Beauty for Ashes

11 Minute Read

In which I pose the question to anyone who stopped (or started) something because of the Pandemic: Have you now restarted (or stopped) it? 

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?

Langston Hughes, Harlem

Today marks the end of the occasional convergence of the holy seasons of three proud religious traditions: Easter, Passover, and Ramadan. As their celebrations fade, I wonder, too, if the seasonally rekindled interest I put into an interfaith project during the run-up to COVID will soon follow their exodus.

Nowruz is the Persian New Year celebrated by millions of people in dozens of countries. In March 2019, I was invited by my lifelong friend and interfaith mentor, Anne Golightly, to attend a Nowruz feast at the Islamic Education Center in Potomac, Maryland. Anne had earlier introduced me to the mosque’s Imam, Dr. Ahmad Bahraini. Kevin Calderwood, an Elder from my own faith, join Imam Bahraini to commemorate Nowruz that evening by sharing the unifying similarities between Christian and Muslim values and beliefs.

In a prelude to the messages, dozens of children arrayed in colorful, traditional costumes sang and retold the story of Nowruz and the beginning of spring. Their pageant brought to mind memories of similar celebrations in my community where once each year, children prepare songs and messages to perform for their parents, friends, and members of the congregation. At Nowruz, watching the cheerful faces of the children as they sang their Farsi songs, I was reminded of singing Ài zài Jiā (Chinese for Love at Home) in a giant children’s choir at a large church gathering when I was eight years old. The choir adjacent to mine, also native English speakers, sang Soy un hijo de Dios (Spanish for I Am a Child of God1). The experience was, for me, a glimpse at a young age of how grandiose must be the outside world I only dreamt of in the philosophy of my local neighborhood.

At the end of the children’s musical program, and inspired by the remarks of Imam Bahraini and Elder Calderwood, I asked my friends Zahra and Muhammad, who had the previous year arranged for members of my congregation to prepare and serve over a thousand meals during one evening’s breaking of a Ramadan fast if they might introduce me to the children’s show director. An idea was already forming for a combined children’s program the following year, and I wanted immediately to test it.

After speaking with the music director, I then reviewed with Zahra and Muhammad parameters for proper ways to depict our two religions in the arts. Images of French pop singer Michel Fugain’s children’s march for peace in Le Havre in 19772 were already on their way, and I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t be crossing any lines. I then began work on a parable I called Two Shepherds about dual flocks of spiral-horned Racka sheep sharing the adjacent mountain pastures in the Hortobágy steppes of Hungary. When I later mentioned my project to Rich Schroth, a Maryland neighbor coincidentally connected to me by Anne 30 years earlier, he introduced me to folk singer Peter Yarrow—think Puff the Magic Dragon—who also happened to be a friend of Peace Corps, where I was working at the time, and who was also passionate about, and active in, intercultural community development. Adroitly changing my working title to Three Shepherds—like Muhammad and Jesus, Moses also spent time caring for sheep—I envisioned the musical being performed by an ensemble of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish children. But the night I met Peter during an impromptu “concert” he gave for a handful of friends over his mobile phone when inadvertently stuck in a Manhattan hotel was the week in March 2020 when everything around us began to shut down. Nearly three years later, Peter and I have yet to reconnect.

Once overcome by events—OBE is the sterile acronym we hide behind when the urgent out-floats the important—our commitments lost in the fire that was COVID, like eery relics resurfacing beneath melting snow and receding lakes, look once again in our direction as if to ask, “Is now a good time?”

I am not often publicly embarrassed. I can count on one hand an still make a peace sign with one finger to spare the number of times someone got the best of me in a crowd. The second and last time it happened—the first was in high school, which I’ll be certain to mention in a future post called something like No Hands Clapping—was on my 35th birthday. I was being roasted at a surprise party on the Outer Banks of North Carolina in the U.S., where a dozen families from my Maryland neighborhood regularly retreated for spring break. When it was my turn in the pit, Eric Magleby, my friend from birth—his birth; he grew up next door, and when my big sister was not available, I was occasionally paid 10 cents an hour to babysit him and his two sisters—shared a story from my youth I had yet to forget and now never will. As Eric, born without an ounce of guile, told his tale, I experienced that rare crescendo of truth, irony, bitter truth, bitter irony, and an Aesopian moral the size of a millstone I still wear around my neck.

“When I was six, and Scott was about ten or eleven,” Eric begins, “my dad offered to pay him five dollars to rake the leaves in our backyard before winter. I was too young, and my older sister was never going to do it. So Scott comes over one day—our yards were so close they shared leaves fallen from the same trees—and makes a good start. But he doesn’t finish that day—there were a ton of leaves—and so he comes back the next day. But on the third day—still not finished—he decides, for reasons I never knew, to abandon the project.”

