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Filtering by Tag: death

Always Fair

Jayne English

found memories

When we have a good memory of our childhood, we shouldnt visit it after we grow old. — Antonio

In the film Found Memories, Madalena lives in a small Brazilian village. The village’s former vibrance lies forgotten beneath peeling paint and rust. The handful of villagers are old and everything about them seems faded. They walk slowly up the hill to mass. They rarely talk. They eat in silence, the men play ring toss without speaking. The priest has locked the cemetery. Madalena says they have forgotten to die.

Madelena struggles to hold on to her memories. She writes a love letter every evening to Guilherme, her deceased husband. She writes just a few lines then folds the paper and puts it in a basket for safe keeping. “My love, I’d like to keep our memory forever alive, so our love, in the future, doesn’t suffer from the passing of time. We have to go beyond death, this cruel enemy, that didn’t choose day or time. I kiss you tenderly. Yours, Madalena.” She keeps their wedding photo in a closed-off room.

Rita, a young photographer, follows the empty railroad tracks to the village. She comes in like Mnemosyne, unlocking their memories and speech with each click of her camera. “I used to date a girl who looked like you,” says a man as she frames him in her lens. Rita is quick to remember. She watches Madelena make bread for the townspeople and says, “This town reminds me of the stories my dad used to tell.” Rita draws out Madelena’s memories. She retrieves her wedding photo for Rita, caressing it before hanging it back on the wall.

Early one morning, Rita takes a picture of Madalena in kerchief and nightgown. She shows Madalena who says, “Oh Lord.” Later, she carries her fresh baked rolls to Antonio’s shop. Usually they barely speak. Every morning he tells her to let him arrange the rolls in the cabinet. Every morning she insists on placing them herself. He calls her “stubborn old woman,” and she calls him “annoying old man.” But this morning Madalena asks, “Do you think I’m old?” “Old and stubborn,” he says nodding toward the rolls. She looks away and says, “My husband used to tell me, “Madalena, when I look at you, I don’t see you as you are. I see you as you were, when you were 20, and we got married. This is how I see you.”

Sipping their coffee outside, Antonio tells her, “When I was young, I had a girlfriend who died when she was 18. Thank God I never saw her grow old. Because when I remember her, I’m 18 as well.” But when he adds how we shouldn’t revisit childhood memories, Madalena asks, “What’s left then?” “Us!” he says. To which Madalena replies, “Would you mind being quiet for a while.”

Madalena confides to Antonio that she’s afraid to die. But her returning memories are changing her. She smiles, she doesn’t wear a kerchief as often. Her wrinkles seem to fade framed by her thick hair.

The priest had locked the cemetery as if he thought forgetting the past would help his old flock bear the burdens of age. He shared Antonio’s view that the past is best left behind. But Rita develops pictures from the negative of Antonio’s statement. When the villagers remember the old gifts of loved ones and youthfulness, they discover new ones – they talk to each other and become more intimate. They celebrate, dressing up and dancing outside to favorite old songs on the victrola.

In his poem “Former Beauties,” Thomas Hardy writes of middle-aged women in the market and tries to reconcile their present looks with their former beauty: Are they the ones we loved in years agone, / And courted here?” He wonders if they remember the vows the young men made to them “In nooks on summer Sundays” and dancing on the green until moonlight. He ends the poem with this stanza:

They must forget, forget! They cannot know What once they were, Or memory would transfigure them, and show Them always fair.

In Found Memories, the villagers had locked up the past. It was as if they couldn’t live and they couldn’t die. When they woke to their former joys, they were “transfigured” into people who danced on the green again.

Before Madalena’s death at the end of the movie, Rita takes one more photograph. Madalena’s hair is down, full and wavy. We know by her bare shoulders and a self-conscious look on her face, that she is naked. As she stands before Rita’s camera, her expression transforms, she looks “always fair.” Her smile is expectant like a bride waiting for her bridegroom.

The Book Thief

Jennifer Vasquez

1_641698792545571_1610777287_n A train winds its way through a wintry forest; nine-year-old Liesel watches as her young brother dies in their mother’s arms. After the burial, the book thief’s first acquisition is The Gravedigger’s Handbook, fallen from the pocket of the gravedigger. Just as Great Expectations begins in a graveyard, the film The Book Thief begins with this unavoidable end of all earthly quests.

