A Book I’m Writing That I Haven’t Told You About Yet

Photo by Himesh Kumar Behera via Unsplash

There’s a book I’m writing that I haven’t told you much about. I don’t know if I’m allowed to tell you the title yet, so I’ll keep quiet on that for now (although I love the title Revell came up with). This book comes out next fall (about four months after the release of The Edge of Over There). It’s a book I wrestled with writing – whether or not I should do it, and, once I decided to do it, how exactly to go about it. It’s a book about the friendship that’s formed between me and a man named Mohammad.

Here’s a quick peek at a very rough draft of a section I’ve been working on, a simple retelling of a conversation the two of us had not too long ago. Shhh. This is top secret.

* * * * *

When I first met Mohammad, there were things I never could have guessed about him, things I never could have imagined. The stories of other people are always hidden from us at first, waiting in the shadows. They are tentative, skittish things, these hidden stories. They are frightened of what might become of them if they step out into the light.

A man rides his motorcycle through the Syrian countryside, his wife and four sons somehow balanced on the bike with him. He has received a tip that his village will soon be bombed. Their combined weight wobbles the motorcycle from side to side, and he shouts at them to hold still, hold still.

A man sits quietly on a friend’s porch, drinking very dark coffee, watching bombs rain down on his village miles away. ‘That was your house,” he says, then, ten minutes later, “I think that one hit my house.” He takes another sip of coffee. His children play in the yard.

A man walks through the pitch black Syrian wilderness, his family in a line behind him. He can feel the tension in his wife, the fear in his older boys. Someone ahead shouts, “Get down!” and they all collapse into the dust, holding their breath, trying to keep the baby quiet. ‘Abba,’ his boys whimper. ‘Abba.’

There are things I never could have imagined about him.

* * * * *

“You know,” he says, “in Syria, we are always having coffee together. Almost every day, I go to a friend’s house and we sit for two hours, for three hours, drinking coffee together, talking about things. Why you not do that here? Everyone stays here, here, here,” he frowns and jabs at the air, pointing at our individuality. “No one knows their neighbors. No one has coffee.”

“You’re right,” I say. “You’re right.”

“I tell this to Muradi,” he says, smiling a reluctant smile. “I tell my wife I will start having coffee with people. Soon, everyone will come to my house and we will all know each other and talk together. She says, ‘Mohammad, Americans do not want this! They do not want!’ But I tell her I will show her. I will start. We will meet here, there. Maybe at a coffee house. It is good this way, for us to drink coffee together.”

He laughs. I laugh, too, but the truth of what he says reaches me. We are, as Americans, very good at being independent. I struggle to think of the last time I needed someone, truly needed someone. We are so busy. Too busy. There is very little time for that kind of community, where we meet together regularly, not rushed, to simply drink coffee.

“When you find a house out here in the country,” Mohammad says again. “Find me a house, too. We will live beside each other, and we will drink coffee together. We can invite all the neighbors!” He laughs again, grinning that boyish grin of his, and I can’t help but be amazed at what these refugees have to offer us, if we will only reach out our hands and accept it.

* * * * *

Mohammad is a Syrian refugee, and together we are telling the story of his journey here, the story of my journey in meeting him, and the story of our friendship. This is not a story of how I helped him – this is more a story of how a man from halfway around the world taught me more about being a friend than anyone else I know. I can’t wait for you to get to know him. He and his wife and his boys are amazing.

If you’re looking for a gift for a young (or young at heart) reader in your life, consider my book The Day the Angels Fell, described by Anne Bogel at Modern Mrs. Darcy as, “Neil Gaiman meets Madeleine L’Engle.” It’s a book that asks the question “Could it be possible that death is a gift?”

Glimpses of Eden at a Funeral

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There are a few really good souls in this world, and Caleb Wilde is one of them. We met a few years ago when he won a writing contest I held on my blog and, in lieu of the reward, he asked for coffee with me. Nice guy, right? I think he was at least 30 minutes late for that first coffee, but since then he’s become a good friend. Caleb does what few of us would be able to do for a living: he deals with death. And he manages to do it, day after day, with care and kindness and more than a sprinkling of humor.

