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The Blizzard and Syrian Wisdom

On a mid-March Monday in 2003, my students were restless with rumors of storm, thrilled that school might close on days scheduled for standardized testing, events they dread more than final exams or flu shots. Robot calls came Tuesday at five a.m. Rejoicing teachers and students went back to bed.

The Denver Blizzard of ‘03 settled into abundant downfall for two days. Snow coated the northern sides of tree trunks and fences, encased power lines and street signs. Boundaries between lawn and sidewalk, sidewalk and street, grew vague, disappeared. There would be no school the rest of the week.

I woke later that first day feeling adrift. Time yawned dizzily, its planned course erased. Used to relentless activity, I don’t know what to do with nothing to do. Pausing is not a typical American occupation.

The blanketed branches of my plum leaned nearer and nearer the ground. I’d seen this before, sometimes go out to shake them, but have learned to trust the shrub’s suppleness. It springs back, after storms. Wind gusts moaned through eaves, slapped rattles of snow against windows. The city was otherwise hushed, the drone of traffic gone, cars huddled under smooth mounds.

Online, I saw photos of candlelight vigils for peace from the day before. My “No Iraq War” yard sign trembled in the wind, its message gradually obliterated by white drifts.

The president gave Saddam 48 hours to get out of town. “Dubya” planted his boots in high noon dirt, hands poised over the pearly handles of his six-shooters. Hundreds of thousands held peace vigils around this country, around the world. People in power heed protests as much as weather heeds us. Those snow days were luminous pauses on the threshold of yet another war I did not support. And yet, I still recall the Syrian poet I discovered then, Abu Ala Al-Ma’arri (973-1052) who wrote: Don’t let your life be governed by what disturbs you. I still remember the plum tree, able to bend and bend without breaking.

* * *

A decade later I was surprised to find the medieval philosopher poet in the news. He lived most of his long life near Aleppo, was vegan and a freethinker in an era when Islamic culture tolerated that, though his verses contain harsh critiques. In Reynold Nicholson’s translation, he observed that one religion fails when another comes along because “the lonesome world/will always want the latest fairytales.” In February 2013, a bronze bust of al-Ma’arri was beheaded by jihadists. Across a thousand years, his heretical words offended them.

I keep the Abu Ala Al-Ma’arri quote on my desk, a mantra I repeat in 2018 more often than ever. Our lonesome world still loves its latest fairytales.

©2018 by Patricia Dubrava


Patricia Dubrava is a writer and translator whose blog Holding the Light is at www.patriciadubrava.com. She teaches creative writing and literary translation at the University of Denver.

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