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Wednesday, January 20, 2016 – 2:32am
Photo by Kent Miller

Notes from a Week in the Winter Woods

I’ve been on retreat at a cabin in the woods since last Monday — a silent, solitary retreat. As my time here got underway, I took a few notes each day — a sort of mini-journal — and got the idea of stringing them together.

Monday, Jan. 11, 2016
Arrived in mid-afternoon at my rented cabin in the snow-covered Wisconsin countryside. Went inside, lit a fire, and unpacked the car, quickly, motivated by the sub-zero wind chill. Outside, acres of bright fields and dark woods. Inside, just me. Plus enough clothing, food, and books for a week of silence and solitude.

Last night, someone asked if I liked being alone. “It depends,” I said. “Sometimes I’m my best friend. Sometimes I’m my worst enemy. We’ll see who shows up.”

It’s 9:00 p.m., an hour before Quaker midnight, but I’m going to turn in anyway. I’m drowsy and at peace. The fire I’ve been staring into seems to have burned away the worries that tagged along with me.

Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016

Woke up about 5:00 a.m. and lay awake for another hour in the dark, watching my worries rise phoenix-like from the ashes and flap around to get my attention.

“Welcome and entertain them all!” says Rumi in The Guest House.

“Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.”

Guess I need to have a chat with the “beyond.” Looks like he/she/it didn’t get the memo that I came here for some peace.

Now, a few hours later, I’m feeling that peace again. It came from a breakfast of bacon, eggs, and toast, all ready simultaneously despite the fact that I’m a certified kitchen klutz. It came as well from looking out on the snowfields, brilliant under the rising sun — but beautifully etched with the shadows of trees and stubble poking up through the snow.

The “beyond” was right: peace comes from embracing the interplay of shadow and light (and a good breakfast doesn’t hurt). After breakfast, I read the January 12 entry in A Year With Thomas Merton, a collection of daily meditations:

“It seems to me that I have greater peace… when I am not ‘trying to be contemplative,’ or trying to be anything special, but simply orienting my life fully and completely towards what seems to be required of a man like me at a time like this.”

Simple and true, but so easily lost in Type-A spiritual striving! What was required of me this morning was simply to make breakfast despite my well-documented ineptitude. The deal is to do whatever is needful and within reach, no matter how ordinary it is or whether I’m likely to do it well.

This afternoon, what I needed was a hike, though the wind chill was six below. I’m no Ernest Shackleton, but I learned long ago that winter will drive you crazy until you get out into it — and I mean “winter” both literally and metaphorically. “In the middle of winter,” said Camus, “I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer.”

I didn’t discover summer on my hike. But the sun blazed bright on the frozen prairie, warming my face. And high in the cobalt blue sky, a hawk made lazy circles as I’ve seem them do in July. For January, that’s close enough to summer for me!

Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016

I slept poorly last night, and I know why. An hour before bedtime, I binge-ate a box of Jujyfruits while reading a book about spiritual discipline. The book made a few good points but was not well written, and I scarfed down the Jujyfruits as a stimulus to stick with it. My bad. But clear evidence that I could use some discipline!

I feel better now because the oatmeal I made for breakfast — on my second try — was healing. Pure comfort food. On the first try, I got the ratio of oatmeal to water wrong and left it on the burner too long. The pan looks like a grotesque avant garde sculpture of metal and grain: “Agrarian Culture Defeated by Machine.” Again, my bad. But my kitchen klutz credentials have been reinstated.

I guess my theme today is “Screw-ups in Solitude.” In solitude, my bads make me grin. If I committed them in front of others, I’d be embarrassed or angry with myself. Self-acceptance is easier when no one is around.

The Taoist master Chuang Tzu tells about a man crossing a river when an empty skiff slams into his. The man does not become angry, as he would if there was a boatman in the other skiff. So, says Chuang Tzu:

“Empty your own boat as you cross the river of the world.”

In solitude, I can empty my boat. Can I do it when I’m not alone? Maybe.

“Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather, it means never living apart from one’s self. It is not about the absence of other people — it is about being fully present to ourselves, whether or not we are with others.”

That quote comes from a book I wrote, so I should probably give it a try!

Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016

Woke up at 2:00 a.m. and found myself regretting some things I got wrong over the past 77 years. Wished I had been kinder, or braver, or less self-centered than I was, and had a hard time remembering the things I got right.

Knowing that the 2:00 a.m. mind is almost always deranged, I got up at 4:00 a.m., dressed, made some coffee, stood out in the dark and cold for a bit, and saw Venus gleaming low in the southeast. The goddess of love: that helped!

Then I read the January 14th entry in A Year With Thomas Merton. Once again,my old friend had a word I need to hear, as he reflected on the complex mix of rights and wrongs in his own life:

I am thrown into contradiction: to realize it is mercy, to accept it is love, and to help others do the same is compassion.

Merton goes on to say that the contradictions in our lives are engines of creativity. It’s true. If we got everything right or everything wrong, there’d be none of the divine discontent or the sense of possibility that drives us to grow. What we get wrong makes us reach for something better. What we get right gives us hope that the “better” might be within reach.

Now I feel ready to step into the day animated by the counsel of Florida Scott-Maxwell:

“You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done… you are fierce with reality.”

I fully intend to get fierce and real today. But before I do that, I’m going to take a nap!

Friday, Jan. 15, 2016

This morning, for no apparent reason, I woke up with a grin, another one of those “guests” Rumi spoke about, “sent as a guide from beyond.” But this time the guest is a welcome lightness, a sense of impending laughter.

Most of my heroes are folks who are no strangers to laughter. Grandpa Palmer comes to mind. The man was proof-positive of William James’s claim that “common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds.” Grandpa taught me to drive when I was 14. First time out, I made a dumb, dangerous move on a back-country Iowa road. When we came to a safe stop, Grandpa was ominously silent for a moment. Then he said, laconically, “If I’d of knowed you was gonna do that, I don’t believe I’d of asked you to drive.” He never said another word about my near-disaster, and for the past 60 years I’ve driven accident-free!

Merton was well known for his sense of humor, a quality not uncommon among monks. In The Sign of Jonas, a deeply moving journal of his early years in the monastery, there’s a line on page 37 that always makes me smile:

“I had a pious thought, but I am not going to write it down.”

And I love this claim, found in a Hindu epic called The Ramayana, as told by Aubrey Menen:

There are three things which are real: God, human folly, and laughter. The first two are beyond our comprehension, so we must do what we can with the third.

I’m sure I’ll experience all three today. The first is ever-available, if my heart is open. The second is guaranteed, since wherever I go, there I am. As for the third, I’ll do what I can with it. As Chesterton quipped:

“Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”

Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016

A cardinal in winter(Parker Palmer)

Today’s opening line in A Year With Thomas Merton, “You can make your life what you want” if you don’t “drive [yourself] on with illusory demands.” I don’t think it’s entirely true that I can make my life what I want. But it would help if I stopped making demands on myself that distort who I really am and what I’m really called to do.

After five days of silence and solitude, many of the demands that hung over me when I came out here have lightened or lifted. Since I’ve done little this week to meet those demands, the lesson seems clear: they were mostly the inventions of an agitated mind. Now that my mind has quieted, its “illusory demands” have vaporized, and I feel a deeper peace.

I remember a story my businessman dad told me about how he dealt with pressure. In his office, he had a desk with five drawers. He’d put today’s mail in the bottom drawer, after moving yesterday’s mail up to the next drawer, and so on. He’d open letters only after they had made it to the top drawer. By that time, he said, half the problems people wrote him about had taken care of themselves, and the other half were less demanding than if he’d read the letters the moment they arrived! As Black Elk said to the children in his tribe when he told a teaching story:

“Whether it happened that way, I do not know. But if you think about it, you will see that it is true.”

