this is the word factory, the chamber where a book is in the making. and if you can’t see the steam rising from the computer screen, imagine it. it’s there. and so too it rises from the fingers wildly skipping about the keyboard, plucking new verbs from out of thin air. making up occasional others.
i’m in the final stretch of a book-making adventure that has been wildly, um, adventurous. early thursday morning i was given the latest in a long series of hurdles, each one daunting, each one prompting me to mutter under my breath, this is impossible, i can’t do this. but then, hours later, after the shakes (and the swears) wear off, i find my stride here on the alphabet keys from which i build so much of my life. i type like there’s no tomorrow, i type into the wee wee hours. my deadline––a full revision of a manuscript: this sunday night, before bedtime.
which is why this one particular friday, there isn’t much chair to pull up to. i’m deep in the 70,359 words that currently comprise The Book of Nature: The Astonishing Beauty of God’s First Sacred Text, a quiet contemplative book slated for birthing on the vernal equinox of 2023 (that’s march 21st, if you’re wondering). where it will end, is anyone’s guess. i sense a word chopper not too far in the distance. that’s when you’ll hear the telltale welp of the writer watching her words whirl down the drain. a painful interlude in which i try hard to fixate on the words of that guy we know around here as the oak park native and spear-fisherman, one ernest miller hemingway, who might or might not have once insisted “a story is only as good as what’s left on the cutting room floor,” a possibly apocryphal maxim that’s meant to take the sting out of the editor’s slicing and dicing, and by which the writer soothes herself as each “little darling” dies a swift death as it whirls to the cutting-room catch basin. what it means is that you’ve pared your pages of prose of all fat and mouthfuls of gristle, and all you have left is sinew and spine. and now, i’ve mixed enough metaphors in a single paragraph to have each and all editors unbuckling their seatbelts, scrambling for safe exit.
speaking of safe exit, you might be wondering if this room where i type has been deemed an occupational hazard, a danger zone where i could be caught under an avalanche of literary proportion. there is, you might be pleased to know, a single narrow uncluttered trail to the door. and the books that surround me on four of four sides are stacked in utterly intelligible groupings, all of which i can easily reach from here in the chair where i spell out my words, one tap at a time. i pride myself on conservation of effort when it comes to bending and plucking.
before i leap back in, somewhere around the 39,000-word mark, i thought i’d quietly leave a dollop of wisdom from the inimitable novelist george saunders on why it is we write in the first place. may this give you something fat-free, and stripped of all gristle, to chew on:
Literature is a practice that improves a culture and can make it more tender and open. But its effects lag and are approximate and tend to benefit people already gentle and inclined to caring.
In stories we might catch a glimpse of why people do the things they do, which should prepare us to think about things more incisively and boldly when people do something that is cruel, violent, or inexplicable. Whatever we are brought to feel, through literature, about love and understanding and sympathy must take this into account: the invasion of a peaceful country by people who have somehow, it would appear, set aside love, understanding, and sympathy, or have twisted these notions into strange shapes amenable to their purpose.
Also, in this world of ours, there be monsters — the workings of whose minds are mysterious, and whose darkness (their apparent indifference to love, understanding. and sympathy) we somehow keep underestimating.
This, too, can be written about.
But what also can be written about: people fighting and dying for their freedom and the freedom of the people they love.
What do we do when notions dear to us (notions of compromise and kindness and the ultimate goodness of any human being) are mocked by events and made to feel facile? Can our understanding of these notions be expanded so that they are more muscular and useful and don’t have to be set aside or apologized for at moments like this?
George Saunders, Story Club newsletter
or this, from jane hirshfield:
is the clarification
may this week bring you peace. and a glimmer of peace to this broken, broken world.
and happy blessed most magnificent birthday to two complete loves of my life, who happen to have been born back-to-back: my beloved sweet P, on sunday, and auntie M, on monday the 28th, a day i consider a national treasure.
in search of profound goodness this week, i found my way back to the saint of a gentle soul, a poet with whom i once shared a st. patrick’s day, and who would remain a kindred spirit and friend, with warm and occasional phone calls until 2008, when he died in his sleep on january 3, a day that happens to be my birthday, and two days after his own 52nd birthday.
john o’donohue was a priest and a poet on the day in 1999 when i (a newspaper scribe at the time) pulled up to his hotel in my little brown toyota corolla and spirited him away to one of those ridiculous faux irish pubs that line chicago’s more touristy streets. we landed there, amid faux celtic ruins and an endless loop of tin pipes and ditties, with more than a touch of irony. we talked till the sky beyond us went dark, and the city streetlights turned on. it was one of those newspaper interviews that wound its way into something that never ended. we were there in the wake of his best-selling anam cara‘s american publication (and marking the occasion of what would become his second best-seller, eternal echoes), and we found our own soul friendship. he was and is a rare blessing to me. his mind was voluminous. his heart and his soul even more so.
