Terrified Yet Transfixed

Amazing, seductive, life-giving, nurturing. Terrifying.

     My son was driving in the wee hours through rural Georgia on his way to deliver a load of department store goods in Kentucky, when he saw a huge, as in he thought he was seeing things it was so huge, orange ball of light pulsing in the darkness. Both thoughts simultaneously in his brain:  It’s a fire! It can’t be a fire!

     Within moments, he got closer and saw it was a mansion as big as an apartment building engulfed in raging, throbbing flames. The ball of fire grabbing up at the sky, the mansion itself like a shadow inside the flames.

     There was no one anywhere in sight. He stopped the truck and called 911, straining to see if there anyone around. He saw no one. No nearby houses. No sirens.

     Being so close to that inferno was deeply unsettling to him. He was transfixed and terrified, even though he was at a safe distance from the blaze.

     His experience reminded me of this story from the Ibibo people of eastern Nigeria, “Fire’s Wild Dance.” Long ago, the Sun and Moon were happily married and living here on the earth. They had many friends and loved to entertain. Sometimes they could hear Wind whooshing in from far off, other times he spoke quietly at their door to announce his arrival. Fire was animated and loved to tell stories. Because he danced and waved his arms when telling his stories, they would visit outdoors in the open yard for safety. The Trees in the nearby forest were friends as well. Since they couldn’t come to the house, Sun and Moon went to the forest to visit them. They also went to Water’s home as Water knew it would not be safe for he and his family to visit as they were so large, they might do harm.

One day, Sun and Moon decided to build a larger house, then they could have larger parties and everyone could come. So with much work, they did build a house of wood and thatch five times larger than their first home. They invited everyone to the celebration. They cooked pots of food, gathered fruits for days ahead in preparation. Yet again, Water said he must decline as the wonderful new home was still too small and he and his family might bring danger.

Wind arrived bustling and swirling, blowing through the forest. Fire crackled and sparkled as he danced in. The festivities and food were abundant. Wind was singing with his rich voice along with Fire as he told his story. Fire leapt excitedly in his dancing.

And then… a spark caught on Wind’s breath and flew to the thatched roof. Soon the house was in flames. Wind stopped singing. Fire stopped dancing. Sun and Moon began shouting. Fire cried out, “There is nothing I can do now. Only Water can stop the flames!”

Sun called to Wind, “Go quickly to Water. Tell him to bring all his family. We need them now!”

Snohomish River, Lowell park.
Photo by MDessein

By this time, the Trees in the forest were also aflame. Water arrived with his family and they were able to put out the fire of the house, but not the Trees. It seemed everything was on fire. Water sent Wind back to summon all his relatives. Cascades of water rushed over the land, rising higher and higher. Soon, the fires were out, nothing could be seen. The land was under water. The trees were under water. Wind had blown away. Fire had disappeared. Sun and Moon flew up to the sky for safety.

It took a long time for Water to make his way back to the sea. There was nothing left of Sun and Moon’s home. Every day and night, they came back to look around earth for a new home. They have not found any place as magnificent as the home they had, so they remain in the sky.

My son drove past the place of the fire two days later on his return to Tennessee. Absolutely nothing was left standing. A huge black area was the only evidence the mansion had been.

What? How? Why? The unanswered questions disturbed him. He felt a visceral gut punch reliving the intensity of the experience; the uncontrollability, the wildness of the fire.

Amazing, seductive, life-giving, nurturing. Terrifying.

Been there, have you?

P.S. you can find Tom Nevin’s version of “Fire’s Wild Dance” in his book, Zamani.

Forgiveness. Really?

Redemption. We’ve talked about this before, yeah? You and I, you and your spouse, with your daughter, your boss, your neighbor, your therapist, your lover, probably even your cat.

     What is redemption anyway? The act of saving or being saved from error or evil; the action of regaining possession of something in exchange for payment; clearing a debt; release from the consequences of an offense for the person who committed the offense.

     Okay then, what is forgiveness? A conscious decision to release feelings of resentment toward a person(s) who has harmed you.

