150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death: How do we hold his memory today?

Lincoln on his death bed in Peterson House from Harpers weekly May 6 1865

LINCOLN on his deathbed, an illustration in Harper’s Weekly, 1865.

“The tragic splendor of his death, purging, illuminating all, throws round his form, his head, an aureole that will remain and will grow brighter through time, while history lives and love of country lasts. By many has this Union been helped. But if one name, one man, must be picked out—he, most of all, is the conservator of it, to the future.”
Walt Whitman, April 16, 1865 (the day after President Lincoln died)

By DUNCAN NEWCOMER

Lincoln lay still those last nine hours.

His final night was in a narrow room in a boarding house across from the Ford Theater. The bed too small, his knees bent. As his personal silence began—a great gasp, a roar of dumb grief crossed the land.

A score and more of somber men crowded the small room—the fallen president a figure of spiritual comfort, even though many who kept the vigil were titans of war. They noted, oddly, how strong his long bare arms were. If he had one quip left if could have been, ”The better to hold our country with!”

Hold.

Almost everyone held his words, words from our history, our documents, our declarations, the words from Gettysburg that changed a killing field into a birth place. Such a transformation may we hope for in our time and in our lives to this day.

At Hancock, Massachusetts, the Shakers, those people of the Second Coming, inscribed in their large ledger, in double-sized script, “President Lincoln has been killed.” They who gave him one of their handmade rocking chairs, and received a note of thanks, knew his godly views. They were a community of sacred visions. They would hold him.

Hold.

Lilacs blooming in a dooryardWalt Whitman, one of Lincoln’s greatest champions, loved that word and used it eight times in his famous hymn of loss: When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. In one instance, he wrote:
A moment I linger—for the lustrous star has detain’d me;
The star, my departing comrade, holds and detains me.

The fragrance of lilacs would remain an annual memory of the loss, Whitman wrote:
Yet the lilac, with mastering odor, holds me.

Walt Whitman challenged all of us to hold Abraham Lincoln’s memory and to wrestle with it—knowing that it would be a struggle. Whitman’s first use of “hold” in Lilacs issues that warning: “O cruel hands that hold me powerless!”

Whitman had spent years observing and thinking about Lincoln during the presidential years, which is why he was poised to commemorate his assassination with one of America’s greatest poems. Whitman said in a talk he often gave about Lincoln’s death, “For my part, I intend until my dying day, whenever the fourteenth or fifteenth of April comes, to annually gather a few friends and hold its tragic reminiscence.”

Now 150 years later, what might we “hold” in such a gathering of a few friends? How might we remember Lincoln and remember his tragic death?

I propose we hold such meetings this year. Whitman thought he was too close to the event to know what might eventually “filter” through to the American people from Lincoln and his murder. To hold such a time for talking with a few friends might raise some important ideas and feelings for us now as Americans and as people of spiritual life.

LET’S TALK …

Where shall we start? Here are three possibilities.

One. Historians tell us that John Wilkes Booth became the Confederate Killer because he had heard Lincoln’s recent speech on reconstruction and believed it meant what we now would call racial integration. Booth’s fury at the mere idea of equal association and legal status with blacks pushed him from kidnapping to murder, and from plan to impetuosity.

Is Lincoln’s death meaningfully associated with his increasingly open views on racial equality? What dangerous racial lines still divide us in America?

Two. Whitman tells us that huge numbers of singing, shouting Union soldiers marched up through North Carolina with General Sherman after Sherman’s defeat of Atlanta and march through the South. There “continued, inspiriting shouts…at intervals all day long…wild music…triumphant choruses…huge, strange cries…expressing youth, wildness, irrepressible strength…” until they heard word of President Lincoln’s assassination.

“Then no more shouts or yells for a week.” Hardly a word or laugh “…a hush and silence pervaded.”

Is there a truth in Lincoln’s death that muffles national triumphalism? Is there something about the spirit of military might that Lincoln’s death changes?

Three. There are two words often associated with Lincoln: humor and melancholy. He was being entertained at a funny play on the night of Good Friday when he was killed. He was laughing that night as he would often do. Yet of all the sorrowful times of his life nothing is quite as sorrowful as his death. Is there a balance in life between joy and sorrow, between success and failure, between a new birth of freedom and its tragic implications? Is there a balance we as a maturing nation are ready to hold?

These and other reminiscences of Lincoln could be part of an annual gathering held on the night of April fourteenth or in the day of April fifteenth—as Whitman called us to do. It would be an event as different as Christmas is from Easter, as Lincoln’s birthday is from the date of his death.

Care to read more?

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Categories: Great With GroupsPeacemaking

The Benjamin Pratt interview on ‘Short Stuff from a Tall Guy’

COVER Benjamin Pratt Short Stuff from a Tall Guy full cover proof

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

“You hold in your hands a human heart,” writes Day1 radio host Peter Wallace in the preface to Benjamin Pratt’s new book, Short Stuff from a Tall Guy: Wisdom Gleaned from Life’s Daily Journey. “It is the heart of a minister. A caregiver. A storyteller. It is the heart of a fellow sojourner on the path to a richer, fuller, more meaningful life.”

“As I read it,” Peter continues, “I couldn’t help but feel that I was having a heart-to-heart conversation with this beloved brother, Ben Pratt. Ben reveals himself within and between these lines in a multitude of wise ways—and in so doing, helps each of us see ourselves more clearly as fallible human beings yearning for meaning and love and grace and purpose in life. Sometimes finding it, oftentimes losing it, but always grateful for it when we experience it.”

In her foreword to the new book, popular Buddhist writer Geri Larkin points to the courageous compassion that Ben Pratt tries to foster among his readers.

“At a time when crime stories are topping best-seller lists, here is a book that offers an entirely different experience,” Geri writes. “Each story, anecdote and poem offers an antidote to the negative messages we get pummeled by on a daily basis by popular media.”

Instead, Geri writes, Ben “invites us instead to pause, to notice, and then appreciate the more heroic aspects of each other—our ability to sympathize, to provide comfort, to openly mourn loss, to genuinely and openly love everyone.”

