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Harry Potter and his pals studied “Defense Against the Dark Arts.” And it’s a good thing they did! For us Muggles, perhaps a more salient field of inquiry would be “Defense Against Trolls.”

You know what trolls are. And if you don’t, a quick perusal of SueBE’s latest post will put you in-the-know. We all deal with trolls, whether on the internet or in real life. They come out of nowhere, ready to do anything to get your goat (so to speak). So when SueBE complained about her personal troll, I was ready with a full-throated Billy Goats Gruff counterattack: “No one bothers my friends! Get out of the way, Troll, before I ram you right off this bridge!”

I do this without thinking. As my friend Susan recently said to me, “You are always, always on my side.” That’s my impulse, to fly to the defense of anyone I love. But is it the most effective means of dispatching trolls?

Trolls don’t respond to logic. You can’t argue with them. Neither do they respond to loving gestures — because they don’t truly understand love. They understand control: If they can control you, all is well. But if they can’t…here they come crawling from under the bridge looking for a fight!

God calls us to love one another. But God does not call us to surrender who we are (our safety, our conscience) to any living person, troll or otherwise. Perhaps the best defense against trolls is to avoid them altogether. With no one to pick on, what are they, really? Just sad creatures who live in the dark.

And if you can’t avoid them? May I suggest always traveling with companions? SueBE and Ruthie are my die-hard backups. They’ve always got me, and I will always have them. I wasn’t born a Capricorn (sign of the goat!) for nothing.

When crossing bridges and other shaky places,
you needn’t walk alone.
Look for your sort. You will know them
by sight and by soul.
Once you have their hands and hearts,
hold on. Consign your strength
to their care. No one need deter you.
Clip-clop where you will.
It is not by hoof and horn you will succeed,
but in turning to your herd, to the warm, soft wooliness
of kin and kith and kind.

I worry about writing about racism. How good, how honest is my anger and grief? Racism is not, after all, part of my lived experience. Nor is it someone else’s job to educate me on this subject. It is my own. However, in the glaring light of continued, brutal racism in this country, it is up to me to do something. But what? There are resources abundantly available. In the meantime, let’s begin with the easiest thing of all: de-colonizing our bookshelves.

As a child my shelves were full
of children like me and not like me,
from as far off as China, as near
as next door. My vision narrowed
as I grew and neglected to prune.
It is time, and a task we all can do:
Examine the color of your books:
Whose life are you reading —
only your own? The one you know?
Learn to read someone else’s
and share what you find there.
Soak up what’s in the pages,
sound out the consonants
of someone else’s journey.
For every book that comforts,
choose one that does not.
Self-teach a whole new vision.
Start at page one.

Mother Teresa once said, “We cannot all do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” This quote finds its echo in Emily Dickinson’s poem “Not in Vain” (one of my favorites): “If I can stop one heart from breaking,/ I shall not live in vain:/ If I can ease one life the aching,/ or cool one pain,/ or help one fainting robin/ unto his next again,/ I shall not live in vain.”

We may not be able to do great things now. But we can do small things that require great love: wearing a facemask, not for ourselves, but for others. Giving up small pleasures like drinking in bars or going to concerts, not because we are afraid, but because we are concerned about those who are vulnerable. Small things. Big results.

Let us take a turn at small things:
the flat of a hand signing acceptance;
the sigh of small voices that soften,
somehow, a bellow; the breath
that says, simply, “yes.”
To return a robin to the nest
is greater than, and will go further,
than any act of anger. Our times require
saints, not soldiers, and sainthood is accrued
one small gesture at a time.

I have a friend who often talks about her resolution to be “a bigger I,” meaning becoming more inclusive, more caring, more open to other people. Granted, it can be difficult right now to feel that anything about your life is expanding, other than an uneasy, trapped feeling. But think about it: Empathy for those on the front lines — that’s enlarging your “I.” Maintaining social distancing, even when it means you’ll miss out on the last rolls of toilet paper in the store — that’s also enlarging your “I.” Everything you do now in the interest of others, in the interest of stemming the tide of this disease, is growing yourself beyond your former boundaries. And that is a good thing.

