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a cup + a sword + a tree + a green hill + a blog about good stories + here there be spoilers
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1. UnPlanned by Abby Johnson

Most of the stories I write about on this blog are fictional, but this is a story you couldn't make up. Abby Johnson, as an idealistic young college student, pursued her passion for women's health care by getting involved with Planned Parenthood, eventually becoming  manager at a Texas clinic. Her exit from the organization was set in motion the day she was asked to actually assist at an abortion guided by ultrasound. This dramatic scene opens unPlanned, but the full story begins much earlier,  in the flashback to her own unwanted pregnancies and her experiences with 'both sides of the fence' at the clinic leading up to her decision to depart the organization. Believe PP's intent to make abortion 'safe, legal, and rare?' So did Abby Johnson. What she learned from the inside out about Planned Parenthood and its activities, including changes made in recent years, explodes that myth. But there is no demonizing of her fellow clinic workers, many of whom like herself were sincerely working to provide various needed health care services for women.

Johnson now works with an organization that helps other health care workers get out of the abortion business. Read the book for her inside view and the dramatic events that followed her fateful participation in the ultrasound abortion.  

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2. Angel Above the Sea

Fr. Seraphim Gascoigne’s Angel Above the Sea brings to life a frightening time and place in 20th Century history. Seen largely through the eyes of two disparate characters, the Japanese occupation of Shanghai holds many intertwining stories. Shanghai street urchin Tien Loi, searching for his sister, crosses paths with Sawabe Tomasu, an idealistic Japanese Imperial officer who is at heart an artist longing to return to his training in Paris.  City crimelords, occupying troops with corrupt officers, student resistance bands, and strange supernatural beings weave their way through the narrative. Western readers may be surprised to find a Russian Orthodox cathedral in the midst of the wartime chaos, where it stands as a haven for the street children and a jewelbox of beauty against the backdrop of death and destruction.  Preteens and young adults will enjoy following Tien Loi on his dangerous and meandering pilgrimage, encountering friends and foes,  close calls and mystical experiences. 

Read the first chapter now on Amazon's First Look feature. 

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3. Hobbit Heroes: Tolkien’s Reversal of Beowulf Themes

It's been far too long since I made a post here. Below are some thoughts I scribbled on a book a read quite some time ago.

Deborah Higgens: Anglo-Saxon Community in JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

I thoroughly enjoyed the above book. What follows below is neither a book review nor a rebuttal, but some further thoughts occasioned by Professor Higgens’ book.

Chapter two in Higgens’ book : “On Fairy Stories and Monsters” In this chapter, writing of the structure of LOTR in comparison to Beowulf, I think Prof. Higgens misses something very interesting: Tolkien has reversed some of the elements. This  omission is not the fault of Prof. Higgens because of course you have to look at The Hobbit as part of the same work as LOTR to do this. And of course The Hobbit is not part of the same work in style and intent—but the setting is the same and the events are—confluent, perhaps?

In any case, the monster in the early part of the combined work, The Hobbit, is a dragon; while in the later part, LOTR, at the centre (as Prof. Higgins puts it) is the very Grendel-like monster, Gollum. Like Grendel’s ancestor Cain, Gollum is a kin-slayer who by this primal act of murder descends ever deeper into a monstrous nature. In Beowulf, this descent is through the generations from Cain to Grendel;  but in Gollum it is a personal descent, through an unnatually long life conferred by the Ring.

Where the Beowulf poet’s hero is a singular one, and one of a dying breed at that, Tolkien’s hobbit heroes Bilbo and Frodo are of a new, young race—indeed they are the meek who will inherit the earth, the ‘hobbit children’ who had no mention in the ‘old lists’, and the “little people” who arise to shake the counsels of the mighty.

Beowulf begins by destroying the cursed kin of Cain—first Grendel and then Gerndel’s mother—inaugurating a golden age (if only a generation-long age) for Hrothgar’s people—not Beowulf’s own people, but neighbours and allies. Bilbo too sets out on his first quest to assist a people other than his own, the dwarves who seek their ancient home and treasure. Beowulf comes on purpose to slay a monster, and even boasts of it beforehand in the manner of his culture. Bilbo however is a reluctant hero who goes in company with the dwarves in search of treasure, only agreeing to the contract after something like shame wakes up the Tookish, adventurous part buried in him.  Bilbo, rather than boasting in advance of his attempts to serve the dwarves as contracted,  is self-effacing -- and, after finding the ring, he becomes literally invisible!

Slaying a dragon is no part of his plan, and in fact it is not in the end Bilbo’s hand that dooms Smaug. Still, his own part is indispensible, the spotting of the chink in the dragon’s armour and getting the message to Bard the Bowman.

If we move on to LOTR, we find Frodo taking up Bilbo’s mantle on a much darker and greater quest. Of course Sauron is a more formidable ‘monster’ than the dragon Smaug, his downfall much harder to arrange…but the monster who is actually front and center, wrestling with the Hobbit hero for so much of the long story, is Gollum….nothing so simple as a dragon, but a degraded and ruined creature of mutual stock with the hero.

As Grendel and Beowulf both descend from Adam, so Frodo (and Bilbo) and Smeagol/Gollum are both descended from a primitive hobbit-like race. And there the reversal of monsters becomes starkly different: while Beowulf comes intending and boasting about his expectation of killing Grendel, Frodo at first fears Gollum and wishes him dead. Slowly, as he bears the Ring, his pity and compassion for Gollum grow, and his kindness over the terrible journey even begins to coax the pre-murderous Smeagol to the surface.

Redemption is offered, but in the end, Gollum rejects it. Yet Frodo’s compassion is not in vain, for by it he himself is saved from a descent into worse than Grendel-like monstrousness.

In Beowulf, the old pagan hero goes down to death at last, and his sidekick is the one to finish off the dragon. We have here an interesting parallel with a smaller monster episode in LOTR, when Frodo lies bound and senseless beneath Shelob, and Sam strikes the blow – from beneath, as in Beowulf!- that defeats the giant spider.

