Al’s story: from atheism to Jesus

Al Tizon was my pastor for five years at Berkeley Covenant Church. Al is an intense person, a good storyteller and a man on a mission. It’s hard for me to think of a person as intentional about his life as Al. He told us once that he recited his life mission statement every morning when he woke up. The statement goes something like this: “action and reflection on the world to transform it.”

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Reflections on St. Patrick, thin places and the story of Hagar

I’ve never really celebrated St. Patrick’s Day or thought it was very significant. I thought wearing green was kind of silly. Maybe it’s because I don’t have any Irish blood. But recently I’ve been listening to some podcasts put out by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and they focus on Celtic Christianity, with stories about St. Patrick. His story is more interesting than I imagined.

St. Patrick was only 16 when he was captured by the Irish in his home in Britain and taken to Ireland. He lived for six years as a slave there, tending to animals. He prayed and converted to Christianity during his captivity. Eventually, he was able to escape on a boat back to Britain and his family, where he continued to explore Christianity and became a pastor. After some years of study, he had a vision of a man from Ireland asking him to come back and walk among his people. So Patrick returned to Ireland and became a missionary there, baptizing many people.

It can’t have been easy for Patrick to go back to the place where he was held captive as a slave. But he obeyed God and saw much fruit. He is the patron saint of Ireland and legends of his work abound. One legend says that Patrick used the three-leaf shamrock as a way to teach the concept of the trinity. Another legend says he cast out all snakes from Ireland, but it seems this is more legend than fact.

I’ve never been to Ireland, but I’ve been to Scotland and it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen. The hills are lush and green. I had one of my first encounters with God while traveling there. My family was staying at an old lodge with an English family and during the day we would go fishing. One day I decided to take a walk on my own in the hills. I was only 11 but I sensed God was near. The beauty of the place convinced me God was real and he loved me very much. It was only a momentary experience but it has stayed with me all these years. They say Ireland is a “thin” place where you can sense God more easily. For me Scotland was a thin place too.

Patrick was brave to return to Ireland. In my own life I can only compare this to a time when my husband and I were asked to live near his aging father. Peter’s father lived in the same house where Peter had grown up and he was slowing down. There was a small cottage next to the house and the renters had just moved out. Peter’s family thought Peter and I, who did not have kids yet, should move into the cottage and look after his father, Ned. It wasn’t an easy decision. Peter and I were in our late ‘20s, seeking a more adventurous lifestyle. We had just returned from a seven-month trip to Europe and our dream was to live in San Francisco and experience city life. Moving back to his family home in a quiet suburb seemed like a step in the wrong direction.

We prayed about this decision for several weeks and finally decided it would be good for us to move into the cottage. We set our dreams aside. But it turned out to be a great decision. We were able to spend many nice evenings with Ned, watching Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune or a Giants game. He appreciated our company. We set up a baby monitor in his bedroom so he could call on us at night if needed. I still remember hearing his heavy breathing on the baby monitor.

About a year into our stay there Ned, who was 82, had to have an emergency appendectomy. He never really recovered. He slowly went downhill and the last month of his life he spent in a hospital bed in his living room, with his beloved fireplace going 24/7. We sat by his side and rubbed his wrists, which he liked as they were always sore. He passed away on Valentine’s Day, just as the cherry blossoms were in full bloom. He had lived a full, good life and we had the privilege of spending his last year and a half with him.

I can confidently say that God directed us to move next door to Ned. These days I find myself in a similar, yet different position. I have moved back to my parents’ house as I’m in the midst of a divorce. It is a hard time yet a unique time as I live again with my parents after so many years apart, and we each enjoy one another’s company. I don’t know how much longer I’ll have my parents with me so I treasure each day.


The Celtic Christianity podcast contained not just stories about St. Patrick, but Bible stories too. One I connected with was the story of Hagar. Hagar was Abraham’s wife’s maid-servant. When Abraham’s wife, Sarah, could not get pregnant, she suggested Abraham sleep with Hagar. So Abraham did and Hagar bore a child, Ishmael. But Sarah treated Hagar harshly after this and Hagar ran away. Then, an interesting thing happens. An angel appears to Hagar at a desert spring where she is resting. The podcast says this is the first account of an angel appearing to anyone in the Bible! It is significant because Hagar is a person without power. She is a runaway slave, a woman, and homeless. Yet the angel appears to her and comforts her.

