Metamorphosis

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for my father

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It was well over ninety degrees and all of us were packed into the old Buick of which several parts were missing or broken, including the air conditioner. My father, his eyes hidden behind prescription sunglasses, drove while my mother vainly soothed the baby. The rest of us sweated in the back seat, squirming, shoving and bickering over whose turn it was to sit by the window. Our destination, a motel with a pool, was still two hours away, it was nearing noon, we were hungry, but had long since eaten our peanut butter and grape jelly sandwiches. We were on our way to Hesperia, a small town situated dangerously close to the San Andreas Fault in the Mojave Desert. Hesperia, a name that sounded exotic to me, like an ancient Egyptian princess.

I was afraid that my beloved tadpoles, caught earlier in the summer in what was left of a meager park stream, would turn into frogs without me if I left them home. The tiny creatures were already changing…their tails growing markedly shorter and the tiny bumps that would be legs beginning to protrude. I held them carefully in my lap in a Hills Brothers Coffee Can half filled with water. Every so often I cautiously lifted the plastic lid to check on them. I must have fallen asleep, because I suddenly became aware of something burning my thighs. It was the coffee can. When I opened the lid I was horrified. The water was warm as a bath and the tadpoles floated, grey, bloated and still, at the top of the water. I began to cry uncontrollably. They were dead. I had killed them. I had killed them by loving them too much. Now they would never grow into frogs.

My father pulled into the next gas station and we all poured out of the car in various states of dishevelment under the paltry shade of a giant Pegasus. My father took me into the adjacent dark and tiny store. The man behind the display of cactus candy and cigarettes motioned to the back where my father put coins into a machine that clattered out chunks of ice. Outside, I sat on the ground and carefully dropped the cubes one by one into the coffee can. After a minute or two a tadpole stirred. My heart flipped. It was a miracle! We squeezed back into the car and pulled onto the highway. I watched in awe as the tadpoles came swiftly back to life. The rest of my family grabbed ice by the handful to rub on their faces, pop in their mouths, and drop down each other’s backs. And, for just a little while, we were all happy. All of us at once, driving fast on the open road, past sagebrush, Joshua trees and a rusting water storage tank, into the promise that was Hesperia.

From: Santa Monica Chronicles …a work in progress

©donnaesgro

 

A.L.I.C.E.

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©donnaesgro – March for Our Lives 2018

As I helped a tenth grade student to interpret Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, he spoke of another “Alice” and her sad and surreal presence on his campus. The A.L.I.C.E. drills in the event of a school shooter:

Alert

Lockdown

Inform

Counter

Evacuate

Like the distorted happenings in the original Alice in Wonderland the play acting of an event so heartbreaking inside a normal school day has some convoluted idea of sense; yet is sadly surreal not only in its normalization of tragedy but in its fatalistic hopefulness.

Our conversation shifted abruptly from the children’s fantasy story of the late 1800’s to the horror story that he, and millions of young students like him, are living now. In an era where the brutal acts of tyrants are readily broadcast, and where terrorist beheadings are available for viewing on the dark internet, how can today’s high school student understand the humor in the Red Queen’s casual, “Off with her head!”?

When the quiet boy who sits across from you in math turns out to have collected an arsenal of weapons along with a kill list of students, is Alice’s sudden growth to a monstrous size a strange concept?

Or, in a time when the president of the United States lies freely and carelessly, appears and reappears with malicious and contradictory tweets hidden behind a mirthless smirk, does a Cheshire Cat’s inconstant grin seem out of place?

Trump’s recent summit with the North Korean despot, Kim Jong-un took insipid insanity to new levels.

“They have great beaches. You see that whenever they’re exploding their cannons into the ocean. I said boy look at that view”   Trump, speaking of North Korea’s beaches at the 6/11/18 Summit with Kim Jong-un

Kim Jong-un is a cruel and ruthless dictator. According to a 2014 United Nations Report on North Korea, Kim Jong-un’s horrific acts include: “…extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.” Yet our president is“honored” to meet him and believes that he wants “good things for his people.”

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“I know what you’re thinking about,” said Tweedledum; “but it isn’t so, nohow.” “Contrariwise,” continued Tweedledee, “if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.”  Lewis Carroll-Through the Looking Glass

As we turn our heads away in grief and helplessness from each new school shooting, each suffering and separated immigrant family, each attempt to undermine our free press and other constitutional rights, as we accept deceit after deceit and horror after horror in order to get through the day, we are in grave danger of losing the very sense of humanity that makes life more than just an empty struggle for survival.

