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Most families have one significant story that would hearten many if it were known. Happily for us, the American author Olivia Hawker picked up one around her husband’s dining room table and enfleshed Anton Starzmann within the pages of her historical novel, The Ragged Edge of Night (2018). A humble man, Anton lays bare his conflicted soul, enters fully into the challenges that beset him, laughs and cries from the core of his being: overtures that endear him to the reader.

And yes, this is another story oozing from the wound of World War II, from 1942 to 1945, set in a backwater hamlet, 40 kilometers from bomb-strafed Stuttgart, Germany. From the opening paragraphs, tensions chilled this reader: Anton’s selflessness as former Franciscan friar, husband to Elisabeth, stepfather to her children, and the scrutiny of Herr Franke, the hamlet’s collaborator; the innocence of developmentally challenged children and their killers; the “normalcy” of the hamlet’s lifestyle within bombing range of nearby Stuttgart; Anton and the pastor’s covert resistance with the Red Orchestra that plots the death of Hitler.

Within these tensions, Anton and Elisabeth skirt the edges of their marital and parental responsibilities within their deepening relationship.

Offsetting these tensions, however, are the bronze bells ringing from the belfry of St. Kolumban’s Church—hope infusing the evil that gags them.

Two salient points emerge from this reading: the farmers’ frequent laments of not having resisted Hitler’s menace, rendering them passive and horrified. And through bartering homegrown produce and livestock at their weekly market, no one starved.

Should hard times befall us, I shudder.

 

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“Death is the biggest change we face, so we need to practice change”—so says Ram Dass, formerly Richard Alpert, atheist and Harvard clinical psychologist. These words carry the weight of his 1967 conversion, followed by his second and ongoing conversion: the 1997 massive stroke with its expressive aphasia and paralysis of his right limbs. Its shock, he likened to Fierce Grace, a DVD that he published in 2001.

In this documentary, Ram Dass shows his disillusionment with psychedelic drugs that led to his conversion through Neem Kraoli Baba who renamed him Ram Dass, Sanskrit for Servant of God, and gave him the mandate: “Love my people. Feed them.” And for thirty years he taught, published, and counseled, attracting a worldwide following. All proceeds went to his foundations, Seva and Hunuman that still serve the blind in poor communities and publish spiritual materials around the globe.

Then came the stroke, followed by lengthy hospitalizations and rehabilitations, together with a brush with death. When Ram Dass was able to resume a limited schedule, he sounded different. Indeed, he had been “stroked” rendering him a consummate teacher of aging and death. His teaching and practice continue.

Ram Dass’s experience of “fierce grace” gives me pause. It suggests a tearing apart, a dragging down, a reversal of my way of living—such as happens with conscious aging, with its diminishments. Such wisdom is far beyond my grasp, yet ever fashioning my psyche in His likeness. I have only to participate in the daily dying.

“Death is like taking off a tight pair of shoes,” Ram Dass once quipped. It sounds so simple.

 

 

 

 

From within summer’s treasures bloom Asiatic lilies: crimsons, salmons, whites, yellows, and golds; their profusion enhances ash pits, garage doors, backyards, as well as formal gardens. Atop stalks, sometimes over five feet tall, stamens and pistils strut their stuff within six-petelled blossoms—their blatant sexuality preening under the sun. Unlike other flowering shrubs and plants, their showing lasts for weeks.

I’m always stunned by the perfection of Asiatic lilies: the symmetry of their waxy petals, their unified whole, their coloring, and especially their pulsating energy. Never can I walk past a cluster of them without touching and smelling. Joy wells from my depths.

Such vibrant beauty recalls the aesthetics of John Ruskin, a British art critic and watercolorist. He experienced God’s love in the wonders of nature as he traveled around Europe and later developed his findings in five volumes of Modern Painters (1885), seventeen years in their composition. Such findings also fueled his passion for environmental reform caused by smog from factories during the Industrial Revolution. Hazed over was God’s unitive presence in nature—its connection, minimized, snuffed out.

Unfortunately, similar smog still persists. At best, we can keep it at bay through listening, in stillness, to clusters of Asiatic lilies. Be open to their gifts and be renewed.

 

 

 

Available on Amazon

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