Of course, the curse called email did not exist in Dad’s day. Still, his story points the way: make five folders for my email, and use them as Dad said he used his desk drawers. In certain respects, you can make the life you want!

Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016

Sunset in winter(Parker Palmer)

On this last full day of my retreat, I’m still meditating on the opening line of the January 13 entry in A Year With Thomas Merton:

“There is one thing I must do here at my woodshed hermitage… and that is to prepare for my death. But that means a preparation in gentleness…”

What a great leap — from death to gentleness! So different from Dylan Thomas’s famous advice:

“Do not go gentle into that good night…
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

When I was 35, raging seemed right. But at 77, it’s Thomas Merton, not Dylan Thomas, who speaks to me.

The prospect of death — heightened by winter’s dark and cold, by solitude, silence, and age — makes it clear that my calling is to be gentle with the many expressions of life, old and new, that must be handled with care if they are to survive and thrive.

Sometimes, of course, that means becoming fierce in confronting the enemies of gentleness. If that’s a contradiction, so be it! As Merton said in The Sign of Jonas:

“I find myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox.”



Richard Steinitz:  “Song for Athene is another elegiac tribute, not, as one might suppose, to the mythological goddess Athene, but to a young family friend, Athene Hariades, half Greek, a talented actress who was tragically killed in a cycling accident. “Her beauty,” write Tavener, “both outward and inner, was reflected in her love of acting, poetry, music and of the Orthodox Church.” Tavener had heard Athene reading Shakespeare in Westminster Abbey and, rather as in the case of the Little Requiem, conceived the piece after her funeral, lighting on the effective ideas, so touchingly realized, of combining words from the Orthodox liturgy with lines from Hamlet. Between each is a monodic “Alleluia”, and, following the example of traditional Byzantine music, the whole piece unfolds over a continuous “ison” or drone. Song for Athene perfectly exemplifies that inner serenity, purity and radiance which gives Tavener’s music its consolatory attraction in troubled times. ”  Song for Athene was cast heavily into the spotlight on September 6th, 1997. Millions of people, the world over, would hear this piece for the first time as the flag-draped casket of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, was carried out of Westminster Abbey, destined to its final resting place at Althorp, north of London.   (Athene:  Goddess of Wisdom)


From Wikipedia:

“Song for Athene”, which has a performance time of about four minutes,[4] is an elegy consisting of the Hebrew word alleluia (“let us praise the LORD”) sung monophonically six times as an introduction to texts excerpted and modified from the funeral service of the Eastern Orthodox Church and from Shakespeare’s Hamlet (probably 1599–1601).[4]  The music reaches a climax after the sixth intonation of alleluia with the lines “Weeping at the grave creates the song: Alleluia. Come, enjoy rewards and crowns I have prepared for you.” Alleluia is then sung a seventh time as a coda. Following the example of traditional Byzantine music, a continuous ison[7] or drone underlies the work.[4]

The lyrics were written in 1993 by Mother Thekla (born 18 July 1918), an Orthodox nun who co-founded the Orthodox Monastery of the Assumption near Whitby, North Yorkshire, and whom Tavener called his “spiritual mother”. Tavener had come away from the funeral of Athene Hariades with the music of Song for Athene fully formed in his mind. He called Mother Thekla the same day, and said to her: “I want words.”  The next day’s post brought, from Thekla, the quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:  “May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest”, together with verses from the Orthodox funeral service.[6]  

From her Obituary

Mother Thekla was born Marina Sharf in 1918 at Kislovodsk in the Caucasus. The family was of Jewish descent, her mother having converted to Christianity. (After the Second World War her brother Andrew returned to his Jewish roots; an expert on Byzantine Jewry, he became a professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.)  Marina was born at a time of turmoil caused by the Russian Revolution. Crossfire in the streets prevented her parents taking her to church, so she was baptized in a flower vase, an episode that Mother Thekla liked to relate.  Shortly afterwards they moved to England and she grew up at Richmond, Surrey, before moving to Chelsea.  Educated at City of London Girls’ School, she went up to Girton College, Cambridge, to read English, graduating in 1940.