Beowulf’s sacrifice buys no lasting victory for his people, as the conclusion of the poem tells. Tolkien too acknowledges the inevitability of death in LOTR; indeed there is a pervasive theme of sadness and loss about the book and all of Middle Earth, as many have observed. Yet LOTR is a eucatastrophical fairy tale in which the denoument tells us at length about the many happy and satisfying endings for all the characters in the newly-dawned Third Age, the age of Men. Frodo is more than a national hero like Beowulf, who moves from battling the demonized descendant of Cain to facing—and dying in defeat to—a primal non-human force, the Dragon. Frodo’s “death” in Shelob’s lair, however,  is not permanent, and with Sam’s help Frodo rises again to make the journey to Mount Doom and defeat the monster greater than the giant spider, Sauron. 

For the hobbit heroes, the dragon Smaug and the spider Shelob are simple foes, and defeated with what turns out to be relative ease.  Not so with Gollum, antagonist/monster who appears first in The Hobbit and then haunts the pages of Lord of the Rings. Frodo’s wrestling with Gollum is our wrestling with our own fall and diseased nature, and the weapons are compassion—not a sentimental compassion, but a wise one, in which Frodo sternly insists on—and gets!—good behaviour from Gollum, at least until the power of the Ring overcomes the hapless creature. And while Frodo himself emerges maimed from the final battle that takes Gollum on Mount Doom, and his wounds trouble him ever after till he sails west with the elves, his hobbitish heroism buys a new world not only for his own people in the Shire, but for Men and Dwarves as well.

In the next chapter, Dr. Higgens notes how Frodo and Sam in turn receive the heirloom sword Sting, just as Beowulf is lent a sword of name to fight Grendel’s dam; and as Beowulf’s helper Wiglaf uses a famous sword when they face the dragon. But the dragon’s hide breaks these famous swords, while Sting, small and outwardly humble, conquers Shelob and survives to kill yet more monsters (orcs). The orcs speak flippantly of someone ‘sticking a pin in her ladyship”, the fearsome giant spider Shelob, but soon afterward Sam and Sting are transformed in their terrified imaginations to a tall elf-warrior with a supernaturally deadly blade.

Once again Tolkien reverses the themes of Beowulf, as Frodo’s ‘resurrection’ from his almost-death beneath a looming monster follows. Wiglaf can kill the dragon only after Beowulf has fallen, but Frodo’s helper Sam is able to rescue his master after the defeat of Shelob.

In chapter three, Dr. Higgens examines the comitatus (Anglo-Saxon kinship group) and gift-giving in the hall. Again Tolkien’s work contrasts with Beowulf. Beowulf comes to aid his allies the Danes against a threat to their home, and there in the hall boasts of his planned deeds and accepts a place of honour at the feast. But Bilbo himself, the small hero of the tale, is the host to the dwarves, who invite themselves to his home/hall (with comic results, of course) and demand to be fed. The reluctant hero Bilbo, far from boasting what he will do, must let himself be persuaded to sign a contract.  

We may think also of Pippin, who does not come as a kind of rainmaker to Minas Tirith as Beowulf does to the Danish court. Rather, the young hobbit is pressed into service as an ostensible member of the guard, but really mostly as a sort of novelty in the hall of the Steward. The Steward is of course no true ruler, and it is Pippin’s unexpected service that rescues Faramir from the pyre—like Bilbo in the dragon’s den, he gets a message out to the ‘big people’ who can perform the great physical feats needed.

These are not very organized thoughts, but as an enthusiast of both Anglo-Saxon culture and of Middle Earth, I found them intriguing.

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4. A Gathering of Generous Spirits-DOXACON

Once upon a time, a merry band of Orthofolk found each other in a little parish in the DC suburbs. In each of their hearts burned the longing for joy, and they made it their quest to gather other adventurers of good will together in order to create a treasure that would work a powerful magic on all present. 

They toiled for many moons, and just when the place for the working of the magic was almost secured, they found they must face that notorious dragon known as Budget which has such curious properties of shrinking or growing when least expected. They sounded their horn, and an army of their fellow parishioners came to their aid. With willing hands and the magic of Generosity they put the dragon to flight, thus providing for the feast to honour the visiting adventurers who were to come from far and near, across mountains and seas, to share in the magic-making. 

The appointed day arrived, and so did I, for I was one of those farbrought adventurers tasked with providing a jewel to be set in the magical garland that would cast the spell of joy. The Goodwife led me and my apprentice through a daunting underground maze, staunchly persisting in the face of a contrary ensorcellement laid thickly upon us by the sweltering air, until at last Goodwife broke the spell of confusion and we reached the waiting coach.  

Past the imposing fortresses and monuments of the imperial District we fled, till we reached the refuge of the inn at Hill-town. 

We soon found ourselves amid an illustrious company, and I tasted the generosity of spirit of participants who came to purchase copies of my books and to speak kindly of my work.   Then the magic began with the presentation of treasures in the form of books of wonder from an enchanted library hidden in the imperial District itself, carried to the gathering by their custodian, whose pronouncements wove the first threads of the three-day spell. 

The second day all the company joined in the chanting of powerful verses, of which I can give you here only a few: 

"In the wondrous blending of sounds it is Thy call we hear; in the harmony of many voices, in the sublime beauty of music, in the glory of the works of great composers: Thou leadest us to the threshold of paradise to come, and to the choirs of angels. All true beauty has the power to draw the soul towards Thee, and to make it sing in ecstasy: Alleluia!

The breath of Thine Holy Spirit inspires artists, poets and scientists. The power of Thy supreme knowledge makes them prophets and interpreters of Thy laws, who reveal the depths of Thy creative wisdom. Their works speak unwittingly of Thee. How great art Thou in Thy creation! How great art Thou in man!"

Then began the further weaving of treasures from afar into the spell of wonder and joy. These gems came from not just lands far distant in our own world, as Ancient Greece and fabled Cathay,  but even from other worlds-- the desert world called Dune, the mysterious realm of The Black, the far reaches of Middle Earth and the seas beyond the Lone Islands of Narnia, among others. 

