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A Literary & Poetry Column
By Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Disasters: What They Mean for Your Reading or Writing

When the sun set on December 10, the sky was awash with the most intense color I have ever seen--perhaps the color of flamingoes on fire or of burning embers when the whole world is dark. I think the sky and the way it painted the brush around me like blood in milk was so intense because of the widespread wildfires we’ve had in Southern California and, for a moment, I felt pleasure in it, then guilt for that pleasure when I realized the creation of so much beauty was bringing so many so much sorrow.

Then I thought about another time I had a similar feeling. We were cruising a fijord in Chile when we saw a glacier calve. The white and blue mountain that pulled itself away from the land was so immense it filled the narrow waterway. The sound was everywhere and the echoes stayed a long time. Waves from ice-cliff thundering into the sound rocked our ship. I felt so lucky to have experienced it, there! Right in front of me rather than on film. When I stopped to realize that its size was a direct result of melt from global warming and how similar marvels were affecting polar bears in the northern hemisphere. . .yes, it was that same guilt. And then the time I turned my TV to CNN just as the bombing in Iraq appear like celebratory fireworks and wondered how “shock and awe” could be related to such beauty.

Literature—the greatest literature if I dare make such a far-reaching statement—benefits from disaster, too. War and Peace comes to mind immediately, of course, but the greatest stories are almost always set against a backdrop of the horrors of war or disaster. Sometimes even the greatest children’s stories. Think Bambi.

We as readers love conflict and when conflict is at its greatest, we learn more, feel more. If we learn compassion from such events—real or recreated in literature—guilt is but one reaction. Me might also consider that these experiences remind us to be grateful. And, hopefully, to look at the colors longer and appreciate them more.


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