The following year she joined the WAAF and spent the war working for British Intelligence, partly in India, being mentioned in despatches in 1943, although she would never be drawn on this episode in her life.

Mother Maria’s doctoral thesis had been on the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth, and a monograph of hers on Cudworth was an early pamphlet in the library. Other works of Mother Maria’s followed, and then works by Mother Thekla on Shakespeare (Hamlet: The Noble Mind), on Keats (John Keats: The Disinterested Heart) and on George Herbert, as well as translations of liturgical texts, and the Psalms, translated from Hebrew by Mother Maria, which were used by the nuns in their worship. The sisters were seeking what one might call an acculturation of Orthodoxy within English culture.

Mother Thekla, who died on August 7, 2011 aged 93, was the last surviving nun to have occupied the enclosed Orthodox Monastery of the Assumption in North Yorkshire, but became better known to the wider world as the spiritual muse of the composer Sir John Tavener.

Mother Thekla with Tavener (left)

Mother Thekla with Sir John Tavener

A beautiful, Russian-born Cambridge graduate who co-founded the monastery near Whitby and latterly lived there in seclusion as the abbess, she furnished the words for some of Tavener’s most important religious works, and was the spiritual driving force behind one of his most popular pieces, The Protecting Veil (1987).

Although it was retitled for the occasion, Song For Athene went on to become the music played when the coffin of Diana, Princess of Wales, was borne out of Westminster Abbey, in August 1997.

Thekla exerted a remarkable influence on Tavener, a Presbyterian who had flirted with Roman Catholicism before converting to the Orthodox Church in 1977.  He contacted her in 1984 after reading a religious book she had written. 

Thekla was brought up in England and worked as an actress and schoolmistress before taking her vows. Her relationship with Tavener was almost telepathic: she would send him odd words — “crucify” or “apple”, for example — which he would instinctively understand and interpret. He once described her as “the most remarkable woman I have ever met in my life”.

Yet in many ways the pair were complete opposites. It was Thekla, ever practical, who drilled the unworldly Tavener in the dynamics of a creative partnership. She never lost her volatile , thespian streak, and insisted on calling him “darling”. For all her devoutness, Tavener considered her “a pretty wild character, pretty formidable; she has a ferocious temper”.

He could not imagine working with another librettist: “It’s one of those very special relationships in life, which will not ever happen again.” When Tavener ventured to suggest some kind of professional collaboration, Thekla replied, typically: “Yes, darling, but behind the scenes.”

It was Thekla’s short book The Life Of St Mary Of Egypt (1974), about the famous prostitute-saint, that caught the attention of John Tavener and became the basis of his second opera, Mary Of Egypt (1992) and choral works including The Apocalypse (1993) and Fall And Resurrection (1999), which was dedicated to his friend the Prince of Wales.  In the meantime she had counselled Tavener following the death of his mother in 1985, after which he feared he would never write music again.

It was while she was at Normanby that Mother Thekla became an inspiration for Tavener.  She wrote the texts for Tavener’s visionary We Shall See Him As He Is (1993), drawing on the First Epistle of John, and for Let Us Begin Again (1995), which is mimed as well as sung.  They were joint authors of a volume, Ikons. Meditations in Words and Music (1994)

She suggested the words for what became the Song to Athene, and wrote the texts for his opera, Mary of Egypt, and many of his choral works. She was the inspiration for one of his most popular works, The Protecting Veil. The fame she acquired from her association with Tavener led to two works of hers being published: The Dark Glass (1996) and Eternity Now (1997).

For Total Eclipse (2000), in which Tavener pitted an orchestra of baroque instruments against the soaring soprano saxophone of John Harle, Thekla compiled words from the gospels for soloists and choir which described St Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus.

Mother Thekla was the dedicatee of John Tavener’s memoir The Music Of Silence: A Composer’s Testament (1999). Not only had she helped him spiritually, Tavener said, she had also “helped me put my music and my life together”.