“This is my dad’s version of the story. I was too young to remember it. But since I knew of it, I called my dad last night, who told me that a few days after Scott gives up on the leaves, it starts to snow for the winter. The backyard is now covered, including the pile of leaves that never got hauled away, plus the rest of the leaves that never got raked. To say nothing of the long-since dead grass underneath it all. And it’s one of those years when the snow doesn’t melt from November to March. But when it finally does, and the pile of leaves is uncovered but still soaking wet, here comes Scott to ask my dad for a rake, hoping to finish the job—and to collect his five dollars.”

It’s a roast, but Eric is anything but vicious. He is even too kind to laugh at what is not his but my cosmic joke. As was his father, who gently said to me that day, “I think it’s a little late in the season to rake leaves.”


Everybody had something taken from them.

Alan Alda, Remembering ‘M-A-S-H’, 9-18-2022

Now that COVID has essentially been shuttered with a hundred other maladies into the curiosity cabinet of modern living, in its denouement, each of us faces a dilemma. Once overcome by events—OBE is the sterile acronym we hide behind when the urgent out-floats the important—our commitments lost in the fire that was COVID, like eerie relics resurfacing beneath melting snow and receding lakes, look once again in our direction as if to ask, “Is now a good time?” But how do we return their gaze? Do we pretend never to have made such a pact? Can we just turn our backs straight-faced on the last three years of the new, and now suddenly old, normal? And have we processed the personal toll, family meaning, and professional consequences of retreating deep into our caves before now venturing out of them back into the sun?

I learned something of the law of the harvest through working in the family garden—see Failure Is Not an Option but also raking leaves, at least some of them. You eat what you plant. I also knew the value of a baseball the year I did not rake Frank Magelby’s leaves. After saving 98 cents the spring the snow melted that year, my little brother Roger and I put every penny we had into a wadded-up sheet of paper and carried it over two miles to the Sprouse Reitz store to buy a baseball we could throw between us. When we got to the store and learned the hard way about what Mr. Diamond called “sales tax,” we would have gone home empty-handed had he not taken pity and thrown in the four extra pennies we were short. Five dollars, on the other hand, now that might have got us a new baseball glove. But if you don’t plant at all, you don’t eat at all. And if you don’t clean up the after-harvest—the stalks, the sheaves, the missed, and the rotted—who else will? Who did finally rake up Frank’s leaves that spring?

It really was Eric’s story to tell, and he did so with fairness. Since he’d probably only heard it through its retelling, he was careful to recite not his but his father’s version. In mine, now 30 years older still, my backyard never looked as nice as Frank’s. The star center of his college football team, Frank, cut his lawn with a muscle-powered push mower—picture an engine-powered machine but without the engine. Frank’s blade was sharp, its tolerance so tight you could hear it metal-to-metal self-sharpen while crisply slicing through what behaved to my eye and ear like true leaves of grass being neatly laid to rest as they fell together in unison like so much cut corn.

My father’s mower—he played tennis in college and was always at the office—was powered by a bulky, chain-driven contraption that sometimes failed, made way too much noise for all the good it did, and kicked up dirt and the occasional rock that once shattered our basement window. Frank’s lawn was flat. Ours felt as if it descended a full ten feet from Frank’s property line to the Hungarian steppe. Raking the leaves it caught was a chore, not because I got paid for performing it; I didn’t. It was that our stubbly grass clung jealously enough to the fallen leaves that I could never separate them without a fight, the stringy (useless) steel rake scraping futilely, noisily across green and brown only to leave them both behind.

As a ten-year-old boy might have expected from a painter, Frank had a bamboo rake. Although it would be years before I had any kind of facial hair worth shaving, to this day, I liken Frank’s rake pressed over his evenly cut grass to sliding a straight razor down my neck. I am not exaggerating when I say that where steel, rock, grass, and leaf entangled with one another in my yard, nothing ever happened. A bamboo rake, on the other hand, never fails to capture even the slimmest scattering of its target. It might have been worth the five dollars just to handle such a fine implement.

Then why hadn’t I finished the job before winter? If five dollars meant so much to me in those days, and pulling Frank’s rake, like playing with his studio brushes as we sometimes did, was like making art on grass, why had I made only two and a half runs at his lawn before walking away? The weather was perfect. The tools were to die for. It seemed a large lawn—the Magleby’s had far more grass than the Knell’s—but I was making good progress. After my first big crack at it, blisters bubbled up on both hands and, on the second day, broke open. Was that the reason I quit? I’m sure it didn’t snow the third day, and Frank had imposed no deadline. Who could have predicted it, anyway? But the snow did come.

