I’m going to ask for your indulgence again when it comes to my attempts at poetry. This latest poem was partially inspired by a truly awesome opportunity I recently had. In March, the ballet company with which I dance put on a memorable outreach performance at a veterans care facility in my state. We performed a very poignant piece that’s set during WWII. It’s an audience favorite that whisks me away to a different time and place, and I feel so incredibly grateful to be a part of this beautiful tribute to our military, especially those of the WWII era.
After our mini show, we were able to greet many of the elderly veterans who had watched. The warmth of those interactions left a long-lasting imprint with us as dancers.
I have written about supporting the troops before, and the military has a special spot in my heart for numerous reasons. So without further ado, here is:
When I initially started writing this post back in the fall, I had recently re-read Edna Ferber’s 1924 novel So Big, which I first encountered in high school. This book is not only enjoyable, but it also arguably offers many profound lessons. Should one pursue worldly wealth or should one sacrifice and work for what is truly fulfilling and for which one has passion and talent? What is beauty and where do we find it? What is a true education? What is the value of living on and working the land versus living in a city? And what are the consequences of the choices we make about our life directions?
So Big is an important, multi-layered book, insightful in its look at cultural history and its philosophical questions about life. On top of all that, it is an engaging story with vivid, believable characters. Ferber doesn’t give the reader a tidy, “happily ever after” conclusion but rather a realistic one with one of the characters facing a moment of crisis and decision about what he will do in his life.
Set in rural Illinois and in Chicago from the late 1800’s to post-World War I, the reader witnesses the deracination of the culture with the Industrial Age and the accompanying generational shifts in people’s priorities and values as well as some of the disillusionment among the wealthy, “gilded youth” after the war.
The book takes its colloquial title from the game parents often play with their toddlers: “how big is baby? Soooo big.” SoBig becomes the childhood nickname of the main character’s son and by the end of the book, the reader is left to wonder about the cost of being “sooo big” in the eyes of the world.
The story centers around Selina Peake Dejong, who is only nineteen when the action of the plot gets going. Her father is loving and good-natured but he is a gambler by trade and tragically becomes the accidental victim of a fatal shooting.
He had instilled in Selina an appreciation for and love of beauty, and he had imparted this seminal piece of wisdom: “The more kinds of people you see and the more things you do and the more things that happen to you, the richer you are. Even if they’re not pleasant things. That’s living.” He told her that life is a grand adventure.
In order to support herself, Selina takes the position of school teacher in the bucolic, Dutch area of Illinois known as High Prairie. She is something of a fish out of water in the decidedly pragmatic and phlegmatic but welcoming community. Yet, she accepts the challenges of her job and her new farm life as an adventure.
With her characteristic eye for beauty, she exclaims upon first sight that the cabbages grown by the Pooles (the family with whom she stays) are beautiful. Her reaction raises the mirth of all her new companions except for the Pooles’ twelve-year-old son, Roelf whose sensitive, artistic disposition contrasts with his family but finds a kindred spirit in Selina. Selina encourages Roelf’s artistic tendencies and loans him some of her classic literature to read.
Selina marries a farmer and settles on a High Prairie farm into a life she has never imagined for herself.
She has her fair share of hardships, including being widowed and having to raise her young son by herself, but she faces her trials squarely with poise, courage, intelligence, and creativity as she herself matures and grows as a person. She never loses her ideal of beauty but integrates it into all aspects of her life from how she runs her farm, to how she raises her son, to how she treats and views other people.
Even years after first moving to High Prairie, she still finds the cabbages beautiful. Ferber writes, “Life has no weapons against a woman like that.”
Selina has a child-like curiosity and simple kindness about her that attracts other people to her and gives a luminosity to her eyes. Ferber makes a point of contrasting Selina’s eyes to those of Julie Arnold, Selina’s girlhood friend, who attains wealth and societal prestige and can afford all the latest cosmetics. Yet Julie’s eyes do not shine like Selina’s but remain dull despite make-up, perhaps illustrating that old adage that the “eyes are the window to the soul.” Julie does not carry the same inner beauty that Selina possesses.
Selina is steady and steadfast, the “rock” of the story.
Her son Dirk is a different tale. Selina wants Dirk to have more opportunity than a farm life can proffer. She sends him to college where he decides to study architecture. This elates the beauty-loving Selina. However, away from his mother’s grounding influence, Dirk begins to stray from some of the values she held dear, even in how he treats those considered unpopular by the in-crowd.
When the Great War breaks out, Dirk gives up architecture for the more swiftly lucrative career of selling war bonds. He then transitions to banking when the war ends.
He falls into the restless, pleasure-seeking set of wealthy, gilded youth and their insipid, homogenous lifestyle, particularly that of his friend, the conniving and unhappily married Paula.
However, Dirk is ill-at-ease and Paula grates his nerves.
Selina, naturally, is concerned about her son and warns him not to betray beauty, saying that beauty may no longer be there when he decides he wants her. Basically, she is reminding him to take stock of his priorities and what he truly values personally and professionally.
Despite himself, Dirk finds that he is falling for a woman named Dallas, an unassuming, bohemian artist whose views on life are very similar to those of his mother Selina.
Dallas sizes up Dirk and decidedly gives him her opinion, and Dirk is left to accept the consequences of his life pursuits and choose in which direction he will turn.
I really cannot recommend this book enough. I don’t think it is as well-known nowadays as it should be. Its questions and conflicts are as relevant and timely today, if not more so, as they were one hundred years ago.
