Sleepers, Awake

As a child, I never slept through a story by Hans Christian Andersen. Whether the tale was light and playful (“The Princess and the Pea”) or darker, more complex, and just a little disturbing (“The Tinderbox” or “The Child in the Grave”)  I loved them all. Sometimes I longed to live in such magical worlds. Just as often, I laughed at the silliness they contained. Occasionally, I responded to the poverty, rejection, illness and death woven into the stories with puzzlement and fear.

Eventually, the darkness lurking around the edges of Andersen’s tales became more understandable. His own life had been difficult. Born to poverty, he was ridiculed in school, and experienced terrible unhappiness there.

Even after he achieved success and a degree of fame later in life, he remained socially awkward, often irritating those who wished to serve him as benefactors. Invited to stay at the home of Charles Dickens for two weeks, he stayed five, even after some gentle and not-so-gentle attempts to dislodge him. Eventually, he was sent packing by his out-of-sorts host. Dickens never replied to another of Andersen’s letters, and by all accounts, Andersen never understood why.

Taught by a Heron’s Heart

In 1950′s small town Iowa, Mardi Gras was barely a rumor. We’d read now and then of the bead-tossing, the parades, the exotic French Quarter celebrations with their hints of unspeakable, masked misbehavior.  But we were midwesterners, with midwestern sensibilities, and gave little thought to those far-away customs.

Even neighbors who traveled to New Orleans seemed to consider Mardi Gras a purely native ritual, disconnected from their experience of the city.  Their souvenirs – long, gray-green sweeps of Spanish moss, Hurricane glasses from Pat O’Brien’s,  recordings of Sweet Emma Barrett’s piano and Willie Humphrey’s exquisite clarinet – were the stuff of any vacation.  As we listened to their jazz and looked at their photos, New Orleans’ life seemed normal enough, recognizable despite its differences.  On the other hand, Mardi Gras seemed odd, slightly degenerate, part of a world of drunkenness and debauchery best avoided by reasonable people. (more…)


Now that we have baked our cookies and trimmed our trees,
now that we have wrapped our gifts and planned our dinners,
now that we have hung stockings, sent greetings and set tables,
assembled toys, trimmed wicks, written Santa and hung wreaths,
the time has come to abandon it all,
if only for a moment.
Even as we anticipate our day of celebration,
Wisdom turns to extinguish the colorful strings of lights and dim the gleaming star.
Pinching out her candles
Wisdom sighs the music away, then brushes laughter off to rest in deepening drifts of silence.
Standing in stillness before her window,
Wisdom gazes toward the mystery of Christmas
And smiles at this truth – Christmas needs us not at all. (more…)
Published in: on December 23, 2012 at 1:12 pm  Comments (79)  
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An Equality of Joy

Only hours after the passage of Hurricane Ike, every survivor left standing in the rubble understood that far more than houses had been leveled by the storm.  The body of belief about what Ike would or would not do had been dismembered.  Spirits scoured clean of emotion lay empty and desolate as Bolivar beaches.  With possessions ravaged and dreams laid waste, incomprehension was rampant.  Victims stared toward the horizon with thoughts as scattered and broken as the plywood debris fields that seemed to stretch into infinity.

Even at the time, there were victims willing to acknowledge that human factors played a role in the devastation.  Pride kept boats at unsound moorings and families in homes that were certain to be inundated.  Unfounded trust in a last-minute turn of the storm’s path led some to reject advice from wiser and more experienced folk to pack their cars and leave.  Occasionally, simple recklessness chose to gamble on the final outcome, continuing to count cards of wind and surge as though pushing back from the table would be an option if the game seemed to be getting out of hand.

But in the end, as entire communities stood looking out across the  stunning collage of broken boards,  shattered lives and shards of memory, I heard not a word of anger or recrimination directed toward another human being.   There was astonishment, stunned silence, wounded grief and despair at the depth and the breadth of  loss.  There was frustration and anxiety that could surge into panic at the slightest provocation.   From time to time there were flashes of rage against the unfairness of life, the arbitrary nature of institutional decisions and the glacial slowness of response.  But although it probably happened, I never saw one person rage directly against another.  Viewing the carnage, everyone appeared to be in agreement: there may have been wrong decisions, inadequate preparation and less than helpful responses, but in the end it was nature which had done the damage.  Before that overwhelming power, everyone was equal. (more…)


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