The question is: How much are we willing to tolerate? In the case of the powerful gun lobby, how much blood is on our own hands if we fail to demand that our children be educated in a society that respects their right to live more than their right to carry a weapon? As far as separating immigrant children from their parents, I call on, not only civil rights and lawful actions, but human decency itself to stop this cruel and immoral practice.

In a chaotic and confusing world we must agree on fundamental tenets of right and wrong, objective perceptions of lies and truth, the difference between good and evil, or we are lost. As an educator as well as citizen of the United States and the World, I am keenly aware of the importance of teaching critical thinking, encouraging students to speak truth to power and to question what seems nonsensical. The intellectual labyrinths that Alice had to navigate in Wonderland were innocent games. Today’s children, by comparison, are walking through minefields.

“He speaks and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same.” Donald Trump speaking of Kim Jong-un

We are at attention, Trump, but not in the way you would desire. We are standing up, we are speaking out, we are marching, voting and resisting. We are millions strong and growing.

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“Separating families at the Border is the fault of bad legislation passed by the Democrats. Border Security laws should be changed but the Dems can’t get their act together! Started the wall.” Donald Trump (Twitter 6/15/18)

“Suddenly, early in the spring, an alarming thing was discovered. Snowball was secretly frequenting the farm by night!…Every night, it was said, he came creeping in under cover of darkness…He stole the corn, he upset the milk-pails, he broke the eggs, he trampled the seedbeds, he gnawed the bark off the fruit trees. Whenever anything went wrong it became usual to attribute it to Snowball. If a window was broken or a drain was blocked up, someone was certain to say that Snowball had come in the night and done it…’ George Orwell – Animal Farm (Chapter 7)

 

 

 

 

Notes From A Social Justice Warrior

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©Richard L. Copley            Memphis 1968

“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”

Alice Walker

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Somewhere between Dr. King’s “luminous brotherhood” and Trump’s “glorious wall” the term social justice warrior has became a sneering pejorative, a mean meme that stereotypes those who fight for human rights.

Social justice is not self righteous, it has nothing to do with the desire not to be offended, it is not communism as many conservatives fear, and it is not fueled by emotion over intellect. It is a cause that deeply respects the dignity of all life. Social justice advocates believe passionately in the fundamental rights and moral freedoms that our Declaration of Independence and Constitution provide, including civil disobedience.

Social justice begins with the right for all to have food, shelter, healthcare, a clean and safe environment, education, and honest employment that offers fair and equal wages. Why has the endeavor to attain this level of decency become either an object of cruel tweets or thought of as an idealistic dream of naive innocents?

Social justice is an ideology that cannot be brought about by laws alone. If this were so, the Civil Rights Act would have ended racism. The cause of social justice is in the very fabric of who we are as individuals, what we believe in and how strongly we believe in it. Activists for this movement may be ridiculed but be careful of defamation and dismissal for they are the arch weapons of bullies and despots.

As we work for equality it is important to be careful of what we want to be equal to…a glossy society fascinated by power, wealth, sexuality and violence…a culture in which the bloodied, dismembered bodies of men, women, and children, are “collateral damage” and practices of torture “enhanced interrogation techniques”? Anodyne Orwellian phrases shield us from the truth, pacify, and lull us into thinking that all is normal and acceptable. Beware, they are designed to limit your thinking. The rise of Trumpism and the tyranny in its wake is a warning against this kind of complacency and carelessness.

As an educator, Trump’s campaign quote, “I love the uneducated!” reverberates.

Knowledge is power, and no one knows this more keenly than those who would seize it. In the words of Fannie Lou Hamer, civil rights activist and social justice hero, “I question America”.

To question, one must be educated and aware. This is why the campaign to smear journalists who don’t fall in line with the GOP status quo as liars and pervaders of “fake news” is critical to resist. We have a moral duty to be educated citizens, but without freedom of the press this becomes a difficult task. Journalists speak truth to power, without this safeguard we are exposed to the toxins of lies, fear mongering, distrust, and the spread of hatred and intolerance, all precursors of a fascist regime.

Social justice is not an isolated condition. It is a complex aspiration with roots in empathy. Empathy is not possible without believing in the humanity of all peoples, regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age, or status. It cannot be achieved in a vacuum but is deeply entwined in all aspects of our life, from the collapse of eco-systems caused by pollutants, the myriad effects of poverty, to gun laws and their direct impact on the safety of our children.