Caleb has a book coming out this fall called Confessions of a Funeral Director. Take some time to read this post by Caleb, and then preorder his book. You won’t regret it.

Last week we had a funeral here at the funeral home. I was outside parking cars in the procession line, like I usually do, when a hot rod truck, with yellow racing stripes and a flare-side bed pulled up into the procession line. Our parking lot is laid out in such a manner that the only people who just “pull up” in the procession line are the one’s who have done it before. Although I didn’t recognize the truck, as soon as I saw it pull into the procession line without any need of my direction I was pretty sure I’d recognize the face of the driver since he or she was probably a regular at the funeral home.

It was Donnie Smith. Donnie stepped out of his truck, we shot the bull for about 20 minutes. He told me that his dad (Donnie Sr.) had been running low on health while he’s been running high on the idea that his dad might be needing us in the not too distant future.

There are some people that I know only through funerals, and Donnie’s one of them. We buried his daughter a couple years back, and being that Donnie knows half the people in Chester County, he finds himself at funerals nearly as much as I do. I’d often ask him, “You gonna start having your mail delivered here?”

At this particular funeral– after he was done talking with me — we put him to work as the door tender and he was greeting everybody that came through the front door with his genuine smile and warm presence.

Sunday came along and I saw a note on the desk when I got into work: “Donnie Smith’s body is at the Hospital: not released.” I figured it was Donnie, Sr., being how Donnie Jr. was telling me about his dad being low and being unsure how much time he had left.

When we take a death call, we usually write the age of the deceased on the “first call” sheet and I saw in the upper right hand corner something that confused me: I saw “57.” I thought, “Donnie Sr.’s got to be in his 80s … that ’57′ must refer to something unrelated to the death call.”

I was wrong. The deceased at the Hospital was Donnie Jr., age 57.

No warning, no time for his family to say “good-bye”, no time to tie up loose ends. He told me how he was taking care of his dad, looking out for his dad. Nobody expected this. He didn’t expect it. In life, there are few things that are worse than a loved one leaving without saying “good-bye.”

Today we had the service. Probably close to 300 people came through the church during the viewing.

Before we began the service, we invited the family upfront to the casket to say their good-byes., one of the hardest things you’ll ever do in your life. At this point, I usually stand at the foot of the casket and observe what is often one of the harder moments for a bereaved family to handle: the last moment you have to touch, look at and speak to the deceased. After the family said their goodbyes on a day none of them expected to come so soon, we close the lid.

While this family was still having their final moments around the open casket, I noticed something right in front of me. Sitting in the front pew of the church were two little girls –one a blond, the other a brunette (which is how I’ll distinguish them from here on out) — both about the age of seven. One was wearing what appeared to be her white Easter dress, her hair combed straight and her shinny white dress shoes fitted to feet that were dangling back and forth off the floor. Next to her was a little blond girl, dressed in black pants and a black shirt. I’m guessing they were Donnie’s granddaughters.

As most the adults were crying, the blond reached her arm across the back of the brunette and held her, at which point tears started to roll down the brunette’s porcelain face. They didn’t know I was watching them, and as far as I know I was the only one looking at them, as all the adults were huddled around the casket; but I was taking in this little slice of life like a parched plant taking in the sweetness of a desert rain.

The blond got up, walked back to the second pew and opened an old Phillies cigar box that she was using as a kind of purse. She opened the lid, reached into the box, pulled out a tissue from the stack she had neatly placed in the box and rushed back over to where she had been sitting only seconds before, catching the tears as they ran down the grief-filled face of her friend.

At this point I got emotional. There’s a certain sense of hardness that creeps in after years in this business. And I’ll be the first to admit that few things bother me … few things touch me anymore. Death makes us into altogether different creatures … we can become like rough skinned rhinos who need something incredibly poignant to piece our outer shell.

I watched this compassion from this young girl for a couple minutes and then I saw my grandfather nod my direction, causing me to switch back to my job at hand, which by this time was the task of closing the lid.

Who taught this young child to do such a thing? Sure, she may have learned it from her mom, or maybe from Donnie himself, but nobody told this child to love. She just loved.