At ReadTheSpirit, we highly recommend this book for anyone who already is a fan of works by Peter and Geri—or books by writers such as Barbara Mahany, Judith Valente, Robert Wick, Richard Rohr, Shirley Showalter and the Knuths. If any of those writers already is among your favorites, we guarantee you’ll recognize Ben’s latest book as a brother in that family of writers. Beyond the book’s value for individual readers, Ben Pratt is a popular speaker and retreat leader and many of the stories in this new collection will spark lively discussion in your class or small group.

(To learn more about Ben, visit his author page within our online magazine—or his author page within Amazon. To order his book, click on the cover image with this interview.)

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Ben Pratt. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH BENJAMIN PRATT ON
‘SHORT STUFF FROM A TALL GUY’

DAVID: In recent years, Ben, you’ve written weekly columns that have been widely shared across our own website, the website of the Day1 radio network—and other online newsletters, too. You’ve heard from countless men and women about the ways your true stories touch their lives. What’s at work here? How are you able to take small stories from your own life and connect with so many readers?

BEN: That amazes me and it always pleases me to hear from readers. Apparently, by sharing these stories from my own daily journeys, I encourage people to think about meaningful experiences in their own lives and their relationships with other people.

Earlier in my life, I served as a pastor and wrote primarily for preaching. Usually, I got responses like: “Good job, pastor.” Short comments like that. But, I still remember a day when someone told me, “Listening to you preach today, I thought you must have been in our house this week.” That kind of response shows a much richer, deeper connection with people. I want to be speaking and writing in ways that connect with people where they’re living.

My effort now is to put my own musings and experiences into words so that I can help trigger such thoughts in other people. And the comments I get now, after a new column is published, often describe that kind of connection. Through what I write, I’m with them where they live.

DAVID: You refer to the stories in this book as “Wisdom Gleaned from Life’s Daily Journey.” You don’t describe these stories in terms that are typical in inspirational books. You don’t call these “meditations,” for example. They’re true stories from your daily life. Why do you describe it that way?

BEN: I don’t think of myself as a person who meditates in the formal way. A couple of times I have been part of groups that were training people in meditation, but somehow that never fit into my life. I find thoughts and images and insights coming to me when I’m playing in my garden, or mowing my lawn or even vacuuming the house.

DAVID: In your writing, the images often come before the words, right?

BEN: That’s usually how my writing begins. Eventually, those images form into words and the writing evolves.

My prayer life, too, is much more about images, putting myself where other people are and experiencing images. We have to pay attention to what is happening around us in life. We have to keep our eyes and ears open.

DAVID: That’s a frequent teaching by Geri Larkin, who wrote the foreword to your book. Geri likes to remind people to “Pay attention!”

‘EACH DAY CAN BE A PILGRIMAGE’

BEN: One prayer that I pray each day is known as the Prayer of St. Francis: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace …” With that prayer to start your day, you’re never out of a job. There are always moments in which we can be of service, love, caring, forgiveness, hope.

That way, each day can be a pilgrimage.

DAVID: That’s a key theme in your writing—that our most important spiritual experiences usually don’t take place inside the walls of a church.

BEN: Within the church, we usually are preaching to the choir. We’re evangelizing the already evangelized. I’m much more interested in speaking to people in their daily lives—even though many of the people I encounter may be outside what we might think of as a formal faith community.

I don’t want to speak in traditional religious jargon. I want to talk about the real stuff we experience in our daily lives.

DAVID: So, let me pose the question another way: What’s a really good day for you?

BEN: (Laughs!) “A really good day?” Oh my! Well, a good day is when I laugh a lot, when I have meaningful interchanges with people: people I know and love—as well as strangers.

‘I’M INTERESTED IN THE STORY’

Benjamin Pratt Short Stuff color flyer thumbnail

WANT TO GET YOUR FRIENDS EXCITED ABOUT READING THIS BOOK? Click on this thumbnail of a full-color flyer for Ben Pratt’s new book. You’re free to save, share or print out that flyer and show it to friends. This book is ideal for a series of small-group discussions. Ben is a veteran teacher, speaker and retreat leader.

DAVID: Talk more about meeting strangers. You actually dare to talk to strangers—something most of us don’t risk doing on a daily basis.

BEN: Well, you have to be intentional about this, I think. Sometimes I get intentional about the quick encounter with a clerk at a register. I’m very quick to read the name on their name-tag—and I thank them by name. The encounter might be as simple as that.

There are many ways to start a conversation. I find tattoos fascinating. People tend to either love tattoos or hate them, but these often are amazing pieces of artwork that tell important stories from people’s lives. If someone has an obviously visible tattoo, I’ll often ask about it—I’m interested in the story.

These moments make the day delicious.

DAVID: Delicious!? Strangers are scary, aren’t they? It’s tough to convince people to speak to someone they don’t know.

BEN: I don’t think that way.

First, I don’t think of the people I encounter each day as strangers. I always trust that there is some bridge we can walk across to connect. Sometimes, we need to build the bridge as we’re walking across it toward each other. That means we need to listen carefully to the people we encounter.

If we allow the world to move us toward fear of the people all around us each day, then we’re in bigger trouble than anything we may fear. I always anticipate a connection—and that lets me meet each new person with a simple smile. And, we go from there. Sometimes, it’s just the smile.

DAVID: I like the fact that you ask about small details you notice in the people you meet. I’ve often found that’s a great first step in connecting. Someone who snaps on a lapel pin before leaving the house is hoping that people will see it. If a person has a book under his arm as he’s waiting somewhere—he usually will welcome a question about what he’s reading.

BEN: I believe that all of us, on one level, want to be noticed. Now, we do have to be careful about over-reaching. (Laughs!) My children sometimes have told me I can overdo this! But, we’re talking here about appropriate conversation: Simply saying hello to people. Smiling. Asking a simple question—because you’re really interested in their stories.

‘AT THE BACK OF THE ORCHESTRA’

DAVID: Readers of this book will quickly discover that you don’t make yourself the hero of these stories. For years, you worked as a pastoral counselor. You’ve been a teacher and retreat leader. But, in these stories, you’re not instructing readers. Instead, these stories invite readers to take a moment and think about their own lives—with you as a friend in the process.

