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Who does not get chills within the bowels of malice in stories of shape-shifting?

One of these is The Soldier’s Tale (1919), the collaborative effort of the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky and the Swiss librettist C. F. Ramuz. Because funds were scarce in the aftermath of the First World War for the composition of large works, Stravinsky scored this old Russian folk tale with seven musicians and four actors/dancers, all sharing the same bare stage. (Check out YouTube.)

We grow to love this war-weary soldier, his knapsack on his back as he cavorts toward his village, all the while anticipating his ten-day leave with his mother and girlfriend. Suddenly, into his path steps the devil, disguised as a maiden who persuades him to exchange the old fiddle (his soul) in his knapsack for a red book filled with secrets for obtaining immense wealth. After three days of luxurious initiation by the devil, the soldier is hooked.

Years of prosperous but increasingly empty living begin to glut the soldier’s passion for fame, and he longs for his old life.

This story line is painfully familiar throughout oral and literary traditions all over the world: All is ours if we but surrender our souls to the devil. A period of unprecedented prosperity ensues until eviscerated by the maggots of worldly success. A longing for the way things used to be glimmers; within its light, some move toward conversion and return to ordinary life.

Others do not, including our soldier of this Russian tale.

 

 

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It is dusk, unseasonably warm. Cars inch toward the stoplight on the slick pavement. Ahead, what appears to be a blue stocking cap bobbing atop a motorized wheelchair rivets my attention. Again, the traffic advances three car lengths, and whatever it was slips out of sight–only the empty intersection at Arsenal and Hampton Streets. I wait. Once again, the traffic light changes.

A fleeting glimpse tells it all: bulging sacks hang from the back and sides of the motorized wheelchair, even sandwich the diminutive rider with the blue cap, her hand poised on the controls.

Her circumstances evoke questions: Will she maneuver across Hampton Street without being struck by another motorist? Where had she come from and where was she going? Why the sacks obscuring her chair? Do they contain all her earthly belongings? How did she loose her mobility? Does anyone look in on her? Yet her spirit sallying forth, alone, does speak.

Still more questions prick my awareness: What about the baggage I carry in my psyche–the fears, the resentments, the disappointments, the unresolved issues? How do they hobble my mobility? Impede deeper engagement in life? How discard such stuff and breathe? Stretch tall beneath the sunshine?

It’s all about conversion of heart and for that I need help, daily.

 

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A dizzily morning, ten minutes before the opening of the estate sale on our court, cars and trucks line adjacent streets. A steady stream of the curious hotfoot it toward the brick bungalow, heads bowed into the wind, faces taut as a fisherman’s line onto a catch. Within hours, the deceased’s world is dismantled, pieces of it stashed in bags, propped upon dollies, tucked in backseats. More cars slip into parking spaces vacated by others. So the rest of the day goes.

This dismantling recalls another, more violent, found in Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel, Zorba the Greek (1946). Immediately after the death of the former courtesan, Madame Hortense, the villagers strip her home, leaving only an empty birdcage, its door unhinged.

And still another dismantling in 1980 chills me to this day. After placing a disabled widow in a nursing home, I planned to sell her few belongings from her apartment in the Blumeyer projects, the proceeds to cover some of her personal needs. Over the weekend, however, others accessed her apartment and made off with what comprised her world, leaving only three rusty skillets and an empty barrel chest, save for a used condom. These we did sell to her neighbors, recouping $4.23 for the widow.

So questions remain. What is there about our insecurities that grasp for more, sometimes at the expense of others? Why the discontent with what we have? Of what do we hope to gain?

Years ago, I was told that the greatest charity was to live simply and be mindful of those who would clean up after our passing. It seems to work.

 

 

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