     Interesting. In the program, we used to talk about forgiveness is not forgetting, it is not condoning, it is releasing. Lewis Smedes noted “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”


     Last year, in one of my sojourns to work with the kids in Juvenile Justice, I told the Haitian story from Diane Wolkstein, “One My Darling, Come to Mama.” It goes like this: A mother has four daughters, she loves and dotes on the first three and despises the fourth daughter, Philamandre. Every night when the mother comes homes, she sings as she is coming up to the house door, “One my darling, come to Mama. Two my darling, come to Mama. Three my darling, come to Mama. Stay Philamandre, stay. Stay where you are.”

The three daughters would let their mother in, they’d eat dinner together. If there were any scraps left from dinner, then Philamandre could eat.

     One day, the three daughters were kidnapped. When the mother came home, she sang. No answer. She sang again. No answer. She opened the door, saw the daughters were gone, and ran away like a madwoman, singing the song frantically. Philamandre realized she was on her own, went to the town and found work. Eventually she came to work in the palace of the king, and over time, the prince and she fell in love and were married.

Years passed. One day, she heard the maids talking about a crazy woman singing a song out in the street. Philamandre, now queen, went to the window to look out. Yes, it was her mother. Her clothes were rags, her hair was wild – filled with sticks and bird droppings.

     The queen went outside, brought the her mother in. She bathed her, gave her new clothes, and trimmed her hair. “Mama, the others are no more. I am here. You did not take care of me. Yet now I will take care of you.”

     I said nothing more for a minute or so, looked at the five young women sitting in a semi-circle in front of me, dressed in the standard-issue orange trousers and blocky shirt, and then said, “I’ve never understood that story. How someone mistreated could then turn around and take care of the one who mistreated them?”

     One of the girls looked me in the eye, “Maybe she didn’t want to be like her mother.”

     I’m three times as old as this seventeen year old, yet she has wisdom like that?

Honeysuckle 5-31-2020
Honeysuckle in the rain 5-31-2020

I have often pondered how abused children, when adults, re-establish relationships with their abusive parents and often take care of them, specifically with a couple people I know.

     I have been thrown under the bus, as they say, for things I did not do yet got the consequences as the person who did the action would not take responsibility for it. I have been lied to, stolen from, betrayed, mislead, as we all have, sometimes by my own family members. I was bitter. It wasn’t right, where was justice? I was resentful.

     In looking up Lewis Smedes, he was a professor of theology and ethics, and author of fifteen books. “Forgiving does not erase the bitter past. A healed memory is not a deleted memory. Instead, forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember. We change the memory of our past into a hope for our future.”

That young woman who responded to me may have been in custody for an illegal act, yet she had certainly learned a few things along the way. Indeed, there is hope for the future.

Years ago, one of my siblings did some egregious things. I believe I have forgiven them yet want no contact with them. One of my cousins chided me for that, saying, “But they’re family.” In my head, I am going, “Yeah, but…” Recently I came across another wisdom of Professor Smedes:

“You can forgive someone almost anything. But you cannot tolerate everything… We don’t have to tolerate what people do just because we forgive them for doing it. Forgiving heals us personally. To tolerate everything only hurts us all in the long run.”

Oh my.

So tolerate is now in the mix. Forgive. Permission to not tolerate. Redemption. Significant issues for me in my life, as many changes are being presented. Some of them being who am I now in my life, who do I strive to be, who do I wish to be with? How do I do this? Where shall I live? How do I pursue what gives me meaning?

I leave you with this from Hans Z and Lisa: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NBE-uBgtINg while I go redeem my coupon for the turkey taco. Let me know what you think~

Subway to My Heart

     “Hi! Hi! Hi!” She waved her small hand between each greeting. Her eyes captured my attention. Bright, alive, mischievous – insistent that I see her. 

     I smiled and waved back at her, “Hi.” 

     About three years old, with short dark brown curly hair and vivacious brown eyes, the little girl wore a flowered dress with a red background. Sitting kitty-corner across the subway aisle from me, she perched on her seat, while her mother sat on the seat behind her. The subway rattled and rocked us as it rushed to McGill Station, the next stop on Montreal’s green line. 

