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boxing up the bookshelf

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this is an early draft of a meandering i wrote in the fall of 2016, one that became an essay, Boyhood on a Shelf, that ran, blessedly, in the new york times book review on april 9, 2017. it’s escaped in draft form a couple times already (only for a flash of a moment before i nabbed it and lassoed it back here, where it’s been dawdling), and this time, i’m letting it go because the idea of curating a collection of timeless children’s books is one i believe in, and because i’d love to hear what titles you’d include in such a library. 

one by one, i ran my index finger along the spines of the books. one by one, i remembered. one by one, i slipped the books off the shelf and into the hollow moving box, the books of a boyhood slipping away.

the titles — the hobbit, tom sawyer, the cricket in times square, my father’s dragon, the tales of narnia, a boxed set, harry potter and the sorcerer’s stone, the phantom tollbooth — one by one, each sent a volt of varied wattage.

the american boy’s handy book, for instance, daniel beard’s 1882 instructional for boyhood, “a state of natural savagery,” with its directions on how to build a pine-branch house or a birch-bark canoe, with its instructions on fishing for fresh-water clams, constructing a miniature boomerang or a wooden water telescope, or simply extolling the novelties in soap bubbles, it began to wobble my knees. i remembered the day i’d first spied the centennial edition at a beloved bookshop and carried it home, intent on giving my boy the most old-fashioned life of adventure, and a sure guide to survival as well.

my father’s dragon, the mid-20th-century trilogy of dragon stories from ruth stiles gannett, it had me in tears. as soon as the pillowy pad of my fingertip rubbed against its worn-smooth spine, i was flung back in time, wedged bum-to-bum on the bedsheets, snug against my then-beginning-to-read firstborn in his four-poster bed. turning pages, taking turns turning the pages, his eager fingers pinching the page’s corner, my lazy hand patiently waiting. the bedtimes when words began to take form, when pen-and-ink illustrations were seared into memory, collective memory, his and mine, at once distinct and enmeshed. the bedtimes that colored so many dreams, storybook dreams.

i couldn’t bear to let them all go, so deeply ingrained they were with a life i had loved, a life passage now being tucked in a box, transported miles away, and slid onto a grown man’s bookshelf, alongside tomes on law and philosophy and literature, subjects he now trades in, now is schooled in, subjects that now plot his trajectory.

and as much as i ached to ease them off the shelf, i was heartened to know — deeply — that they mattered to him. that he wouldn’t be home, wouldn’t feel home, till his books — his whole lifetime of books — were tucked on the new shelves in the new place he calls home.

that’s what the books of a childhood, of a boyhood, do: they forever bind us. and, ever after, they take us back, separate and together. they return us to long-ago, to once upon a time.

of all the playthings of my children’s childhood, it’s the books where we shared the most time. trains, my firstborn played with often alone, me off in a corner, occasionally lending a guttural chug or a choo or a whistle, or, later, when he was old enough to imagine all by himself, i’d be down the stairs and around a few bends, rattling around in the kitchen.

but the books, the books were where we nestled, where we sank in deep together. the books are where our hearts did so very much of their stitching together.

and so, the pages of the books — the pictures, the covers, the crinkled dog-eared edges — those are the relics, sacred relics of the years when i was keeping my promise to open his heart, to infuse the beautiful, the gentle, the wise. and the books were my guideposts, my road marks.

the books of my little boys’ beginnings, they were the holy scripture that whispered the lessons i prayed they would learn: ferdinand, the gentle bull? be kind. be not afraid to march to your own music. harry potter? believe in magic. the tales of narnia? defend what is good. tom sawyer? roam and roam widely. and never mind if you tumble into a slight bit of mischief.

no wonder, of all the stacks of clothes, the contents of a desk drawer, and all the other shelves of books, the only one that made me wince, the only one i thought i wouldn’t be able to pack away, to let go, to watch glide out the door and into the glimmering downtown tower that now is home to my firstborn, the only one that stopped me in my tracks was the shelf of my firstborn’s boyhood.

not one to sulk for too too long — only after brushing away the tears i kept to myself — i hatched a plan: as one taketh away, so one receives. as i slapped the long serpentine wrap of packing tape across the top of the book box, i promised myself i’d build a new library, one built on the blueprints of children’s librarians who’ve culled lists of the best of the best. the new york public library’s 100 great children’s books. my little town’s own librarians’ roster of classic picture books, and classic novels, grades 2 through 5, and 5 through 8.

i’d make it my mission, my task of enchantment, to map the quaintest of used book shops. i’d scour the shelves for a particular roster of titles. and, one by one, i’d re-build a collection, a curated collection of children’s books that stand the test of time and, most of all, heart.

in the hours of my heart’s tugging, when the boy i love was moving away for good and likely forever, the one balm i knew to apply was the balm of the bookshelf, the balm of construction, of building, amid the act of dismantling, of packing up and moving away.

it’s not an assignment that comes with a deadline. it took years — and the accumulated wisdom of countless bibliophiles who, over those years, slipped titles into my hands with a knowing nod, or the question, “have you seen this one?” — to build that shelf in the first place.

and it will take years, and the deep joy of engagement, to build the one i’ll bequeath to both my boys, and whoever might be the next little readers to come toddling along.

what titles would you be sure to include if you were building the essential children’s bookshelf?img_8290

soulful reads for a week that’s leaking at the seams…

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old faithful: only slightly more emphatic than the geyser at our house this week

it’s been one of those weeks over here: a concussion on sunday (our not-so-big ultimate frisbee kid crashed face- and head-first so hard into other team’s Very Big Kid’s shoulder and biceps that the coach called that night to say he’d never heard such a loud bang between colliding bodies), leaky pipe-turned-geyser on monday, four hours of doctor on tuesday (preceded by an hour on monday). (oh, and did i mention eight hours of plumber squeezed between doctors?) and from there, the week dissolved.

