Encounters With the Divine: Experiencing God on a 1,000 Year Old Spanish Pilgrimage

I didn’t come here looking for God, and these cathedrals at times felt like both a haven and an inferno. I was once scolded by a priest for taking communion, given the firm instruction that I was not welcome to … Continue reading


The Night Gunshots Interrupted the Birds’ Song


MO 2015

MO 2015

It’s my favorite space in the house- the top story bathroom which has a small, rectangular window perfect for catching evening sunsets or for smiling at the moon while brushing your teeth. During the fall, I’ve spent hours taking sunset pictures, all the while my soul coming closer and closer to the present moment until I am in an entranced, gentle place filled with color, wonder, and no words.

Tonight I was having one of those yearnings as I looked outside the window. I opened it wide, feeling slightly warm March air press lightly against my face. I scanned the trees to find the birds, whose brown feathers matched the still bare trees, blending in, yet standing out because of that infectious song. Their lively chatters echoed my souls’ celebrations of this last week of winter, knowing not just by the dates on the calendar, but by their choirs that spring is indeed coming.

I grabbed my camera and began snapping some sunset shots. There were two birds singing shoulder to shoulder, true love birds perhaps. I wanted them to move just one branch over to get that perfect shot of the birds’ silhouettes against the backdrop of a cascading orange and red sky. Just move over. I begged internally. Come on, move a little to the left. Slightly annoyed at a missed opportunity for a “perfect” shot, a still small voice whispered in. “Just watch. Just enjoy this as it is. Stop trying to make everything so perfect. Embrace this as it is, not how you wish it would be.” With that I closed my eyes, to solely focus on the delight of the birds’ song. I lingered in this space for a good 20 minutes before wandering back to my room that connects to this bathroom. I left the window open to keep enjoying the birds while I worked out. The night darkness came over, chirps turning from a mellifluous sonnet to an evening lullaby.

And then I heard three loud bangs, a pause, and a few more bangs. Could that have been…? No. It wasn’t, I reasoned. I lived in an under-resourced area of Baltimore for a year, in which there were a couple shootings around the block that I was fortunate enough not to have been home for. All the bangs I did hear in that neighborhood ended up being kids playing with firecrackers, something that’s fun to do, apparently, even when it’s not July 4th. But there are few kids in my current neighborhood, and the ones I have seen are toddlers, plus the seldom one or two six-year-olds.

A swarm of police and an online crime alert confirmed my fear. Helicopters circled overhead. My roommates and I looked out the window to find several police cars a block and half up the street, in clear view from this top story window. We gave each other tight hugs, talked about our own privilege, talked about longings for peace and justice, talked about the neighborhood in which we live, met with its quirks and joys, marked by outsiders and many insiders as “up and coming,” a seemingly trite phrase that has some grain of truth if one considers “coming” to mean gentrification.

Within the next hour, the police cars became fewer in number. I can still hear the “bang, bang, bang,” noise sharply in my head. I look out the window one last time, wondering at what point the birds had stopped singing. I supposed they could have gone to sleep before the gun shots could disrupt their song. But even now as I type this, I can still hear an insomniac bird making noise, as if to have some company in his or her sleeplessness.

All of this feels so disparate. How did the view from the window go from lingering in the beauty to facing the reality of violence? It’s so hard to acknowledge that this same experience happened in one night. They seem so incongruous, the latter incident being one of disbelief- did all of that really just happen?

Yes, it did. We live in a world in which it is possible to hear the song of birds and cacophony of gun shots in a single night. We live in a world with incredible shades of red and pink and purple nearly every evening. And we live in a world in which damaging floods and hurricanes can come from that same sky. I live in a body with hands that long to hold another’s, limbs that long to wrap themselves around someone, a smile with an upper lip that shows a lot of gumline. And I live in a body that yelled, “Are you fucking kidding me?” to a driver yesterday who got too close to me while I was biking. A body with a brain that thought demeaning, judgmental thoughts towards someone today. A body that once accidentally drove through a red light and hit another human being, the “How could you!?” narrative reverberating not from outside sources, but internally.