BEN: Here’s a way to describe it. I know that I never will conduct a symphony. If I’m fortunate, I might be able to serve by playing the triangle at the very back of the orchestra.

I live my life like that. Near where we live, there’s a rotating shelter hosted by a number of churches—providing places to come find a warmth, safety and a good meal. I volunteer in that program. I show up and help serve the meals. I’m just one of the people in the background of that program. And, when I volunteer, I always find that I learn from the people who come into the shelter—as much as they will ever learn from me.

Small things do make a difference. This is the third book I’ve written and I’ve contributed to a couple of other books. And I’m amazed at all the people out there who have written to me to say that I’ve touched them with my writing.

‘WE ARE PEOPLE OF A STORY’

DAVID: Why tell stories? Every week, ReadTheSpirit online magazine publishes a couple dozen new stories by a wide range of writers—often including a new story by you, Ben, if we’re lucky that week. We keep doing this, because we think it matters to send these stories into the world. Why are we so drawn to telling stories?

BEN: If we hope to truly know ourselves, and then let others know us, that basically happens through our story. It’s important to know our story and to be honest about it. For people of faith, we are people of a story. All of the major religious traditions are rooted in story.

The other night, my wife and I visited some long-time friends for dinner. Before dinner, it was one friend’s turn to say a prayer. But, he surprised us. He said: “Instead of a prayer tonight, I’m going to tell you a story about my grandchildren. And, after I tell a story, I want each of you to tell a story from your families.”

I’m still thinking about what he did and said. “Instead of a prayer … I’ll tell you a story …” I think: That’s a beautiful way to pray together.

I do know this: Ask people to tell you their story—and you’ll never meet a stranger.

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Categories: Author InterviewsCaregivingChurch GrowthGreat With GroupsPeacemaking

The Greg Garrett Interview on our love of angels and demons

Entertaining Judgment by Greg Garrett

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

We love our angels and demons!

Pew’s massive study of American religious life shows nearly 7 in 10 Americans believe that angels and demons are active in our world. We’re also certain about cosmic realms from which these creatures emerge. More than 7 in 10 Americans believe in Heaven with our collective belief in Hell lagging a bit behind that.

Now, an intrepid explorer of the connections between popular culture and the spiritual realms invites us to travel with him as Dante did with his guide Virgil 700 years ago into Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso—a classic tale that we know as The Divine Comedy. Our new guide already is familiar to thousands of readers nationwide: Greg Garrett, a noted scholar at Baylor University and author of 20 previous books. He calls his book, Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination.

Greg is well equipped to serve as our guide after decades of exploring religious themes in comic books, movies, music and American literature. As we set off with him on this great cosmic journey, he says: “This book really is the culmination of years of research. I hope readers will have fun with it.”

Note that this book is published by Oxford University Press so the standard of research is high and Greg lays out an extensive series of notes at the end of his book if readers dare to dive deeper into some of the strange corners they will discover in this adventure.

We can highly recommend the book both for individual reading, for any teachers or preachers who like to touch upon these issues and especially for small-group discussion in religious or secular settings. You’ll have lots of fun in your small group, bringing in video and audio clips to touch off discussion on the chapters in Greg’s book.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed the author. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH GREG GARRETT ON
‘ENTERTAINING JUDGMENT’

DAVID: Wow! Talk about a whirlwind tour! The entire cosmos from Heaven to Hell—including visits with angels and demons, comic book super heroes, TV stars, great authors and even strange characters in video games—all in 200 pages!

Greg Garrett author of Entertaining Judgment

Greg Garrett, the 2013 Centennial Professor at Baylor University.

GREG: Well, for many years as a journalist, you’ve been covering the same kinds of connections I’ve been covering—and this book really does bring a lot of things together in one place.

DAVID: How did you cast the net for this book? Every page drops another intriguing character into the mix. How did you amass this cast of characters?

GREG: I had all of my own research over the years, then I asked people to recommend stories about the afterlife—stories of the undead, angels and demons—and I got a ton of recommendations! A lot of my clergy friends had powerful stories they had used in their preaching. My literary and cultural friends told me about a lot of things they were researching. And I also crowdsourced this. I asked people questions like: What’s your favorite angel story? Then, I’ve consumed so much popular culture throughout my lifetime that I had tons of things to draw on—perhaps with the exception of video games but I even played my way through Diablo for this book.

DAVID: Many of our readers love to make these kinds of connections. Our online magazine hosts Ken Chitwood’s FaithGoesPop series and, every week, we’re exploring similar links between faith and popular culture.

In fact, I’m going to do a shout-out to our readers: What’s your favorite angel story? Go into Facebook or Twitter and tell us. Add the hashtag #FaithGoesPop so that we spot it easily.

GREG: If they want to add another hashtag that I’m starting to use for the book, they can mark their ideas #EntertainingJudgment and I’ll take a look, too.

IS ‘LOST’ REALLY PURGATORY?

LOST tv seriesDAVID: Let’s use this interview to showcase some of the very intriguing connections you make in this book. There are far too many to list them all in our conversation, but we can hit some highlights. So, let’s start with that mysterious middle-realm: Purgatory. You point out in the book that the word “Purgatory” never appears in the Bible and the vast majority of American Protestants think of Purgatory as a Catholic belief.

However, Greg, you argue that—in effect—millions of Americans are attracted to the idea of Purgatory through books, songs, movies and TV shows like Lost.

GREG: That’s a good place to start because Purgatory really was the starting point for this book. For a number of years, I had been talking about doing a book with my editor at Oxford, Cynthia Read, and then one day she asked me: “Why is it that most American Protestants think that Purgatory is ridiculous theologically but they believe that people do undergo hardship and transform their lives?”

And I told her: “You’re right. We have an operational belief in Purgatory even if Protestants think it doesn’t make sense theologically.”

That question opened up the whole book for me. One of the most primal stories we share is that people can go through Hell and emerge with a transformed life at the end of it.

