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Teen's Garden Will Coax the Hallelujah From Your Lips

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Kim Michele Richardson
Kim Michele Richardson

I've always felt closest to God, or whomever you perceive God to be, when I'm among nature's splendor. And always, I've gained a powerful understanding of spirituality when I'm immersed in landscapes, whether standing on a mountain, dipping my toes in a cold creek, sitting in a Morning Glory and Joe-Pye weed-filled meadow or laboring in my higgledy-piggledy garden. It's here I soak up its magnificence and opening to its sublime teachings.

Seventeen-year-old Maura Reilly-Ulmanek, a senior at Lafayette High School in Lexington, Ky., says she feels religion and spirituality can be experienced in their purest forms in nature. And last month, she captured the everyday spirit of God in a small garden. In doing so, she won a trip to Carnegie Hall in New York City, where she attended the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards ceremony with keynote speaker Meryl Streep. Maura brought home a gold medal for her stunning poem, "esther's garden."

The Kentucky teen received inspiration for "esther's garden" while tending to neighbor Esther Hurlburt's garden. "I was really inspired by the beauty of her garden along with some spiritual concepts I was considering at the time," said Maura.

Esther Hurlburt is a kind and cheerful gentlewoman, a 56-year-old nurse who is an ordained Unitarian Universalist community minister who practices ministry in the community at large. She is also a geriatric care manager. An advocate for the aging, she founded The Legacy Home Ministry, a cooperative living arrangement for aging women of limited means.

Esther spoke modestly about her garden, calling it a small hodge-podge of flowers, vegetables and herbs, yard sculptures and a koi pond. She is thrilled the garden gave attention to Maura and her work, saying she cried when she first read the poem. She describes Maura as a humble and talented teen who helps her by cat sitting and watering the garden when she is away. "I think it was by grace that Maura found inspiration in my garden. I am honored to be the recipient," Esther said. She only hopes Maura will get to attend one of her dream colleges: Columbia or Yale.

Esther is also very happy that people love the poem and suggested that perhaps the reason is because "It speaks to our Spirits rather than to our intellect. It speaks to a universal element in humanity that seeks connection with God, however it is we understand God. Her gift was capturing this longing in poetry. In theological terms, she describes all things are of God and God is in all things."

esther's garden

i wish you could have seen
mother teresa holding hands
with Him for the first time
their soft fingertips
tasting of lavender
and lemongrass
i've tried to tell father daniel
that esther's rain-glazed benches
are as good as any pews
and i'd like to feel moss and
soil under my knees
when i stoop to pray
you'd think she's trying
to teach all things to speak
in latin greek and love
can't the black-eyed susans
say amen?
let the junebugs
baptize us with rain water
we'll whisper our confessions
to the steady koi
the cicadas hum
the sweetest sermons
you'll ever hear
listen they'll coax
the hallelujah
from your lips
i don't know much about the bible
but you can't tell me
that He hasn't written His will
in spiderwebs and slug trails
that we weren't each born
with a little eden in our bones
teaching us to dance
to the holy murmur
of what is here
--Maura Reilly-Ulmanek

Maura gives all of us a gift and a wonderful opportunity to deeply appreciate, connect with, and explore spirituality's most profound gifts. From her insight, we receive exquisite treasure -- pure and evocative soul-searching prose poetry -- a precious message that I'm going to frame for my desk. If I ever find myself feeling religious empty or in need of nature's holiness, I'm going to visit esther's garden.


Photo by Kim Michele Richardson