Behind the loud speaker the yellow splash of her tailored wool coat set off the drab attire of the audience gathered for the inauguration of President Joseph R. Biden. Her caramel-smooth skin, her braids wound atop her head, her gold dangling earrings—all enhanced the cheer of the practiced cadences of the poem composed for this occasion, The Hill We Climb. Such was Amanda Gorman, the first Youth-appointed Poet Laureate of America. So young, yet so attuned to our country’s wounds, she began her recitation with this challenge:

When day comes, we ask ourselves, where can we find the light in this never-ending shade?

Responses layer the rest of the poem, beginning with acknowledging our grief shared as a populace, not just as individuals. Despite collective harms done, some egregiously so, …we weathered a nation that isn’t broken, just unfinished. Such suffering offers incentives for change as divisiveness corrodes spirit and negates willingness.

Hope for our country’s future deepens with succeeding parts of her vision: to build bridges of understanding, to work together for our nation’s democracy, to respect others as they …sit under their own fig and vine tree, and to remember that … history has its eyes on us.

Then, Gorman postulates … the era of the just redemption… the empowerment… to … author a new chapter, …to rebuild, reconcile, and recover, …battered and beautiful, as we are. Rather than answer the challenge at the beginning of the poem, Gorman concludes with …there will always be light…if we’re brave enough to be it.

The audience’s spirited response to The Hill We Climb attests to the hidden Presence of our God and with us as our newly formed government begins to function. I hope others remember the vision of this poem, that it just not becomes a blip of yellow in front of the shady Capitol.

As I flipped through Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 anti-war novel Slaughterhouse-Five, it felt like I was being mesmerized by a kaleidescope: at its end, another rotated the wheel and produced a succession of actions, each containing bits of earlier ones that produced some continuity. A tough read, at the start, but its sheer absurdity kept me involved.

The centerpiece of Slaughterhouse-Five was the Allied firebombing of Dresden, a world-renowned cultural center in Germany, which the author survived as a POW in the larder of that building. This occurred in April 1945, weeks before the end of World War II. So psychically scorched was he that the novel only appeared years later: after the trashing of multiple outlines and drafts and fifteen thousand words. Only with the invention of the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, his doppelganger, did the novel take shape; he would tell Vonnegut’s story, but with embellishments. 

Following his Dresden experience Billy became “unstuck in time,” and subject to the whims of extraterrestrials living on the planet Tralfamadore. Whenever stressed, he could also time travel to another time/place that soothed his chronic anxiety and introversion.

His anemic world, like out own, was filled with undeveloped characters that go through the motions of living, until swallowed by death and the author’s often quoted comment, “And so it goes.” the scene-changer that alters the story line toward another manifestation of destruction and death.

Curious that Slaughterhouse-Five still sparks moral dread, though composed decades before our own. On a feeling level, I sense the present global mayhem: the prevalence of denial, escalating power grabs, minimizing of values, and the garble of speech. The killing of psyche and body continue, perhaps more cunningly now than the 1960s.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five has held up a mirror to our times: its reflection demands change, and it must begin with me.

“To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened (Luke 13:20-21). Jesus likens this pedestrian image to the kingdom of God, an image unique in his teachings and often expressed in parables.

During the time of Jesus, Palestinian women always put aside moldy bread or leaven—a kind of poison—for the daily baking for their families. Only the smallest amount was used for their loaves that ballooned in the morning sun.

But Jesus speaks of this woman hiding leaven in three measures of flour, enough flour to fill a warehouse with bread—an absurd exaggeration, until his listeners catch on. Jesus is referencing humankind’s relation with God, in all his disguises. Such parables inflamed the imaginations of his listeners: they would remember.

I, too, had a similar response to the parable, one that recasts my terminal illness in a different light.

Like the leaven hid in the flour, terminal disease hides out in my lungs, imperceptibly hardening their airways and compromising my breathing—a slow process, admittedly, but relentless in its damage. Yet, paradoxically, this disorder continues expanding my passion for communion with God, within this mysterious kingdom.

Just as the fire of the bake oven transforms the leavened dough, the fire of diminishment transforms the psyche: both, critical processes to be endured. This is Kingdom living, both here and hereafter.

A small fire at night.

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