To embrace a true and global integration we must value the sacredness of life. We must acknowledge that whatever pain society suffers affects us all. When we fail, it is a collective failure. Social justice is not a partisan matter, nor a liberal fantasy, but an aspiration that may be our only hope in preserving, not just our democracy, but the future of our planet as well.

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“I can not, will not, permit myself to envision a world in which humanity is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright day break of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.”        Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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©donnaesgro        March For Our Lives      Los Angeles, 2018

 

 

 

https://Twitter.com/@stoneinthepond

 

 

 

 

 

Walls

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©donnaesgro

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Long before the pink cinder block wall went up, and the balconies of the apartment house next door looked down into the squalor of our backyard, there was what had once been a bright blue picket fence, so weather beaten that when brushed against, its paint burst into plumes of powder. The fence did its best to separate our back yard from our neighbor, Mrs. Crawford, a pearly headed old woman who tended an abundant rhubarb garden that grew against the fence on her side. Every year, at Christmas, she brought us six jars of rhubarb preserves… magenta and green chunks aglow in a row of Mason jars on the window sill.

How quietly she tended her purple veined garden, never greeting us except with a silent nod, and never complaining about the wanton children that we were. Just as silently she died, and her still little house was sold. We never thought about her when we’d sneak over the fence to the sawdust scented construction site to steal the golden oak planed planks to make see-saws. My brothers collected the long heavy nails just for the joy of having such a forbidden thing in the pockets of their corduroy school uniform pants.

Then, one day, the picket fence was gone, replaced by the spindly, metal, Giacometti like girders of what would soon become a massive concrete wall between our two properties. As the workmen mixed the thick cement paste, I remembered the long roots of the rhubarb plants when Mrs. Crawford used to pull them up in the sunlight. My father seemed to like the wall, seeming almost proud of it…it was new and sturdy, like nothing else on our property, but, to me, it was an affront; an effort to keep us out – a high high wall, without any foot holds to climb.

Mrs. Brown, our neighbor on the other side, and owner of the neatly groomed courtyard apartments with the pansies all in a row, often complained about us, once even warning my mother that if she didn’t stop letting her children run wild, she would report her to the police for child neglect. And so we played, squabbled, accumulated scars, celebrated birthdays, ran through sprinklers, stepped on the occasional bee, sprained our wrists, made forts, and did the dirty job of growing up in our back yard, squeezed between two impenetrable forces: the thick cold wall and the glare of Mrs. Brown from behind the pretty lace curtains of her upstairs apartment.

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“I will build a great wall-and nobody builds walls better than me-and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”  Donald Trump

“Sometimes you put walls up not to keep people out, but to see who cares enough to break them down.”  Socrates

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One of the best children’s stories about tolerance and coexistence is “The Sneetches” by Dr. Seuss. In a way that only Dr. Seuss can, this book points out the absurdity of intolerance in an allegorical style that children can easily understand, “Ronald, remember, when you are out walking, you walk past a Sneetch of that kind without talking.” (Dr. Seuss – The Sneetches)

 

Walls, whether they be brick and mortar or metaphorical are designed to keep out the other. It’s time to break down these walls that degrade, deride, and segregate us. It is time to build inclusivity, compassion, and understanding. It begins with the children.

Namaste

Happy New Year

Walking in a Winter Wonderland

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Courtesy of: “The Snow Tree”

(and Avelena, age four)

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This year, as always, and like thousands of other educators, I dust off my winter holiday books –   “Frosty the Snowman”, “The Polar Express”, “The  Penguin Who Wanted To Sparkle”. I speak to children of the magic of sleigh rides or the science of snow crystals. Many of the illustrations in my books are glittery and shimmery, snow drifts in the moonlight and candles aglow.

But last week, as I read “The Snow Tree”, a story of a cub’s astonishment at experiencing his first snowfall, my mind was not on the beautifully illustrated pages but on the graphic images captured by Paul Nicklen, Marine Biologist and National Geographic Photographer, of a  Polar Bear in the Baffin Islands:

https://tinyurl.com/yc5pz2w9

Is this horrifying and shameful spectacle of the neglect and abuse of our power as humans what we stand for? How do those whose hearts are shattered by this legacy protect, cradle, and nurture our sacred earth? As the current leaders of our country not only actively deny climate change, but champion the corporate interests that have caused it, we must resist in every way we can.

https://tinyurl.com/y6w6llpo

Being an activist is a noble cause. But it doesn’t just mean marching, signing petitions and voting – vital endeavors as we have seen –  but also the thousand small choices that we make throughout our days. Mindfulness has become a common concept. But, in the tossing about of the word, has the meaning escaped us? To be mindful is to be alert and aware. “Life is not a problem to be resolved but a reality to be experienced.” Kierkegaard

It has become so easy in the modern world to be careless. Releasing balloons into the air is celebratory and metaphorically beautiful. But what happens to those balloons? Most end up in our waterways and are often ingested by sea creatures who, fatally, mistake them for food. Juice boxes are cute and convenient, but each one takes about 300 years to degrade. The largest accumulation of garbage (twice the size of Texas and growing) floats in our very own ocean off the coast of California. Plastic is one of our planet’s most crucial enemies…And it is an enemy that we can all fight.