With another nun, Mother Maria, Mother Thekla founded the first Orthodox order in England, moving from a monastery they had founded in 1966 at Filgrave, Buckinghamshire, to a dilapidated farmhouse at Higher Normanby, outside Whitby, in 1971. It was the bleakest spot they could find, on the edge of the North Yorkshire moors.

The nuns would meet only at lunchtimes, for a frugal meal of home-grown vegetables and rice. At the hesychasterion (the hermitage or prayer-house) Thekla followed the simple routine of the 7th-century saint Hilda, rising at 4am, swathing herself in a loose black “shroud” that served as a habit and praying every three hours six times a day.

The farmhouse was divided into simply furnished “cells” in which the nuns slept and meditated; a former cowshed became their chapel . As well as the fixed routines of their daily offices and obligations, they translated religious liturgies, painted icons to decorate the chapel walls and cultivated the land around the farmhouse.

Tourists were not encouraged. A sign at the entrance warned: “Monastery enclosure, do not enter.” Originally there were five nuns at Higher Normanby, but Mothers Maria, Catherine and two others eventually died. Thekla remained there alone until 1994, hoping that a younger, American-born, sister nun, Mother Hilda, would take over. Ultimately, this was not a success.

“It is the monotony of our lives which frees the spirit; all the imminent things drop away,” Mother Thekla told a visiting journalist in 2002. “It’s quite painful being faced with your real self without the trimmings. There’s time here to pray for the world. That’s our work: it’s not something we do on our Sunday off.”

Some years ago Hilda unceremoniously delivered Mother Thekla to the infirmary at the Anglican Abbey of St Hilda in Whitby.  Hilda did take over the monastery, but sold it, and died in Whitby in 2010.

Modern Anglican Abbey of St. Hilda, very different from the more rustic and humble Monastery of the Assumption in North Yorkshire nearby and distinctly different from the ancient Abbey of Whitby which is currently in ruins

Much to her distress, Mother Thekla left no surviving colleague. At her funeral at the Abbey of St Hilda a choir will sing a newly-written piece by Tavener, They are all Gone into the World of Light, as well as Song for Athene.

From Wikipedia:

Mother Thekla, Orthodox nun, was born on July 18, 1918.  She was buried at Whitby on August 16.

Lyrics Original texts Source
Alleluia. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest. Horatio: Now cracks a noble heart. – Good night, sweet prince, And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest! Hamlet, Act V Scene ii,[8] c.f. In paradisum
Alleluia. Remember me, O Lord, when you come into your kingdom. O thou who reignest over life and death, in the courts of thy Saints grant rest unto him [her] whom thou hast removed from temporal things. And remember me also, when thou comest into thy kingdom. Orthodox funeral service,[9] Luke 23:42
Alleluia. Give rest, O Lord, to your handmaid, who has fallen asleep. Where the choirs of the Saints, O Lord, and of the Just, shine like the stars of heaven, give rest to thy servant who hath fallen asleep, regarding not all his [her] transgressions. Orthodox funeral service
Alleluia. The Choir of Saints have found the well-spring of life and door of Paradise. The Choir of the Saints have found the Fountain of Life and the Door of Paradise. May I also find the right way, through repentance. I am a lost sheep. Call me, O Saviour, and save me. Orthodox funeral service
Alleluia. Life: a shadow and a dream. Guildenstern: Which dreams, indeed, are ambition; for the very substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream. Hamlet: A dream itself is but a shadow. Hamlet, Act II scene ii
Alleluia. Weeping at the grave creates the song: Alleluia. Come, enjoy rewards and crowns I have prepared for you. Thou only art immortal, who hast created and fashioned man. For out of the earth were we mortals made, and unto the earth shall we return again, as thou didst command when thou madest me, saying unto me: For earth thou art, and unto the earth shalt thou return. Whither, also, all we mortals wend our way, making of our funeral dirge the song: Alleluia…. Ye who have trod the narrow way most sad; all ye who, in life, have taken upon you the Cross as a yoke, and have followed Me through faith, draw near: Enjoy ye the honours and the crowns which I have prepared for you. Orthodox funeral service

