red umbrella

Photo by Ukrainian Nadia Povalinska. Taken days before the Russian invasion.
Sweet shield from snow.
Peace prevails. Quiet comforts.
Cold air on young skin. Crunch of packed snow
speaks sled rides, group strolls. A people attuned 
to time and place. Hidden, their fierce resolve
to defend the Motherland, deep-rooted 
union of land and people. A concept 
we can admire but no way grasp,
the discord among us too vast.


St. Francis

Basilica of St. Francis, Assisi, Italy


In the month of October we remember Francis of Assisi, the saint who answered Christ’s call to “repair my church.” Above all, St. Francis stands as one who … boldly challenged a world obsessed with power and status, and a church that conformed to such values. Those today who pursue the cause of peace, who stand with the poor, who engage in respectful dialogue with other faiths, or defend the Earth and its creatures, are following in Francis’ path … a way of kindness, gentleness, and humility that could truly repair our world, which is evidently falling into ruin.

This appeared in my inbox this morning from Orbis Books, the publisher of HEAR ME, SEE ME: Incarcerated Women Write which I co-edited in 2013. By coincidence, earlier this week I received a copy of Colere, A Journal of Cultural Exploration published annually by Coe College. They just published my poem, ‘The Tomb of St. Francis.’

Tomb of St. Francis of Assisi at the Basilica

The Tomb of St. Francis
Assisi, Italy

They come, pilgrims of every shade
in bright red-orange prints, with canes
their grayed heads bound in matching cloth
eyes encased in winkled brown.

Dread-locked youth, his lengths spilling
over dirty blond pack as he kneels,
falls to the stone step marking
the edge of adoration for the deceased.

A lanky dark-haired youth
in plain white tee and tattered jeans
pulls the iron grate tight to heaving chest
entwines hand, arm, head bowed in prayer;

then rises, damp-eyed, whispers, croons,
his body speaking anguish, joy
at this momentous meeting
faith and love lived large

as his beloved Saint before him,
example of the living word
that permeates the air, the bones
of ancient-walled Assisi.

‘The Tomb of St. Francis’ by Sarah W. Bartlett, in Colere Journal of Cultural Exploration, Coe College, Cedar Rapids, IA, 2018

peace and protection

credit - susan arnsten-russell

credit – susan arnsten-russell

I was so struck by this powerful TouchDrawing™ image that I asked the creator, Susan Arnsten-Russell, for permission to use it as a writing prompt.

Two things struck me right away. First, the sense of division, that hand help up in clear indication of ‘enough,’ ‘stop now,’ and ‘do not come closer.’ The sense that there is something out there from which those back here want protection. A clear we-them sense of fear and danger so present as to be terminal.

Second, I noticed that the person doing the ‘stop now’ gesture is curiously androgynous. At first I thought female, because of the veiled face and covered head. On closer look, however, what I truly see is one human pair of eyes holding depths of unspeakable anguish. They are neither male nor female. They are not clearly any nationality or denomination. They are, simply, human. And, more than all of that . . . the ambiguity of the veil causes the greatest pause. Just who is threatened?

In the end, of course, it is all of us. It is our fear of difference, our knee-jerk response to fear itself, that divides us. Each ‘side’ has more and more vocal and visceral things to express against the other. More hands raised in ‘stop’ but also in ‘attack,’ in ‘divide-and-conquer.’ But this same raised hand could be the hand of peace, of hands-across-the-divide.

Within small communities, when disaster strikes, it is apparent that it strikes everyone equally. Why must this be so wildly different on a larger scale? We are all residents of one single planet, this poor Earth we have abused, in some places and ways to the point of non-recognition. Must we destroy one another, too, out of fear and greed and distrust? Why can we not see that we all want to be heard, to be seen, to be respected? That we all have the same needs for connection and understanding? Behind the veil or in front of it, we are all first and foremost human beings.  We human people have been given the unique ability to feel (and act on) compassion, empathy, understanding. Why do we persist in refusing to do so? No one said it would be easy. But the longer we allow violence and aggression, fear- and hate-mongering to guide us, the further we move from our shared humanity.

What most draws me to this image is that the figure seeking peace and protection might just be the Muslim woman asking the rest of us to stop, think and feel. On behalf of us all.

no more taking sides


Photo: Frank Micelotta

Photo: Frank Micelotta

Robi Damelin lost her son David to a Palestinian sniper. Ali Abu Awwad lost his older brother Yousef to an Israeli soldier. But, instead of clinging to traditional ideologies and turning their pain into more violence, they’ve decided to understand the other side — Israeli and Palestinian — by sharing their pain and their humanity. They tell of a gathering network of survivors who share their grief, their stories of loved ones, and their ideas for lasting peace. They don’t want to be right; they want to be honest.”

Each time I read about them, I weep for the possibilities open to us all. Their actions are not only awe-inspiring and honest. They model the only way forward in a world torn by dissensions of every sort; by a false sense of we vs them; by trying to create a simplistic world of either/or.  We are all made of the same human stuff. That is reason enough to listen with the one thing that unites us all –  the heart.