The Kindness of Sanctuary

Gazebo in the woods (photo by Barry Louis Polisar)

I originally shared these thoughts on a Facebook posting in the summer of 2019 and was asked if they could be included in this issue. It seems almost quaint to think back on that time, but I’m thankful that the events of that summer took place when they did—and not now, as our world has changed. Hopefully what I had written a year ago has relevance to the current crisis and I am happy to “Pass It On.”  —BLP

After my last major school concert tour ended in the Spring of 2019, my wife and I opened our home to friends from out of state who needed a place to stay as they tended to their brother who was struggling with the end stages of Parkinson’s disease. They stayed with us off and on for a couple months while they spent their days down at the hospital, and ultimately at a local hospice center.

These friends are part of my origin story. I have often said (quoting John Hartford’s song) “I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t been there.”

In the summer of 1972, my friend Mary and her folks, Ruth and Jay, invited me to join them on a cross-country driving trip from Maryland to Arizona, right after graduating from high school. The family was meeting Mary’s two older brothers, Dean and Mark, and Mark’s wife Kathy, for a week in a rustic cabin on top of Mt. Lemon, outside of Tucson. There, Mark and Dean would play guitar every night and we’d all sing together. I was seventeen years old, and when I came home from that trip, I bought a guitar, determined to learn how to play.

I began writing songs as soon as I learned three guitar chords.

The kindness of my friend and her parents did not end with that Western trip. I spent the better part of the next two years at their family home in Adelphi, singing and playing music with them almost every night—and more often than not, staying for dinner. Eventually, each of Ruth and Jay’s children set off on careers that would serve those in need: Mark as an attorney for those who could not afford one, Mary as a social worker, and Dean as an attorney working on Native American and environmental issues.

Having the family in our home for a few months in the spring and summer of 2019 resonated with me on many different levels. It was great to be able to offer our home as a refuge and a sanctuary—and to be able to share meals and quiet moments on our porch in the evenings, going over the day’s events when they returned from the hospital. The last weekend before Dean died—and a month after his wife tragically died from her own illness—I brought my guitar when I visited him and we spent a couple afternoons singing the songs we all used to sing together.

It was a full circle moment, going back forty-seven years.

We measure our lives through the people we encounter as we make our way. The friendships and personal connections we make are really what gives meaning to our lives.

All of this is just a reminder that in these turbulent times we live in, there are still opportunities to make a difference and live a life of purpose, to let go of any resentments or anger we hold against life’s personal injustices, and to be thankful for everything we are able to celebrate.

One never knows what rippling effects a friendly smile, an open hand, or an open heart will lead to. I know that the kindness of Mary’s family led me to this place.

When a friend or family member dies, one has to take stock. When two people die within a month, one has to reflect deeply on our own lives and how we will spend the time we are given. The greatest gift we can give ourselves is to be aware that our lives are connected to each other and to every other thing around us. We benefit from the experiences we share and the experiences we encounter with those on our paths. When we extend our hand to others or offer a welcoming embrace—like Mary’s family extended to me when I was younger—we truly become holy.

Every one of us makes personal choices as well as political choices. They are reflections on who we are as people. We can build walls and enclosures that shut others out—or we can choose to be welcoming and caring when some greater force sends people to our doorstep in need.

People cross our paths daily with true gifts, reminding us of the good fortune of living each day with a full and joyful heart. The connections we make with friends—as well as those we make with strangers—reflect who we really are as people and as a nation. It should inform the debate about how we respond to the immigration issues at our border and to so much more.

To paraphrase a line in a song by the pop singer Jewel, “In the end, it is kindness that matters most.”