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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.

 

 

 

 

Orphans, in real life or within literature and film, evoke squeamish feelings. Blistered by abandonment, the fabric of their known world unravels around their muddied shoes—if they have them. Nothing works. But there are exceptions.

One of these unfolds within the historical novel, The Girl from the Train (2015) written by South African, Irma Joubert. From the first page, the plight of Gretl, a German Jew, alarms us. What will become of this thin waif, sole survivor of the open cattle cars packed with hundreds of Jews enroute to Auschwitz?

I’m not afraid, Gretl thinks… I’m brave…” She rolls into a ball upon the forest floor and waits until daylight. Yes, think about other things, she adds. That’s what Oma used to say.

With pluck, she sets out for the creek, the sun warming her back. She listens. She waits for the next development. Then she’ll know what to do.

A chance meeting with the Polish metallurgist Jacob quickens her heart; he becomes “family,” the support she needs to continue engaging the world around her. Her resiliency and groundedness, enhanced by her fluency in German and Polish and Russian, endear her to many.

Such stories serve as correctives for our own childhood abandonment, never far from consciousness; its wound spirits us toward deeper compassion for our humanness, within the grace of a merciful God. Psychic growth abounds. That’s why we’re here …

 

 

Available on Amazon

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