Kent Haruf, award-winning novelist, all-around good human being

RIP Kent Haruf–Novelist, Neighbor, Friend

Kent Haruf, award-winning novelist, all-around good human being Kent Haruf, 1943-2014

Kent Haruf, award-winning novelist, beloved teacher and all-around wonderful human being died this morning, three months shy of his 72nd birthday. He had just finished copyedits for a new novel, Our Souls at Night, scheduled for release next year.

Kent’s novels reach to the heart of what it means to be human, the stories told in prose so spare and quiet the phrases linger in the soul after being read. Washington Post writer Mike Rosenwald calls the fictional town of Holt, on Colorado’s windswept eastern plains, the setting for Kent’s trilogy of Plainsong, Eventide and Benediction, “his version of [Faulkner’s] Yoknapatawpha County. It was as real to him as the world he lived in — maybe more real.”

Plainsong, the first book in the Holt trilogy Plainsong, the first book in the Holt trilogy

Kent’s bone-deep knowledge of the sweep of the plains and the lives spun out in their isolated expanses comes from growing up there among people like his characters. He writes their lives with compassion, understanding our capacity for grace even, or perhaps especially, in the hardest of times. Their lives sing hymns of grace.

My friend John Calderazzo, writer and faculty at Colorado State University, remembers hearing Kent read a memoir passage from West of Last Chance detailing with loving humor the spread of food at 1950s-era church potluck that featured quite a few varieties of Jello.

After the reading, John writes, “I told him that the facts, the intense focus, and the precision of the details of time and place reminded me of James Agee’s A Death in the Family (my idea of one of the greatest memoirs ever written). He got this very slow deep smile, and he said that Agee had been his model all along and that no one had ever “caught him” at it. … That was a lovely moment, and that is how I will remember him separate from his wonderful work.”

Eventide, the second novel in the Holt trilogy Eventide, the second novel in the Holt trilogy

In my small town of Salida (population 5,500 people) in rural Southern Colorado, Kent Haruf was simply Kent, a regular at the coffeehouse, a patron of the library, an attendee of concerts and plays, a hospice volunteer, part of the Buddhist sangha, a neighbor, a friend.

He was modest, unassuming, funny, and wise. When he asked, “How are you?” he listened to the answer. Because he wanted to know. He cared.

After the love of my life, Richard Cabe, came home to hospice care for terminal brain cancer in fall of 2011, Kent and his wife Cathy stopped by one morning. Kent sat down next to Richard’s wheelchair, I poured him a cup of coffee, and they plunged into a discussion of the meaning of the Buddhist concept of metta, lovingkindness, in daily life.

An hour later, Richard was tiring and Kent got up to leave. After he put on his jacket, Kent kissed my cheek and whispered, “Thank you for letting me come. It’s an honor.” He came back regularly, and always thanked me for “letting him” visit.

Benediction, published in 2013 and shortlisted for the international Folio Prize Benediction, published in 2013 and shortlisted for the international Folio Prize

Last Saturday, I walked to Cathy and Kent’s with a bag of scones warm from the oven. “Come in! Come in!” said Cathy. “Go on through. Kent wants to see you.”

Kent greeted me with a welcoming smile, showed me a copy of the cover design he had just gotten for Our Souls at Night, and asked me what I was working on. I told him about my aha! realization about my memoir-in-progress, Bless the Birds:

“I finally understood that it’s not about our journey with brain cancer. It’s about the choices we made that shaped us into people who could live that journey and face his death with love.”

Kent beamed and took my hand. “Yes! That is exactly why people will want to read it. You’ve got it now.”

I felt like I had just won the National Book Award.

My heart hurts tonight. But as I go back to revising Bless the Birds tomorrow, I will keep Kent’s joyous smile in mind. He was right: I do have it now (finally).

Thank you, Kent, for that blessing. And thank you Cathy, and both of your families, for sharing Kent. The quiet grace of his voice lives on.

Salida at eventide tonight.... Salida’s eventide as I began this blog post….

The sunset tonight--a moment of beauty free just for the noticing that reminded me of why I write.

#amwriting: After Aha!, Revision

Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.  —Buddhist saying


The sunset tonight--a moment of beauty free just for the noticing that reminded me of why I write. The sunset tonight–a moment of quiet beauty that reminded me why I write: to witness to this life,  and the community of this blessed planet.