Take your children outside and express your love of the trees, the birds, the ocean-each mottled leaf and speckled shell.  Let them know that, just as we protect our family from danger, it is our sacred duty to protect nature. Get them away from the addictive call of their devices and get their hands in the dirt. Teach compassion for all who are hungry, homeless and hopeless, whether they be men, polar bears, or coral reefs…let your children know that all of these are one. One heart that beats. One soul that suffers.

Remember, your carbon footprint has little feet behind it, so when you choose to refill your water bottles, say no to a plastic straw, or bring your own bags to the grocery store, let your children know why you are doing so. We can all be guardians of the earth in our own way. Together our matchstick flares can bring light to the darkness and inspire hope…. hope, the ephemeral, invisible and intangible “thing with feathers” that our future depends on.

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Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul

And sings the tune without the words

And never stops at all

Emily Dickinson

One million sea birds are killed annually from plastics in our oceans.

 

https://www.nrdc.org/experts/nrdc/senate-just-opened-door-drilling-arctic-national-wildlife-refuge

https://Twitter.com/@stoneinthepond

Reclaiming Halloween for the Children

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Sign seen in local shop this Halloween

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I remember windy nights, leaves swirling, black cats silhouetted in windows and warmly lit porches. There was a time when Halloween had an edgy innocence that tilted on the fear of fruit bats, before severed limbs, decapitations, and hatchets dripping with blood were considered plausible decorations for front lawns. What, in our culture, drives this macabre fascination with violence to ever deeper and darker places, changing what used to be a fun night for children, when BOO! was the scariest word around and candy was the main objective, into a vampiric holiday that lusts on fear?

It’s hard now, amid the ever increasing grotesquery, to believe that the origin of the word Halloween is holy evening. Festivals were held in ancient times to honor the sacredness and mystery of death. Flickering jack-o-lanterns grinned and grimaced from doorsteps to scare away any evil spirits that may drop by. But, today, even a very young child knows that a pumpkin is no match against Freddy Krueger or Pennywise the Dancing Clown.

Parents make an effort to shield their children from violence, whether it be spurious or on the nightly news. But around Halloween, the depictions of ax murderers and deranged clowns abound. Once a child is exposed to an image that he or she finds terrifying all the reassurances that “It’s only pretend” are to no avail. It is not uncommon that these children will suffer a level of PTSD that leaves them with nightmares and vague anxieties that can last for several months. How do we protect our littlest ones from such emotional and spiritual trauma? Sadly, it is not 100% possible. Even the local Walmart’s Halloween section can be too much for a child. But there is much we can do to keep Halloween fun scary and not overly shocking. Your teenager may want to visit the seasonal big box costume shops, but leave the young ones at home. There are many wonderful Halloween themed books available that allow a child to experience the spooky mystique of Halloween while safe in a parent’s arms. In many neighborhoods, anatomic and screeching Halloween displays have become increasingly malevolent. A good way to avoid the experience of trick-or-treating becoming a bad memory is to have your child go to a few select houses, then to a party with a few of their friends. In this way parents are in control of just how age appropriately scary they want the party to be. It is healthy to confront our fears. Fake spider webs and skeletons can make a child jump, and then laugh. This is the level of scariness you want. It gives Halloween the off kilter experience that children need in order to achieve those heights of self esteem that come from conquering the unknown.

While we are protecting our children, it is important to be aware of what they actually need distance from. There is a great difference between the natural death of a loved one and violent death used  to sell products, or reported endlessly on the news. Avoiding talking about the sad parts of being human only makes children confused and likely to be misinformed. We can’t protect our children from pain. Knowing death is an important part of knowing life and children need the truth from us. That does not mean that they need to know about mass shootings, terrorist attacks, and other random acts of evil. This adult knowledge will come in time. But, for now, respect your child enough to let him grieve in a natural way for a death that touches him personally.  It is important to honor these fleeting years of sensitive physic vulnerability even though our system generally either ignores or tries to capitalize on them.