So much darkness.
So much light.
So much life.
And so much of this life is that space between the darkness and light. Finding hope in despair, beauty in the presence of pain, something sacred in the midst of the banality. So much of life is seeing it and feeling it all, and still gazing your head upwards, feeling love for your Maker in the midst of walking away from a particular way of practicing this love. 

Tonight as I lay my head, I’m grateful for this Maker that I’ve come to know as God. Grateful for the light, room in my hands to accept both of these incongruous experiences. Grateful that there is something beyond the darkness, a story whose ending pages read of love over hate, joy beyond suffering, of discovering there is room for all of us in this story, that no one is or will be left out or left behind.

And for now, I’m in that space between. The one that has the synonyms and antonyms in the same sentences, and tonight, even the same breaths, encouraged to “just hold on to the way it is tonight and learn to love through the darkness and the light.”

Let’s Have More (Thoughts to begin 2015 from Majo Aldana)

Beautiful new year’s mercies from my writer friend Majo Aldana. She writes at Quedamos los que puedan sonreir. Her original post “Let’s Have More/Tengamos Mas” can be found here.

africa sunset

MO 2007

 Let’s have more / Tengamos más
Have you looked at the stars lately? A sunset, a sunrise? Maybe at some kids playing at a fountain or a field? Have you looked at your hands, your eyes? Have you felt your heartbeat?
This 2015, instead of or in addition to (whatever your preferences) the new year’s promises and resolutions, simply decide to have more.

More compassion
 for others and yourself.
More water,
be it in tears, dances in the rain or snow fights.
More food,
to savor in your mouth, to share with others and realize where it came from.
Be thankful.

MO 2012More light,
     in the form of sunshine, knowledge
or simply in the company of others that share theirs.
More love,
from hugging a tree, talking to your grandparent about life
or enjoying a kiss or a hug.
More life,
to live well and more presently,
making sure you are contributing to others’ well being in some way.
More color,
from flowers, music or travel.
More smiles, more questions, more… Let’s have more.
MO 2008

MO 2008

Looking forward to “more” with you this 2015.
Thanks for reading.

Majo AldanaMaría José (Majo) Aldana is a Guatemalan woman, passionate about people and life. She writes as one form of expressing emotions, thoughts and ideas. She’s an anthropologist, passionate for health and sexual rights.

“Yes” in Every Season: Thoughts & Longings on the Last Night of Summer

MO 2014

MO 2014

Outside the last night of summer
Sweeps through my open window
A warm breeze
A slow, steady chirp of crickets
Whose bold summer sonnets
now play early autumn decrescendos.

 I close my eyes and lay by candlelight.
All I can see is still shot goodness of the day–
Looking up into my sister’s smile
With deep blue sky all around
A warming sun on our skin
A far out whisper in the wind
Reminding us that shifting change is coming all too soon.

Familiar drives through open spaces and new places
That leave you looking out the corners of your eyes as much as possible
While still keeping your head straight toward the road.
The beloved old
The uncharted new
All of this feels like home.

MO 2012

MO 2012

I’m at the end of a day that’s left me reignited as to how big and beautiful the world is.

And how all I want to do is learn from the stars
by exploring underneath them
or through high powered lens
Gaping mouths gasping soft “woah”s.
Aware of everything
The slow in and our of our breaths
My desire to touch hands in fully alive love

MO 2014

MO 2014

All I want is to throw a few things in a backpack
Drive out somewhere
And wander these trails with no destination
Just grateful for the world outside
And friends like you.

I want songs with sweet, dripping lyrics
and ambient melodies telling us a story
that wouldn’t be heard the same way
if it were dulled with words.

Give me poetry.
And chocolate.
And all those things our hearts beat for,
each syncopation relishing, “yesssss.”

I don’t like when summer wanes
but the longings of my heart
are happy to start this fall
With a new feel in my heart

Filled with wonder
Craving the world
Loving this Earth
And the incredibleness of community
Reminding each other

there is “yes” in every season.


My Best Five Minutes

Inspired by Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, I recently set out on a project of my own.