#amwriting (Take Seven or is it Eight?): I’m back to work revising Bless the Birds. Again. And I have no one to blame but me.

When I emailed my agent last Monday to hear her take on my brand-new mission/vision statement, and to find out whether she would lose patience with me if I made one more pass through the manuscript with that new understanding of why I write in mind, she responded immediately,

“This is exactly the right approach… Take the time to expand the vision and the appeal [of the memoir].”

“I don’t think I’m talking about a huge revision,” I replied. “I should have it back to you in a couple of weeks.”

Bless the Birds, a pile of pages on my desk.... Bless the Birds, a pile of pages on my desk….

As I wrote those words, I had a funny feeling that perhaps I shouldn’t be so sure. Still, I could already “hear” some of the changes I needed to make, so I plunged back into revising.

Monday I worked through Chapters One and Two, and that felt good.

Sitting on the couch that night, I began to score one of the handful of memoirs I’m reading as part of judging for a national memoir award. I thought the book was really well-written and insightful but…

It took me while to articulate what didn’t feel right. The author had a real gift for language, the characters were vivid and realistic, and the story itself was compelling, except… there were sections I found myself skimming because they contained detail that didn’t interest me.

It seemed to me that those sections didn’t illuminate the story, or move it forward; the details got in its way. They overwhelmed the reflections that make memoir more than just the story of the author’s life.

That’s when I had my Aha! moment about Bless the Birds.

The story isn’t just about Richard’s and my journey with his brain cancer; it’s about our relationship, the choices that we made through the decades that formed us into people who could live that journey with love, even when—no, especially when we knew he would die.

Molly, Richard and me at our apartment in Boulder, Colorado. Molly, Richard and me at our apartment in Boulder, Colorado, in about 1989

Those choices and that story of growing a relationship that could thrive through the most terrible and beautiful journey we humans take—accompanying a loved one to their death—are the universal theme in this memoir, the visionary part.

What’s limiting Bless the Birds, making it likely to be pigeonholed as “just” a medical/health memoir isn’t the writing, it’s my concept of what the story is about. I need to write out of the box I wrote the story into.

Which means cutting some of the medical/health journey, the detail that could overwhelm the reflection that is the true heart of the story. And adding history that explains how Richard and I came to be who we are and to live the way we did.

So now I’m back to sculpting narrative, to the everyday work of chopping wood and hauling water.

Me, Molly, and Richard on the front porch of the duplex with Perdida, 1997 Me, Molly, and Richard on the front porch of the duplex with Perdida, 1997

I’m listening to my memories, looking at photos and reading journals to find moments from our nearly 29 years together that illustrate how we nurtured our initial love-at-first-sight into a relationship that allowed us to live as well as humanly possible through Richard’s journey with brain cancer. And to part with love.

It’s hard work, but It feels right. It will take longer than I confidently predicted and that’s okay. The story is growing stronger and deeper, reaching toward universal.

As the late Bill Kloefkorn, State Poet of Nebraska said about poetry, memoir is “words on a page, nibbling at something vast.”

In this new revision of Bless the Birds, I’m aiming for more than a nibble.

A bronze temple bell I hung near the wreath on Creek House where I hear the wind in the bell's deep voice. The bronze temple bell hanging on the front wall of Creek House that gives voice to the wind.

The last few leaves on Ruby's cottonwood.

#amwriting Update: Finished!

The last few leaves on Ruby's cottonwood. The last few leaves cling to the branches of Ruby’s cottonwood behind Treehouse. They were still green last time I thought I was finished with this manuscript.

#amwriting update: When I last wrote about my progress on the new memoir, I was close to finishing a major revision. I figured I’d be done by the end of the week.

Wrong. When I got to the last page of the story I call Bless the Birds, I knew I needed to read the whole manuscript one more time before I sent it off.

Only first I needed to prepare for the Women Writing the West Conference.

The sacred datura along the Treehouse retaining wall were just opening when I got home from the conference. The sacred datura blooming along the retaining wall when I got home.

I got home from the conference Sunday evening just as the datura flowers were opening for the night; Monday morning I woke eager to begin reading.

After yoga and breakfast, I opened the file and began, making small changes here and there, smoothing out rough places so the story would really shine. I got so absorbed that I forgot everything else until my belly politely reminded me that it was past two o’clock and lunch would be welcome….