I sought the little blond out after the service was over and I asked her if she wanted to take any of the leftover flowers from her grandfather’s funeral back home with her. She pointed to the big casket spray. Being that the florists fill the back of the casket spray with water, I got it for her because it was probably nearly as heavy as she was, and I carried it to the bed of her dad’s truck. I guess when we witness the pure heart of children, it inspires and multiplies kindness.

Because sometimes we see glimpses of Eden through the veil of death.

You won’t want to miss Caleb’s book, Confessions of a Funeral Director. Preorder it HERE today.

My Ramadan Meal, and Finding Peace in Unexpected Places

“Come by tonight, any time after eight o’clock,” my Syrian refugee friend told me earlier in the day, so after I drop off an Uber fare in his part of the city around 8:30pm, I head for his house. The street is dark and quiet. The sun has only recently set. When I get out of the car, I can hear children playing a few streets over. Solitary fireworks go off in the distance.

I ring the doorbell, and I hear it echo inside the house. Everything seems quiet, but I wait. The narrow blinds bend upward as someone peeks through to see who is ringing their bell so late. It turns out to be a little someone, with tiny fingers. I hear one of his four boys shout something in Arabic. Everything in Arabic sounds urgent to me.

The door opens, and there he stands in a white undershirt, jeans, bare feet. He smiles a wide smile and I can see why he called me earlier in the week about finding a dentist that would accept his insurance to replace a missing bridge. We are still working on that one. We shake hands. He welcomes me in. I can tell they are eating, and immediately I feel guilty.

“Did I interrupt your dinner?” I ask.

“No, no, no. Come in,” he says. “Come in.”

His wife comes around the corner from the dining room and welcomes me with her kind, quiet eyes. She bows her head slightly. “Come,” she says. “Eat.”

Their four boys accompany me into the dining room like puppies, bouncing around and smiling up at me. The oldest leads the way, and when we arrive, and I see the spread of food on the floor and hear the Muslim prayers coming through the cell phone set up on the counter.

Of course, I think. It’s Ramadan. Is this why he invited me over after 8, so I could eat with them?


They are one week into their month of fasting from food and water during daylight hours. Now, they are enjoying their first meal of the day. To be honest, it smells amazing. But I just finished eating a celebratory meal with my own family not two hours before. We ate in honor of the last day of school.

“Sit, sit,” my friend insists, beckoning towards a space vacated by his oldest son, and as I try to figure out the politest way possible to tell them I don’t have to eat – I just finished eating dinner, I couldn’t possibly fit another thing in my gullet – his wife is filling a plate for me, mounding up all that delicious looking food into a huge serving. I sit on the floor along the clear plastic liner, and I am not very flexible, so sitting cross-legged isn’t the most natural position. She puts the dish in front of me – flat bread and some kind of stew or curry filled with vegetables and beef and a thick broth.

We eat mostly with our hands, mopping up the juices with the bread. I use a spoon they give me, when necessary. The boys have already finished. The prayers come to an end on the phone. We talk about work and how school is going. We try to creatively communicate words like “lamb” and “six-cylinder” and “dental insurance,” and every time we make a successful connection we laugh and smile, as if we have just learned each other’s language in its entirety. Then, we stumble through another sentence, another conversation. Communicating with each other is a determined act, a kind of fighting against the darkness, especially in these times.

My stomach is bursting from my previous dinner but the food is so good it’s not difficult to find room for it.

The boys laugh about something, and I can tell they’re laughing at me. I smile and shift awkwardly again on the floor.

“Okay,” I ask my friend. “What’s so funny?”

“You’re not used to sitting like that?” he asks with a small grin on his face. I realize I have been shifting my position every few minutes, trying to get comfortable. I laugh. The way they sit – it’s cross-legged, but it’s different, because their feet are tucked up under them. The boys laugh unreservedly now. I can’t do it. I can’t sit like that.

“No, no really. What happened to your table?”

“We only had it for a few weeks before I took it apart and got rid of it.”

“This is how you eat in Syria?” I ask.

“This is how we ate in Syria, on the floor,” he says, smiling, nodding, taking another large bite.