With Basil of Caesarea to guide us to Truth and Faith, we made use of the works of legendary craftsmen such as Stapledon, Lucas, Grimm, Whedon-- and of course Tolkien, Lewis, and Chesterton.  The names of some of the magic-weavers present at the gathering themselves were names to conjure with: Wright, Lamplighter, and Loewen. 

The day's work was drawn together by the chanting of the evening prayers at the temple nearby, and then the white-bearded senior hierarch spoke to all some sobering and bracing words about Last Things. The spell had done its work and the spirit of joy had filled all, and now we went to the fellowship feast provided by the generous spirits of the hosting parish. A garlanded party tent and lamp-hung tree sheltered the merrymakers well into the night, and a final fireworks show in the clouds above was put on by the realm itself. 

The final day we spent at our most solemn ritual and fast-breaking in preparation for our journey home. The many meetings gave way to many partings, but we took the magical spell of refreshment with us. The wonder is that its power is now ascending, and we know not how much it will grow in the end. Already the inspiration has spread, and there are rumours of another gathering to be held across the continent, as well as the hopes for a second and more in years to come in the land around the Parish of the Generous Spirit. 

If you wish to read a more literal and wonderfully thorough account of the first ever DOXACON, go to this blog

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5. The Truth is Out There

By Thomas Bertonneau and Kim Paffenroth

The subtitle of this one is "Christian Faith and the Classics of TV Science Fiction"  That is a very precise subtitle, as it is not about Christian Faith -in- the classics of TV SF. Instead, the authors' approach is what Tolkien called "applicability"-- kind of the inverse of allegory, which Tolkien said he 'cordially disliked'.  

With allegory, you have a pre-patterned set of ideas, and all the conspicuous elements of the work are, to a greater or lesser extent, symbols representing those ideas. John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress is perhaps the quintessential strict allegory familiar to most readers today. Narnia is not as strictly allegorical as that, but Tolkien found it a little too close for his taste. He preferred history, either true or invented, and of course he invented his own history of Middle Earth on a grand, probably unmatched, scale. 

The six TV series examined in The Truth is Out There. Nor are they quite history, even invented, but like Tolkien's history, we can use them for -applicability-. And there is a great deal of applicability to Christian concepts to be found in these diverse fictional universes. The six series are:

Doctor Who
Star Trek
The Prisoner
The Twilight Zone
The X Files
Babylon 5

The authors begin by noting that that science and religion need not be at odds, and each chapter examines elements that are either explicitly Christian or compatible with Christian concepts. If you like any of these shows, this book is worth a look! 

Meanwhile, this July 19-21 in Springfield VA,  Dr. Bertonneau will be a keynote speaker at DOXACON: Where Faith and Truth Meet Science Fiction and Fantasy.   Your Refreshment of Spirit blog host (moi) will also be among the presenters-- more details to come on my main blog

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6. The Edge of Mysterion

This is Fr. Richard Rene's second book about the strange and illuminating world of Mysterion. You can read about the first one, The Nightmare Tree at this post elsewhere on my blog

In this next story, the hero of The Nightmare Tree, Jonah Comfait, reappears in a new role as a mentor to the troubled and distrustful young  Isabella. Bella is set on course to outdo the most ruthless of pirates who infest the seas of Mysterion, but there are powers in that world who seek to lead her back to her real self-- whatever it may cost. I can't say much more without revealing spoilers, and though I sometimes do just that on this blog, I would urge you to read the story for yourself to see what becomes of Bella as she faces ultimate choices with her soul at stake. 

This book was my Holy Week reading this year, and there is no doubt it counts among stories that refresh the spirit. I was captivated still more than with The Nightmare Tree by the poetic wonders of Mysterion, its dangers and its beauties. 

You can order the book on Amazon or several other sites, in paperback or Kindle edition. 

Listen to an interview with the author in this podcast. 

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7. A BRAVE Mother's Day

You may have heard about the to-do of Disney's impending redesign of BRAVE Princess Merida. Badly timed on the Mother's Day weekend, if you ask me. It isn't a refreshing story, I'm afraid, but BRAVE itself is. 

It's likely useless, but there is a petition to Disney against the change of young , tomboyish Merida into a sassy older teenager. If you care about media role models for girls, I encourage you to make your voice heard anyway and sign the petition here

If you want more super fictional role models for your daughters, check out MightyGirl. You'll find tomboys like Merida alongside imaginative characters like Anne of Green Gables. 

Meanwhile, a very happy Mother's Day to all moms, and especially to moms and their daughters. Enjoy: 


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8. Oz the Great and Powerful: When Good is Better than Great

This post appeared this past week at The Sounding Blog at OCnet. Do check out the blog, there are lots of good articles by various authors there, including my husband. 

I've decided to archive this one here  instead of on my Deja Pubd site for previously published items because it really fits the mandate of Storyspell as a spiritually refreshing story. 

(warning-- spoilers for the movie here!)

“Kansas is full of good men. I don’t want to be a good man…I want to be a great one!”

Thus  Oscar Diggs, a.k.a. Oz the Great and Powerful, small-time carnival magician, turns down his chance to fight for the love of  a lovely young woman… a chance to be a “church-going man”, a man with a family.  Goodness is too ordinary for Oz’s egotistical devotion to performance and his hopes of fame and wealth.  

I’d been seeing the critical response to this movie, and in general the consensus has been ‘good—not great’.  So I went to see it with very modest expectations—and had them thoroughly exceeded. The critics are right—this movie is not great, but it is good, genuinely good.  Good not just in the sense of quality but in the sense of good at heart.  Its very theme is goodness versus greatness, and that has made it a better story and more fulfilling film experience than many films with more of a  claim to the label ‘great’.

I’ll pass over the critical complaints  that have been made about some of the actors’ performances and the quality of the dialogue and narrative, because while excellence instead of mere competence in these areas might have raised the film closer to greatness,  the film in fact self-consciously chooses goodness over greatness. That is Oscar Diggs’ essential journey, from desiring greatness to realizing goodness, and I was surprised at how blatantly spiritual a journey it was.