DAVID: When I was reading that section of your book, I immediately thought of Dr. Wayne Baker’s research in United America. When you talk about this “operational belief in Purgatory” that rings the bells of several core American values that Dr. Baker has documented.

GREG: A perfect example of this is 12 Years a Slave—it’s a story of Purgatory, which in this case essentially means going through Hell with an expiration date when our hero emerges with a transformed life. In fact, it’s hard to watch some of the things you see in the film, unless you can keep reminding yourself: Hey, it’s only 12 years. He will emerge from this.

Or for a Purgatory comedy, think about Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. Over and over again, he is tried and tested with the hope of emerging as a new and improved being.

Purgatory was built into the DNA of Lost. From the very first season, there was this whole debate among fans about whether the island itself was Purgatory. And the creators of Lost said no it wasn’t. But this led to the idea of creating, later in the series, a “sideways” world—a world in which the Lostees never crash landed on the island and are presented with challenges they failed in their first time around. Even Dr. Linus, the show’s biggest villain, gets an opportunity to redo an awful choice he made and get it right.

BATMAN, BURNE-JONES AND STAINED GLASS

DAVID: There are dozens of other movie and TV references in this book from It’s a Wonderful Life to the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies. But let’s jump to very different forms of media: comic books, paintings and stained glass. You connect all those dots, too!

Batman the dark nightAnd that starts with Batman, who makes appearances throughout your book. The story of the “dark knight” is back on prime-time TV in the hit series Gotham. This new series takes us back to Batman’s boyhood as Bruce Wayne, which starts with this little boy’s absolutely terrifying experience of witnessing the cold-blooded murders of his parents. From that kind of trauma, other characters in Gotham become blood-thirsty criminals, but Bruce Wayne emerges as a heroic figure who wants to use his powers to do good.

While Superman may be America’s oldest super hero, Batman has far more fans keeping his legend alive and his fans continually morph Batman into new forms of this angel-demon figure. I think he’ll be a connection point in your book for lots of readers and, of course, there are a lot lessons that can be drawn from comics. ReadTheSpirit has even established our own comic section called Bullying Is No Laughing Matter. So, I was very pleased to find Batman, in particular, showing up as a recurring character in your new book.

GREG: Batman is one of our most pervasive cultural stories. When I wrote about Batman and Superman back in my book Holy Superheroes, I did not realize that those two archetypal stories would continue to follow me around.

In the story of Batman, we think of Gotham as this Hell on Earth and we can think of Batman as a demon—a fierce creature of the night who, instead of using his powers for evil, chooses to use them for good. So, we’re tracing a character who was born in Hell and chose to rise above it. He casts aside everything he ought to be after those early experiences—and instead chooses to devote his life to doing good or others.

That’s the central element of the Batman story: A person can rise above a tragic setting and prove to be a hero for the ages. The question about Batman is: Demon or angel? And we could say he’s both—a devil who chooses to be an angel.

DAVID: Well, I was also pleasantly surprised to find in your book a lot about Edward Burne-Jones, the famous Pre-Raphaelite painter and designer whose images are still splashed across Christmas cards, church windows and lots of other decorative arts. You point out that Burne-Jones was influential in rescuing the idea of an “angel” from the Italian artists who wanted to turn them into cute little babies with wings. Burne-Jones gave us angels with real super-hero size and shape.

Dark knight in Edward Burne-Jones The Briar WoodIn fact, I was just comparing some of the popular images of Batman—the dark knight overlooking a sleeping city—to Burne Jones’s famous painting The Briar Wood, part of a cycle of paintings that he did in collaboration with his friend William Morris. Basically, a dark enchantment has made nearly everyone fall down in a deep sleep. And in The Briar Wood, which was painted in 1890, we see a very Batman-like dark knight overlooking this sleeping town.

GREG: Burne-Jones is really interesting because he did help to restore some gravity to these narratives about angels. As angel imagery had evolved, it looked as though the basic story was going to run off the rails into sentimentality. Throughout scriptures—whether we’re talking about the Hebrew or Christian testaments or the Muslim holy scriptures—angels are described as imposing, frightening, powerful. But, by the time of Burne-Jones, artists had turned angels into these cutesy little babies with wings. In paintings and stained glass and in other images, Burne-Jones restored the powerful nature of angels.

DAVID: And this is not just a matter of aesthetics or interior design. This transformation of angels into super heroes speaks to the terrible nature of the global challenges we faced in the 20th century and face again today. If our spiritual imagination is going to keep up with the world’s terrors, then we need super heroes, right?

GREG: Flying babies don’t do the job for us when we need a really serious pipeline to the Divine. I think that whenever our culture threatens to turn angels into cute little domesticated figures, then we’ve lost the main story about angels.

DAVID: We could go on and on—but I want to urge readers to actually order your book to continue the adventure. Let me close by asking you to sum up how you hope readers will respond to your book.

GREG: There were two things at the heart of my desire to write this book.

First, I wanted to spotlight how important stories of the afterlife continue to be in our lives. A vast majority of Americans continue to believe in Heaven and Hell and in manifestations of angels and demons. And that’s more than just a casual belief. My colleagues in research at Baylor report that a majority of Americans believe they’ve been helped by a guardian angel. So, the first thing I wanted to say is: These are very important beliefs in our lives today.

Then, second, I wanted readers to think about this: We’re consuming so many of these stories very uncritically. I want to invite people into a thoughtful consideration about this. What do we believe about the afterlife? What do we believe about the way the afterlife shapes our everyday life in pursuing faith and justice?

CARE TO READ MORE GREG GARRETT?

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Categories: Author InterviewsGreat With GroupsMovies and TV

The Barbara Mahany interview on ‘Slowing Time’

Cover Slowing Time by Barbara Mahany

Click this cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

IN THE DEAD of winter across the Northern Hemisphere, where can we hope to find a pathway to spiritual renewal? Those of us in the northern states, overwhelmed by ice and snow, wish we could hibernate! Who would dare to venture outdoors for inspiration?

Barbara Mahany, that’s who.