Only it doesn’t feel like a project.

It feels like love. And life. And delight.

A week ago, I began “joy activities.” These are five minute tasks I give myself for the sole purpose of experiencing joy. The week before, I wrote about having a “smash-my-head-into-the-keyboard” kind of week. I had a stressful day, but what got me through it was the fact that I started the day by spending a few minutes in nature. I intentionally stopped what I was doing to initiate the experience of peace and joy. I realized that unless we intentionally plant joy into our lives each day, happiness and joy may not come. We can’t sit back and hope someone says something funny to make us laugh. We can’t sit back and hope something good will come our way. We can’t breathe easy when schedules are jam-packed with meetings and activities. Or when our work is overflowing.

Perhaps if we don’t have joy in our lives, it’s simply because we are not creating it.

So five minutes. It’s not too much time to detract from the things I really need to do each day. But it is enough to set a tone of positivity and gratitude for the rest of my day. It’s enabled me to experience beautiful memories that I now treasure like a worn photo album from yesteryear.

Through my “joy activities,” I’ve experienced the joy of watching backyard chickens cock their head to the side, inquisitively, and lean their head back, then forward to smash their beak into the corn cob I’m holding in my hand. They’re hilarious, with just the right precision to pick one kernel off the cob at a time. After all, food is meant to be enjoyed, one little smackerel at a time, the chickens remind me.

Because of “scheduling joy”, I’ve hopped off my bike, parked it against a railing on the side of the road, and walked down to river’s edge to gaze at weirs, cascades of cold, flowing rivulets greeting the surprisingly emerald green waters below them. I am fortune enough to pass by such beauty on my morning commute each day, but rarely have I stopped to take it in, to immerse my being with the halcyon sound of bird chatter and waterfall, before biking downtown, where the ambiance of cars and sirens await me.

But even my five minute joy activity turns sirens into symphonies, yes. Today’s joy task was to sing on my bike. Being that I work at a hospital, it’s not uncommon for me to have to pull over for sirens zooming eastward to the ER. But since I was singing, I took a moment to sing “every siren in a symphony.” Suddenly, it made the noise and chaos not just bearable, but beautiful.

I’m reading books that I’ve been trying to get through for months by candlelight- my favorite lavender Yankee candles, lighting all three of them, not just one, aromas tickling my chemoreceptors with pure delight. I flip my fingers through manila pages, not once feeling guilty for pleasure reading instead of getting through my assigned readings for class. And not feeling even a twinge of guilt is a victory for this recovering people-pleaser perfectionist.

Yes. Tomorrow, I’ll experience five joy-filled minutes of yoga.

And the next day, broomball.

And the day after that, a five minute soak in the whirlpool at the gym.

Come springtime, I will lay down in the backyard grass (that’s probably too long from not mowing) and do nothing but survey the contours of clouds in the sky for five minutes.

Because this life is exquisite.

There are chocolates in thin, crinkly foil wrappers waiting to be opened and savored in your mouth for minutes on end.

There are bubbles waiting to be blown into the air, sun meeting frothy blobs, transcending shades of purple and pink off bubble’s edge.

And yes, there’s even a few pairs of fancy underwear I haven’t worn in months waiting for me to stop thinking I need a reason to wear them.

La vie est belle. 


Copright MO 2014
Baltimore, MD

For inspiration on joy activities you can create in your life, check out: http://zenhabits.net/75-simple-pleasures-to-brighten-your-day/


60 Seconds of Beauty Before Smashing Your Head Into The Keyboard

smash headToday is one of those “smash face into keyboard to continue” days. Smartphoneless, I discovered I missed several important emails, including a few deadlines. I began a grad class this week. Work, often feast-or-famine with the patient population I work with, who experience several barriers to medical care, was definitely a feast this week. A large one. Thanksgiving with all your extended relatives, kind of feast. Add triathlon training, a conviction to be a better friend/family member, and a few other commitments, I noticed the all-too-familiar trap of spreading myself thin in a flurry of perfectionism.