     She pushed off the plastic seat and hopped the three steps over to me. As she reached up toward my oval-shaped earring dangling from my left ear, I was instantly wary – I leaned slightly back. In my moment’s hesitation, she gently rubbed her thumb and forefinger on the length of the earring, smiling slightly as her bright eyes watched me, and then fingered the right earring without the slightest tug on my ear. 

     Her mother called her back to sit down. We waved at each other the rest of the four minute ride. The panel doors split open, she turned and waved, “Bye.”

     I waved back, “Bye.”

     I smiled, perhaps as big as her smile, “Bye!”


    Holding her small hand, her mother and she merged into the melee of people going up the tall flight of stone stairs, leading to the underground plaza to either change trains or head up the two-story escalator to the street.

Streetlight in front of Notre-Dame Basilica Montreal. Photo by MDessein

     I turned the corner, found the correct direction to Boulevard Maisonneuve, and who is in right in front of me as I step onto the escalator? The bright-eyed little girl. She could have covered the rest of her face, and I would have known from the sparkle in her eyes of her joie de vivre. She recognized me immediately, “Hi! Hi! Hi!” and put her hand up. 

     My heart warmed instantly. I put my hand up to give her a ‘high five.’ 

She opened her fingers, put them between my fingers, and closed her hand around mine, looking me in the eye, as if she knew a happy secret. 

     She held my hand the entire way up the escalator, we looked at each other; she seemed to know clearly what was going on, while I held her hand in wonder.

     This child’s intuition, spontaneous action, seemed so clear and sincere. No hesitation, simply clarity in action. Her small hand warm in mine, my eyes moist and my heart entranced with her being.

     Countless times in decades past, I missed these opportunities of genuine engagement. I smiled and kept going. I would have said “Hi,” in return and gone back to reading or whatever important, adult thing I was doing at the time. 

     I now realize those wondrous moments of true connection, spontaneous positive interaction are more important, more life-giving than anything I might have been reading, planning for, or worrying about. 

     In submitting a grant application recently, the grant requirements helped me articulate a vital nugget my intuition has known for years: I write to help people see their humanity in others, to see their own stories in the stories of others. Our human connection. 

     Oh! I write to find my own humanity and connection to others. I tell folktales and ancient legends to connect with humanity, decades and centuries past. We are all stories. 

     “The Black Prince,” a millenia-old Egyptian folktale has followed me for years trying to teach me that. On some level, I knew it as I told the tale when teaching life skills, including telling it to my son when he was searching for himself. Then the Black Prince showed up again in my dreams and my writing a couple years ago until I completed the CD telling his story. The story of his search, my own unaware search, and the search of countless other people.

     Then this little girl, filled with joy and trust, held my hand the entire way up the escalator.
And I held hers.

Remember …

You think we have it rough now, yes, we do have a challenge. None of us has dealt with a pandemic before, perhaps ever heard the word before. The uncertainty and so many unknowns can freak people out.

Hold on to yourself. Fear and panic are bad places to make decisions from. Right?

Imagine being Peer Gynt, captured by trolls and taken before their king, Dovregubben. Right? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XTXNqfUWT5E  (Some of Edvard Grieg’s most famous music.)

Near Snohomish

Remember who you are, who we are. In our regular lives, very few of us live in isolation. Keep contact how you can, it’s important. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YhSKk-cvblc  Ah, Leonard Bernstein, what would he be composing now and Jerome Robbins be choreographing?

Feel your strength, know it. Yeah, it’s there, sometimes we get distracted and forget our spine is flexible and strong. It needs protection yes, yet it protects us. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pb_9svkhOEE (Listen at least into the second minute. Carter Burwell, born in a great year, has scored many Hollywood movies. This is from Rob Roy; he’s done The Big Lebowksi, No Country for Old Men, Being John Malkovich.)

Remember. So many things, one of which is that whatever each of us does ripples out to others. Be kind, compassionate, respectful. I have to smile at this one, as when I am called to those things, I usually don’t want to! Okay, self-disclosure: I can be a bit righteous and judgmental. I keep working on it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MK1N46dRPVg (Aaron Copland is in the audience for this performance!)