  1. Nigel Farndale (29 July 2004), “A visionary visited by angels”The Daily Telegraph.
  2. John Tavener: Song For Athene (Alleluia. May Flights Of Angels Sing Thee To Thy Rest), Musicroom, retrieved 15 March 2008.
  3. Funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales: Order of service at Westminster Abbey, Saturday, 6 September 1997, 11.00 a.m., British Monarchy, 6 September 1997, p. 3, retrieved 16 March 2008.
  4. Page 7 of Tavener’s The Beautiful Names, the programme of a concert by theBBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Chorus and Trinity College of MusicChamber Choir at the Birmingham Town Hall on 15 March 2008.
  5. John Tavener (1997), Song for Athene: (Alleluia, may Flights of Angels Sing Thee to Thy Rest): For Unaccompanied Choir, SATB [music score; cat. no. CH60991], London: Chester Music, ISBN 0-7119-4389-3.
  6. “Mother Thekla: Orthodox nun who co-founded a monastery and became the spiritual muse of Sir John Tavener [obituary]”, The Daily Telegraph, 13 August 2011: 29.
  7. Psaltic chant, Monastère orthodoxe de Cantauque (Orthodox Monastery of the Theotokos and Saint Martin), retrieved 17 March 2008.
  8.  William Shakespeare; Dianne Bean, ed. (November 1998), Hamlet, Prince of Denmark [Etext #1524] (Collins ed.), Project Gutenberg.
  9. Isabel Florence Hapgood, comp. (1922), “The Order for the Burial of the Dead (Laymen)”, Service Book of the Holy Orthodox-Catholic Apostolic Church (Rev. ed.), New York, N.Y.: Association Press (reproduced on the Orthodox Christian Information Center website), pp. 368–393.
  10. The information was obtained from Retrieved on 21 March 2008.
  11. Claire Rogers (10 October 2007), Nicola Benedetti: Vaughan-Williams & Tavener review, BBC Music, retrieved 20 August 2009.


Christian areas hit by Baghdad bombs on Christmas

baghdad today

People stand among debris at the site of a bomb attack at a marketplace in Baghdad’s Doura District December 25, 2013.  The bomb attack came as Christians celebrated Christmas in churches across Iraq

Two bombs in Christian areas of the Iraqi capital Baghdad have killed at least 35 people, officials have said. One device exploded near a Catholic church when worshippers were leaving a Christmas Day service, killing 24. Another bomb ripped through a market, killing 11 more people.  Christian leaders denied that the attacks had targeted worshipers.

Iraq’s ancient Christian community has more than halved in recent years, from an estimated population of 900,000.  Both blasts happened in the Doura area of Baghdad.  The bomb outside St John’s Catholic church exploded in a parked car, shortly after a blast at an outdoor market in the mainly Christian al-Athorien district.

No one has yet admitted carrying out the attacks, which came as Christmas Day services were held across Iraq.

A surge in sectarian violence this year has claimed the lives of more than 7,000 civilians in Iraq, the highest annual number of fatalities since 2008.  The conflict in Syria has also prompted a spike in attacks, many involving al-Qaeda in Iraq.  Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told the BBC on Sunday that the Syrian crisis was “feeding terrorism in the region”.

Iraq civilian deaths since 2008


Our Troops Celebrate Christmas in the War Zone:


Christmas decorations are seen outside a Church, as a U.S. army soldier with the NATO- led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) walks the Church on Christmas eve at the U.S.-led coalition base in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Dec. 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq)


(Excerpted) While millions of Christians around the world prepare to celebrate Christmas, a dwindling number of believers in Iraq will be forced to mark the birth of Christ in private, if at all.

Iraq, which was once home to more than 1 million Christians, has seen an exodus as persecution has risen (and)…There are now an estimated 330,000 Christians in Iraq….making it the fourth most persecuting country, while North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan rank as the top three.