But before I could drag myself into work for one final day this week, I marveled at an urban creek that I pass on my commute to work each day. Sun kissing ice blocks in emerald green water, a gem amongst graffiti and the click-clack of trains off in the distance. “Lord of Lords,” an old hymn, comes to my mind, and I suddenly find my soul in a pining connection to the lyrics, “Keep my eyes fixed upon Jesus’ face. Let not the things of this world ever sway me.” As much as I refuse to go back to my former version of Christianity, there is so much that I want to make sure I don’t let go of. And one of those things is to keep steady resolve on Jesus’ ways, because that way of living feels more fulfilling, more rich. A teacher who catches us in the midst of snowballing worry, and looks us in the eye to say, “Hey! Snap out of it. Can worry add a single minute to your life?” (aka what I hear from Matthew 6:7).

Copyright: MO Baltimore, MD

Copyright: MO
Baltimore, MD

This winter, I’ve been blown away by the beauty of the Falls. Each morning, I give myself permission to temporarily fix my gaze from the road to this scene of peace. Usually frantically running late to work, I often glance only long enough to smile at it. But today I decided to stop long enough to hop off my bike, take a picture, and remember the words of Anna Quindlen: “And realize that life is glorious, and you have no business taking it for granted…” (From “Life’s Little Instruction Book.”)

Biking along the Falls, I feel as though I’m being taken away to Canada. One to share my voice only to the shower vapors, I softly sing aloud, “on the lakes of Canada…” Instead of aimlessly passing up the opportunity to be transported, I intentionally decide to stop whooshing by it and stop for just 60 seconds to soak it all in. 60 seconds to let my eyes dilate, absorb light and movement, to not think about anything in particular, to just be. 60 seconds to create experiences of beauty.

It was the best 60 seconds I’ve spent today. I’m so tired of rushing through life, not pausing to create moments of peace, order, beauty, serenity. Because unless we stop, unless we do something to forge scenes of beauty, unless we sew them together with beautiful seams of peaceful patchwork, we can easily forget. At least, I do. We forget the peace that can be found in this world. Forget how beautiful it is, because in the celerity, in the achievement-oriented rat race, it can seem like peace, beauty and order have left the building.

It’s no coincidence to me that as I hop back on my bike, the next piece of graffiti I find is the wall that over the summer read in big letters,

Go placidly amongst the noise and haste…
                             and know the peace there is in the silence.

go placidly amongst the noise and haste

I’m going to stop more. Because it’s up to us to create scenes of beauty in our lives. It’s up to us; it’s our responsibility because if we can’t find peace and order and beauty, then maybe we aren’t stopping long enough to actually exhale and find it.

Yes, I will take ownership for having peaceful moments in my life. And be gracious to myself when I forget to stop—When I’m at my desk, smashing my head into the keyboard for one more day, kicking myself for not stopping.

Tomorrow, I’ll begin again. The Falls will be there. Birds on Trees will be there.

“Flowers in the garden.
Laughter in the hall.
Children in the park.
I will not take these things for granted…

-Toad the Wet Sprocket 


Thoughts on Solitude.

There was a bird outside my window this morning
Happily chirping its song; its story.
Another one joined in.

I’m not sure what they were saying
But I felt like their language spoke to my soul
Reminding me to go outside today
And spend some time in solitude.

So that’s what I did.
I zipped up my snow boots
And hit the trails
Climbing up powdered white paths
Sparkling like sugar cookies
In the mid-afternoon sun.

I glanced down at footprints of deer
And footprints of other hikers
Wondering what their journeys are like
And how they experience the world around them.

Sometimes I feel guilty going places alone.
Life is short
And people are beautiful, after all.

A couple years ago
I moved back to Baltimore
And within a few months, realized most of my friends had moved home or moved away
And I had a night
Where the few friends I had left
Were all busy
And I felt an immense loneliness come over me.

It was a cold, dark January evening and Seasonal Affectiveness Disorder
can be more than SAD; it can be depressing.
I was so lonely inside; I scared myself.

Have you ever had a moment like that?
Where you’re so caught off guard by what’s going on inside?