I made myself a salad with some of the last speckled “troutback” lettuce from my front-deck container kitchen garden, added sun-ripened Stupice tomatoes from the same, plus local cheese and not-local organic avocado.

The troutback lettuce that went into my salad (thanks to Renee's Garden Seeds!). The troutback lettuce that went into my salad (thanks to Renee’s Garden Seeds!).

And then continued to read as I ate, the laptop open on the kitchen island next to my lunch.

I came up for air after working through six chapters. It was past four o’clock and time to stop before my brain quit reading critically.

I took my daily walk to the Post Office across town; back at home, I changed into my running togs and set off on my twice-weekly run.

Tuesday I got up and did the same thing (without the run), reading my way steadily through the manuscript, changing a word here or there, refining a sentence, subtracting a bit that seemed unnecessary, adding something I had forgotten. I worked until late afternoon again, making it through another six chapters.

Wednesday I read 8 chapters, which took me to Chapter 20. (There are 34 chapters in total.) Thursday I made it through another seven.

While I was immersed in the story, the milkweed seeds began to float away.... While I was immersed in the story, the milkweed seeds began to float away….

Friday I had a morning conference call and a one o’clock meeting, so I wasn’t sure I’d have any reading time. But I dove in after the meeting, and by the time I headed out on my Friday evening run, I only had three chapters left to read.

“I’ll finish those on Saturday morning,” I said to myself. Only somewhere in mile three of my run, when my body was tired enough that my mind quit its chatter, I thought of something I had forgotten to say, a loose thread I needed to weave into the narrative.

When I got home, I opened the file, wove in that thread, and then continued reading, beginning with the end of the chapter I had finished earlier in the day–I find it helps to start a few pages before where I quit reading  to get myself back into the story.

I read through dinner, sitting at the kitchen island with the laptop open, and then washed dishes, made my evening tea, and took my laptop and tea to the couch and continued reading. I read the last page through tears at eight o-three that night.

Indian ricegrass in my front-yard mountain prairie. Richard’s favorite grass, Indian ricegrass, in my front-yard mountain prairie.

I almost hit the “send” button right then. Only my inner writer said, “No, read the new bits over one last time tomorrow morning. And then see if it feels done.”

I did, and made a few more changes.

I woke this morning thinking I had left something out early in the story. When I opened the file and looked, the bit I thought I had forgotten was already there. I remembered another little detail, looked for it, and lo and behold! It was there too.

That’s when I knew I was done. When I start fussing about things I’ve already included, it’s time to let the manuscript go.

Tomorrow morning, I’ll send off Bless the Birds. May the story I wrote with heart outstretched as if it were my hand at last be on the road to finding a publisher and its audience.

Treehouse at sunset tonight. Treehouse at sunset tonight, just before I started writing this post.

Terrace of the Golden Hotel, the main conference venue, overlooking Clear Creek.

Writing: Place, Community and Women’s Voices

Terrace of the Golden Hotel, the main conference venue, overlooking Clear Creek. Terrace of the Golden Hotel, the main conference venue, overlooking Clear Creek.

I’ve just returned from four days in Golden, Colorado, at the 20th annual conference of Women Writing the West, an organization of writers and publishing professionals who write about the “Women’s West,” telling the stories of the West through the experiences of women in the past, present and future.

It was a packed event, the largest conference WWW has ever run, spread over four venues, and hosting a sell-out crowd of 150+ writers/editors/agents and publishers from all over the US and at least three Canadian provinces.

Moderator Dawn Wink gets excited when someone recognizes a photo of her place in the "Place As Character" panel. Moderator Dawn Wink gets excited when someone recognizes a photo of her place in the “Place As Character” panel. Photo: Stephanie West Allen

I participated in three panels, organized the Thursday evening quilt reception and reading by finalists and winners from our WILLA Literary Awards and LAURA Short Fiction Awards, reported to the WWW Board Meeting and addressed the Membership meeting as well, signed books, and sponsored the screening of The Cherokee Word for Water, named one of the top five Native American films of the year, and deservedly so–the story, acting and filming are bone-deep authentic and inspiring.

The film traces the early story of Wilma Mankiller, first chief of the Cherokee Nation, as she returned to Cherokee Country with her two young daughters and began organizing poor rural communities. It was followed by a moving panel discussion including Kimberly Guerrero, the award-winning actress who played Wilma; Charlie Soap, Wilma’s husband and a director/producer of the film; and longtime friend of Wilma’s, producer Christina Kiehl.