Though I cannot take up torches
or spears against my enemy,
though I can do no more than Milton,
(stand, wait), though my reaching out
must be touchless, limbless, still,
I stretch the seams of my soul.
Misery lurks and like a sponge
I sip it and, cell by cell, expand.
No one hears, no one sees,
yet empathy moves the mountain,
breaks capital I’s into a rubble of “us.”
Small though we be,
we will hold off the tide.

In Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa wakes up and realizes he’s been turned into a horrible insect. I had a similar, though less pestiferous, experience last night. I was all cuddled up in my blankets, when I realized that my own heartbeat — in combination with the heartbeat of my cat, who sleeps so close to me I literally cannot move — was making the blankets reverberate: ka-thump, ka-thump, ka-thump. It was like being inside a cocoon. I wondered briefly, sleepily, what I would be reborn into.

Wouldn’t it be nice to end each day by completely shedding your old self, only to be born anew? Wouldn’t it be great to leave past mistakes behind — permanently? What if we treated each new day as a chance to start over?

How about today
you wake up and do not take
up your old soul (you know the one,
grubby and tattered, in need of baptism
or at least an industrial washing),
but put on instead fresh new wings?
Let them lift you above the expectations
and the petty seething of those so earthbound
they cannot fathom metamorphosis. Be today
an altogether better thing. Leave your old self
sleeping in your bed. Shed it like chrysalis, like a shell
you’ve grown too large for. And when you see someone
soaring, greet them with amnesia of what worm they were
before. Let the past go like pollen dropping from your feet.
Examine a new leaf. Let your vision go skyward.
There is nowhere you cannot go.

alex-jones-Tq4YjCa2BSc-unsplashGot a problem? “Give it to God,” they say. Only sometimes it’s not that simple. I, for one, tend to be an ambivalent giver. I claim to hand over my trouble, only to take it back obsessively, ruminate on it, rummage through the possibilities, ponder all the “what-ifs.” As if Providence rests in my nervous little hands.

The great and wise Richard Rohr once said, “The opposite of Faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith is control.” It’s a lesson we, like poor Hamlet, learn the hard way. That in the end, “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will—….”

And, as we know, “the rest is silence.”

Of what substance
is hardship made
that, in shaping it
with sturdy hands,
it liquefies, slumps,
refuses to hold its shape?
Persists with devilish intensity
to be captured or controlled?
If only we understood:
That in lifting our hands,
in setting free that which
we cannot sculpt to our ends,
the obdurate thing will fly from us,
ascend to one who will form it.
The shape it takes, no wringing of limbs
will change. It is what it will be.
Swallow it, in pieces, as you can.

My friend Krissy over at Visionarie Kindness Chronicles posted a poem today about her discovery of poetry and how it seeped into her being, helping her make sense of her life. It’s terrific. My origin story is more predictable: My mother read me poetry from the time I was a baby. I remember her reading “The Highwayman” — “the moon was a ghostly galleon/tossed upon cloudy seas/and the highwayman came riding” — and stopping to say, “Do you hear the horse’s hoofbeats?” She tapped out the rhythm of the poem and I HEARD IT. Nothing was the same after that.

I was in bed when poetry first found me,
pierced my heart ear-first, an elf, a thief,
a waif who having found warm welcome
would never leave me. I started hearing it
everywhere, whispering words I kept
hidden in the trunk of a tree, in a shoebox
with my paper dolls, behind the geraniums,
velvet-leafed, that flanked the house I
fledged in. They grew, took root,
cross-pollinated with prayer until
there wasn’t anyone else I could ever be,
so bound was poetry with my blood.
I wept alliteration, sighed in spondees.
I was a Phantom of Delight; I was
alone and palely loitering. I was
The Lady of Shalott in “My heart
belongs to Daddy” pajamas.
Heroes get powers. I got a pen.
But I learned how to fly with it anyway.
Now only God can see me coming.