I found great comfort myself in this account of the angel appearing to Hagar. I, too, feel quite powerless in this moment. I am a woman in the midst of a divorce, feeling weak and often depressed. But if an angel could appear to Hagar, certainly an angel could appear to me. And angels have appeared, in the form of friends and family who have reached out to me with loving words and encouragement.


Some years ago I came across a prayer attributed to St. Patrick. It is simple, yet powerful. I’ll end this post with the most famous section:

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me.

This St. Patrick’s day I have a deeper appreciation for the man and the God behind this saint.

Descent to madness, ascent to joy

How does one describe an experience of mental illness? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately as I think about putting into words an odyssey I’d rather not dwell on too long. In the last four months I experienced a series of situations I wouldn’t wish on my greatest enemy (not even Trump). It was intolerable, full of suffering, and of course, as these things are, full of grace. Continue reading

Poetry, persimmons and my inner battle

Live human conversation is happening in my dining room. In this time of Covid it’s as soothing to me as listening to a symphony.

My son’s friend Emilio is visiting. He has come to build a tower desktop computer with my son TJ. The two of them have spread out the parts on the dining room table and are carefully assembling parts and screwing pieces together. They talk about their online school experience, attempts at working out and living at home.

Emilio says he hasn’t been out of the house since March. His mom has mandated that he sees no one. She hasn’t even allowed him to order his favorite fast food, for fear it might pass on the virus. I guess she relented today, knowing his computer is an important hobby.

I have a few errands to run, but I’m reluctant to leave this hum of conversation. I’ve been battling anxiety and my whole world is calibrated toward the goal of being less anxious. Even doing errands has become difficult. Can they just wait? Do I really need to return the wrong-size slippers I bought at CVS? Do I need to buy those noodles at Costco? Last time I went to Costco a loud alarm went off at the register and I was barely able to cope.

Writing, on the other hand, and this listening to human words, is a refuge. The physical act of putting words on paper or a screen is calming. It’s as automatic as driving a car, but even more immersive. To get lost in writing, to become absorbed with words and meanings and sounds, offers solace. How strongly I want to get lost! I want to escape my own troublesome thoughts.

Poetry has been perhaps the best escape for me lately. On several sleepless nights I’ve sat in bed with my notebook circling over a few lines of poetry, playing with different combinations of words and syllables. Poetry demands that every word, every morpheme, count. It’s writing at its most pared down and concise.

Some people think poetry is serious and stuffy and complicated. This is not true. A lot of poetry can be playful. Just look at a Billy Collins poem or many haikus. Many times a haiku will carry an ironic meaning. For example, the other day I wrote:

on the back fence
morning glories
open all day

I was trying to play with the idea that although these flowers have the word “morning,” their wide purple blooms are actually open all day. I have a view of them outside my kitchen window and all day long hummingbirds and butterflies flit around the flowers gathering nectar.

I also wrote:

deep orange persimmons
“let them ripen, be patient”
says my neighbor

This captures a brief conversation with my neighbor the other day when I walked by her tree and she was picking persimmons. She gave me a few, still shiny and hard, and told me to let them ripen on the counter. They were like getting gold. According to my neighbor the squirrels often get to the persimmons before she can pick them.

Poetry is all about detail. It’s often about the senses. It’s about noticing and recording the noticings. For example, I might notice the feel of the jagged jigsaw puzzle pieces in my hand or the ooze of an egg I’m cooking as I crack it into the pan. All of those textures are fodder for poems.

I’ve learned that managing anxiety is also about details. One strategy is paying attention to breathing. I learned about breath prayer this summer when I participated in a virtual Camino pilgrimage. The guide I listened to instructed us to pick one phrase to say as we inhaled and another to say when we exhaled. I picked “Come Lord Jesus” on inhaling and “fill me with your love” on exhaling. I find it centering and relaxing.