Oz trades in cheap illusions, but will not admit it even when a crippled child in the audience, dazzled by one of his tricks, begs him to make her walk. He offers a bogus explanation of why he can’t help, and the crowd becomes enraged, so he ducks out. Pursued by a wrathful circus strong man, whose girlfriend Oz has flirted with, as he has so many young women,   he makes his escape by balloon. But his elation is short-lived as a  suddenly looming tornado sucks him in,  battering and spinning  him around  until he literally cries out to heaven, begging to be spared—and promising to mend his ways.

The storm eases, the balloon sails out into sunlight at last.  As often happens after an instance of repentance, Oscar receives a kind of spiritual illumination as he emerges for the first time into the full-colour world—the opening carnival scenes having mirrored the black and white Kansas of the original Wizard of Oz film.  The balloon sets Oscar/Oz down in water. Could there be a clearer baptismal image?  Our hero has arrived in a beautiful and magical land, full of life and music and wonder—a land which is in fact himself, for it is named Oz, and he is welcomed as the fulfilment of the prophecy of the great and powerful wizard who will save the land from a wicked witch.  But like Eustace when released from the dragon spell in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Oz has only begun to be a different person.  His old habits of thought and action are still in place.

He flatters and misleads the good witch Theodora while witholding the commitment of his heart. Fearful and reluctant to take on the mantle of the prophesied wizard, he nevertheless cannot resist the promise of gold and a throne shown to him by Theodora’s sister Evanora. But perhaps the greatest inducement to Oz is the chance to pull the greatest trick ever on the biggest audience he’s ever had.

On the road to kill the wicked witch, he discovers the devastated ‘China Town’, ruined by the the wicked witch, and rescues a little china doll by using quick-setting glue from his bag of carnival tricks to mend her broken legs. This is momentous, for Oscar has now become able to heal, as he could not do in Kansas. Healing hands, as we know from The Lord of the Rings, are an attribute of the prophesied king.

Soon he encounters the ‘wicked witch’ – only to discover she is in fact the goodwitch, Glinda, and that he was deceived by Evanora, who is the real wicked witch. The Glinda in the original Wizard of Oz film appeared in clouds of pale pink tulle sprinkled with silvery stars, sweet as cotton candy. But this Glinda appears first in concealing black, then in several variations on simple and graceful white gowns, with feather adornments hinting at an angelic temperament—a visual statement that goodness, not mere magic, is her main character attribute.  

And the goodness yet hidden in Oz is reflected in his attraction to Glinda, who is played by the same actress who portrayed the young lady he gave up in Kansas, a young lady who represented the goodness of a simple, humble, ordinary life.
Meanwhile Evanora has convinced Theodora to ‘come to the dark side’, offering her an enviously green apple to assuage her heartbreak over Oz’s joining up with Glinda. But of course the apple makes Theodora turn completely wicked. Hell hath no fury like this scorned witch, and she is transformed into the green-skinned cackling hag whose appearance we know so well from the original Wizard of Oz.

Oz is persuaded to join Glinda and her people in their fight against Evanora and Theodora. Glinda knows Oz isn’t a great wizard. But he’s the only one the people of Oz have, and she proposes he pretend to be what they need.  In the climactic battle, Oz uses subterfuge; 
technology invented by his hero Thomas Edison and built by the tinkers of Oz; and above all, teamwork.  But then Oz seems to revert to his identity as Oscar Diggs, Kansas con man. Having set up the battle plan, he makes ready to leave by balloon, taking with him treasure stolen from the city coffers and leaving behind his allies, crushed at his desertion. But then the balloon crashes and burns.  The illusion of Oz’s gigantic face projected in the courtyard, along with fireworks, flummoxes the witches’ army, and finally they flee.  Oz  has played his greatest magic trick, faking the death of Oscar Diggs so the great and powerful Wizard of Oz can rule. He calls out to Theodora as she flies away that he knows she was turned to wickedness by her sister, and if she ever wants to return to goodness, she will be welcome. But she shrieks “Never!” and soars off on her broom.  

“I knew you had it in you,” Glinda says to Oz when it’s all over.
The battle was won by Oz’s talents and the work of the people. Technology has often been the thing that tips the balance of war, but the choice of goodness over greatness dictated to what use they would put Oz’s technology. By the end of the film he has become a man who must forever give up the stage performance to be the man behind the curtain—in other words, he has learned the humility that is the hallmark of goodness, in contrast to the egotism that infuses the striving after greatness.  In the process, he has gained friendship and love.

This is a family film, only a little scary for the younger ones, and like all good children’s stories and fairy tales it cuts to the heart of  eternal issues. In a culture that worships the spotlight on the stage and where everyone believes they are, at the very least, above average, Oz the Great and Powerful shows us the conversion of egotistical ambition to humble goodness.  Oz the Great and Powerful is really Oz the Good and Powerful, for there is truly more power in Goodness than Greatness.

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9. Rings returned

Another of those breath-of-fresh-air stories that turns up now and then.

Decades later, someone who was once just a dumb kid at a party sent back the rings he stole. Perhaps he never knew that the daughter of the house was turned in to the cops by her parents over the out-of-control-party and missing items.

The thief remains anonymous, understandably ashamed and embarrassed. But his message was contrite, and the action of returning the rings speaks even  louder than the words. Follow the link for the whole story of how much this meant to the family.

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I've written before about how human interaction with animals in stories can hark back to Eden. It's fun to see something wonderful like this happening for real:

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11. Just too much fun

There's a premise for a kid's book if I ever saw one. A serendipitous spill for scientists, who have been following the progress of the duckies around the globe for years now. Doesn't it just make you smile? Read the whole story at the Mail.uk

Update: I might have known-- the picture book has already been done by Eric Carle of The Very Hungry Caterpillar fame. Further, there is another book about the true story, delightfully titled Moby Duck. Read more in this article. 

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12. Mothers in time

spoiler alert!  

don't read if you haven't seen Looper yet. 

Unless you are one of those people who really don't mind knowing the story before they see the movie. 
You have been warned. If you want to continue, then scroll down. 

And in addition to spoiler alert, warning-- this might not be a movie you would expect to see categorized as 'spiritually refreshing'.  I've stated before that some of the stories I look at in this blog are sometimes dark and violent. So while Looper is one that I feel offers goodness at its core, it's strong stuff and not for everyone. 