After decades of writing for the Chicago Tribune, she now is sharing her wonderfully engaging insights with the rest of us in Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door. As we have often found at ReadTheSpirit magazine, veteran journalists understand their relationship with readers and have polish their craft until their writing feels like a conversation with a good friend. Just think of Judith Valente, Cathleen Falsani, David Briggs, Ken Chitwood, Suzy Farbman, Bobbie Lewis, Lynne Meredith Golodner—and that’s just to name a few.

If you are already a fan of any of the writers we’ve just listed, then don’t wait—click on one of the links to Slowing Time and order a copy right now. You’re going to love it!

Baby Boomers who fondly recall groundbreaking books like The Whole Earth Catalog—or anyone who likes to leaf through the pages of an Old Farmer’s Almanac will find a kindred spirit in Barbara’s paperback, which is packed with short pieces in a range of genres and formats. At a couple of points, she even tosses in favorite recipes! As you’re reading other passages, you’ll enjoy Barbara’s “field notes,” which run along the edges of many pages. Readers who can recall Whole Earth or are familiar with the Talmud may recognize this pre-Internet form of packing commentary on top of commentary as the pages turn.

The overall effect is a book you want to tuck in your purse or pocket, briefcase or shoulder bag. Keep a copy on the table where you enjoy your breakfast or morning coffee. Or, better yet, place your copy on a window-sill or near a doorway where you can read a bit before stepping outside.

Outside!?!

Yes, indeed. The book opens with these lines from poet Mary Oliver …

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talked with Barbara Mahany. Here are ….

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH BARBARA MAHANY
ON ‘SLOWING TIME’

DAVID: As a good journalist who understands the diversity of your readers, you include lots of surprising details in these pages. Your book encourages readers to rethink the way they approach the four seasons, beginning with winter, and you start with a reference to Tu Bi’Shvat (or Tu B’Shevat, spellings vary). Most Americans are Christian, but our online magazine covers this ancient Jewish holiday each year in our Holidays & Festivals department. And, this year FeedTheSpirit columnist Bobbie Lewis also has a fascinating piece on the “New Year of the Trees.”

In an opening page of your book, you introduce your section of “Winter” reflections like this: “In the Hebrew calendar, it won’t be long till Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish new year of the trees, when, in mid-winter in Israel, the almond tree awakes from its winter’s slumber, and 16th-century Jewish mystics taught that we elevate ourselves by partaking of seven new-year fruits. If eaten with holy intention, we’re told, sparks of light hidden inside the fruits’ soft flesh will be broken open and freed to float to heaven, completing the circle of life’s renewal.”

Barbara Mahany

Barbara Mahany

BARBARA: I’m so glad you noticed that and asked about it! Let me explain. I’m a deeply spiritual liberal Catholic and my husband is Jewish. Over the years, we’ve learned a lot from each other. One thing I’ve learned from Judaism is to appreciate the wonderful encouragement to eat new foods with each new season. As you’re preparing these foods and eating them—you are marking the sacred time and you’re thinking about spiritual wisdom. Think about pomegranates. As you’re chopping up your pomegranate to get at the seeds, you’re taught to think about the number of mitzvot, commandments we’re supposed to remember and carry out. The number of seeds in the pomegranate is supposed to remind us of the number of mitzvot.

DAVID: On one page of your book, you tell us about this kind of ancient tradition—then, on the next page, you’re explaining ways that readers could appreciate “the amplitude” of a winter storm. Then, flip a page and you’re reminding us that, as we look out the window or take a wintry walk outside, we could look for the flashing red of a cardinal. And I can testify to the fact that we’ve had several cardinals, this winter, at our backyard bird feeders. You just have to pay attention.

So, I have to ask you: For many years, you tackled tough assignments for the Chicago Tibune. Given your position and your body of work at the Tribune, you rank among the country’s top journalists. In 2013, you were part of the prestigious Harvard-Nieman journalism fellowship with your husband, architecture writer Blair Kamin. He was the fellow and, under the Nieman rules, you fully participated as well. Here’s the question: Given those decades of work in one of the world’s toughest newsrooms, wasn’t it a challenge to write about ways to discover spirituality in one’s back yard?

‘Who’d dare to chart the spiritual landscape …’

BARBARA: Yes. The Nieman Storyboard editor asked me to write about the challenges and rewards of a journalist trying to write about spirituality. It was a really tough assignment!

DAVID: We’ll add a link to that Nieman column you wrote. Here’s the part I like best from your essay: “The burning question for a journalist who’d dare to chart the spiritual landscape is how, using the tools of the craft, do you toughen the fibers, sharpen the edges, of a subject that, by definition, is formless? How do you put hard-chiseled words to believing, indeterminate act that it is?”

I’d describe this challenge another way: In your new book you’ve got an eye for what journalists often call “telling details.” I’ve heard lots of top journalists talk about this principle. I once interviewed Gay Talese about his influence in the 1960s over the movement we called The New Journalism—in magazine pieces he wrote like “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” for Esquire. Talese told me it was all about understanding “telling details”—writing about that precise thing, perhaps even a color or aroma or small object, that tells us a great deal about an experience.

The highest praise I can give your book is that it’s packed with telling details. I can still recall your description of watching a cardinal with your son, weeks after I finished reading that little story in this book.

BARBARA: You’re right. If you’re going to write about spirituality, you have to find the telling details.

It was scary for someone who has been pounding away in the newsroom for a long time to approach a subject like this. I was always known as a writer who had my heart on my sleeve—so it was scary for me to have both heart and soul on my sleeve—to stand up in front of people and say: This is what I believe. To say: I do believe in the ineffable and some really hard-to-describe things.

And, as you say, one of the challenges for a writer, when writing about spirituality, is to fall into soft, gauzy language. As a journalist, I feel that when you step into the landscape of the spiritual, you actually have to raise the bar of your craft. You have to sharpen your language in such a way that it can hold the reader’s attention—and yet can startle the reader as well.

The final challenge was not to flinch. You have to have the courage to go down this pathway and step beyond what you have written before. And you must do this with a discipline that is completely, absolutely the truth. If you’re going to dare to step out there and say, “This is what I believe,” then you have to take this to its very essence.