Another fascinating story to me was that of Rose Wilder Lane, daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder of the Little House series fame, and as keynote speaker Susan Wittig Albert explained, a famous writer who became more than her mother’s co-author, yet kept her role in shaping the stories secret.

Page Lambert, Kayann Short and me on the "Every Writer Needs a Community" panel. Photo: Stephanie West Allen Page Lambert, Kayann Short and me on the “Every Writer Needs a Community” panel. (WWW commemorative quilt in the background.) Photo: Stephanie West Allen

The conference background sound was the buzz of excited voices as participants gathered to greet old friends, meet new ones, and share ideas and tips on all aspects of writing.

That excitement and sharing sums up Women Writing the West for me: community, not competition. A core value of the organization is to provide a supportive community to those of us engaged in telling and publishing stories about the West from a woman’s point of view.

Excitement... (A selfie with Dawn Wink at the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum.) Excitement… (A selfie with Dawn Wink at the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum.)

To give you a taste of the conference, here are excerpts from my handout for the “Place As Character” panel featuring Dawn Wink, Julene Bair, Page Lambert, and me. The handout opens with a quote:

The birds and I share a natural history. It is a matter of rootedness, of living inside a place for so long that the mind and imagination fuse.

—Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place

When we talk about place as character, we’re talking about writing that shows place as one of the driving and shaping factors in a story/essay/memoir/poem. Place, especially place in the West, where our spaces are so large, our skies so vast and our weather so unpredictable, sculpts the lives of those who live there and the stories we write, whether real or imagined.

How do we write place as believable, authentic character?

“Know the place so well that you “live inside of it.” Spend time there, and if you can’t do that, read voraciously, talk to people who live or have lived there. Soak yourself in the place until it “takes over mind and imagination,” as Terry Tempest Williams says.

Use rich sensory “data.” Go beyond what we see: describe how the wind sounds, what the place smells like, how the sleet feels…. If it’s hard to think of sensory details other than the visual, go outside and spend five minutes sitting with your eyes closed. Note everything you hear, smell, and feel (without opening your eyes. You’ll be able to read it when you’re done). Then prepare to be surprised at how much you notice when your dominant sense (vision) is turned off.

And finally:

Write as if it matters. Because we need your voice.

Cottonwoods along Clear Creek through the window screen. Cottonwoods along Clear Creek through the window screen of my hotel room.

The sunset tonight when I started writing this blog post reminded me of the way we often begin a piece, tentatively, scribbling.

#amwriting… every day

The sunset tonight when I started writing this blog post reminded me of the way we often begin a piece, tentatively, scribbling. The sunset tonight when I started writing this blog post–a scribbled beginning.

As any social-media-literate type knows better than I do, #amwriting is a Twitter identifier used to proclaim when you’re engaged in the crazy-making, compelling and most-often solitary pursuit of laying down words in a creative way (usually on a long project).

I think I’ve used the hashtag maybe twice over the past several years, even though I #amwriting every morning, starting at about six am when I get up. I grab my laptop and go back to bed, prop my back up against several pillows and write for an hour.

I don’t tweet that I #amwriting then because it’s my journal work, and the point of doing it so early is that no one knows I’m up, so I can write without interruption.

Then I compose a haiku to go with that day’s photo as my daily awareness and gratitude practice. I post the pair on Facebook and Twitter, but I never use the hashtag then either because it’s “just” haiku (which, if you’ve never tried it, is quite challenging), not a longer creative piece.

Pretty soon, the sunset got down to business with some strong themes.... Pretty soon, the sunset got down to business with some strong themes….

After which I get ready for the rest of my day, which usually means writing. But not always the creative work implied in the hashtag #amwriting.

For most of the last two-and-a-half years though, #amwriting has filled my days. I’ve been working on one of most grueling projects of my writing life, my new memoir, which I call Bless the Birds.

I haven’t tweeted about the time I’ve spent on BtB because once I am (writing), I get absorbed. And because it’s taking me this side of forever to get the story right, and who cares that I’m working on version six of the same bloody memoir I have been working on since early 2012.

But yes, I #amwriting. In the last five months I’ve gone through two major revisions of the story, working steadily from nine o’clock to three o’clock (or later) every weekday, and squeezing the work I get paid for into the evenings and weekends.