I did the one thing that I thought might help.
I called an old friend in New York just to make sure I was alive and breathing.
Luckily she answered.
She was out with friends
And I think she thought I was acting a little melodramatic

But never the less
A few words
From an old friend
On a lonely night
Melted away tears of despondency
And I vowed to never get that lonely ever again.

That was two years ago.
I’m thankful for new friends who’ve touched my heart
and for old ones who’ve stuck it out.

Although as a recovering people-pleaser and conflict avoider,
There are times when it would be much easier to keep inside my shell;
I’ve come to realize that people, community, are absolutely essential to personal growth,
apart from which my soul would deaden bit by bit.

But sometimes I don’t want to talk
And sometimes I need to be alone in my thoughts,
With God
Staring at vast skies like open pages.

I need to lie on my back
Let the grass be my pillow
And take pictures of the sun sinking behind open fields.

And sometimes,
In my calmest of moments,
I need only to be outside and sit there;
Doing nothing particular at all.

So I’ll sit on my front porch
While crickets sing to evening stars
And I’ll stare at the moon
Wondering what the moon sees when it stares at us.

All of this connects me back to the world around me
To God, to people, to the shifting Earth upon which we stand.
And all of this makes me realize
That solitude is an indispensable part of life
For wallflowers and social butterflies alike.

That solitude isn’t selfish
But creates room enough to embrace resonate beauty.
It disrupts the rush, the driving back and forth, the cacophony of sirens blaring through city streets.
It forces me to address the thoughts that keep resurfacing my mind
When it would be easier to keep ignoring them.

It lets me find myself under willow trees
Beside gurgling streams
That sound like the warm water
That will fill up my bathtub tonight.

It helps me find my center
Whether basking in sunshine
Or crunching in leaves,
Whistling along with the birds.

So may it be.

May we find solitude
That fills our souls
So that we are alone, but never really alone.

May we be filled with wonder
That prevents us from ever daring to think we can fully understand
This world, this beauty, the footprints and fingerprints of another.

May the birds’ song serenade you
Open paths guide you
God’s smile shine upon you
And give you peace.


How do you find solitude? What do you, not do? Where do you go? Where don’t you go? How often do you experience solitude in your life?


Learning to Love the Questions Themselves


It’s my most favorite time of the year, where just walking by a flower causes me to smile. My favorite tree is in bloom and each day, I stop my running mind to observe new budding and flowering of each magnolia blossom. And it’s a reminder to me that God is not finished; that He is on the move, and what I once saw in January was not the final picture nor final fate for these beloved trees, beloved blades of grass, beloved chirping birds… And so it is with people; so it is with me… That I am ever-growing, ever being molded and shaped, ever-taught. And yet still my soul thirsts and hungers deeply, a seeking and asking that never seems to stop. When I think I’ve figured out one thing, there’s always something new to ponder, some new question to ask…

And in this season of life, I am asking more questions than ever before with some kind of shameless audacity and curiousity about the world around me; not a demanding, indignant, deserving sense of question-asking, but rather one of an explorer, a participator. What does it mean to be fully alive each day? What does it mean to be a human, bound to Earth by gravity, seeing all this messiness around me, but receiving my guidance, direction, purpose, and hope from above, beyond this world? What good does it do to be critical of other people; afterall, we’re all brothers and sisters anyway? If Jesus prayed for ‘Your will be done on Earth as in Heaven’, shouldn’t we be actively trying to shape the world around us into something more beautiful, more complete, more whole?

And so I’m learning to not be afraid of questions as they come, but rather, I’m learning to love the questions themselves. That they point to something bigger than me, something beyond me. That my little brain cannot fathom, nor know, nor fully comprehend the majesty of life and Creation… That yes, there are absolute truths in life. But that God is not limited… that his/her Kingdom is more diverse, more whole, more all-encompassing that I can ever, ever imagine. And I feel convicted that my arms want to refuse to unembrace anyone.

So may we  s e e k . And may these questions that cross our minds draw us into holy wonder and awe, straight into the arms of our Creator.