In this kind of writing, we’re giving voice to our deepest whispers.

‘Meditations spring from absolute ordinariness’

DAVID: And yet, your starting point on nearly every page is the everyday, commonplace stuff of home. You see, and invite us to see with you, the amazing connections that can arise from things on a kitchen counter or a bedroom window.

BARBARA: It’s a very fine needle to thread and I learned to do this through years of writing columns for The Tribune.

I am rooted in everyday experiences. In the story you referred to from this book, I was getting one of my sons out of bed, when the little guy reached for binoculars and we began looking out the window at a cardinal. That’s a very common story—a mother getting her child out of bed—but that story opens up to so much more as the dots connect.

My stories begin in bedrooms, on kitchen counters, in dining rooms. It’s plain talk. It’s everyday talk. I write from the homefront. These are meditations that spring from the absolute ordinariness of our lives.

DAVID: The material in this book feels perfect for a retreat. I hope that some of our readers might be inspired by this interview to go to your website, Barbara, and contact you about leading a retreat.

BARBARA: I would love to do that, if people inquire about it. There are so many different kinds of things in this book from recipes and reflections to field notes and lots of different elements that invite readers to participate and share their own thoughts. I’m trying to help people open up all of their channels—full mind, body and spiritual immersion in the sacred. And I’m saying that you don’t have to do this by trekking off to the Himalayas. It’s all right where you find yourself.

‘Little epiphanies all day long’

DAVID: Another comparison I would make is: The Old Farmers Almanac. Of course, your book isn’t exactly an almanac with all the stuff you’d find in Old Farmers. But there is a day-by-day invitation to discovery as we interact with the natural world around us.

BARBARA: I’m rejoicing. Yes, I love things like the Farmers Almanac. That really touches the epicenter of my world of joy. I was raised by a Mom who quite a nature lover. We can still see it if we pull out the movies she shot on our old Kodak movie camera when we were kids. She’d take some pictures of us outdoors, then you can see it as she suddenly moves the camera up into a tree and captures images of an indigo bunting she’s suddenly spotted. I want people to be open to those kinds of daily discoveries. I love knowing which fish are active in the streams right now, which mushrooms are sprouting. That’s why I added the seasonal field notes running along the pages.

Many Jewish books are designed like that—strips that add text to text. These remind us that life itself is made up of layer upon layer of experience.

DAVID: As I’m talking with you about this, I’m reminded of a story we published the first week of January. I wrote about a surprising note that was sent to me by the Buddhist writer Geri Larkin. In the end, Geri’s point was: “Pay attention!”

BARBARA: Yes, we can have these little epiphanies all day long. It’s like God taps you on the shoulder when you least expect it. If you’ve got your eyes open and your soul open, you’ll know it when you see it!

I agree: Pay attention!

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Categories: Author InterviewsGreat With GroupsNatural World

Ellen and Jane Knuth talk about ‘Love Will Steer Me True’

Cover of Love Will Steer Me True by Jane and Ellen Knuth

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Relationships are like the flower bulbs we plant each autumn here in the Northern Hemisphere with the promise that they are living things and eventually will grow into a beautiful part of our daily journey. That’s the hope when we as parents meet our children again as adults. Whatever we thought these relationships were as we first nurtured them as children—they might someday surprise us in wondrous ways.

That’s the magic of Love Will Steer Me True, which Jane and Ellen Knuth have subtitled, “A Mother and Daughter’s Conversations on Life, Love and God.”

They’re talented writers and literally cut to the chase: The book opens with Ellen, as a young adult, on the verge of leaving her Mom behind in an airport in Michigan to start a new life in Japan as an English teacher. Jane bugs her daughter, as parents do, needling her anxiously until the two part.

Years later, the two women would look back over what happened in those years of separation, drawing from letters and journals and other records, and reconstruct chapter by chapter how they survived everything from a nuclear disaster in Japan to Jane’s sudden celebrity as a Catholic author back home. Perhaps more importantly, the book is about how they overcame Jane’s anxiety that Ellen wasn’t becoming a proper young Christian—until the two finally manage to meet again and regard each other for the first time as mature adults. Are you a parent? You’ll put down this book with a hopeful sigh.

And if that description doesn’t make you want to order a copy of this book, right now, then perhaps you haven’t stopped to think hard enough about the way that relationships in your own life have developed—and can develop—over the years. That’s really the second narrative in this book for each of us as readers—a host of personal echoes you are likely to hear in your own memory as you experience the words, the conversations and the experiences in the Knuth’s journey.

Here’s another reason to buy this book and support their work: The majority of people who read books with real-life spiritual themes are women, yet major publishers insist on pushing a majority of male writers our way. Some of those books are terrific. But, often, those books repeat our all-too-common pattern of a man standing up in a pulpit telling everyone how we should live our lives. It’s refreshing to discover such talented women writing such an engaging spiritual memoir—and, as readers, we should support these discoveries.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed both Jane and her daughter Ellen Knuth. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH JANE AND ELLEN KNUTH
ON ‘LOVE WILL STEER ME TRUE’

Jane and Ellen Knuth with their book Love Will Steer Me True

Jane and her daughter Ellen Knuth with their new book.

DAVID: You two are so talented! Jane, you’re a math teacher and a community volunteer, and Ellen, you worked as a teacher in Japan for years. But you’ve also developed very compelling voices as writers. I’m not alone in saying that. Jane, your first book, Thrift Store Saints, was published while Ellen was in Japan and won praise nationwide. A lot of our readers would love to be able to write like you two. What’s your secret?

ELLEN: My mother always has been a storyteller. We were raised in the grand Irish tradition of telling stories around the dinner table. She had been writing magazine articles and other things like that for years before her first big book. I was in Japan when it was published, but when I got my copy of her book, I realized that these were the kinds of stories I might have heard around the dinner table. My mother just writes like she talks to people.

JANE: That first book did change my life and Ellen was on the other side of the world when it happened. The interesting thing is that both of us were teaching eighth graders when a lot of the events described in this book took place. One way we bonded was over our work as teachers.