(It’s true, pretty much all I do is work, most of which is writing. Plus gardening and restoration landscaping.)

Right now, this memoir, the work I #amwriting, is what grips me. And I just. want. to. get. it. done. Or at least done enough that it’s off my desk for a while.

Working on it is like peeling my skin off with a dull knife—digging deeper and deeper until the essence of me and the story are exposed.

And then bumped up the drama... And then bumped up the drama…

As I’ve said before, to write memoir well, you have to not only relive the period you’re writing about, you have to immerse yourself so fully that you know viscerally what about your story matters to anyone else, including those readers who will never experience what you have.

You have to answer the “why care” question so compellingly that even if your readers would never want to read about what you know, they cannot put the story down. It grabs them by the throat and growls, it enchants them with a siren’s song, it sets them to laughing so hard they read with their legs crossed; it leaves them understanding what they did not know they needed to know before they began reading.

Answering that “why care” question is what I’ve been doing in these last two revisions. So yeah, I #amwriting. And rewriting and rewriting and rewriting.

If all goes well, Bless the Birds will head off to my agent late this week. After which, for the first time in years, I won’t be writing every day. But not for long. Because #amwriting is a natural state of being for me.

At the end, the moon rose. At the end, the moon rose.

Playing around--a selfie (only taken with a camera, not a smartphone) after Richard's fourth brain surgery....

Paring Story into Memoir….

Last spring, I finished the initial draft of Bless the Birds, the memoir I’ve been working on about Richard’s and my journey with his brain cancer. A journey I hope will show us all how to live with love even in–especially in–the most difficult times.

Playing around--a selfie (only taken with a camera, not a smartphone) after Richard's fourth brain surgery.... Playing around–a selfie (only taken with a camera, not a smart phone) after Richard’s fourth brain surgery.

The point of memoir is not just to write our own lives. (Not that there’s anything wrong with telling our life-stories for ourselves and family and friends–in fact, that can be a wonderful gift.)

But if we’re going to call the writing memoir, we’ve got to work to find the universal in our particulars, to tell our story in a way that compels readers to see their own lives in new light. Memoir is the meaning we draw from our lives, the essential “truth” that offers some wisdom about life in general.

When I finished that first draft, it tallied 142,000 words and 420+ pages. It needed some work. Not just because it was almost twice as long as the lower end of the range of most memoirs (75,000 to 90,000 words).

Because when I read the draft over, it was too much like a report (this happened, after which this happened, and then this…). What I wanted was a narrative, where the tension of the events and the characters’ actions carry the story like a swelling wave.

Richard at Lucia Lodge on California's Big Sur Coast. Richard at Lucia Lodge on California’s Big Sur Coast.

I had written our life-story, but it wasn’t memoir yet. It was buried in detail, and the tone was too… detached. Not engaged and immediate.

The truth is, I was too comfortable with the story. It had grown too familiar, too practiced. So I set the manuscript aside.

In July, I picked it up, saved the original file as a new version and began reading aloud from the beginning.

I needed to be in the story, under its skin, immersed. Not outside, looking at it from a distance. I needed to speak it.

My aim was to pare out anything that while it might be well-written, wasn’t essential to advancing the narrative and defining characters.

How can we tell what is essential from what is not? There’s no rule or formula; every writer and piece of writing are different.

What works for me is to listen, and hone my sense of what moves the story forward and what doesn’t, what contributes to my understanding of the characters and their motivations.

Still holding hands near the end.... Still holding hands near the end….

I read aloud and listen for scenes and actions that illuminate, like a flash lightning in the night.

By the end of that read-through, I had a much better understanding of what mattered. And the manuscript was 102,000 words, a little over 400 pages.

Good, but not quite there yet.

So I started reading out loud from the beginning again. This time I lived the story. I was not comfortable. Most days I felt exposed, vulnerable and bruised.

I finished the day after Christmas, the manuscript a relatively svelte 93,000 words and 372 pages.

I could have quit there, but something–perhaps intuition, perhaps obsessiveness–nagged me into just one more read.

"Stop looking so serious, Sus! It's a selfie, not art." “Stop looking so serious, Sus! It’s a selfie, not art.”

Molly came to visit for a few days between Christmas and New Year’s, so I put the manuscript aside and simply enjoyed hanging out with her.