Liesel is soon separated from her mother, whose political views attract the unwanted attention of the Fuhrer. She is assigned a foster family, an elderly couple living on Himmelstrasse –  Heaven Street.  There she finds a gentle foster father who teaches her to read and to sing through fear, and a stern but sacrificial foster mother who teaches her to love, though haunted by insecurity. And there she also finds a true friend who teaches her to hate evil and cling to good.

Liesel is not the same girl at the end of The Book Thief. She is a young German girl seeing the War from the perspective of Max, a Jew her foster family hides in their basement. And she sees her beloved Papa conscripted into the army in retaliation for defending a Jewish neighbor. She knows suffering. She is acquainted with grief. But Liesel also sees that even in a bomb shelter, hope can flow from an accordion, and comfort sometimes comes with the telling of a story.

It does not require a spoiler alert to reveal that this film, like others set during World War II, ends where it began — with death.  Most well made war movies (think Apocalypse Now) do not view death with the modern, sentimental, but false notion that death is simply a natural (and even beautiful!) part of life – that’s difficult in the midst of so much death and dying. For many, this shadow of death leads to darkness and despair.

Our own quests cannot bypass The Valley, but our Inspired stories, Inspired music, and Inspired poetry promise green pastures and still waters. Knowing that, is there any room for despair?

Until We See Their Faces

Michael Dechane

23 the-shawshank-redemption


When Howard died, we staggered. Any death would have felt huge to the small college where I worked then, but Howard was a very popular, well-known-and-loved senior, the star goalie of our remarkable men’s soccer team, and a warm friend with tremendous character and humility. He was fine, we were all fine, when the Fall semester ended and Howard went home to Jamaica for Christmas break. But then he was tired for no reason, tests were run, a rare and strange blood disease was diagnosed, and by the time classes were starting up again, he was too ill to travel. And then we heard what none of us could stomach or quite believe: he was gone. That was four years ago last month. I miss him, and still cry when I think of him. I want very much to see his face again, have another hug, hear his voice and laugh.

In a culture where most of us have nearly instant and constant access to virtually everyone we know (or have known, thank you Facebook), some of the ordinary and universal experiences of missing people are now gone. For years I have been convinced our ability to hope or long well is atrophying with every video chat or text message. But now I wonder if humans have ever hoped or longed well. Is this because our fallen incompleteness makes us feel deficient no matter the degree of longing and hope? For some it’s “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” but for others it’s “out of sight, out of mind.”

So the question remains: Does Facebook, Twitter and texting make us better or worse at hoping and longing? I don’t know, but it does seem I’m less likely today to find a friend with the time and desire to sit and talk about these things.

Skulls and Bones and Skeletons

Stephanie Smith

A few years ago I spent a weekend at JPUSA, the community of Christians in Chicago who live together in the old Chelsea Hotel and call themselves “Jesus People.” And during my time there, I saw a lot of skulls.

Skulls adorn the hallways, the door frames, and the forearms of the people who inhabit them.  Five doors down from my room there was an unapologetic mural of a skeleton, squarely behind a baby gate and next to a sign that warned in loud purple Crayola, “Nursing Urijiah! Piz come back. ” All over the community, there were instances of this odd juxtaposition of life and death.

I wondered if the skulls were some kind of talisman, like some cultures have to ward off evil spirits, but when I asked one of the women on staff about their significance, she laughed. “Well,” she said, “People here are kind of obsessed with death.”

She explained to me, “The skulls and skeletons are representative of the knowledge that there’s more.  We anticipate death, in a way, because we are eager for our new bodies and the new life ahead with Christ.  We are living in a dichotomy between this world and the next, and we are very aware of that.”  So there are skulls: a reminder of our mortal decay.  She also told me that people at JPUSA tend to live in the awareness that, in the city, they are surrounded by the living dead.  They are among the spiritually destitute and dying.

I’ve often felt this restlessness, of living in the cracks between Eden and Heaven, which some call the age of the in-between, the already-not-yet of the kingdom.  It can be exasperating: is the kingdom here, or is it to come? Christ has come into our world and has promised victory over sin and death, but we still live under its affects while we wait for His return. And it can make us impatient in the waiting, while we see the world around us in such need of redemption.  We were created for eternal life, to bear divine image and have a face-to-face relationship with our Maker, but sin ruptured this paradise and now we live in the imbalance, caught between what was supposed to be and what is now utterly broken. Even the earth is a victim of this tension, “the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Romans 8:22).  Even the earth and the roots of mountains straddle this gap between the kingdoms.