Today is Mother’s Day, and even though my own mother is no longer with us, I still think of her often. When I was growing up, she made it a point to quote literary giants during the course of the day.

If I was dragging my feet getting ready to go to school, she might ask, “How long, O Cataline?”

If my brothers and I were misbehaving, we might get an earful of Shakespeare: “Assume a virtue if you have it not!”

Now, of course, this was said in a playful way. When we really crossed the line, she knew how to tell us so, in standard, and might I add, quite colorful, New Jersey English.

But it was really helpful to have a former English teacher around when I had to write an essay or got stuck on the origin of a word. “If you know Latin, you know English,” she would say.

On the other hand, I came to realize that I was nowhere near the refined, cultured lady that she was. “Enunciate!” she would say. She tried to improve and educate me.

When she would ask if I knew where that “O Cataline” reference was from, I’d say, “Cicero?” She would nod, then shake her head. “It’s pronounced ‘kick-er-oh.”

I wanted to say, But I’m not some ancient Roman, Mom. We live in New Jersey. Why can’t we say it regular? Or as some of us say in Jersey: reg-ya-luh. Still, I secretly enjoyed those conversations. Sure do miss her.

Let’s implement a new rule: for every memory that crosses your mind that makes you sad, come up with two thoughts that lift you up. It’s what your mother would want you to do.

Happy Mother’s Day to all!

What if we find out Darth Vader was really just a nice guy, if a bit misunderstood? A man in Tennessee whose father was a Star Wars fan was saddled with the name of the dark lord and seems to have a sense of humor about it.

In other off-beat news, it won’t come as a big surprise that Kafka was a terrible boyfriend, would it? Reading his letters to his fiancée, it seemed he saw everything – even love – in a, well, Kafkaesque light.

I love light-hearted stories like these. But I really love reading stories that start out on the dark side and end up reaffirming my faith in humanity.

A distressed man on the autism spectrum who had attacked his elderly parents was admitted to a Chicago hospital. Instead of sedating or subduing him, the security officers sang to him, calming him down and defusing the situation.

When a teacher saw her 7-year-old student riding his bike on a busy highway, she found out his diabetic father had collapsed at home. When he couldn’t unlock his father’s phone to call 911, he got on his bike to ride five miles to his grandmother’s house. The teacher called for help, and the boy’s father recovered.

Every bad news story starts from a place of pain, doesn’t it? The person involved may be called by different names: gunman, perpetrator, criminal. But it all starts with a “dis.” Disrespect. Feeling disenfranchised. Dismissed. Pain is like a chain letter. Someone feels slighted. They take that pain with them and slight someone else and it spreads like a virus.

The antidote to the “dis” is to not react in kind, but to unpack the pain behind the anger. Will compassion put an end to the cycle of pain? We can only live in hope.

Roxane Gay recently released her memoir, “Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body” and it’s interesting to see how such an accomplished author can be defined – by some – solely by the number on the scale. I came across a quote of hers once that stayed with me: “When feminism falls short of our expectations, we decide the problem is with feminism rather than with the flawed people who act in the name of the movement.” The same can be said of politics and religion.

As the world seems to be more and more a constant headline of Us vs. Them, I found the author’s insights to be timely and true. There’s always a story, isn’t there? Something led a person to this place. Sometimes that place is one of accolades and applause. Sometimes it’s to impulsive actions based on flawed perceptions.

After the Manchester attacks, mosques in my home state of New Jersey opened their doors to the public. “We want to tell them we are against extremism, we are against terrorism, we are against violence, and we are against discrimination of any type against anyone,” said Imam Mohammad Moutaz Charaf, spiritual leader of the El-Zahra Islamic Center in Midland Park.

The fact that the we need reminders that not every Muslim is a terrorist is astounding. It always amazes me that people online feel they have some kind of birthright to make evil comments about people they don’t even know. Sometimes whole groups. You may not agree with a person’s ideology, or faith, or even their hairstyle, but how does it really affect your life, anyway?

Someday your story will be told. It can be a tale of compassion and courage, or of blame and bigotry. How that story unfolds is really up to you.

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