On New Year’s Day, I opened the file for one last read-through. I finished yesterday afternoon, having worked straight through the previous weekend.

This edit was even more intense. It felt, I told a friend, “like my skin was being peeled off with a dull knife.”

Not pleasant. But the results were worth it. The story emerged taut and muscly, honest and surprisingly beautiful.

The word count as of yesterday: 91,481, and 360 pages.

The first line is dialog, a question. The last is a declarative statement, one word long. In between, a memoir unfurls.

Tomorrow, I’ll send Bless the Birds to the agent I’ve been talking with. Wish it–and me–good luck!

We’re ready.

O, the rose 'er blooming....

Guns & Dragons

O, the rose 'er blooming.... A rose for remembrance….

On Friday a student carried a shotgun into Arapahoe High School in Centennial, Colorado, a suburb south of Denver, along with what news reports described as “a bandolier” of ammunition and three Molotov cocktails.

He asked where a teacher was, and then shot another student in the face, point-blank.

Teachers and students followed the drills and locked classroom doors and dived for cover, and the sheriff’s deputy assigned to the school immediately pursued the shooter. The boy, a senior, was found dead a few minutes later, having shot himself.

Friday’s shooting happened on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where a young man with automatic weapons killed 20 students, and six teachers and staff.

The two young men were different people from different backgrounds. Their common thread: they apparently saw killing as a viable solution.

Last night as I watched the animated movie How to Train Your Dragon, I thought about how violence itself begets violence, until it becomes the right–or only thing to do.

If you’ve not seen How to Train Your Dragon or read the book by British author Cressida Cowell, here’s a synopsis:

Toothless, the Night Fury dragon, allows Hiccup to touch him. Toothless, the Night Fury dragon, allows Hiccup to touch him.

Hiccup, a nerdy young Viking whose father is the village chief and a dragon-slayer of heroic proportions (in all ways), gets his longed-for chance to prove himself when he is accepted into dragon-slaying school.

Only he tracks an injured Night Fury dragon and ends up befriending the creature–in secret, since he is betraying all his village holds true. As Hiccup gets to know the dragon, Toothless, he learns that dragons are not the mortal enemies he has been raised to believe.

His new understanding allows Hiccup to defeat dragon after dragon in school, and become the head of his class.

Until the day he is chosen for the honor of killing his first dragon–and cannot. The village and his father turn on him. In the end, Hiccup and his motley crew of schoolmates and the dragons they train save the Viking armada from death, and dragons become part of village life.

It’s a well-told fairy-tale (the special effects of dragon-flight alone are worth the price) with a happy ending when Hiccup and his macho father reconcile, and Toothless saves with the young boy/man who befriended him. (Hiccup also gets a smooch from the girl, his sassy fellow-classmate Astrid.)

My new mascot The decidedly friendly dragon who inspires my work

What stuck in my mind was the basic premise: stripped of Vikings and dragons (which, as a half-Norwegian, half-Scot, I happen to appreciate), it’s a tale of a culture locked in warfare with the “other.”

The Vikings must kill the dragons, who have pillaged and burned their village for generations; the dragons must pillage (and kill in self-defense) in order to serve to the uber-evil giant who has enslaved them.

Neither dragons nor Vikings understand the other. They are locked in generations of warfare, kill or be killed.

Until Hiccup tracks Toothless, and realizes the dragon is just as afraid of him as he is of it. Toothless is no more a killer than Hiccup is.

“Everything we thought we knew about them is wrong,” Hiccup realizes.

That “aha!” moment begins the boy’s journey to a re-framing of knowledge and culture that ultimately saves both his people and the dragons.

“We become the stories we tell ourselves,” writes psychologist and author Mary Pipher in The Shelter of Each Other.

A lily for peace... A lily too…

If the stories we tell ourselves glorify violence and blind hatred, is it any wonder that troubled youngsters walk into schools with guns and the intent to kill?

I’m not suggesting the solution is simple. But I continue to be struck by the lesson in Hiccup’s aha moment: “Everything we thought we knew about them was wrong.”

Seems to me our kids need more stories that glorify tolerance and understanding. And more heroes like the scrawny nerd who refused to kill dragons because he dared to know the fearsome “other” as a fellow creature.

Hiccup and Toothless point the way to the kind of healthier stories we can become–with humor, rousing action and dazzling special-effects.