As you’ll see in the book, we were not communicating very well in the beginning. I was talking on one level and she was talking on another level. This is the story of how our conversations became real again, how we could talk openly, authentically and come to a healing of hearts and relationships over several years. Finally, I asked Ellen if she would be willing to write a book with me and the experience really was fun.

‘I’ll PRAY FOR YOU’
(FOR BETTER OR WORSE)

DAVID: Here’s a good example and, I’ve said this to people myself: “I’ll pray for you.” As a Mom, Jane, I know you meant this to be reassuring. But as a daughter, Ellen, when you were younger and you were getting ready to head to Japan, this often sounded more like a threat than reassurance.

JANE: Before Ellen went away to Japan, we were able to talk on some levels. But if I mentioned God or I would say, “I will pray for you,” she would tense up.

She told me: “You don’t think I can handle this. You don’t think I’m an adult.” And I didn’t realize she was taking it that way. My religious language was placing a barrier between us that I didn’t even realize was contributing to a distance between us.

ELLEN: That’s true. When I was younger and Mom said, “I’m praying for you,” I equated that with worry. I realize that I tend to pray about things that are stressing me out—and when Mom would say that to me, it actually led to more stress in my life.

I would actually draw away from what she was saying. But then, when I moved to Japan, I came into my own adult life and I began to realize that prayer is another way of saying, “I love you.” Prayer is more than just worry and anxiety. As I began to understand prayer as an expression of support, I became more open to welcoming that. And that ties into the title of our book, Love Will Steer Me True. It’s thanks to love in many forms that we finally take our feet as adults and find our path.

One of my favorite Bible teachings is the one that deals with the difference between praying on street corners and praying in private. I’ve always defined religion as very private and personal in my own life. That’s where my prayer and meditation takes place. People who spend more time alone praying or meditating ultimately understand themselves better—and it allows us to look outside of ourselves in new ways. You can more readily identify with others and you can begin to see more ways to help and assist others. You’re more empathetic.

JANE: Christianity teaches us that we should spend private time with God and absorb that strength and wisdom and then that can flow through you.

DAVID: Prayer in families is very common. Our colleague, journalist David Briggs, recently reported in his column about research into religion that nearly 9 out of 10 Americans who are involved in their churches also regularly pray for their families. And among all American parents with teens, 8 out of 10 pray for their teens at least a few times a week.

JANE: That report doesn’t surprise me. I know that it’s easy, these days, to get the impression from TV that people aren’t praying anymore. But when I think about it: Every parent I know prays for their kids. I think most people are hopeful about their families and they pray about that. It’s nice to see a report like this one that confirms that lots of people are still praying.

ELLEN: And I’ve come to see that prayer as an act of love is very helpful. That’s different than prayer just as an act of worry. And it’s not good to get into an argument and threaten a person by saying: “Well, I’m going to pray for you!” That’s using prayer as an enforcement tool.

Actually, it can get into a situation in which people are praying counter to each other. In our family, we often pray: “May this come out as it should come out.” That acknowledges that often we cannot even fathom the best outcome in the situations in which we find ourselves.

INTO THE DISASTER AREA

Japanese government locator map of the region

The Japanese government posted this locator map of the region. As time passed, the government posted further detailed maps of villages where people should not live and others in this region where people could remain despite the disaster.

DAVID: Let’s talk about a situation in which you found yourself, Ellen. You were working in Japan during the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. First of all, the town in which you lived and worked as a teacher was not in this part of Japan, but ironically your family background led you to want to help people remaining in that region. You volunteered to join one of the teams going into the disaster area to help out.

You bravely made a commitment that you would volunteer in that region, but then you admit in the book that you grew nervous as the trip approached. In one of the chapters you wrote for this book, Ellen, you say: “Now that a volunteer organization had agreed to take us on, the work boots have been purchased, and the departure date has been set, I’m pretty nervous. It has only now occurred to me that I have no experience, and by extension, no useful skills that can be applied to a disaster zone. What am I going to do? Emote over rubble? … For the first time ever, I regret not taking a single welding class. I’m also worried I won’t be able to handle being in an area of devastation. I’ve never had to face such a situation before.”

Then, after your chapter, Ellen, I had to chuckle at the chapter written by Jane, who was safe and sound back in Michigan. Jane says, “I am lighting a ton of candles this week.”

Then back to Ellen in the book: As it turns out, you quickly find useful work that you can do in that area. You and your teammates take on tasks like hauling fresh, safe water to people inside the zone. Can you tell us a little more about this—first Ellen?

ELLEN: The area in which we worked was not at the epicenter of the whole disaster. But we were in a devastated area and it was very tense to go through this whole experience. It’s hard when you’re inside a disaster area to be clear about the information coming in all around you. I had to chart my own course through this.

JANE: I was back here thinking: Oh my! You train your kids to be concerned about others and to help others and then your kid contacts you from Japan and says, “Mom, I’m going to volunteer to go into the nuclear zone and help out.”

Of course I had always wanted her to become a volunteer—but I was envisioning something like a nice safe soup kitchen! This was something so different than what I ever expected!

DAVID: In that volunteer effort, the real challenge turned out to be getting along with the other volunteers. I won’t spoil the book for readers, but the whole journey turns out to be tougher than Ellen imagined.

JANE: We were proud of her and amazed to learn about all she went through in that process. It was neat to see her come to a realization of why trying to work with a community of people can be so difficult. It’s not that people are bad; it’s just that relationships can be difficult and especially so under difficult circumstances. She began to understand something about why her father and I are still so involved in the church and in Christian community. It’s sometimes difficult, but we’re committed to it.

ELLEN: That experience was a turning point in my life in being able to make my own decisions, to chart my own course. It also was a big step in the process of my parents coming to respect my decisions as an adult.

JANE: Ellen never was what you’d call a rebel and we always loved each other, but there was a distance between us. This book is about the journey we were on together until we came to understand each other again as adults.

For me as a parent, it used to be that I would think about Ellen and that meant: I’m anxious! I’m worried about what is happening in my daughter’s life.