Maybe the task just got the best of me. I was only ten. And my dad was only a tennis player. Maybe I just went on to something else for a few days. Riding my bike or something. The only thing I remember about that winter was brooding about the mess I made, how I was ever going to clean it up, and whether the snow would melt before Christmas so I could run over there and make things right with Frank in exchange for spending money. Five months later, when everything did finally melt, I thought I could pick right up where I left off. No need even to ask.

I sometimes think about that story whenever I stop and then consider restarting a project that has gone OBE. I think about it this morning as I once again picture restarting Three Shepherds. (Can anyone out there tell me if Buddha ever cared for a sheepfold?) But like a climber facing an impasse, I have learned that retracing steps is not always the most efficient—or the safest—route to overcoming a present obstacle. My climber friend Nick Markoff taught my boys to go back just far enough to map out a new plan forward. For some climbs, it’s not about the trail but the summit.

Declare the past. Diagnose the present. Foretell the future. Practice these acts.

Hippocrates of Kos

I no longer live around snow. But as I read this warmer-than-average spring about the rusted cars, the sunken wrecks, the suicides and accidents once buried in water—melting or evaporating—now emerging from the deep, the words of Hippocrates emerge along with them. I usually say them all together in the mantra they have become for me, always beginning with Act One.

“Declare the past.”

But today, I channel that old Greek country doctor in the way he might have spoken them to his charges when sending them out on rounds.

“Before your new charges command your immediate attention; before, as I have taught you to do, diagnosing the present so that you might then look into the future; before either of those first steps; pause first. And I mean, truly, Pause. Set all other thoughts aside. Take a moment. Take a breath. And only then begin. But begin by declaring the past.”

With COVID and Ramadan safely in the bag, the winter’s snow behind what is no longer the Magleby home surely melted; I am at this moment taking that moment—and that breath.

“Frank, if heaven is as close as some say, and you can hear me right now or see into the cloud where these words are posted, there is something I need to get off my chest.“

“I did not rake your leaves as promised in the fall of 1967. Or that year’s winter. Or the next spring. I probably killed your lawn. I don’t remember why any of that happened. I’ve tried to process it more than a few times but find I cannot. And I won’t sit here and tell you I’ve moved from those events. Because maybe I haven’t. But that’s why we’re having this chat. All that is important to say is that I did not keep my commitment to you. And I’m sorry. I truly am.”

“(And while we’re confessing sins here, I sure coveted that bamboo rake of yours. But unlike some—no names; this is not their story—I never stole any of your paintbrushes.)”

“As you know, after Eric caught up to me in age and then place, we became friends as older men. We never cut each other’s hair the way you and my dad did every month. But we carpooled to work. We worked side by side in the same company more than once. Our daughters, born days apart, grew up to be best friends and still are. They will themselves soon give birth to children only days apart. Driving from Maryland to Virginia one morning, Eric told me he wanted to be an architect like my dad. I never told him back that I wanted to work in the arts as you did. But he knew it anyway. And eventually—certainly not by following our dreams as we first imagined them—we have both of us managed to reach our unexpected summits.”


In January of this year, when Elder Eric Baxter became the new church leader for the greater Washington DC chapter of my church, I was asked to introduce him to Imam Bahrain. When we visited the Islam Education Center, the Imam led Eric, Zahra, Muhammad, and myself on a tour of the mosque, the school, the medical clinic, and other places of worship, ending with an open discussion on how we might continue to build the connections between our two communities. As the conversation came around to shared experiences—the fastest way to bring out similarities and better understand differences—topics like education, healthcare, and freedom of religion rose to the top of an agenda towards a renewed, post-COVID reality. Music, theatre, and the arts in general: not so much.

Social bridges are built one foundational layer at a time. Scott Peck once told me, “Building civility follows a predictable curve. You can’t rush it.” Scott Card once told me, “Sometimes I just follow my characters around and write down what they say and do.” Since I already know their past, it’s time this Scott presented the new present to his three shepherds to see what future they will foretell.



1. In Schrödinger’s Cat Burglar, Stephen Covey sheds light on the meaning of this children’s song.

2. I first watched Michel Fugain’s Un Jour d’été dans un Havre de Paix over the shoulder of a Frenchman I was speaking with in Le Puy, France un jour d’été 1977. In those days, in that village at least, the French had this tick where they invited you over for dinner but never bothered turning off the tele. In this particular home, the Madame et Monsieur were both deaf, but the volume stayed on to bless their hearing son. I was so captivated by the program, the little that I saw of it, that on my way back to the States, I purchased a cassette tape of its soundtrack at Heathrow Airport and listened to it until I wore it out decades later. Those inclined (and who have a modicum of French) can read about it here.

One thought on “Beauty for Ashes

  1. Ok I’m really enjoying these as I sit outside on a beautiful day, lost in the lost art of reading!

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