Perhaps it is our culture’s fear of death that makes us both fascinated and repelled by it. We idolize youth, spend billions on anti-aging products, and hesitate to come to terms even when the family fish dies. While it is important to protect our children from violence, we should not shield them from death, but instead help them to viscerally understand that the end of life is as reverential and hallowed as the beginning of life – a natural part of the the wondrous cycle of being.

The Symbiosis of Writer & Illustrator

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One of the earliest books ever read to me was Honey Bear by Dixie Wilson (1923), illustrated by Maginel Wright Barney. As a very young child I was mesmerized, both with the rhyming story and the exquisite illustrations-the dusky velvet sky, the deep lavender shadows, Honey Bear in his rumpled rose colored jacket…

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Once upon a summer in the hills by the river

Was a deep green forest where the wild things grew

There were caves as dark as midnight

There were tangled trees and thickets

And a thousand little places where the sky looked through

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Later, as an adult, I read Algonquin Publishing’s introduction to their series of books for children:

“The makers of Sunny Books believe that books for children should be not only entertaining, but conform to the highest ideals of beauty in book-making, so that the fortunate child who owns them will develop good taste in reading and in art.”

Fortunate, indeed, I was, to fall so completely and sweetly in star dusted love with literature long before I could read.

When choosing first books for your child, be aware of the quality of both writer and illustrator. There is deeper enchantment in the reading of a story when both artists work in harmony with respect and passion for their material.

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The Mad Hatter: “Have I gone mad?”

Alice: “I’m afraid so. You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.”

Alice in Wonderland has been illustrated by many artists over the years. But, the original black and white John Tenniel drawings reflect best the oddness and dreaminess of Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece. Carroll was a visual artist as well as a writer and knew the importance of the illustrator’s contribution to the integrity of the story. He could have chosen among dozens of children’s book illustrators adept at depicting whimsical fairylands. Instead he chose the acerbic Tenniel, known for his wicked sense of humor and grotesque political cartooning. The choice is intriguing and telling.

My mother often told me the story about how, when she was a little girl, she would sneak down into her grandfather’s library after everyone was asleep and read. Late at night, in the shadows of the dark room, she was both spellbound by Alice’s adventures and terrified by Tenniel’s drawings. A fact that, I’m sure, both gentlemen would have appreciated.

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Piglet: “How do you spell ‘love’?”

Pooh: “You don’t spell it…you feel it.”

In a similar close relationship, A.A.Milne worked with Ernest H. Shepherd to create the charming Winnie the Pooh books. Together they capture the elusive innocence of a young child’s long golden days at play…the simple drawings a metaphor for the zen like simplicity of the characters. Disney’s much commercialized renditions, with their artificial cuteness that have turned Pooh from a humble sage to a bumbling clown, are loud, garish, and awkward when compared to the delicate and sensitive drawings of the original illustrator.

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Charlotte’s Web would still be a classic without E.B.White’s collaborator Garth Williams’ illustrations, but has anyone else ever drawn Wilbur, Charlotte, Fern, or the well meaning Mr. & Mrs. Arable with greater humor, compassion, gentleness, and love? This is a difficult book emotionally as its principal theme is suffering and death. Yet Charlotte’s story shimmers with hope. Williams’ tender black and white illustrations attend to the sacredness with which the author sees life and death.

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But Charlotte,” said Wilbur, “I’m not terrific.”

“That doesn’t make a particle of difference,” replied Charlotte. “Not a particle. People believe almost anything they see in print. Does anybody here know how to spell ‘terrific’?”

In cases in which a wonderful writer is also an accomplished illustrator, such as the works of Maurice Sendak, Rudyard Kipling, or William Blake, the reader is twice blessed with this deeper plunge into the original story creator’s mind. The fantastical fracas of Sendak, the exotica of Kipling, and the metaphysicality of Blake are omnipresent; as much in each brushstroke as in each word.

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“It is such a mysterious place, the land of tears.”

Although Antoine de Saint-Exupery never considered himself a visual artist, who can help but fall in love with the earnest Little Prince? The spareness of Exupery’s watercolors perfectly express the underlying message of his simple yet profoundly wise moral tale. And although I agree with The Little Prince that “What is essential is invisible to the eye”, it is often through, not only our reading and uses of imagination, but through our contemplative gaze that the invisible is revealed to us, clear, in all its squalor and glory.

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“Let The wild rumpus start!”

Maurice Sendak

Where the Wild Things Are

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