Andrew Davis, born in a good month, is conducting here. He is an internationally respected conductor and musician. Turn up the volume, raise your arms, welcome it into you. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ryHDsQIYJs  I will never forget the first time I heard this. (More about that another time…)

Since you are still with me, here goes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PMuePyV1nr8

When he gave Emerson, Lake and Palmer permission to arrange and play his magnificent piece, Aaron Copland said he was attracted to what they had done, not sure how what they did in the middle was connected to his music, and then famously chuckled. Keith Emerson regarded Copland as ‘the soul of American music.”

     Remember …

Lace, Grace & Scars

Foggy Morning photo by Mary Dessein

A loud wail rent through the room, its anguish and sorrow piercing the whole apartment, unrestrainable. Surprised even me, the source, and I could not stop it.

 I rarely see raw grief, uncontainable and wrenching – much less experience it myself.

I had just hung up the phone with the animal hospital and made the appointment to put Monkey, my sweet tabby, to sleep. In two hours.

     To end a life, and a life I loved so much was an enormous decision. My brain knew it was time, indeed, Monkey had shown me he was physically near the end and might be in pain. Yet my heart called, “What if it’s too soon? What if…?”

     The remorse I felt fifteen years before came back to me, when I did wait too long. Our cat, Midnight, was in such pain before I could say, “Okay, we have to,” to my teen-agers.

     Death is all around us, as is life. Two of Jodi Picoult’s novels come to mind, Leaving Time and My Sister’s Keeper. A quote from Alice Metcalf, an elephant scientist in Leaving Time, got my attention, “What I was really researching was not how elephants deal with loss but how humans can’t.”

There are so many folktales, myths, and stories about life and death, how they interact, and how we as humans, and a world, must have death in order to live. Great old 1939 movie, ‘On Borrowed Time,’ with Lionel Barrymore, takes on a version of the tale of when Death is tricked up into a tree where, in this case a he, where he can’t get down, nothing dies and the world gets too full. A similar one is a Spanish story, “Tia Miseria,” Aunt Misery. There are stories about dancing with death, making deals with death, tricking death, even preferring death to God or fate, as death eventually treats everyone the same.

Monkey had gotten tangled in the blanket on my bed, and was scared. He gouged a good sized scratch on my left arm in his frenzy to get free. Instead of an irritated sharp response that I might have made at another time, I put him down on the floor, “I know Monkers, I’ve been scared, too.”

It seems to me that going through the losses, dealing with the sorrow and the empty place in our world, teaches us how to live. All of us have losses, some are huge – losing one’s family in an accident, losing a child, losing a body part, etc. One friend told me when her mom disappeared into the jungle on a guided tour and was never found, that was harder than anything she ever experienced as there were no answers, no understanding, no closure.

Yes, I was going to publish my upbeat essay on how I jumped to my feet when hearing a piece of music, yet thought I’d finish this experience first, so please know I shan’t be Donna Drama indefinitely.

We all come back to, circle around, avoid, deny, yet at some point have to face the myriad of issues around death and loss in our lives. It’s been a while since I’ve had to, and several have resurfaced. What if? Maybe I could have… If only I’d… I still hear his claws tapping on the wooden floor in the hallway. I hear a bump in the kitchen of the towel drawer (he used to pull out the dish towels.) The dissonance of how can he be gone, yet he is.

Playing great CD’s I’d forgotten I had has been a balm: Jesse Cook’s The Rumba Foundation, Narada Decade: The First Ten Years, IZ Kamakawiwo’ole’s Future, Michael Gettel’s san juan suite. Like a lace tablecloth for the family dinner, the music didn’t change the event, yet added grace.

I told you he was smart!

So my generous friend, Deborah, offered to go with me to the vet. Monkey so did not like the pet carrier, and he had little energy, so we wrapped him in the sky blue fleece blanket and Deb held him for the short drive to the vet’s. I turned the key in the ignition, “I will ease your mind. Like a bridge over troubled water, I will ease your mind,” floats out of the stereo.

Are you kidding me? Deb and I looked over at each other, our eyebrows went up and we shook our heads. Our eyes got moist, we each started blinking as I pulled up to the intersection

Friends. Community. Neighbors’ kindness. Empathy. Learning how to live and live with each other.

The scratch on my arm is healing well, there will only be a tiny scar. Scars can be our strongest parts – – if we let them heal.