It is however much more than a futuristic action flick. I won't get into crazy speculations about time travel, and nit pick the various ways it doesn't make sense-- Huffington Post for one has already had some fun with this, if that interests you. Or check out this infographic  

Time travel stories always have these problems. I prefer to just suspend disbelief and get on with the point of the story.  Looper may be a time travel story, but it isn't -about- time travel. Like many other time travel stories, of course, it is inevitably about choices and their consequences. The strength of the performances from all the actors lifts it above the gimmickry and melodrama that is sometimes inherent in time travel scenarios.  

It's certainly not a chick flick-- but nevertheless, everything in the story hinges on the love of mothers. 

do you remember in Hook when Peter's little daughter Maggie rebukes the villainous pirate captain? 

She says: "You need a mother very very badly!"

That is the underlying theme of Looper: that without the love and guidance of a good mother, men destroy themselves and others.  

The movie is Joe's story, and that's why Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Joe) and Bruce Willis (Joe's older future self) get top billing. Joe is a looper, a hired killer who puts down victims sent from the future and disposes of their bodies. The catch for every looper is, one day the victim who appears, head covered,   will be that looper's future self. Killing the future self 'closes the loop'-- a bit of a metaphor for self-destructive choices made at what you didn't know was the point of no return. You knew there -would- be such a point, of course-- but didn't know this was it until too late. 

But Joe's older self contrives to come back without the concealing bag on his head, is recognized by his younger self, and old Joe escapes. The chase ensues. So it's Joe's story, old Joe and young Joe together. 

Yet third-billed Emily Blunt's character Sara, the mother of the telekinetic child Cid, is no token mommy, but the pivotal character in the narrative. 

The film introduces her relatively late, in a surprisingly leisurely scene that shows her as a hard-working farm mom who struggles to educate and care for a little boy who is sometimes angry and stubborn and even declares she is -not- his mother, calling her by her first name. We learn later of the boy's frightening and uncontrollable abilities, and see Sara's guts in dealing with the possible threat to his safety from Joe when he stumbles onto her property, fugitive and in withdrawal. Sara talks tough and aims the gun, but has too much empathy to pull the trigger. She gets him through withdrawal. We learn that Sara too was once a junkie, and gave up her child to be raised by her sister-- who died a couple of years later, killed by Cid's uncontrolled TK. That was the incentive for Sara to clean herself up and become Cid's mother in reality-- possibly risking the same fate as her sister. 

Joe's own mother was lost to him at an early age, yet her influence on him remains palpable. As a lonely street kid he was recruited by Abe, the man from the future sent to run the looper operation. But even though Joe  kills, takes his pay, and parties with his fellows, he has a certain groundedness the others do not-- he carefully saves half his pay--  and a compassion he struggles with. He is only reluctantly persuaded to turn over a fellow looper to the gang, and then only on the assurance that his friend will not be killed for the crime of failing to 'close his loop'. Joe has a favorite prostitute at the local night club, and when he is with her he talks of how his mother used to stroke his hair. He offers half his saved money to her to get out of her life in the city and raise her child in a better environment but she refuses. 


Old Joe, 25 years in the future, falls in love at last after a wasted life, and this woman, mother-like, nurses him through drug withdrawal-- just as Sara does with young Joe. Old Joe marries the woman, and they want a child but are not able to have one before the day comes when he is snatched to be sent to the past for execution by his younger self. It is seeing his wife killed in the process that makes him determined to escape and change the past. 

At first there seems to be a chance Joe and old Joe will become allies as the gang hunts them both, but then Joe discovers what his future self is up to-- targeting three young boys for execution because one of them is to become in the future "The Rainmaker", a man who took over the mob singlehanded and started ordering all the loops closed, and who therefore was also the cause of old Joe's wife being killed. 

Assassinating an evil leader before he starts to do harm is not a new SF idea-- I'm sure I once read a story about someone going into the past to assassinate Hitler as a child. And of course Minority Report is about arresting people for crimes they have not yet committed. Old Joe is set on his course, but he is conscience-wracked after killing the first two children. But not enough to desist his course. In a climactic scene in the cane fields, young Joe has an epiphany. He sees the endless loop, as Sara stands between Old Joe and Cid-- sees that here is the death of the mother of the child who becomes the Rainmaker, that Old Joe will ironically become the cause of what he sought to prevent when the child escapes, orphaned, to grow up much like Joe himself did-- but with uncontrolled super powers. Joe sees the loop 'the mother willing to die to save her child, the man (his older self) willing to kill to save his wife' -- and he stops it. He does not close  the loop by killing his future self-- instead he sacrifices himself with a shot to the chest, so that the future self never exists, and Old Joe vanishes. 

Sara remains to mother the gifted child into what we now have to believe will be heroism instead of villainy. After putting her boy to bed, she goes back to Joe's body, tenderly runs her fingers through his hair in the way we know he remembered from his own childhood. 

Though Sara appears, as I said, relatively late in the film, there are numerous touches pointing up the importance of mothers throughout. Early in the film, when Joe's friend is about to shoot his older self, he recognizes him because his older self begins to hum a tune his mother sang him as a lullaby.  On Sara's farm, when the gang comes looking for Joe, he  and perhaps for Cid, Joe and the boy hide in an underground storm shelter, and they talk about mothers together.When Old Joe kills the first child on his list, we see a mother come around the corner with a stroller, blissfully unaware, and go on her way. In a 'fuzzy memory' that Old Joe gets, we hear a baby's cry and know it is possible he will in fact succeed in changing the future such that his wife does not die, but becomes the mother she wanted to be. 

I don't doubt I've missed other little notes in this score about mothers in time, and look forward to picking them up next time I see it....Writer/director Rian Johnson says there will possibly be 45 minutes worth of deleted scenes on the disc when it comes out!

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13. "You can just imagine the love story."

From the Telegraph story 

A balloonist in the UK snapped this photo of a remarkable secret monument. Click the cap under the picture to read the whole story at The Telegraph. 

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14. Chivalry: SO not dead yet!