And now? I’m not worried when I think about my daughter. I’m curious.

ELLEN: In the end, one of the most important lessons we learned is that we all need to spend more time carefully listening to each other, rather than getting hung up on the differences we think we have. I hope this book will be read by people my mother’s age and people my age, too.

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Categories: Author InterviewsChildren and FamiliesGreat With Groups

Wake up! ‘How far the unknown transcends …’

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Wake Up!

By BENJAMIN PRATT
Author, columnist and teacher

José de Ribera Jacob's Dream

DETAIL from “Jacob’s Dream,” a painting by 17th-Century Spanish painter José de Ribera.

I have had surgery three times in my life. In my first two experiences, I was a reluctant child and the anesthesia had already sent me to sleep prior to entering the operating room.

In my most recent experience I was taken into the surgery fully awake, wholly reassured and comforted by the caring nurses. I looked around in awe at this inner sanctum of medical toys as the efficient nurses attended to the tasks of preparation.

As if taken by the hand, I was gently led to sleep, scarcely knowing if I wished to stay in awe of the objects of this unknown world or go into the darkness.

Darkness came quickly and without awareness. I surrendered, the mystery of trust mingling with sleep.

Then, suddenly, I was in an unexpected place, a familiar but long ago place. Chattering voices and gentle laughs formed the image of children standing in front of an ice cream truck, eagerly trying to place an order for their own frosty delight.

Groggy. Confused. I heard a warm voice proclaiming, “You did so well.”

I raised my hand and garbled, “At what?”

The woman with the welcoming voice gently took my hand and leaned down to give me a tender hug.

I blubbered: “Are you an angel?”

She laughed and continued to caress my hand. Slowly, I began to see, to understand, to remember. I started to smile, then to laugh and feel giddy. A deep gratitude filled my soul!

Even in this now commonplace experience, awakening from anesthesia, I imagined I had  experienced the miracle of grace that holds the mysterious promise of a time beyond my final sleep.

When our toys of life are taken away and we face the eternal sleep we are entering a realm that Longfellow once tried to describe as a powerful and progressive matter of “Nature.” With a glimpse of that journey in the surgery—gratitude shivers my aching bones.

Awakening is a grace-filled miracle.

NATURE

By HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW

As a fond mother, when the day is o’er,
Leads by the hand her little child to bed,
Half willing, half reluctant to be led,
And leave his broken playthings on the floor,
Still gazing at them through the open door,
Nor wholly reassured and comforted
By promises of others in their stead,
Which, though more splendid, may not please him more;
So Nature deals with us, and takes away
Our playthings one by one, and by the hand
Leads us to rest so gently, that we go
Scarce knowing if we wish to go or stay,
Being too full of sleep to understand
How far the unknown transcends the what we know.

.

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Categories: Great With Groups

Wake Up! Massimo Vignelli helped us see our world in new ways

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Wake Up!

Review by DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine

Design Is One Lella and Massimo Vignelli DVD cover

Click the DVD cover to visit the film’s Amazon page.

As 2014 ended, the New York Times devoted an entire page to remembering Massimo Vignelli, the designer who was born in 1931 and died in May. You may not know his name, but you’ve seen his work a million times in countless forms.

In a dozen photos and a brief profile of Vignelli, The Times explains how this one Italian-American immigrant and his wife Lella shaped contemporary America, calling Massimo “a modern-design missionary. His signature simplicity cut away the clutter found in much commercial design.”

That’s why the release of Design is One: Lella & Massimo Vignelli by documentary filmmakers Kathy Brew and Roberto Guera is such an eye-opening experience. Close your eyes for a moment and envision the “look” of American Airlines, Ford, IBM, Xerox, Gillette, JCPenney, Bloomingdales and Saks. Chances are your mind’s eye holds snapshots of Vignelli logos, products, signs, shopping bags and more. You’ve already got image after image of the Vignellis’ work stored away; seeing this film will unlock new insights into how those images connect.

Why are we reviewing this documentary in ReadTheSpirit—an online magazine widely read by people who care about spirituality and cultural diversity? Because this film is a terrific discussion-starter for small groups. You’ll find a host of associations with themes of faith and the goal of building healthy, diverse communities. In the film, the Vignellis say that their proudest accomplishment is the design of St. Peter’s Church in New York City, where they both planned to be interred and, of course, Massimo arrived in 2014.

As we tour this church in the film, Massimo points to the St. Peter’s columbarium and says, “That’s our permanent residence. It makes me so happy to know that we will be here forever.” If you discuss this film with friends, you’ll have an evening of spirited conversation on the St. Peter’s sequence, alone.

And, as the filmmakers show us in the course of the documentary, the Vignellis were interfaith pioneers, also designing a number of gorgeous pieces for Jewish families, especially focusing on silver candle-holders in various forms.

Stepping back from the specifically religious content of the film, the Vignellis spare modernist approach to design had the overall mission of encouraging healthy communities by bringing greater clarity to the treasures that can unite us as a body of diverse people. One of Massimo Vignelli’s most enduring projects was a redesign of the “look” of our National Parks.

Even the National Parks Conservation Association says that the graphical “look” of National Parks publications and maps was “an idiosyncratic hodgepodge” before Vignelli arrived in 1977 with the goal of popping Americans’ eyes open to the wonders awaiting us in our parks. Because of federal-government bureaucracy before that time, National Parks publications were printed in black and white in a crazy quilt of designs. Vignelli (with support from National Parks publications chief Vincent Gleason) designed maps and brochures and paperback books that featured gorgeous color photographs, simplified maps and a standardized design that welcomed visitors to any of the hundreds of nationally administered parks.

In the film, we hear Lella and Massimo repeatedly explain that their lives were dedicated to helping millions of Americans understand our country in clear and inviting ways. From home furnishings to subway maps, from chairs to books, from jewelry to magazines, from watches to calendars—this couple’s hands made our world more hospitable. As they accomplished their goal through a remarkably long career, they made America a more welcoming place for the growing diversity of our people.

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Categories: Great With GroupsMovies and TV