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Fluff! was my initial reaction to the opening chapters of Helen Simonson’s comedy of manners, The Summer Before the War (2016). It is 1914, set in the coastal village of Rye, East Sussex, England.

Slowly unfolds a view of waning Edwardian society, with its opulent mores defining attitudes and behaviors of its residents. Comic touches abound, exposing their eccentricities and gossip and prejudices. Detailed descriptions of feathered hats and gowns, the annual Hops Festival, the Fete Parade, the society funeral for the only son of the Earl North, trench warfare, the grimy feel of railway stations, and so much more, afford texture of place. Like other comedies of errors, dialogue is precise, stilted, disguised, but at times compelling.

Only when the voices of matron Agatha Kent and the village’s new Latin teacher, Beatrice Nash, lay bare the gamey shenanigans around them was I compelled to read on; and of the later voices of the servant Abigail and the gypsies, as well. And I’m glad I did. Also affording context to this novel is the suffragette movement, the changing role of women in society, and homosexuality. I grew to care for Agatha and Beatrice, both venturing into vital experiences that deepen their sense of woman and quicken the worlds of others.

What follows is the rude interruption of the village’s predictable world with the onset of the Great War—Their summer of balmy channel breezes was not supposed to be like this.

I pray that this is not the summer before the war. Given rains that freshen greening leaves and lawns, I hope such waterings will l dampen fires of global discord and enhance critical changes confronting us—with God’s help. No one needs another war…

 

 

“Sing God a simple song/ Laude Laude/ Make it up as you go along/ God loves all simple things/ For God is the simplest of all.” So begins Leonard Bernstein’s Mass (1971).

These lyrics come to mind while perusing the slim volume of poetry, Coral Castles (2019) composed by Carol Bialock, RSCJ; its simplicity moved me to silence, within which I seek words to compose this blog.

Intimate with the Word and receptive to its imprinting upon her psyche for decades, Sister Carol channels ordinary experiences into poems, replete with metaphors; their simplicity dismantles crusty outcroppings in psyches and brightens skies. One- and two-syllable words couple themselves into indivisible wholes that implode within the reader/listener—like biting into a ripe peach that juices the palate with summer’s color. Single-stroke pen and ink drawings intersperse the pages—again, nothing superfluous—and give needed respite before entering the next poem with its revelation.

What appears so effortlessly composed, however, emanates from the poet’s life-long practice of loving the unlovable around the world: in homeless shelters, prisons, and hospitals, wherever she found them. Indeed, all of creation opens onto the Sacred. Through simple poems, Sister Carol Bialock enriches us by making this connection.

I am deeply glad—So will you if you avail yourself of this treasure, Coral Castles, available on Amazon.

 

 

“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.

 

 

 

 

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