or, more aptly, it flooded. any appliance in the house that could go kaput, did. (yesterday the ice maker seemed to be trying to set world record for cubes, a cascade of frozenness that would have made i-love-lucy escapades pale in contrast. yes, a first world problem, i totally get it!)

so, while i type away toward impending deadline, i’m thankful for a shelf of good reads. i wrote this batch back in february when i was down with strep, flu, bronchitis and eventually pneumonia, but it just appeared in print, in the chicago tribune, yesterday. each book is a gem, but the one i’ll hold onto forever is “dorothy day: the world will be saved by beauty,” the enchanting and bracingly honest biography, written by dorothy’s granddaughter, kate hennessy.

this line, in particular, is worthy of a week’s meditation — at least:

“Maybe she saw beauty in the cracked, chipped, and repaired. This is a paradox we all live with — this flawed vessel called to holiness.”

may your week be far less leaky than ours…..

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Appraisals of Dorothy Day, Rumi and St. Francis in this week’s spiritual book roundup
Barbara Mahany
Chicago Tribune

“Dorothy Day” by Kate Hennessy, Scribner, 384 pages, $27.99

It’s the tag line, six words wafting just above a watery image of a mother and child up to their ankles in ocean, that captures the magic: “An Intimate Portrait of My Grandmother.” And mind you, this is a biography of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, called “a saint for the Occupy Era,” and now being considered for canonization as one of the 20th century’s great American forces for good.

The brilliance of this devastatingly beautiful work — you can almost hear the grandmotherly whispers, and yet it’s deeply journalistic in its fine-grained and unflinching reporting — by Kate Hennessy, the youngest of Day’s nine grandchildren, is this: Hennessy does not give us hagiography; she explores the depths of Day’s humanity, in all its frailty and shortcomings, and points us toward an indelible truth.

She makes us see that there’s a fine balance, a constant tension, in all of us — even in Day — in which the sinful is at work with the saintly. Yet somehow, in the end, through force of will, or divine grace, the light outshines the darkness. Love reigns, but not without struggle. Maybe we too can find that tipping force.

Hennessy captures that essence in a passage about her own mother, Tamar, Day’s only child: “Maybe she saw beauty in the cracked, chipped, and repaired. This is a paradox we all live with — this flawed vessel called to holiness.” Dorothy Day answered to holiness.
Her granddaughter’s masterwork belongs as a permanent addition to any literary bookshelf of the best of spiritual biography.

“Rumi’s Secret” by Brad Gooch, Harper, 400 pages, $28.99

In the prologue of “Rumi’s Secret: The Life of the Sufi Poet of Love,” the author wanders the Grand Bazaar of Aleppo, Syria, that now bomb-ravaged city of infinite heartache, in search of any lasting trace of one of civilization’s most enduring spiritual guides. In these deeply divisive times, it matters more than ever to deepen our understanding of the roots of sacred Islam, and this deeply researched and highly literary biography of Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic, is at once prescriptive and enlivening.

Rumi’s poetry, it’s been said, is pure devotion to a “religion of love.” No wonder, eight centuries later, it ranks among the best-selling on the globe. Until now, though, only the barest outlines of Rumi’s life had emerged from behind his poetry.

Brad Gooch, whose earlier biographies of Flannery O’Connor and Frank O’Hara were widely praised, traces the life and teachings of the mystic often compared with Shakespeare, for the volumes of his creativity, and St. Francis of Assisi, for his spiritual wisdom.

In an attempt to illuminate Rumi, who preached an “emphasis on ecstasy and love over religions and creeds,” Gooch learned Persian to read the poet’s original works, and retraced 2,500 miles of Central Asia — from Iran to Turkey, Syria to Tajikistan and beyond — exploring the major centers of Muslim culture in Rumi’s journey.

Rumi’s greatest achievement, Gooch writes: “To articulate the sound of one soul speaking: Don’t speak so you can hear those voices/ Not yet turned into words or sound.”

It’s a call to sacred silence — a call this noisy planet needs.

“A Gathering of Larks” by Abigail Carroll, Eerdmans, 108 pages, $12.99

It’s fitting that a book of modern-day letters to St. Francis, the 12th-century friar who called himself “God’s Fool,” would be deeply playful. And so it is.

“A Gathering of Larks: Letters to Saint Francis from a Modern-Day Pilgrim,” an epistolary gathering of poems-cum-love letters is indeed sparked with joy and stitched with whimsy. But, too, it’s richly textured — hardly a one-note wonder — and promises to catch the unsuspecting reader off-guard. In fact, that’s where — in lines that pulse with sorrow, in verse that spares no jagged-edged truth — much of its power lies.

For those among us who consider Francis a model of gentility and grace, it’s a wholly charming notion to reach out from our world of big-lot stores to the patron saint said to tame a wolf, preach to larks, and sing to Brother Sun and Sister Moon.

The writer of these letters — Abigail Carroll, a Vermont-based author — is very much an inhabitant of the modern-day melee. Yet she reaches beyond — to another time, to another plane of mysticism — and in rubbing together the profane and profound, the secular and sacred, she positions the medieval saint squarely in our midst. And makes us understand why he remains a vital prophet, one imbued with much to teach us on the subjects of natural wonder versus materialism, on beauty, brokenness, simplicity and, above all, on faith of a radical kind.

what’s on your reading list at the moment? any leaks in your week? 

and happy blessed birthday to dear dear jan, beloved longtime friend of the chair. sure are a heap of may birthdays here at the table….