Unexpected Angels

  1. Farley’s Angel

When Farley found himself in a new neighborhood, he was lonely and was having trouble finding a friend.  And just when he was most lonely, an angel appeared with pancakes.  Pancakes!  Now that’s my kind of angel.  But what I like most about the story, is that the Angels real magic happened not in Farley’s dream, but the next day when Farley was telling the bird and pig and bear.  It was the memory of this Angel that brought friends together.  Well, that and a big stack of pancakes.  An Angel’s impact ripples long after the encounter.

  1. Descended Angels

It has been said that the Wulsin family is guarded by Angels. . . we tend to be pretty laid back about risk and have a habit of assuming that things will work out for the best.  So, last summer when our dear friend and long-time USNF member, Jenn Bealer asked if I’d be up for driving a moving truck to Chicago to help her transition into graduate school, I enthusiastically said yes.  Everything went smoothly the first day: I drove the big truck from her house in Easthampton and she followed with her mother and cat in the car behind me.  I made it to my grandparent’s house in Cleveland just fine – and Jenn made it to a nearby hotel without incident.

The next morning, I got up before sunrise and hit the road.  The plan was to drive the six hours from Cleveland to Jenn’s new apartment in Chicago and then unpack.  I’d then return the truck near O’Hare airport and hop on a flight to Detroit where my parents, who would have left Cincinnati after working a half day would pick me up on their drive north.  We’d continue driving north for another six hours to arrive at our summer place in Canada for a week of relaxing.  But things didn’t go quite as planned.

Jenn had trouble starting the car after a rest stop in Indiana.  I was already about a half hour ahead, so I kept going hoping that she’d be able to catch up by the time I got to Chicago.  Then the weather got bad and the construction started and traffic got thick.  So I slogged on – working my way across the northern edge of industrial Indiana watching as my GPS adjusted my ETA and the comfortable buffer of time dwindled.  It became clear that I was not going to be able to wait for Jenn, who was now a couple hours behind me, to show up before unloading the truck.

It was a hot day at the end of July and when I finally pulled onto Jenn’s street, I calculated that I only had 45 minutes to unload the truck if I was to get to the airport on time.  While I was carefully parking on the street, somebody came out of Jenn’s building and I quickly ran up and caught the door before it closed.  Of course, I didn’t have a key to Jenn’s apartment, but now, I was at least in the building.  So I propped the door open and sprinted down the front steps and across the sidewalk and unloaded the truck into the lobby – packing everything as densely as possible and trying to maintain access to the staircase for the upstairs units, the other door on the first floor, and the mailboxes.  A few bulkier things like a desk and the bed frame I left on the porch outside, but I was able to get everything in.  By this point, I was absolutely saturated with sweat – the humidity, sun, and heat were oppressive.

But I didn’t have time to linger, so I slid the rear door down and hopped in the driver’s street and hit the gas, typing the truck return center’s address into my phone.  I was pretty tight on time, but at this point, things could almost work out – if I didn’t get stuck in traffic, and if I spent less than five minutes at the truck return center and if the Uber showed up exactly when I needed it too, and if the drive to the terminal took only 5 minutes, then I’d walk into the airport exactly thirty minutes before my flight was scheduled to take off, which would be okay as long as there wasn’t a wait in the security line and my gate wasn’t too far away.

Well, that is a lot of ‘ifs’ – and the first one, was “If I didn’t get stuck in traffic.”  Well, it’s Friday afternoon and I have to drive from the south side of Chicago straight through downtown to O’Hare.  I hadn’t gone three blocks before it became clear that traffic was going be a major factor.  So I cranked the air conditioning, lifted my carryon luggage onto the passenger seat and finally changed out of my sweaty outfit.  It felt good to at least be in dry clothes as I watched the ETA on my phone drift closer and closer to my flight’s departure time.  And then cross it and keep going.  What was supposed to be a 50 minute drive took me more than two and a half hours so by the time I got to the truck return, it was clear I had missed my flight.  I called my parents, who had just crossed from Ohio into Michigan and let them know that I would not be landing in Detroit as previously expected but there was a later flight I still hoped I’d be able to catch.

I dropped the truck off and ordered an Uber and waited in the rain for it to show up and then hopped in and headed towards the terminal.  As soon as I walked into O’Hare, I knew that this day was far from over.  Thousands of people were crowding through the terminal and I looked up at the screens to learn that every flight had been cancelled or delayed due to weather.  So I got in line and tried to catch my breath.

I had skipped lunch and the combination of stress, and sweat, and rain had made my second set of clothes pretty wet.  I was dehydrated, hungry, and tired.  So when an attendant walked down the line and said that we might have better luck calling a 1-800 number since it would be at least an hour before I’d be able to speak to someone at the ticket counter, I ducked under the stanchion and walked over to a corner where I called and spoke to a very friendly woman in Texas who, despite her best efforts, couldn’t get me on a flight to anywhere in Michigan for at least 24 hours.  After twenty minutes, my phone died.

I headed over to a large concrete column with a power outlet at its base.  I slumped down on the cold terrazzo floor and leaned against the column.  Plugged my phone into the outlet and dialed my parents.