I nod and follow suit. I can’t imagine how wonderful this would taste after an entire day of not eating or drinking anything. It shows a lot of devotion, a willingness to fast for an entire month. I think my friend already looks like he has lost some weight, and only one week of Ramadan has passed.

“Do you miss Syria?” I ask. He nods, and for a moment his eyes well up. He clears his throat.

“The boys, they miss his mother especially,” his wife says.

“Their grandma?”

She nods. “Yes, their grandma. They Skype each week.”

The food is finished and my friend invites me onto the back porch. We sit on the couches on their covered cement slab. He takes out a cigarette and inhales a long draw, sighing out the smoke. He tells me about a new job he is trying out, driving for an egg company on the weekends. He asks my opinion on purchasing a more fuel-efficient vehicle. I explain to him the best way to find a dentist through his insurance, if they even cover dental, and promise to help him make calls next week.

Soon, his wife brings out coffee for us. Because I ask, they admit that it is difficult working where they do, in the hot dry-cleaners, when they cannot eat or drink all day during Ramadan. The coffee – it is more like espresso – is the color of dark chocolate and she serves it piping hot in tiny mugs with lots of sugar. The boys come out and the youngest takes his Big Wheel from the shed and rides up and down the sidewalk, playing with neighbors, their wheels rasping, their voices calling out to each other, alternating between Arabic and English. My friend tells me he’d like to find a place outside the city, now that they have a car, have jobs. He’d like to rent a place where he can have a garden, grow potatoes and carrots and … what is it called? Corn? Yes. Corn.

The night falls. The stars try to break through the city’s light pollution.

“I really have to go,” I say, finishing my coffee. “I have a lot more driving to do tonight.”

“No! No, Shawn, stay,” he insists, but this time I stand up. I thank them for dinner. They promise to have our entire family over soon. I tell them they don’t know what they’re wishing down upon themselves and they laugh. They wave to me as I walk back around the outside of the house to my car.

Every time I leave them, I feel I have been given so much. Every time I leave them, I feel they have given me a small gift of peace, a kind of shalom that is absent from so much of our culture these days.

It is good to have friends who live quiet, peaceful lives.

How I Rediscovered the Country I Know #WeWelcomeRefugees


“Is this Mohammad?”

“Yes! Yes.”

“Did you hear about the refugee concert in the city tomorrow? Do you need a ride?”

“Yes! Yes. Please.”

“I’ll pick you up around 3?”

“Yes. Okay. Thank you!”

* * * * *

I pull up outside a small duplex in the southwest side of Lancaster City. Mohammad comes outside with three of his boys. His oldest boy is with his mother – she is learning to drive. Mohammad is all smiles as he shakes my hand and we herd the three boys into the back of my Suburban. They jump in, giddy at the adventure.

We drive into the city under a pale blue sky. We park and walk through the cold January day to Tellus360, the venue for Church World Service’s refugee concert. The place is packed, and we still have an hour until the festivities begin. I talk with one of the CWS employees.

“I was going to go pick up Mohammad,” he tells me, “so I called him, but he said, ‘No, I have a friend picking me up.’ I said, ‘Mohammad, who is this friend?’ I didn’t know he had friends who could bring him into the city.'”

We both laugh. This is what it means to be a friend in the 21st century, I think. As simple as that.

Soon a line of reporters form to interview Mohammad. Everyone wants to talk to the Syrian refugee, especially in light of the recent executive order.

And this is where I say that if you do not know refugees, it is easy to hear the EO and think, “What’s the big deal? It’s only 120 days.” But if you know refugees, if you know people who have been trying for years to get permission to come and  are now afraid they must start the process over, if you know people who are in danger because they’ve translated for the US military in the Middle East and now they cannot flee, if you know people who only want to be reunited with their children, or their spouse, or their parents, only then, perhaps, can you know why some of us have been heartsick this weekend. Why we have lost sleep. Why we wake up with a gnawing sensation in our gut, that the country we love has forgotten how to love some of the most vulnerable.

I stand back and I watch as Mohammad tells his story over and over again. His boys crawl all over him. The lights are bright in his eyes. Behind him, through the glass, I can see the entire city of Lancaster. This is a world away from where he came from. A world away.