Having read the entire Hunger Games trilogy last year, I was ever so eager to see the film. It came out in Lent so we were saving it for our Bright Week treat. But when we got there, the theatre had technical difficulties, so we had to find another time in our over-full schedule to view it, and at long last we got there last night. It was everything I hoped, one of the best movie adaptations of a book I've ever seen-- and of a book that was exceptionally good to begin with.

We were discussing it around the fire afterward and enthusing about the character of Peeta.

I've written in this blog about several literary characters who are heroic and even chivalrous-- Reepicheep is perhaps the best of all-- but I am really thrilled with author Suzanne Collins for giving us Peeta, the boy with the bread as a-- dare I say it-- role model for young men today. A role model who shows us that chivalry is not dead yet.

When Katniss is suffering severe hunger, collapsed in the rain behind the bakery owned by Peeta's family, he comes out to give some burnt bread to the pigs, and seeing her there he throws one of the loaves her way. The book expands on this incident, and we know that not only did he give her the bread; in order to help Katniss,  he deliberately burned the bread in the first place so his mother would make him throw it out. He did this even though he knew very well she would beat and scold him for burning the loaves.

Katniss herself is certainly no spoiled princess-- and she too shows her sterling character from the start of the story, first risking herself regularly to hunt and provide for her family, then stepping forward to take her little sister's place in the arena.

At the end of the movie, of course, the rules of the horrific Survivor-like Hunger Games are switched on them, and the promise that two might be victors together is snatched away from them. Of course Peeta instantly offers himself up so Katniss may survive. And Katniss of course finds a way out, forcing the gamemakers to to allow them both to live.

Amid all this heroism there is one small detail in the film version that to me particularly spells 'chivalry'. Peeta lies in danger of death, and starts talking to Katniss about the incident with the bread. "I should have just given it to you!" he laments. The boy with the bread took a beating to help her, but now as he looks back on what is likely his rather short life, he can only think he should have done what he did in a better way.

Chivalry is never just satisfied with a right thing. It strives to do the rightest thing that can be done, in the rightest way it can find to do it.

Here on A Spell for Refreshment, I try to focus largely on the positive side of things, the side of light and refreshment, though I have talked in some posts about how this doesn't mean spiritually refreshing stories shy away from the darkness and ugliness in the world. But the cliche about lighting one candle rather than cursing the darkness certainly applies. So when I was reading some articles about how a depressing percentage of young people in our society are "more confident, assertive, entitled-- and more miserable than ever", it threw Peeta

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15. Becoming what you pretend to be

A family favorite, Galaxy Quest is a good-hearted homage to, of course, the original Star Trek TV show.   
But hilarious as it is, Galaxy Quest is much more than a spoof-- it is all about becoming what you pretend to be. 

In a stunningly insightful article called "The Brain on Love"  in the NYTimes, author Diane Ackerman writes that

 "the brain is constantly rewiring itself based on daily life. In the end, what we pay the most attention to defines us. How you choose to spend the irreplaceable hours of your life literally transforms you." (emphasis mine)

That is part of why we Orthodox spend so very much time in church. We are there to become what we pretend to be.
This is the opposite of hypocrisy--the Pharisee, the hypocrite puts up a front of piety, particularly preaching what others ought to do-- but it is not really what he spends the hours of his life doing. He tells people they should keep the rules in all their minutiae, then breaks them big himself. 
The person in the process of transformation keeps on performing-- but eventually, when a test comes, he discovers that the performance has become internalized, and his brain and spirit have been 'rewired'.  
This is what happens to the characters in Galaxy Quest-- the washed-up stars of a now-defunct  TV space adventure show, still beloved of the fans, find themselves whisked into a real galactic adventure with unimaginably high stakes. They are called upon to become the

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16. Knot Art (even if Not Icons)

"In 2007, Vladimir Denshchikov suffered a stroke, right before a theatrical premiere, which led to his taking a teaching job at the Simferopol Institute of Culture. While recuperating from this terrible condition, the artist continued working on an icon for the church of Malorechenskoye village, and as he struggled to weave little knots, he felt his partially paralyzed hand moving ever more freely, as if God was guiding it Himself. The artist made a miraculous recovery and continues to create wonderful macrame artworks."

read the rest of this story here     ht to @ChrissiHrt on Twitter.com

I do want to note that this particular artform is not correctly an icon according to traditional Orthodox iconography.   Instead, the artist is here reproducing in macrame what used to be done in precious metal as a not only an adornment but also protection of the painted icon against wear and tear caused by veneration in the form of kissing. Here is an example in metal:

from this site  http://www.crosses.org/icon/ 

 The Chicago School of Media Theory has this to say about this practice:

With the acceptance of the icon as a religious tool well established, the icons’ religious use was further dictated and refined by Church doctrine. The form of the religious icon as it is recognized today, both by art history and the Church, is still easily traceable to these doctrines, the most famous of them being the Byzantine aesthetic rules of “clarity and recognizability,” which limited both the scope of the images which were reproducible and the form these reproductions could take. Functionally, this increased the images’ ability to be recognized as of the church and increased their circulation. First adopted from the Byzantines by the Greek Orthodox church, the images soon after became a central part of

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17. Borrow some Refreshment!

Have you ever come back as an adult to a book you thought was wonderful as a child but hadn't re-read since then? 

I can remember one such book that shall remain nameless, which I came across and excitedly purchased to share with my girls when they were young, only to discover it was poorly written and the characters annoying. 

Not so with The Borrowers by Mary Norton, thank goodness! Deservedly the winner of the 1952 Carnegie medal for children's literature. 

I'm quite excited to see the new animated adaptation, The Secret World of Arrietty, but I gather that like other film versions it departs quite a bit from the original. I wanted to renew my acquaintance with the book first, so I ordered it up from my local library, and it came in this lovely edition illustrated by Michael Hague. What a treat! 