My mom picked up and put me on speaker phone and all of a sudden I wasn’t just a 34 year old sitting in an airport in Chicago.  That physical experience, of sitting on the ground leaning against something hard and speaking on a phone connected to the wall transported me: I was again 12 years old at summer camp in upstate New York calling home to explain just how homesick I was; I was 18 at a phone booth at a rest area on Lake Tahoe calling home to hear my parents’ voices remind me that I was not alone.  The tears came, my voice left, and I cried.  I cried and cried on that cold polished floor.  My parents soothed me, we hung up and they promised to figure out the logistics – we are never too old to be taken care of by our parents.

I went to Facebook and sent a message to a high school friend I hadn’t seen in almost a decade:

Adi, Are you in Chicago?

Hi!  Coming home now from St. Louis.  You in town?

Yeah, I got stranded and am in need of a friend.

I’ll be home in 3 hours.  Can you wait?

Yes, Are you coming to O’Hare?

Yes!! Are you at the airport? 


I’m coming to O’Hare!

It’s a madhouse here.

Ok.  Do you need to crash?

Yes.  And a hug.  Are you on a plane?

Yup!  Boarding now. St. Louis to Chicago. United. It’s 6pm now.  I’ll be at O’Hare at 7:30. So pumpkin, you sit tight and I’ll meet you. You come to my house.

As promised, Adi showed up an hour and a half later.  We grabbed a cab and went to her condo where I took a much needed shower.  She fed me a big meal, she set me up on her couch, she listened.  And listened and listened and listened.  Early the next morning, I hopped a bus to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where my parents picked me up and we finished our journey north.

I tell this story because it felt like an angel descended from above to take care of me in a time of need.  I was tired and alone on a cold polished floor and Adi swept me up and took care of me for twelve hours.  And the memory of that experience continues to serve me.  Adi’s impact ripples long after the encounter.

  1. Messengers & Voices

The angels in each of our lives take different shapes: Angels as caretakers, Angels as guardians, Angels as messengers.  We have many names for these voices: muse, advisor, mentor, friend, guide, guru, parent, sage, prophet, angel, messenger, teacher, counselor.

We need to acknowledge the Angels living amongst us more often.  We do not navigate this rich, complex, and challenging world alone. From whom do you receive messages of hope, of comfort, of love?  Who in your life delivers truth and guidance?    Sometimes these are companions who live alongside us for years.  Other times, these messengers appear for a flashing moment to deliver one piece of wisdom and then they vanish, never to be seen again, leaving behind an imprint that lasts forever.

I believe that when we need them most, the Angels are with us.  When we are lost, or sad, or scared, or lonely, the Angels among us listen, guide, console, and sooth.  These Angels’ voices are not always accessible – sometimes shrouded by doubt, fear, and anger, but the Angels are close by.   Sometimes the most important voice comes from the Angel inside each of us.  It’s this inner-Angel that carries truth and wisdom and untapped capacity – this inner-Angel that provides compassion in the face of pain and resiliency in the face of grief.  When you find yourself lost or alone and yearning for some evasive angel to show up and guide the way – and that angel seems absent, listen again not for a voice from above or from beyond, but listen instead for a voice from within – trust that deep inside, there is an angel, ready to step up to the plate and do what needs to be done.

  1. Becoming an Angel

How can each of us become a better Angel for ourselves and for others?  Here’s my three-step guide to harnessing and releasing our best Angel-selves:

  1. Step one: show up.  Being an angel is a present-tense activity.  It is not something that you used to do, or something that you are going to do someday.  It is what you are doing right now.  Right here.  Showing up involves saying “Yes” to others who ask something of you.  Showing up is about saying “Yes” to yourself when some quiet (or sometimes not-so-quiet) part of you asks for some “me-time.”  Showing up is a Zen practice of being present – of recognizing that you are exactly where you belong right now.
  2. Step two: listen.  Listen completely – with the full trinity of listening: listening with your mind, listening with your body, and listening with your heart.  Listening with your mind is an intellectual pursuit; an activity about cognitively absorbing as much information as possible and placing it within context of everything you have learned.  Listening with your body is a great strategy for being present in the moment – focus on physical sensations, what is the temperature in the room?  What are the textures beneath your fingers and toes? It’s also about the transformative power of touch – a long-held hug, the tussling of a child’s head of hair, a kiss on the forehead, a high five, a firm handshake, a pat on the back – never underestimate the wisdom communicated through physical contact.  Listening with your heart is a spiritual practice.  It is about opening up and absorbing every situation not with the intent to explain it, but instead, with the intent to experience it.  To allow your whole self to be moved in ways that are felt, not understood.  To listen to the ever-evolving emotional truth inside each one of us.
  3. Step three: speak.  Speaking requires you to have a voice - and to have something to say - and then to put those two things together.  Trust that your offering, whatever its size or shape, is a valuable addition to any conversation.  And that becoming an Angel means letting yourself be heard.  Speaking doesn’t have to be a vocal exercise – Speaking is about taking action, about doing something.  It is true that not everything we say or do is divine truth and blesses everyone who hears it with angelic wisdom.  That’s okay, try not to worry about it.  Relax and be authentic.  When in doubt, speak from the heart.  And most of the time, we won’t even notice when what we are saying is coming from our inner-Angel.