* * * * *

Tellus360 is so packed I can’t even walk from floor to floor. It seems the entire city has shown up to give their support. Volunteers cross paths with refugees they knew from years ago. It is a beautiful thing, seeing so many cultures mingling, so many different races smiling and hugging and welcoming one another.

I go back up and find Mohammad.

“I have to leave,” I say, “but I can come back and pick you up later. Just call me.”

“No,” he says. “We are ready. Come, boys.”

So I lead them through the mob – me, then the three boys, then Mohammad, following his sons, keeping them in line as they walk through a chaotic environment in their new country. We burst out into the cold and it feels good to be alive in that moment.

He claps his hand on my shoulder and his boys dart around us like butterflies.

“All these people,” he says, his eyes shining. “All these people.”

He clenches his fist and clutches it to his chest.

“I feel peace,” he says.

* * * * *

We arrive at his house.

“Okay,” I say. “Great to see you, Mohammad.”

“No, come in!” he says.

I look at the clock.

“I should really get home,” I say. I am, perhaps, a typical American. I do not feel immediately comfortable going into someone’s home who I do not know well, whose language I do not speak. I do not want to be an inconvenience.

“Come!” he says, and he will not take no for an answer. “Come in. I insist.”

I follow him inside and take off my shoes and we sit on his sofa. He tells me about his parents, in their 70s, too old to come to the US.

“When we fled Syria for Jordan,” Mohammad says, “My father told me he would rather die in Syria than travel and die somewhere else.” He smiles a sad smile and shrugs. I can tell he misses him.

He tells me about his recent escapades in buying auto insurance. He tells me how his new landlord came to him, found out about his life and how hard he was working, and gave him a $200 discount on the rent. Mohammad didn’t even ask for it.

“Until I am making better money,” Mohammad explains. “That’s what he told me. He is a good man. He is human.”

He gives me coffee, again, it is not a question of whether or not I want it – the only question is if I would like sugar or not. The sharp black liquid is good. Hours later, I still feel it in my veins, like a jackhammer.

“I really must go,” I say, and I put on my shoes, and he walks me out to the car. It is cold, and I see the boys through the window, drinking the remains of our coffee. My children do that. They are always asking for coffee. Amazing, how alike we are, though we were born 10,000 miles apart. Amazing, how we all want the same things: a quiet place to live; a way to make a living; hope for a future for our children. And peace.

Their grandfather chases them away from the small mugs of coffee. I smile.

“Thank you,” I say.

“No, thank you,” he says. “It was a good night.”

“It was a good night,” I say. The streets are dark as I turn the car around. I pass him one more time, and he is on the sidewalk, in his socks. I beep the horn, he waves, and for a moment I feel like I am back in the country I know.

When I Looked For the Syrian Refugee at His House, and What I Found #RideshareConfessional

Photo by Danka & Peter via Unsplash
Photo by Danka & Peter via Unsplash

I started driving early on Thursday morning. My brain wasn’t completely awake, so when the girl asked to go to the subway on Queen Street, I did a double-take. I honestly wondered, the subway? Since when did Lancaster have a subway? It dawned on me, as I drove, that she was talking about the sandwich shop. She seemed young to be opening a business for the day, but there she went, taking out her keys, unlocking the door, letting herself in. The morning was still dark, and I know that feeling. For four years in England I was opening quiet shops before London was fully awake.

Later, there was the girl who argued with me about the fare being charged to her credit card – I don’t set the fare and have no way of changing it. There was the college kid who graduates this spring and can’t decide if he wants to return home to San Francisco or move to New York, where all his friends are headed. There was the quiet, reserved girl who erupted with joy when I put Jason Isbell on the radio.

There was the Indian mother and her son who I drove to school. She was so tender with him, commenting on what a nice day it was, asking him if he had everything he needed, reminding him to work hard. She asked me to drive her home, so I did. She couldn’t believe her school was offering Mandarin.

“It’s so difficult,” she said quietly. “It’s so precise.”