Borrowers of course are 'little people' who live in the various behind-the-scenes nooks and crannies of houses, 'borrowing' small items from the big people for their own uses, such as blotting paper for carpets and matchboxes for dresser drawers. Such uses are a familiar conceit in children's picture books featuring anthropomorphic mice and the like, but they are only part of the charm of Norton's book. Her portrayal of the world from a viewpoint a few inches high is masterful, as in this passage where the adventurous young Arrietty visits the out-of-doors for the first time: 

"Cautiously she moved toward the bank and climbed a little nervously in amongst the green blades. As she parted them gently with her bare hands, drops of water plopped on her skirt and she felt the red shoes become damp. But on she went, pulling herself up now and again by rooty stems into this jungle of moss and wood-violet and creeping leaves of clover. The sharp-seeming grass blades, waist high, were tender to the touch and sprang back lightly behind her as she passed..." 

But one of the most interesting aspects of the book to me was the way the characters interacted. It is almost a truism in children's literature that parents, of course, stop adventures from happening. That's been so from long before the Grimms and Perreault, and you'll find it these days in any Disney movie too-- usually the mother is dead, Dad is tiny and absent-minded or just plain absent, or the family gets separated by some disaster.  
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18. Death Defeated: The Nightingale

 "The Emperor and the Nightingale" is my nomination for the most-nearly-perfect short story everwritten.
Jenny Lind-- wikimedia commons
 Hans Christian Andersen is one of my favorite authors, as I mention elsewhere. This tale is in part a tribute to the Swedish singer Jenny Lind and her unaffected performances in a musical world that valued a lot of frippery. 

This story is spiritually refreshing in many ways—the cleverbut gentle satire, the sheer beauty of the imagery, but most of all because inthe end, Death is defeated.

A while ago I acquired the complete DVD set of Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre.  The Nightingale is one of the best episodes of this brilliant series, and but for some unnecessary but harmless embellishments is faithful to the original.  Mick Jagger as the world-weary Emperor hits just the right note, if you’ll pardon that pun….

The Logismoi blog features a post about the Elder Porphyrios and his encounter with a nightingale. The elder relates: 

After a while the silence was broken by a sweet, intoxicating voice singing and praising the Creator. I looked. I couldn’t discern anything. Eventually, on a branch opposite me I saw a tiny bird. It was a nightingale. I listened as the nightingale trilled unstintingly, its throat puffed out to bursting in sustained song. The microscopic little bird was stretching back its wings in order to find power to emit those sweetest of tones, and puffing out its throat to produce that exquisite voice. If only I had a cup of water to give it to drink and quench its thirst!

Tears came to my eyes—the same tears of grace that flowed so effortlessly and that I had acquired from Old Dimas [an old Rus

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19. PLANET NARNIA: A Jovial Book

I didn't think anything could make me love Narnia more than I already do, and have done for probably (ULP!) almost fifty years....but this book did!  

Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis, does for the Chronicles of Narnia what John Granger's Hidden Key to Harry Potter did for the Harry Potter books, and more. 

Can you imagine that there is a deeper dimension, a more intricately-woven structure than we ever supposed to the Chronicles of Narnia? 

I don't blame you if you are skeptical. But author and Lewis scholar Michael Ward deals with the objections very thoroughly. The real trouble we have is, we just do not live in the same thought universe that medieval people did...but which Lewis moved and worked in like a native. 

I have a couple of very small quibbles with the book, but honestly I don't want to bother putting them in this post-- it would be unfair to do that without going into properly proportionate detail about all the many things I think are wonderful about the book, and I haven't the time to do that just now. And the quibbles I have are not with the author's thesis. 

Please note, this is serious work of scholarly criticism, meant for the academic audience. I found it very well and clearly written (clarity of expression is one of Lewis's own greatest virtues) but it is thick with footnotes, references to medieval and classical authors, quotes and asides in various languages dead and living. So if you find the prospect of such a bit daunting, fear not-- the author has also written a book called The Narnia Code which advances the same basic argument but without all the academic bells and whistles.

Not much of a reader? Then you may just want to check out the documentary presentation The Narnia Code, by director Norman Stone. 

I've been wanting Planet Narnia since I first heard about it; finally got it this past Christmas and have just read it in the past few weeks. I'm eager to go back and read the Chronicles again with this new appreciation for their structure, and also to re-read the 
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20. The Dragon is smaller than you think.....

Photo from 
Wikimedia Commons 
By Michail Jungierek 

As it's almost St. George's Day, I've been posting links to my medieval fantasy story, Light One Candle.  In that story I have an intervention by this very popular martial Saint of the middle ages. His own story has collected many embellishments over the centuries, and the best known details are the romanticized ones about the rescue of the princess. His historical roots are briefly summarized here. 

Whatever the factual origin of what later became the dragonslaying legend of St. George, in the Eastern Church we are often taught that the spiritual truth about dragon-slaying has to do with what we call 'the passions'--  by which we do not mean simply strong feelings, but rather the inflamed sinful impulses of us fallen folk that lead us astray and enslave us. George, who was in fact an early Christian martyr,  is a great exemplar of heroic conquest of these impulses. 

While writing my medieval fantasy, a particular aspect of the iconography of St. George really struck me: the dragon just wasn't that big. Look at the 15th C. bas-relief to the left, and the Russian icon below. These are just two examples of George-and-dragon art. Nearly all the images I could find had similar relative sizes of the figures. And I pondered on this as I had my fictional main character observe this fact about a stone statue of St. George in a mysterious woodland chapter. "Where's the great feat in slaying a dragon of that size?" he mocks.
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21. Into Great Silence

More than all things love silence: it brings you a fruit that tongue cannot describe. In the beginning we have to force ourselves to be silent.  But then there is born something that draws us to silence. May God give you an experience of this 'something' that is born of silence.  If you only practice this, untold light will dawn on you in consequence...after a while a certain sweetness is born in the heart of this exercise and the body is drawn almost by force to remain in silence.     - St. Isaac of Syria

Last Lent I posted a Facebook note beginning with this quote from St. Isaac of Syria. Just recently I got around to watching this wonderful film about the life of the monks of the Great Abbey of Chartreuse, Into Great Silence

George MacDonald, in "The Hands of the Father" in Unspoken Sermons describes Heaven as "...the regions where there is only life, and therefore all that is not music is silence..." 