There is a dichotomy at hand. We are finite beings with eternal life or death at stake. Perhaps the reminder of our mortal frame, whether skulls and bones or just knowing that there is more to come, can lend urgency to our days to live well, to reach out to the dying, and to eagerly await the life ahead.

Stephanie S. Smith graduated from Moody Bible Institute with a degree in Communications and Women’s Ministry, which she now puts to work freelancing as a book publicist and writer through her business, (In)dialogue Communications, at After living in Chicago for four years, traveling to Amsterdam for a spell, and then moving back home to Baltimore to plan a wedding, she now lives with her husband in Upstate New York where they make novice attempts at home renovation in their 1930s bungalow. She writes for and manages Moody Publishers’ blog,

A Tough Few Months for Populists: The Loss of Howard Zinn and Ray Browne

Stephen Swanson

Stephen Swanson departs from initial post on the meaning of “union” and various queries into whether it has “a state” regardless of speeches in order to highlight the passing of some ones who have been vitally important in shaping his beliefs about voice, art, and culture: Ray Browne and Howard Zinn.

The losses of Ray Browne, who died last October, and Howard Zinn, who died on Wednesday, provide me with a chance to write something that’s been on my mind for three months. Zinn and Browne shared a view of America starting at the bottom and working up, rather than the more traditional top-down. It’s so often that we highlight the fastest, biggest, richest, most beautiful, and most powerful things as the best, but these men made their lives’ work emphasizing the popular, average, and normal, and turning those words in assets not reasons for derision.

Ray Browne, it’s Ok to Study the Popular…

Calling Browne the founder of popular culture is a misnomer. People have been interested in and examined popular things for some time, but Browne, at least in the American academic system, pushed for the acceptance and respect for popular culture in academics and criticism. For example, his book on Lincoln, Lincoln-Lore: Lincoln in the Popular Mind, argues that understanding Abraham Lincoln as a literal, real person limits the citizen’s understanding of the role that Lincoln has come to hold in American minds, words, and ideals. And that one must examine thing of Lincoln that reach beyond facts and words of him as a man. His work and the works of those who he influenced have spread to the point to almost make what was once unthinkable, almost normal, that we can and should think about our common world and the things we “like” as a part of our intellectual lives.

Howard Zinn, We Must Listen to the Popular…

I am in no way the most devoted to Zinn of my friends, in fact one of my cohort literally made the movie, and so must leave detailed discussions to them. In almost everything Zinn wrote over the past 30-plus years, he emphasizes the need for citizens of America to seek out and actively listen to the voices of the average Americans from throughout our history and through all points on the political spectrum. During the times of my post-secondary education (1997-2007), American popular culture has trended toward the assumption of a nearly blind acceptance of authority that we agree with and rejection of those with whom our beliefs conflict. This period has shown increased reliance on pundit/mediators to break down and keep the gates of our physical, intellectual and spiritual lives, and regardless of whether one agrees with Zinn’s politics, the need for a citizenry to educate themselves on the realities of our collective histories and current place presses on my mind daily as I encounter students with huge gaps in the most basic geographical, historical, and cultural knowledge necessary to make even basic political opinions.

To Me…

The underlying assumptions in Browne and Zinn’s works revolve around a respect and need to understand those that have been labeled mundane or ordinary. These days it grows harder and harder to convince my students, and even my peers, that they have something worthwhile to learn, consider, evaluate, and express, and that they should not also look to the simple or obvious sources for these knowledges but should dig deeply and sift carefully, testing themselves and their environments throughout their daily lives and into their futures.


Stephen Swanson teaches as an assistant professor of English at McLennan Community College. Aside from guiding students through the pitfalls of college writing and literature, he spends most of his time trying to remain  aware of popular culture, cooking, and enjoying time with his wife and son. He holds degrees in Communications (Calvin College), Film Studies (Central Michigan University), and Media and American Culture Studies (Bowling Green State University. In addition to editing a collection, Battleground States: Scholarship in Contemporary America, he has forthcoming projects on Johnny Cash and depiction of ethics in contemporary film noir.