A chance meeting brings gratitude

lilac blossom

As I looked for a photo to use on the cover of an upcoming anthology, I found it here in a vintage post that I wrote at Granite State Walker, of all places. I realized the post actually fits in Advent, a time of preparation and renewal. Re-reading the post brought back all the gratitude and delight I experienced after meeting a gentleman who opened my eyes to a common beauty I’d never before appreciated. 

Never underestimate the potential impact of a passing conversation or a chance meeting. It could affect a life in ways you’ll never see.

Mr. Stiles’s lesson: share what you love

In August 2013, I read in the newspaper about the passing of a New Hampshire gentleman named Walter Stiles. The published tributes indicated that he was a generous man in every respect, devoted to his family, active in his community.  I met him once more than twenty years before his death, had a single unforgettable conversation with him on the subject of lilacs, and never saw him again.   In the short time we chatted, he managed to convey his great and contagious affection for this state and its natural beauty.

We were at a political gathering, not a social one, and there was a lot of edgy debate among attendees that day. No matter. By some chance, I was seated next to Mr. Stiles, who I think was a state representative at the time. His kindness and dignity were a kind of antidote to the tension in the room. I asked him what he did when he wasn’t serving in his political office. I realize now that he could have said any number of things, for as his obituary made clear, he was a man of many parts. What he chose to tell me about was his interest in horticulture, particularly lilacs.

I had never paid much attention to lilacs before that time, to tell you the truth. They were just sort of there. Listening to Walter Stiles, I began to realize what I’d been missing. He told me about the Governor’s Lilac Commission, which was a fairly new group at that time. He told me that the lilac was the state flower, and that he hoped to see more people plant them around their homes and schools and towns. He talked about the flower’s wonderful fragrance (which I had never stopped to notice).  He told me about the people working with the Commission and with their own local garden clubs to encourage cultivation.

When the day’s proceedings were over, he bid me a cordial farewell and went on his way. He must have been grinning to himself, knowing better than I did that he had dropped an idea in front of me and that I was sure to pick it up eventually.

lilac blossom
Photo by Ellen Kolb

As I said, that was many years ago. Since then, lilacs planted by my husband have grown to line one side of our yard. I wait impatiently every spring for those gorgeous blossoms. I fill vases with them and bring them into the house so the fragrance can fill the rooms. Wherever I see lilacs in blossom, I appreciate all the colors from white to deepest purple. I’m grateful to everyone who has gone to the trouble of planting the bushes, which take a few years to establish. As I learned to look for lilacs, I learned to keep my eyes open for the other flowers all over New Hampshire. The variety astonishes me anew every year.

It’s no accident that I do more hiking as I get older. I have more to appreciate and enjoy. I’ve benefited from many people who have taken the time to share with me their love of this state’s beauty. From such folks, I am learning more all the time, and I have all the more reason to savor my time on the trails.

If you’re a fan of being outdoors, I hope you’ll do what Mr. Stiles did: share your enthusiasm. I only met him once, and I never had the chance to thank him for expanding my horizons just a bit. I’m guessing he’d consider those lilacs in my yard thanks enough.

Remembering a defender of life

The celebration of All Saints and observance of All Souls are just ahead. Among those whom I’ll be remembering in prayer is an acquaintance, a Catholic pro-life journalist named Jack Kenny, who passed away a few weeks ago. I invite you to remember him in prayer as well. I wrote a memorial post over at Leaven for the Loaf. I’d like to share a few excerpts here.


Jack Kenny has succumbed to cancer. He was a Manchester, New Hampshire journalist with broad interests, astringent opinions, and an abiding devotion to the most vulnerable human beings among us.

“…the right to life is, if you’ll pardon the expression, a hell of a subject for neutrality.” (Kenny, New Hampshire Union Leader, 9/13/98)

…He once wrote about a Labor Day breakfast at which then-Governor Jeanne Shaheen was featured speaker. A Catholic priest was honored at the event for his work promoting social justice. Jack raised an eyebrow. “If you think this is ‘single-issue’ fanaticism, ask yourself this: Would [the monsignor] share a platform with someone who advocated racial discrimination or espoused anti-Semitism?…Yet Gov. Shaheen supports, promotes and defends as a ‘right’ the killing of preborn babies. No problem. Organized labor doesn’t care and the monsignor pretends not to notice.”

…Back in the 1990s, “Optima Health” was big news. It was an attempt to link Manchester’s Catholic Medical Center with Elliot Hospital. One of the rocks on which that venture foundered was the revelation of a scheduled abortion at the Elliot, contravening assurances that such things wouldn’t happen under Optima. It was a complex and lengthy story. While all this was going on, Jack wrote about the people who risked jail and loss of livelihood to raise alarms about the danger Optima posed to CMC’s Catholic identity.

…I recall another late-’90s incident that would have been a one-day story if Jack hadn’t helped to keep it out in the open. Pro-lifers were demonstrating peacefully one evening outside a fundraising event for an abortion advocacy group; the Portsmouth police got involved; arrests and a broken wrist ensued. Jack whipped out his pencil and started asking questions of the relevant parties.

“The right to peacefully assemble and protest belongs as much to those protesting abortion as anyone else. Or at least it used to. It can hardly be surprising if a society that no longer respects the right to life becomes indifferent to other rights as well.”

Politics might have been a passion, but Jack knew that his Creator transcended such matters.

A few years ago, the long-shuttered St. Stanislaus Catholic Church in Nashua was revived as a parish where the Latin Mass could be celebrated daily. At the very first Mass there, the place was packed with worshippers. There were old-timers from the days when St. Stan’s had been the ethnic parish in the neighborhood. There were people like me who were curious about the Latin Mass. And then there were the people already familiar with the traditional rite, praying with joy, very much at home. Jack was one of those people.

I hardly recognized him when he sat down near me. I had never seen his face in such repose. He had left his political indignation outside the door in order to put himself at the foot of the Cross.

I trust that in God’s mercy, Jack is now surrounded by the innocent souls he defended so ardently. May his repose be complete.

Spring on the Rail Trails

urban rail trail in Rochester New Hampshire

On a rail trail, spring is about the conditions, not the calendar.  Snow and ice give way to mud season. Before you know it, the trailsides are greening up, signaling a time for tuning up bikes and putting away boots. 

If winter kept you indoors, spring will nudge you outside. It’s tempting to get back to the trails and trailheads even when they’re muddy. The resulting ruts would be a problem down the line, though, so a little patience is in order while the mud recedes. Even the paved trails can be reluctant to give up their icy patches. Again, patience. Spring will win out.

Read the rest of the post, originally published for New Hampshire Rail Trails Coalition.