“No! Not that! No way! I’ve no time for this! I’m outa here!”

Most squirm in the face of suffering as denial stomps with one-hundred-pound boots. Heart racing, breathing labored, shoulders tensed, the escape into palliatives, of whatever kind, is underway, until the distress is dulled within a soporific. Few are the individuals who explore their setbacks and learn from them.

One of these is Karen Armstrong, British author, world lecturer, and winner of the 2008 TED Prize. Her memoir, The Spiral Staircase – My Climb out of Darkness (2004) weaves thirteen years of daunting reversals within the first verse of T. S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday:” it reveals the paradox of progress from circular stairs that appear to go nowhere.

What seemed like missteps in Karen’s beginnings—leaving the convent, failing her doctoral orals at Oxford, researching and writing scripts on Christianity and Islam and interviewing notables for BBC television in the Holy Land, teaching college and high school students, flipping out with an undiagnosed frontal lobe epilepsy—were, in fact, priming her psyche toward compassion, a discovery that wrought her conversion to the God of her understanding. It became the lens through which she viewed her God, inherent within all religions.

So she took to her writing desk and produced A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (1993). Its publication changed her life. Her clipped voice, heard in lecture halls and YouTube, still carries the incisive ring for God’s compassion in our world. The question remains, is anyone listening?

 

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Wrapping story around horrific events disseminates their skeletal outlines into bite-sized pieces for readers’ assimilation and learning.

 

Such an event occurred the night of January 30, 1945, during a freezing snowstorm upon the Baltic Sea. The Soviet submarine S-13 torpedoed the German transport ship, the MV Wilhelm Gustloff, nine hours into its passage. On board were 10,000 refugees fleeing from the Russian and Allied offensive. Only one thousand survived.

For three years the author Ruta Sepetys, the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee from World War II, researched this disaster until, in her imagination, Salt to the Sea (2016) was conceived. The story unfolds, piecemeal, through four characters: Joanna, a twenty-one-year old Lithuanian nurse; Florian, a seventeen-year old East Prussian preservationist and restorer of works of art; Emilia fifteen-years old, Polish and eight months pregnant; and Alfred, a seventeen-year old delusional German seaman assigned to the Wilhelm Gustloff.

Like a skilled minimalist painter, Sepetys reveals more by what she leaves out. Her precise words have dropped depth charges upon this reader’s psyche, its rumble evoking a slow burn and profound feelings for the characters.

Salt to the Sea, an historical novel, also leaves me with questions. In seventy years, will anyone be writing of today’s refugees caught within the crosshairs of greedy global politics? Since when has it been all right to minimize the losses of the poor, even their lives?

All of this cries out to God.

 

 

 

Drizzle hiccoughs through lowering clouds that resemble circus elephants at play.

Occasional splats on my slicker intrude upon the stillness and quicken my breathing. Languid breezes muss my hair, and my nose twitches with smells of musk. Alive to the freshness around me, I pause.

A solitary crow caws, as it flaps its wings against the leaden sky and soars to the upper reaches of an evergreen. Ahead of me, the slick asphalt road snakes around the bend, lined with a grove of yellow bamboo. Heaps of luminous leaves by the curb, their stems upended, smack of exhausted gymnasts after a tournament. A few whole acorns, unlike others crunched by passing cars, draw the toe of my sandal.

I resume walking, slowly—So much to take in—In the distance looms a mustard- yellow maple; from its brown-to-black-divided trunk articulate mothering branches that offer more inspiration, more protection—Droplets hug shriveled leaves of shrubs—A calico cat darts for cover in a nearby yard—Glistening jack-o-lanterns grin from front porches, and spent chrysanthemums brown and list sideways in gardens.

In every cell of my being subtle rhythms resonate: within them, I surrender, anew, to the multiple changes occurring within and around me. I give thanks.

 

 

 

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