With the world upside down, a single dad runs into Mother Nature’s arms.

She was here when we arrived.

Humbly standing in the leafy, viney yard that sits just under a generous canopy of trees in the southwest hills of Portland:

Mother Mary.

Bowed head and downcast eyes, the stone statue of the Virgin Mother was covered in so much moss it was hard to tell where she began and the forest ended.

I love a good Mary.

It probably has something to do with my complicated Catholic upbringing, but I find her comforting.

So, when looking to rent a home in the Pacific Northwest as a break from our life in Los Angeles, her presence in the yard of a magical, mystical old home was a sign. With Mary, Mother of God outside your doorstep, what could go wrong? She would keep us safe. Right?

When I became a parent, a good friend – and one of my favorite mothers – told me my number one job is to keep my son out of harm’s way. Lately, protecting my son has taken on a new gravitas. It means keeping a safe distance between him and the world where a deadly virus has made its home in the very air we breathe; earlier this summer staying safe meant staying calm as race riots erupted a few blocks from our Los Angeles home and hundreds of police in riot gear armed themselves just outside our front door.

Those early parenting worries – keeping him from swallowing little round things or making sure he didn’t bang his noggin on a coffee table – now seem trivial at best. Childproofing a house has been replaced with childproofing the world. 

Beyond the sobering physical concerns, my mental safety is a priority; keeping my mind stimulated, serene and full of hope in the face of chaos. Like many friends who evacuated the cities, we left to be closer to my family and nature. We spent the spring and most of the summer hiking in the forest, strolling along the bay, running down beach trails, camping on the coast and even did a bit of oyster farming.

Mother nature has been our safe place and our single source of solace.

Until now.

After successfully dodging pandemic pandemonium and raw racial unrest, now we are navigating Mother Nature’s fierce mood swings. As the violence in the Portland streets receded – angry, impatient fires to the south and west of the city ignited.

It all started with a wicked windstorm. Thousands of leaves rained down onto the roof and patio and blanketed the yard. Fragile old branches broke free from the trees they held onto for years and flew through the sky. As the storm subsided, my son and I stepped outside where gentle leftover gusts of wind hung in the air and gave the impression the leaves and vines were dancing. They chased us, we chased them and for a few precious minutes we were living in a magical forest.

By the next morning, the magic was gone. Our view of the stately Mount Hood and friendly city skyline disappeared into a dizzying haze of smoke and ash and fog and everything took on the look of a sepia tone filter that amateur photographers tend to overuse.

The world was beautiful – yet apocalyptic.

The family we came to visit were preparing to evacuate their homes as fires raged just outside their towns and neighborhoods. The preschool we fought to get into in the face of the coronavirus closed abruptly and overnight the air quality was ranked the worst in the world. So despite our best efforts to stay safe, create a new normal and embrace nature, we were forced back inside.

And it all happened on September 11.

As a longtime New Yorker, the date is synonymous with a specific kind of horror I hope my son will never see in his lifetime. A woman I met while making a documentary about the ill-fated day told a story of marching up a hill to the Catholic Church at the end of the street and falling to her knees in prayer to a stone statue of Mary. It was a bizarre impulse because of her aversion to organized religion. But, she said, when I saw the plane going into that second tower, I thought, the world needs a Mother right now.

I understand the impulse. As the world continued to morph into something unrecognizable, I went to the yard to have a visit with our mossy Mary.

She was gone.

The space she occupied for decades was covered in a new blanket of leaves as if she had never been here at all. Did I imagine her? Had Mary been evacuated? Or perhaps she had an apocalyptic Assumption?

That night as I put him to bed, I told my son we would look for her in the morning. After he fell asleep, I surveyed the property and stumbled on a mound of stone coming up the steps.

It was Mary, face down and off to the side of the staircase, sloping downward. The winds that had married two fires together to create the worst fire incident in West Coast history had lifted her and tossed her down the steps, hundreds of feet from her perch.

I gently picked her up. Miraculously, her body was in tact. When I turned her over I saw that her face was gone. Disappeared. I found half dozen tiny pieces of stone in the rubble and knew it would be impossible to reconstruct. I carried her back up the steps and placed her on the stairs, looking down onto the city shrouded by smoke.

Once I got past the initial shock of her defacement, I saw something beautiful.

Instead of a somber, specific face, I saw countless other mothers.

As a solo father, raising my son without a mom, I see the faces of mothers everywhere – the many women and men who have nurtured us and helped me keep him safe these past two years – my own mother and sisters; my nieces, best friends and his nanny.

Our community is a hodgepodge of beautiful families – single dads, solo moms, two dads. I am open minded about what makes family but I believe we all need feminine energy – in whatever face, body or gender it appears.

And with our planet and politics in peril, we need nurturing mother-love more than ever.

Yesterday, as I was staring at the trees through the picture window, I saw a young woman wearing a fierce feminist shirt and a colorful mask staring back at me. She was standing on the path that winds past the house to the street at the bottom of the hill. The brim of her hat covered the top of her face and the mask covered the rest – she seemed kinda faceless. As I swung the door open, I heard her ask:

What happened to Mary?

Turns out she has passed this way every day for years – and looked forward to seeing Mary.

She felt the loss too.

I shared with her what happened and took her to see what remains of the statue.

We stood and stared at the Faceless Madonna. Neither of us said a word. For a long moment we were suspended in a prayerful gaze at the resilient statue, still standing, arms open wide. In her facelessness, we were able to see so many of the mothers that came before and will come again – and felt the nurturing spirit that we need now more than ever.

Out of the silence of the moment, I heard a wee small voice. Poppa? Poppa!

My son, barefoot and dangling his favorite bunny by his side, appeared at the top of the steps. I looked up at him and back at Mary; the friendly stranger nodded and smiled as I rushed back up the steps, grabbed his little hand and safely walked him back inside.