Christmas Past

20131222-200619.jpg I once watched a boy steal all my Christmas presents. I lay on my stomach and stared through a sweaty blur as he grabbed my box-full of gifts and scampered into the woods. I did not chase him; propped on one elbow staring as he ran, I did not even rise from my stomach. The presents were gone.

When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990, I was camped out with my Marine unit in the woods at Cheat Lake, West Virginia, where we were setting 300 pounds of C-4 to blow a bridge. Four months later, I was camped off Green Beach, near Subic Bay, Philippines, training for desert warfare in the dense jungle—by Marine Corps logic it makes sense—on our way to Iraq.

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The Impossible Shows Us How To Live

If you were to live a day as though you’d be dead at the end of it, you’d be a better person. That’s a trope that’s as true in the saying as it is rare in the realizing. It’s impossible to know what’s coming, to know how many hours, if not seconds, we have left. 

So we go about living each day by way of a much more outrageous artifice: that the end of the sun will be followed by the rise of the moon, and that they will parade in their courtly circle above our heads, neither catching the other—well—for a long, long time yet.

But just the same, every once in a while we hear these amazing stories. People are dying out there. Planes crash. Buses collide. Maniacs work their horrors. Bodies decide to turn on their hosts and eat them away, either in vicious holocausts of disease or in slow landslides of decrepitude.

Such carelessness, we think; how slipshod and unwise. With a little foresight—with a little planning—with a little attention to detail and the taking of sound advice—all this can be avoided—well—for a long, long time yet. [Read more...]

Why We Can’t Look Away

The morning I learned about the women in Cleveland, I knew from a single headline that there was more to be said, and horrified by, than I wanted to know: Cleveland Women Rescued From Ten Years’ Imprisonment in Captor’s Home.

As the news poured in, the photos of balloons flapping from Amanda Berry’s porch and family members doubled over in relief, the weight in my stomach got heavier. And despite my attempts, I could not turn myself away from the latest details of their captivity, the grim facts of what took place in the silence of those ten years.

The inability to look away – the paralysis of gruesome, awful news – is something that we all know. We do our best to protect ourselves from stories that draw us in without any relief, accounts of loss or pain that disarm and puncture the illusions we hold about the world being safe, or our days being predictable. [Read more...]

Deliver Us from Evil

Guest Post

By Nancy Nordenson

The day after the massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, I sat myself down and considered my role in the tragedy. Now bombs have exploded in Boston and I’m asking myself the same question.

Of course no bomb was built in my kitchen and no gun was loaded under my roof, but could I have done something to help stop either of those events?

I’m thinking back years ago to a crisis in the church where my husband and I were members. A leader had fallen. The congregation gathered one evening to figure out why things had gone so wrong and what we could do about it. Fingers pointed, heads shook. Then Crystal spoke up. A woman in her late eighties, hunched over from osteoporosis, she had lived a life full of good work, particularly among international students.

“I blame myself,” she said. “I didn’t pray for him enough.” [Read more...]

Israel at 65: Caught in a Homeland Trap

“People caught in a homeland-trap,” writes the late Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai in “National Thoughts,” a poem from the mid-1960s.

The homeland (Israel) is a trap? In the eyes of hundreds of thousands of refugees who, to escape persecution, fled there from Russia, Poland, Germany, Syria, Yemen, Ethiopia, and…? In the eyes of the many American Jews who made aliyah (rose up! immigrated to) first to the British Mandate of Palestine, later to the modern State of Israel?

I’m watching The Gatekeepers. An Academy award nominee for best feature-length documentary, The Gatekeepers features interviews of six former heads of Israel’s Shin Bet, the secret service charged with overseeing Israel’s war on terror—Palestinian and Jewish terror. [Read more...]

Mother of Sorrows: Colm Toibin’s Testament of Mary

Good Letters welcomes back former blogger Jessica Mesman Griffith, author of the new book Love and Salt: A Spiritual Friendship Shared in Letters.

“They appear more often now, both of them, and on every visit they seem more impatient with me and with the world,” begins Colm Toibin’s novella, The Testament of Mary. “There is something hungry and rough in them, a brutality boiling in their blood, which I have seen before and can smell as an animal that is being hunted can smell.”

Mary is describing the apostles who hound her as she hides from a vengeful world; they want her to confirm their Easter stories. But she could also be speaking of the angels—angels who brought her the news of her destiny carrying nails and a crown of thorns. It is this image of Mary the hunted that Toibin pursues from the Annunciation to her death. [Read more...]

Amour and Fear

Guest Post
By David P. Clark, M.D.

On the day I graduated from medical school I took the oath of Hippocrates. I didn’t think much about the words: the oath was one more hoop on a long hot morning. My promise to keep patient confidences, always treat patients with justice, and never harm them seemed doable, straightforward, and common sense.

But, I hadn’t actually been a doctor, hadn’t made decisions when faced with suffering and inadequate data and unknown futures. [Read more...]

Love Thy Neighbor…and Her Lice

Guest Post
By Cathy Warner

I’d only known her a month when Blythe called with a problem: The family puppy had parvo. She needed money. Would I pay her twenty-five dollars in exchange for a massage?

Blythe lived in a run-down cabin up the road from our remodeled cabin. She had three grubby kids whose noses always ran, a grimy husband who drove a rusty van, and was missing two teeth (my eyes always focused on the gaps).

I didn’t know what parvo was (expensive and deadly) and I’d never had a massage. My husband drove a company car and worked in Silicon Valley, we had two clean and intelligent daughters, and I had all my teeth—straightened and shiny.

I was used to rescuing struggling family members, doling out advice and funds. But I didn’t do so with the cheerful heart God apparently admired. I gave fearfully. My checks were readily cashed, but my advice was never taken, trouble always returned, and somehow I felt responsible. If only I’d done more…. [Read more...]