* * * * *

Some of you will remember that a few months ago I met with a Syrian man, a refugee who lives here in Lancaster, to begin collecting his story in an attempt to perhaps write a book about him and his family’s trials in getting to the US. January has been busy, and I haven’t been able to follow up with him. Until a few days ago, when I called and realized his phone wasn’t working. The only other way I had to contact him was by going to his house, a place I’d never been before.

Just in case you don’t know me, let me tell you this: my preferred method of communication is text or email. A distant second is by phone. In third, so far from first you can barely see it, would be actually showing up at someone’s house I barely know. But I really wanted to set up another time to talk with him, so, when one of my fares took me into that part of the city, I swung by his home.

Two of his sons met me at the door – they were perhaps 10 and 18 years old. Just a guess. The 10-year-old was the most take-charge kind of kid I’ve ever seen, and I wonder if it’s from being the one who speaks the best English. I can imagine him taking care of everything for them: talking to the cable guy, going along to the grocery store, asking questions when they are out and about.

“Is your father here? I’d like to speak with him,” I said hesitantly.

“Come in, come in,” the 10-year-old insisted, holding the door open firmly in that overwhelming sort of hospitality you only find in Middle Eastern people. Their determination to show kindness exceeds any other culture I’ve spent time in.

So I went inside and their mother came into the room and the boy rattled off some commands to her and she handed him her phone. I assumed he was calling his dad. He pushed the phone into my hands.

“Here,” he said. “You talk?”

“Hey! Hello!” I said into the phone, a little disarmed by the situation. “How are you? Yes? Can we get together?”

Their father told me that he had found a job, and he sounded ecstatic about it. No, he could no longer meet during the day. Yes, he would love to hang out again. Perhaps some evening? He gave me his new number. I said I would call in the next few days.

“Yes! Please,” he said. “Please call. Thank you so much. Thank you.”

The entire time I was on the phone with him, his 18-year-old son was insisting I sit on the sofa. He beckoned towards it like a salesman. Make yourself comfortable. You don’t have to stand here in our home.

“No, thank you,” I whispered, smiling. When I finished talking, his 10-year-old took back the phone and walked me out to my car in his socks, grinning the entire time.

“Thank you,” I said. He nodded and smiled, an embarrassed grin, and then he sprinted back to his house. In that moment he reminded me of my own son.

* * * * *

I thought of their family the rest of the day while I drove. I felt for them – they come from a culture where community is everything. Everything! And now here they are, far from home, in a place that politely declines to sit down on their sofa, no matter how hard they insist.

The quiet mother. The accommodating sons. The father ecstatic to have a menial job. I wonder if this city knows the blessing it is to house people who have been through so much, whose only concern is making their way in this new life, who gather together at their own table at the end of the day and share their new adventures. I wonder if this city knows how good it has it when families like this are given a chance at life, right here on these crumbling streets.

I started a new Facebook page to house all of my Rideshare Confession posts. Head here to see them all in one place and, while you’re there, do me a favor and Like the page?

He Told Me He was Ready to be a Father #RidesharingConfessional


As an Uber driver, driving the same person is rare. It’s happened to me exactly twice. The first time it happened is a ridiculously strange story I’m still trying to figure out how to tell. The second time it happened was on a rainy, January day when the year still felt like a blank journal.

He wanted to try to cram a six-foot carpet into my poor little Mini Cooper. We wedged it through the trunk and into the back seat. He climbed into the front and thanked me. He wore work clothes and talked about how he happy he was to be making double-time-and-a-half. I thought I recognized him, but if it was the person I thought it was he didn’t look the way I remembered him looking. If you know what I mean.

Anyway, it was him, and in fact I wrote about meeting him a few weeks ago because the first time I drove him made such a big impression on me. He was the same African-American guy I drove right after the election, the same one who was feeling fearful after the results came in. He told me he still felt uneasy. I asked him how his year was going. He smiled, big.

“Well, we have had some news since I saw you last. My girlfriend’s expecting,” he said. “I’m going to be a father.”

He told me he was taking on all the hours he could. He remembered when his brother was little, eight years younger than him, and he had to raise him because his dad was always at work. He used to get up early and help him with his homework. He taught him how to play sports. He kept him in line.

“I’m ready,” he said, smiling. “I’m ready to be a father.”