“We’re deeply concerned that Christianity is being squeezed out to extinction maybe in the next decade or so in the Middle East,” Curry said. “Some of these countries, especially Iraq, have environments that are very hostile because of extremists in the region.”

….Last week, Archbishop of Baghdad Louis Raphael I Sako told a conference in Rome that the West must help stem the “mortal exodus” of Christians from the Middle East.

A fraction of the 1.2 million Christians who lived and worshipped in Iraq in 1987 remain, Sako said, adding that the “numbers continue dropping.”   The United Nations Committee for Refugees recently stated that 850,000 Iraqi Christians have left since 2003.

IRAQ_-_natale_festaChildren in War Zone

After Losing His Wife To Cancer, Man Re-Creates His Wedding Photos With Their Young Daughter

One of my online friends, Kurt,  posted this story and I am re-posting it here on my blog.  

Ben Nunery’s 31-year-old wife Ali passed away in 2011 after a battle with a rare form of lung cancer. Two years later, Ben and their daughter Olivia made the difficult decision to move out of the house that he and Ali moved into the day before their wedding. After everything was packed up, the house was empty, just like it was on the day they shot their wedding photos. So Ben enlisted Ali’s sister, photographer Melanie Pace, who shot their original set of wedding photos, to shoot a set of new ones.  

This happened in Cincinnati, Ohio a “home town” of mine and the setting is very reminiscent to me of the many old beautiful old homes found there.

When a loved one passes away, we often use photographs as a way of keeping that person’s memory alive. One Ohio family took the process a step further, creating a unique set of photos that serves as both a touchstone of the past and a reminder of how life moves forward.

In 2011, 31-year-old schoolteacher Ali Nunery passed away from a rare form of lung cancer, leaving behind her husband Ben and a 1-year-old daughter named Olivia.

This November, after two years on “a rollercoaster of emotions,” as Ben described it, he and Olivia were ready to move out of the Cincinnati home they’d shared with Ali. But before they left, Ben wanted a way to remember the happy times they’d shared in the house. So he asked his sister-in-law Melanie Pace, a professional photographer, to take photos of him and his now 3-year-old daughter in their home.

“I was just really looking for a way to say farewell to the house, and have some things that Olivia and I can have to…remember the house,” Ben told “When Ali and I got married, we closed on the house the day before our wedding, so we did wedding photos in the empty house.”

Since the home was empty again due to the Nunerys’ impending move, Pace, who shot Ben and Ali’s original wedding photos in 2009, was able to recreate the images with Ben and Olivia, including one of the father and daughter in a doorway to mimic the photo Ben had once taken with her mother.

“It immediately brought up memories of being there the first time,” he said. “They were really good memories I cherish and want to remember. In a lot of ways, it felt like Ali was there, and doing that with Olivia I felt a closeness with both of them.”

Pace, who noted in her blog post that she often feels her sister’s presence, said she felt Ali’s guidance during the photo shoot.

“It’s almost like she was nudging me along as I was shooting, telling me which places to go and what to use as props,” she told “It was a very overwhelming feeling to have her so close even if she was not physically there.”

Pace and her husband, who is also a photographer and helped out with the shoot, posted the photos to their blog, and the beautiful and poignant images soon attracted attention, as even those unfamiliar with the Nunerys and their story were moved by the photos and story.

Ben said that while he did the shoot for himself and his daughter, he is heartened that the images have had an effect on others.

“I hope that people can see it as evidence of a love that Ali and I shared that is still very deep, [and] that love carries on, and it doesn’t die,” he said. “People who don’t know us personally but may have experience with losing a loved one can see that as an example of healing and life moving on.

“It doesn’t mean that we forget our loved ones, but find ways to remember them and keep that memory going.”

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Joan of Arc

I know this now. Every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing yet they give their lives to that little or nothing. One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. And then it is gone. But to sacrifice what you are and live without belief, that's more terrible than dying.--

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December 2021



On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

John O'Donohue, Echoes of Memory