When St. Isaac says  "in the beginning we have to force ourselves to be silent', he could have been talking about what it is like to view this film. More than ever in our constantly connect, cacophonous world, we seldom know anything like a real silence. And so it is no surprise that we ourselves have a hard time remaining silent. 

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22. Sometimes, you can't make these things up....

It sounds like a sappy Christmas movie, but it's real and it's recent. This story is clipped from the website of the Orthodox Church in America's Diocese of New York and New Jersey: 

t was a sad day for the faithful of Saints Peter and Paul Church in Buffalo NY when an intruder forcibly entered their holy house and escaped with a parish treasure: a silver encased Holy Gospel book dating back to 1933. The parish had recently experienced the revitalizing efforts of OPERATION BUFFALO (a diocesan-wide project to revive the 114 year-old parish), the assignment of Father Vlad Zablotskyy as rector, and -- in an expression of gratitude for blessings received -- offered a $250 contribution to support OPERATION ONEONTA.  In the midst of such joy and thanksgiving, the theft was the cause of sadness and sorrow. That is, until something ... “a miracle on Ideal Street” ... changed everything.
During the week of Thanksgiving Day, faithful parishioner Steve Camp spotted an appealing sales coupon in the newspaper. It looked like a good deal, so he clipped the coupon. Although not in a particularly good mood, Steve decided to take a short walk to the corner store where the coupon could be “redeemed” (a word that would prove to have profound meaning). It was not a place he would have gone that day; in fact, it is located in the direction opposite of the way he would normally walk. Holding the coupon in his hand, Steve decided the “good deal” was worth a journey into that area “on the other side” of his world.
On his journey he was approached by a young man. "Do you belong to that church on Ideal?"  Steve didn’t recognize the young man and was not expecting a conversation at that moment.“What?”  The young man repeated, “Do you belong to that church on Ideal?"  “Yes,” Steve replied,“I do.”  The two men stood face-to-face for a few moments, gazing into one another’s eyes.  The young man seemed very sad. It looked to Steve as if the young man’s eyes were about to cry.  Tears began to fall from those sorrowful eyes as he began to speak.  “I can’t live with what I did,” he said, “and I don’t want any reward.”  The young m

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23. Refreshing Life Lessons from Jane Austen

Listening to people's stories is the nicest thing you can do for them. 

(from "Mansfield Park")

This pic is from the most wonderful slide show at The Huffington Post. Author Bill Deresiewicz has created a list of "Twelve Life Lessons You Can Learn from Jane Austen".  Naturally I picked the one about 'stories' to highlight here:

"A person's story is the most personal thing about them, and paying attention to it is just about the most important thing you can do. Our stories are what make us human, and listening to someone else's stories--entering into their feelings, validating their experiences--is the highest way of acknowledging their humanity."

Serendipitously, I just happened on a post that dovetails nicely with this, from the Children's Book Quotes Blog Check it out, one of my favorite blogs. 

And now excuse me, I am off to my public library's website to request Mr. Deresiewicz's book, A Jane Austen Education :
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24. A Wrinkle in Time 50th Anniversary

 This is a 'me too' book-- one that my oldest and closest friend author Linda Finlayson and I both tagged as 'favorite' when we were in I think about grade seven. We've been sharing our favorite books, including our own, ever since.

Wrinkle clearly owes a little something to the Narnia books but it is a book for a newer generation with a twist all its own. The young heroes travel to a strange world, aided by powerful supernatural beings, where they must help overcome the rule of an evil being. In the end, it all comes down to love....

Let's not bother about the TV movie based on the book-- Madeleine L'Engle herself said "I expected it to be bad, and it is." I will however say that some years ago I saw a wonderful stage adaptation by Vancouver's own Pacific Theatre.  

This year is the 50th anniversary of the book, which is the first in a series.  There are live stage events in places I wish I could get to....but anyway, we can all access the net, where, for example, Tor.com blogger Mari Ness is celebrating with The Madeleine L'Engle Re-Read. Sounds like a good idea! 

I am so excited to hear that there is a graphic novel version of the book due out later in 2012. Here's a page from it. It is being done by Hope Larson.  I guess it is time to start my wish list for next Christmas already! 

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25. A Book to Refresh One's Spirit

"The anti-hero is the prototype of despair. The hero flings aloft the banner of hope.....If we thought that there was nothing but misery, degradation and darkness and above all perpetual defeat, what would be the use of trying to feed or clothe ourselves, raise children, and put a penny by to purchase a book to refresh one's spirit* and fortify one's hopes?"-- Paul Gallico, "Aim for the Heart" 

*Emphasis added by me.

Paul Gallico is one of those writers I am going to read more of someday...but meanwhile, his Thomasina (aka in movie form as The Three Lives of Thomasina) is a family favorite. He is also the author of such diverse tales as The Poseidon Adventure, The Snow Goose, and Flowers for Mrs. Harris, among others.

Some find Gallico overly
sentimental. Now, anyone who knows me knows that I am personally the opposite of that. Opposites attracting as they do, of course, I picked an arch-sentimentalist for a husband. He goes 'awww'! when the characters in our favorite TV shows finally get together romantically, and wishes they would take his advice ("Dad! They AREN'T real!"  And if they were, well, too often people ask his advice and then don't take it after all. Ask any clergyman, it's a common phenomenon.)

Anyway, Gallico in the article quoted above talks about how he writes a story. In three short pages he does get to the heart of it, which is pretty simple-- think up human and likeable characters, and then "try them almost beyond endurance."

You can see that trial in this still from the movie Thomasina. Mary Ruadh and her friends are holding a funeral for her beloved cat Thomasina-- who has been 'put to sleep' by Mary Ruadh's own father, the vet, because he is too busy with another injured creature and thinks it is not worth trying to save her.

Gallico concludes his essay with the title, "Aim for the heart."  This may be sentiment, but it is not sentimentalism for its own sake. As he says, it is all about hope. If your spirit needs refreshing, let me recommend a reading of Thomasina or its very faithful film adaptation (with the bonus that it stars the wonderful Patrick McGoohan as the frozen-hearted vet who only thaws when he nearly loses his daughter.)
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