Most of the time, when we are blessed by Angels, the Angels don’t recognize the importance of what they are saying or doing.

  1. Ancestors as Angels

Sometimes the voices of Angels that guide us through our lives are the voices of those who have already died.  For our meditation today, we read the names of those who have passed on this year.  These members of our community – our friends, our family – will continue to be part of our lives as the echoes of their wisdom reverberate within each of us. An Angel’s impact ripples long after the encounter ends.

Nurse Log

When a tree stops living, it is still a thing.  It stands as a home for birds and insects for years, even decades - bare branches serving as perch, nest infrastructure, and food source.  Or it falls to the forest floor, lies prone, and becomes what is known as a “Nurse Log.”  A Nurse log can support thousands of species as moss, lichen, and other plants grow from the slowly decaying carcass.  Worms, insects, beetles, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, birds make their home beneath, on top-of, and within this thriving ecosystem - a rich and dense and diverse cacophony of abundance.  When a tree stops living, it is still a thing.  In death, these Nurse Logs provide the fabric for life.

So too, do those who have died provide the fabric for our abundant life.  Their influence is experienced by the mind through memory, storytelling, and emulation.  Those who have died affect our bodies through genetic lineage and through learned physicality: my smile is my grandfather’s smile; I dance in part because of my friend and classmate, Kelly Muzzi; I paddle like my great-great grandfather paddled.  And the Angels of those who have died speak directly to our hearts.  These Angels strengthen our compassion, test the depths of our caring, and stretch the limits of our grief.

The grief can be alarming, destabilizing, and isolating.  We find ourselves stagnated in front of the refrigerator, not able to decide what to have for breakfast; or in the grocery isle, weeping  when we discover the salad dressing label has been redesigned.  The grief leads us to latch onto routine, or to abandon everything familiar.  The grief makes us build walls around us and not let anyone in and the grief makes us surround ourselves with everyone who has ever loved us.  These Angles visit us in unpredictable ways and in unexpected moments.  Welcome the unexpected Angels into your heart, your mind, your body – for with them, they carry wisdom, truth, and love.

  1. Grief Angels

These Angels of Grief have many stories: Long, slow, gradual death in old age; a speedy descent upon the return of cancer; sudden death in a freak accident.  Each Angel has its own origin story.  Some stories are predictable – my grandfather, died peacefully at the age of 94 on New Years Eve this year with my grandmother holding his hand in the home where they lived for sixty years and raised four children and seven grandchildren.  A week earlier, my mother and I drove the four hours from Cincinnati to Cleveland to sit at his bedside.  I’ll never forget the sensation of feeding peach yogurt through his dry and chapped lips, his wide grin pervasive as always.  Laying on the bed in which he would breathe his last breath, his generosity, kindness, and patience filled the whole room.  He was not always comfortable, and each of us did what we could to ease his pain, but in between the restless moments of groaning, he would lie with eyes closed smiling at the world.  It felt as if the Angel within him was emerging.

But not every Angel’s story makes sense, not every Angel’s story is predictable and fits into a comfortable narrative.  Angles of children who died before their parents, are never far away.  We are visited by Grief Angels from pregnancies not carried to full-term, Grief Angels from unexpected miscarriage, Grief Angels from intentional abortion, Grief Angels from elusive pregnancies and persistent infertility.  Like every Angel in our life, these Grief Angels show up for us, they listen, and they speak.  They are messengers of wisdom and builders of compassion.  They humble us and exhaust us, and in ways we may never fully understand, they take care of us.  An Angel’s impact ripples long after the encounter ends.

  1. Invisible Angels

A few weeks ago, Janet told a story about Fredrick Beuchner’s dream in a house called “remember”: Beuchner wrote:

“I knew it was a good dream, and I felt that in some unfathomable way it was also a true dream. The fact that I did not understand its truth did not keep it from being in some sense also a blessed dream, a healing dream, because you do not need to understand healing to be healed or know anything about blessing to be blessed.”

You do not need to understand healing to be healed. You do not need to understand blessings to be blessed.  We do not need to notice the Angels for them to do their work.  They are with us whether we see them or not.  They speak to us whether we listen or not.  They touch us whether we feel them or not.  Of course, I advocate for paying attention – I think our lives are richer when we are in touch with the forces that guide us.  But when those forces are shrouded or appear too distant to perceive, trust that they are there.  Trust that they are here, with you always.  In a word, have faith.

  1. Infants as angels

My youngest brother and his wife had their first child in November, six weeks before my Grandfather died.  Ten days before he stopped breathing, Bigpa placed his withering hand on Santiago’s head and said, “Santiago, so beautiful.” These were some of his last words.  It is hard to hold a new-born baby and not think of the angelic perfection within each infant.  The message new born babies teach us is about potential energy; it’s about vulnerability and trust and connection.  Infants teach us about our innate and infinite capacity to love.

We are born as angels.  And we die as angels.  And in between, we get to live as angels.