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Scraggly, whimsical, itchable, disarming, stinking, shuddering, shocking—some reactions I had while tending to the world of the homeless as depicted in the memoir: Grand Central Winter – Stories from the Street (1998). Its author and protagonist, Lee Stringer, a veteran of twelve years on the streets of Manhattan, knows—authenticity bristles in each word—some invented to express the inexpressible—its images often crawl off the pages or meld into belly laughs.

Everywhere, grief lurks, and violence is a razor’s edge from tragedy. The underbelly of breaking the law and getting caught by the “mopes” heightens the twenty-four-seven drama. Even institutions established to meet the needs of the homeless, like the Bowery Mission, Belleville Hospital, the Tombs Prison carry the pallor of the hopeless and their helpers. Bent upon survival, the homeless squat within subways and tunnels beneath Grand Central Terminal; Hell’s Acre becomes their neighborhood. 

Other than Lee Springer, the deftly drawn postage-size characters that flit on and off the pages don’t seem to go anywhere. The story remains the same, with slight variations: desperate for the next hit of crack cocaine or whatever substance is around.

Lee shares the same desperation until discovering a lead pencil in his shirt pocket

that he uses to clean off the screen for that last hit of the evening. Later, he remembers a composition book among his stuff, pulls it free from its entanglements, grabs his pencil, and writes up a memorable experience. In his estimation, it was good, also concurred in by a sober friend.

After years of practice, the obsession of writing replaces Lee Stringer’s former crack cocaine addiction. The residue left on the pages of Grand Central Winter – Stories from the Street is critical, now rendered in eighteen languages.

It has served me well.

Forgiveness is the critical life-lesson for conversion of heart that frees spirits and enhances identities and deepens relationships. Such occurs following the self-stripping of deep-seated resentments and grudges—not without considerable psychic pain. Studying, in print, how others take on this task prods my lackluster courage to do similarly.

In the historical novel, Under the Tulip Tree (2020), written by Michelle Shocklee, we observe this radical change in the 101 year-old former slave and her new friend, a writer in Nashville, Tennessee. The year was 1936. Included in FDR’s Federal Works Progress Administration was a program that hired unemployed writers to record slave narratives from former Confederate states before their demise—to preserve their oral tradition lest it be lost.

When six-year old Frankie was living with her enslaved family on the plantation outside of Nashville, its irate Mistress grabbed the poker from the fireplace and maimed her left hand for life: its severity was “…Like a big ol’ log on a cook fire, it fed my bitterness and hatred…I liked it….” she said later of the psychic wound that bedeviled her attitudes and behaviors for decades.

Her interviewer Rena, whose affluent life style was altered by the depression, found herself woefully ignorant of her racial prejudice and ill equipped to live in the real world. As their shared narrative developed, a shocking fact emerged that added to their grievances. Forgiveness hung in the balance.

A riveting story, to be sure, but stale images, some scrap-heap words, shallow dialogue, and too much plot-busyness not only lost my attention, but obscured the process of forgiveness of the former slave and writer. Much of the writer’s family of origin and the romance could have been omitted.

What remain valid, though, are scenes of Nashville during and after the Civil War and the writer’s discounting the actual project’s slave stories, as largely anemic. But the forgiveness does work.

Can the Creator of all lure poetry out of a stone? So begins the first of eight poems found in The Secret Embrace that mirrors the unique spirit of its Trappist author, Thomas Keating, composed before his 2018 transition. Such mirroring nuances his contemplative bent, his life-long intimacy with his God, and his willingness to allow Him to reshape his psyche, not without the pain of being flayed alive. 

Such incessant inner work informed his service to others:

Abbott of St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, his willingness to change, and to change often, created divisions among his monks, even leading his resignation as Abbott in 1982 after twenty years of navigating his community through the perils of the Vatican II Renewal. Freed from “his cage,” as he described that responsibility, he listened even more intently for direction. Co-developing Contemplative Outreach, Inter-faith dialogue, writing, and retreat work filled much of his remaining ninety-four years.  

I imagine the simple words of the poems in this special collection quickly etched themselves upon his spirit: his final response to the Great Lover in his life through whom he viewed the totality of life, with no separations of any kind—only embraces.

Interfacing each poem is a watercolor rendition of the sea by Charlotte M. Frieze, seen in its transformation and transcendence.

An inspiring read/contemplation for those special moments…

Available on Amazon

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