If you are looking for both a thought-provoking as well as engrossing read, check out So Big. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
One of my favorite aspects of the Catholic Faith is the extended celebration of Christmas and Easter.
The Catholic Church doesn’t confine these holidays to one day only but rather these feasts are assigned whole liturgical seasons. We can really revel and soak in the grace and joy of these marvelous days.
And this is completely fitting because the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus are literally the most important events that ever have occurred or will occur in human history. No human words can adequately convey their magnitude.
They should fill us with uncontainable joy, gratitude, and hope for He has won our salvation.
We are now coming to the end of the Easter octave, eight days that liturgically are viewed as one day, namely, Easter Day! The Easter season then stretches until Pentecost Sunday, totaling fifty days altogether. #Catholicsknowhowtoparty 😉🎉
Fortunately, I have been on spring break from dancing and teaching this week following Easter Sunday, so this holiday has truly been a holiday for me. While I was driving on Monday, the thought hit me that a mere day after Easter so many people were having to return to their ordinary schedules of work and commitments. Yet we shouldn’t be ordinary in these extraordinary days! They should be filled with prayer and praise and celebrations!
However, in the midst of daily responsibilities and tasks, we can still strive to cling to Easter joy and hope and have our own moments of rejoicing, even within the quiet of our own hearts and minds.
This past weekend I attended the Easter Vigil, which St. Augustine called “the Mother of all Vigils.” I usually attend Easter Mass Sunday morning, but this year, I decided to attend the Saturday night vigil for the first time in a few years.
There are many ways to describe this remarkable liturgy: Sublime. Mysterious. Beautiful. Ancient. Joyful. Simple. Symbolic. Glorious. Hope-filled. Sacramental. Solemn. Exultant.
One of the most awesome parts is the lighting of the Paschal Fire, symbolizing the light of Christ that warms and illumines but doesn’t destroy. The Paschal Fire is an actual fire about the size of a small bonfire. The congregation proceeded out of the church and into the parking lot where a miniature wooden tower (for lack of a better word) was built. Our pastor began to read prayers and prepared the Easter candle to be kindled from the fire. Suddenly, a fiery arrow whizzed down a string from the roof of the church and the Fire ignited. I’m not sure if the flaming arrow is customary in other places/parishes but it is a mesmerizing and stirring sight to behold. I looked at the faces of the children in the crowd when all this was taking place. Wonderment was painted there. I felt it, too.
The church’s Easter candle was then lit from the fire and from that candle the small candles that all of us in the crowd were holding were enkindled. The light was passed from one person to another, never diminishing but growing as it was shared, reminding us that the light of Christ does not dim but only expands as we bring it to others.
We started out in a cold, dark parking lot but as soon as the fire and those candles were set ablaze the atmosphere suddenly was a bit warmer. It was a little easier to see. Just like sin and hardship can darken our lives and make things seem cold until we allow ourselves to stand in the warmth and light of God’s love and mercy.
Holding our tiny flames, the parishioners then returned to the church, which was in darkness. We listened to the sonorous intoning of the Easter Exsultet by one of the many priests con-celebrating the Mass as well as to various Scripture readings from the Old Testament. Prior to a reading from the New Testament and the proclamation of the Gospel, the Gloria was sung jubilantly to the accompaniment of music and the ringing of bells. This was the first time that singing had had musical accompaniment since the Gloria during Holy Thursday Mass two nights before. (This moment has even more of a build-up since the the only time the Gloria is sung at Mass between the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday and the Easter Vigil is on Holy Thursday and on a Solemnity like the feast day of St. Joseph.) As the Gloria progressed, the lights began to be turned on until the whole church was illuminated. It was an impressive and joyful moment!!
The priest who delivered the homily incorporated an Easter analogy from one of my favorite book series, The Lord of the Rings. For those of you unfamiliar with J.R.R. Tolkien’s magnificent trilogy, I highly recommend it to you. Father spoke about the light of Galadriel (an Elven queen), and how she presented this phial of light to the hobbit Frodo as he was journeying to destroy the evil One Ring. It contained the light of a very special star, and when she gave this gift, she said, “May it be a light to you in dark places when all other lights go out.” So Father encouraged all of us to be that type of light to the world.
The Easter Vigil is also when new converts are welcomed formally into the Church and receive the Sacraments of Initiation. It is extremely moving to witness adults being baptized and confirmed! When this part of the vigil was completed and they turned to face the congregation, we applauded to welcome them home to the Faith. My cheeks hurt from smiling so hard. Later on in the Mass, many of them would receive the Holy Eucharist for the first time!!
From beginning to end, the Easter Vigil was a feast for the both the soul and the bodily senses!
It was such a hopeful moment to witness those adults choose Christ and His Church, choose to set themselves on the path of light and life, especially nowadays when it is so easy to succumb to discouragement amidst the corruption and sorrow we recognize in ourselves, others, and society at large on a daily basis.
The challenge is to hold onto the message and promise of Easter joy and hope even when the Easter season has concluded. Christ has conquered sin and the devil. He has defeated sorrow and anxiety. He has vanquished darkness and death. We still must face adversity and trials in this life. We still must work daily to convert and to turn away from sin. But Jesus has won the ultimate victory and His grace and mercy are always there when we truly seek it!
He died and rose for everyone, every person who has ever lived or will live.
I wish all people could experience and believe in the message of Easter! Whether you are a believer or not, know that Jesus loves you. He died for you. And He desires you to know Him and His love.
“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies. And everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die.'” -John 11:25-26.