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Stories to Remember in an Unkind World

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There are some stories one can't bear to hear, for to hear them is to lose a slice of our solidarity with all humanity, and to feel a sense of utter cosmic loneliness.

Last week, the world seemed to have gone mad entirely. Along with stories about cannibalism and severed body parts, horrors not from some faraway place but right here in North America, there was the chilling video testimony of 11-year-old Ali el-Sayed, a survivor of the Houlah killing spree carried out evidently by Syrian President Bashar Assad's shadow militia. The gunmen killed his mother, father and eldest brother. Ali witnessed the slaying of his younger siblings -- brothers' Aden and Nasser, six and eight years old, and his sister, Rasha. "I put my brothers blood all over me and acted like I was dead," said the boy.

According to Reuters: "Among the dead were infants and toddlers with bullet and knife wounds to the head." I read this crisp, clean, unemotional, neutral exemplar of precision journalism on a stalled train, and it still made me rock back on my heels and feel like I was falling.

To drive away tales of disquiet, one needs to cling, with white knuckled ferocity, to another kind of story. In Small Wonder, Barbara Kingsolver's essays on peace and planet, she writes of stories to be recalled "in a world whose wells of kindness seem everywhere to be running dry." "I believe in parables," she wrote, "I navigate life using stories where I find them, and I hold tight to the ones that tell me new kinds of truth."

I have two that I cleave to, that I turn over in my mind to study like the facets of a yet unsolved Rubik's Cube, or imagine touching as if they were rosary beads. These unfathomable, improbable, implausible, amazing acts of grace make me wonder. The first is from Chris Hedges book, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. Serbs, Drago and Rosa Sorak were living in Gorazde in 1992, when their lives became ensnared in the war between Serbs and Muslims. After Serb forces shelled their city, cutting off basic amenities, the family dug in and cast their lot with the Bosnian Muslim government. Both their grown children were killed -- one son by the Muslim police, and the other in a car accident while fighting with the Bosnian Serbs. As one of only 200 remaining Serbs in Gorazde, they were a target for Muslim nationalists.

Five months after their son's disappearance, his young widow gave birth to a daughter. There was little food for anyone, the mother could not nurse her baby, and people were dying in droves. The baby began to fade after five days of being fed tea in place of mother's milk. "She was dying... it was breaking our hearts," Rosa recalled. On the edge of the city, Fadil Fejzic, a Bosnian Muslim, was keeping his cow in a field and milking it at night to avoid being hit by Serbian snipers. "On the fifth day, just before dawn, we heard someone at the door. It was Fadil Fejzic in his black rubber boots. He handed up half a liter of milk. He came the next morning, and the morning after that, and after that. Other families on the street began to insult him. They told him to give his milk to Muslims... He never said a word. He refused our money. He came for 442 days, until my daughter-in-law and granddaughter left Gorazde for Serbia." "It is our duty to always tell this story," Drago Sorak told Hedges. "Salt, in those days, cost $80 a kilo. The milk he had was precious ... he gave us 221 liters."

The second is the story of Rachel Beckwith of Seattle, who, very early in her life, appeared to have taken to heart, Kurt Vonnegut's advise to the young in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. His protagonist, Eliot Rosewater, announces that he has been called to baptize the neighbor's newborn twins. When asked what he will say, Eliot responds: "Oh -- I don't know... Sprinkle some water on the babies, say, 'Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies -- God damn it, you've got to be kind."

"It's an odd speech to make over a couple of infants," writes the blogger of 15 Things Kurt Vonnegut Said Better Than Anyone Else, "but it's playful, sweet, yet keenly precise in its summation of everything a new addition to the planet should need to know. By narrowing down all his advice for the future down to a few simple words, Vonnegut emphasizes what's most important in life."

According to Nicholas Kristof, Rachel appears to have known what was important, even as a kindergartner. "At age five, Rachel learned at school about Locks of Love, an organization which turns hair donations into wigs for children who have lost their own hair because of cancer or other diseases. Rachel had her long hair shorn off and sent to Locks of Love, and grew it again to donate for a second time. At age 8, Rachel went global with her giving. For her 9th birthday on June 12th 2011, Rachel created a birthday page on charitywater to raise $300 for clean water instead of receiving birthday gifts. She was disappointed that her drive only raised $200.

A month later, Rachel was in a car accident that left her critically injured. Her family, friends, and church took consolation in donating to her clean water campaign -- nearly $48,000. After Rachel's death on July 23 last year, three days after the crash, people moved by her story began to donate to her campaign. As of this writing, the donations to Rachel's birthday wish total $1,265,823 from nearly 32,000 people around the world. charity:water says that nearly 64,000 people in Ethiopia will now have access to clean, safe drinking water because of Rachel. More than 200 drinking wells have been funded by the donations.

Rachel's mother, Samantha Paul, continues the work her young daughter began. Ms. Paul is planning a trip on the anniversary of Rachel's death in coming weeks to see some of the wells being drilled in Africa in her child's name. "Knowing that her wish is still impacting peoples lives is comforting beyond words," she said. To remember Rachel on what will have been her 10th birthday this year, June 12, please visit her new page.

"I have stories of things I believe in: a persistent river, a forest on the edge of night, the religion inside a seed, the startle of wingbeats when a spark of red life flies against all reason out of the darkness. I'd like to speak of small wonders, and the possibility of taking heart," wrote Kingsolver.