It’s now a few days later and election night has come and gone. Biden has won and makes a wonderful speech, talking about unity and healing. For a short time I feel hopeful and elated. But still my anxiety, coupled with depression now–the sister of anxiety–continues. Writing has become difficult. I struggle to put words together. I fear that this one thing that helps me has been taken away. Still, I return to poetry, remembering a conversation with my son.

Miguel mentioned the other day that he had discovered William Carlos Williams, a poet from the last century. I am curious about this poet and do some Googling. It turns out he and Ezra Pound were part of the Imagism movement of the early 20th century, which featured “precision of images and clear, sharp language.” His poem about a wheelbarrow (below) has been frequently quoted. It is a brief, haiku-like poem, superficially about a wheelbarrow. Is there a deeper meaning?

from Spring and All (1923)

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Technically, this poem features a lot of enjambment, which is incomplete syntax at the end of a line. You have to jump to the next line to finish the thought. The effect of enjambment is to slow the reader down, almost to a meditative level.

Some critics thought Williams wrote this poem when he was treating a dying patient (he was a doctor) and he looked out the window and saw this scene. The toy wheelbarrow belonged to the little girl he was treating. Williams scribbled these lines on his prescription pad. Later this theory was debunked, but I like the idea. I want to believe that a poet’s radar is always on, ready to compose poems, even when engaged in another activity. Maybe that’s why Mary Oliver recommended that poets always carry a notebook, to quickly write down their inspirations. I can picture Mary, walking at the Cape Cod seashore, with notebook in hand.

Here’s a haiku I quickly wrote this afternoon after a walk. It follows traditional haiku rules of five syllables in the first line, seven in the second and five in the third.

turtles on the log
brown shells absorb midday sun
walk around the lake

The 5-7-5 rule is often broken in published haiku. I like the rule, as it sets some parameters in writing. Next time I’ll try some enjambment. What are some of your favorite poems?

I received more persimmons the other day. They seem almost a fall poem in themselves, with their smooth orange skin. There are two types of persimmons, ones that have a round bottom and ones that have a pointy bottom. My neighbor gave me the pointy-end kind that need to ripen before you eat them. Then you scoop out the flesh and eat the soft, gooey insides. My friend gave me the round kind. You can slice these like an apple and eat them alone or in a salad. The texture is almost like a pear. I will savor these persimmons. In my state of struggle I need all the beauty I can find.

On a pilgrimage, during Covid-19

I don’t really have a bucket list. If I did though, one of the items at the top would be walking the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrimage route that runs through Northern Spain. I have always dreamed of taking a month off to walk the route and perhaps discover what draws people from around the world to make the journey every year. I’m getting my chance now to do the Camino, only this one is virtual. It’s not the same as going to Spain by any stretch of the imagination, but during this Covid time it’s the closest I can get. Continue reading

What a miracle looks like

Every morning after I wake up these days, I sip my coffee and hunch over my phone for far too long. What has happened overnight in our Covid-19 world? I’m afraid to know but I want to stay informed. Continue reading

The April 15th that never happened

It’s April 15th. Normally this is a day for celebration in our household. Peter has finished the long race to the end of tax season. He and his staff go out for margaritas to celebrate. At home we finally have time to discuss fun things like upcoming vacation plans and the start of baseball season. Continue reading

What St. Teresa is teaching me about the new year

I’m giving myself an hour or two to write this morning. As with a lot of my writing, I don’t know where this will go. But today seems significant. It’s the last day of the year; tomorrow is a new decade. It seems right to pause, to linger over my coffee and enjoy a bit of solitude before tonight’s festivities. Continue reading

Showing Miguel’s film in Guatemala–heartbreak and hope

As soon as her face appeared on the screen, her husband began to sob. He cried loudly and his moans filled the packed classroom. I began to cry too as I heard his grief. I glanced around and saw everyone else—the middle school students, the teachers and her family–wiping away tears as well. Continue reading

Hanging out my shingle

I added a new page to my web site this week. It announces my entry into the world of spiritual direction. I’m now a certified spiritual director (as of March 9) and this page describes a bit about spiritual direction. Continue reading