all human beings, so if we can’t all live a life that is truly human, something is wrong. A society that does not allow this is wrong.” 


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SESSION CXXXIX: ON ‘QUERENCIAS’

April 2024

Story circle question: Where is your querencia?

The origin story of this question began last month at Café Diem, a true coffee house established in 2000, a mainstay in downtown Ames often frequented by Iowa State University students and faculty. A longtime friend and I were reminiscing about all the brunches and lunches we had savored in this place. Our interactions alone took quite some time to revisit: Books and poems exchanged. Smoothies and salads consumed. Community events planned. Ideas advanced to make the world a better place. If the walls could speak of all that has transpired in this place—including folk concerts and poetry slams—what would they say? we wondered. 

It was then that we noticed that patrons had tucked actual notes into the wall. What did the walls have to say? I took the closest one out. It was in French; I rolled it back up and put it back. I was a little hesitant to try again. Would it be a message of goodwill or possibly hate? But this is what the next note said:

Querencia (Spanish)

(Noun) a place from which one’s strength and character is drawn, where one feels at home, where one is their most authentic self.

I hope that you find your querencia!

Hmm! Upon reflection, my querencias are places where I can share without fear of judgment what is really going on in my life: what I am reading, thinking, dreaming, yearning for. This happens most often at retreat centers and restaurant tables where ideas are exchanged. Usually there is coffee involved! Café Diem and Perkins Family Restaurant in Ames, and Niland’s Café in Colo are a few of the places where I feel most at home, where meals with friends, functionally, become workshops! 

Since discovering this note, I’m less leery of passersby. I carry a newfound sense that strangers overwhelmingly want peace and love for all…and wish that I find safety in this world. 

And so, I pass the message of hope along and ask you: Where is your querencia?

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SESSION CXXXVIII: ON ADVENTURES

March 2024

Story Circle Prompt: Reflect on recent adventures in your life, ones great (grande) and small (petite).

The origin of this prompt was a question I posed last month to my friend Tammy, a retired French teacher from suburban Des Moines. (She takes frequent enviable trips to Europe.) What are your next adventures? I texted. She responded with her latest blog post: 

“The Stevenson Trail in southeastern France is my next dream. Robert Louis Stevenson (not yet a famous writer) walked this path in September of 1878 to distract himself after his love Fanny returned to America. He also was interested in the Camisards (aka Huguenots) a group of French Protestants in the area and their persistent and armed struggle for religious freedom in the early 1700’s. He wrote a small book called Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, which recounts his journey. It’s only 85 pages, but worth reading because of his struggles with his donkey Modestine and his description of the locals and the Protestants who lived there. I’m looking forward to walking where he walked and learning about Protestants in France…

“As far as my days here? Along with reading Stevenson, I peel an apple each morning and put the peels out on the back terrace. Each morning, fat brown bushy-tailed Mr. Squirrel comes and enjoys my offerings. I eat the apple with my oats, and he eats the peels while peering in at us at the dining room table. My guys tell me I need to name him, and I’m thinking on that…”

She included a line that changed my perspective: “I’ve been wrong in thinking that my life in Iowa isn’t as interesting as my life in France. Everyone’s life is interesting, if examined and reflected on well.”

Now, in thinking about my life in terms of adventures, I offer that I am nearing the end of a great three-year adventure with brilliant guides as I work to become a spiritual director. On a smaller scale I am enjoying the once-in-a-lifetime vicarious thrill of following University of Iowa Women’s Basketball superstar Caitlin Clark as she breaks records week by week. On an everyday level, as a culinary server in an assisted living center, I have just about completed my adventurous quest to collect themed headbands for every holiday in the year.  What began as a lark when I wore a turkey hat on Thanksgiving has turned into a sweet new commitment to add smiles every holiday as I serve up coffee and conversation. What are your current adventures? 

(Quotes used by permission of Tamara Andrews.)


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For now, you can find an archive of previous columns on our old site:
https://nplains.org/sharing-our-stories/holiness/