i found my way back to john, against the drumbeat of this unrelenting savagery in ukraine, because i was looking for words that might comfort. i was trying to be hopeful in hard times (per howard zinn down below, sent to me this week by a beloved friend of the chair.) i’d been collecting a litany of small wondrous moments of human kindness and utter goodness arising from the brokenness in kyiv and kharkiv and mariupol, when i decided to search for words that capture this moment of brokenness, of enormity distilled into poetries, well-chosen words that give us a way in to whatever is true, and beyond our worldly comprehension.
i found john’s beannacht or blessing, a blessing with a tinge of goodbye, “goodbye and God bless,” and whenever i read john’s words, i think of the day — and the story that came of it — back in march of 1999. as i started to read the story under my byline, a story that ran in the chicago tribune on st. patrick’s day of that year, i decided i’d bring my friend here to the table, for all of us. we could all use some comfort. we could all use some john o’donohue.
THE GOOD GREEN POET
By Barbara Mahany
Mar 17, 1999
The poet-philosopher, who lives in solitude in the west of Ireland, leapt the curb and strode into a North Clark Street saloon purporting to be an authentic Irish pub — about a block away from another place purporting to be a rain forest.
The poet-philosopher has experienced the real thing plenty — pubs, that is — and when he looked up and saw, beside the tavern door, faux stone slabs pretending to be ancient Celtic ruins, he jolted up a bit and mumbled something about the Flintstones.
But not wanting to sound impolite, he muffled most of the rest of what he had to say, here in a place in downtown Chicago where the accents on the waiters were so thick he couldn’t believe they came from the country he has called his own for all of his 43 years.
John O’Donohue, a giant of a thinker, and a pretty tall guy, too, folded his 6-foot-3-inch frame onto a carved-wood bench, and did what any self-respecting Irishman would do, caught in such a circumstance. He ordered a pint of Guinness, and a bit of Irish stew to wash it down.
Then, his feet occasionally breaking into an under-the-table tap, in tune with some fine accordion blaring over the speakers, he settled into a long afternoon of conversation — the great art he alternately refers to as “an old blast of ideas” or “the source of luminosity in the Western tradition, going back to Plato’s dialogues.”
Oh, how he laments that discourse is dying, one of the great casualties of postmodern culture. What passes for it these days, he says, is really “just intersecting monologues.”
For a man who spends most of his days hearing only his own thinking, living alone as he does in the wilds of Connemara, O’Donohue–a Catholic scholar, priest and, of late, a best-selling author–is spilling with much to say about everything from how odd it is to refer to coffee as regular, “as distinct from coffee that misbehaves,” to how we should cross the threshold of the millennium in two days of silence, “with a liturgical solemnity in some way.”
He cracks Steven Wright jokes –“I went into a restaurant. It said, `Breakfast Any Time.’ I ordered French toast during the Renaissance.” He croons with Sinead O’Connor. He drops the names of philosophers from practically every century dating to ancient Greece. He sprinkles blessings on everything from the car he had just bumped around in, to the table where the afternoon’s conversation unspooled.
And the world is very much starting to listen–even if it’s only to him talking to himself, as he puts it.
In fact, of his pair of best-selling books, both spiritual works laced with Irish lyricism–“Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom,” the No. 1 best seller in Ireland for 18 months until it was bumped from that spot by his new book, “Eternal Echoes,” now shifting between No. 1 and 2 in the country that, after 800 years of colonization, has built an empire of words–he says: “All I’m doing with these two books is allowing, maybe, others to overhear some of my own internal conversations. I’m not sure I’m right at all.”
And some conversations they are.
“He is the finest English-language-speaking spiritual writer of our time,” says Rev. Andrew Greeley, the Irish-Catholic priest and best-selling author of 42 novels, including his newest, “Irish Mist,” in bookstores for St. Patrick’s Day.
“When I started his first book, I said, `Oh, I’ll sit down and read the whole thing.’ Well, I soon realized I’d only read a chapter a day. It got down to a paragraph, at most a page, a day. I’m using the new book for spiritual reading, and the section I’m on now, it’s about a sentence a day.”
It’s not that it’s drudgery. “It’s rich,” says Greeley, who has the heroine of his new book quoting O’Donohue, a sure sign that he’s seeping into popular culture.
No less than Deepak Chopra, the best-selling author, physician and spiritualist, is a fan. He says O’Donohue’s work is “a rare synthesis of philosophy, poetry and spirituality.” He calls it “life-transforming for those who read it.”
And how is it that the boy who grew up on a sod farm, whose vision of hell to this day is an endless prairie of turnips that need thinning, who lives an ascetic’s life alone in a cottage with walls held up by books, the nearest human a mile away, how is it that such a lad grew up to be “well on his way to becoming one of the master practitioners of the trade,” in the words of Greeley, the trade being the saving of souls through spiritual writing?
“I was born on a farm in the west of Ireland, and I’m so glad of that because I think one of the finest places to begin acquaintance with the universe is on the land,” says O’Donohue. “The landscape at home is exceptionally dramatic, the Burren region of County Clare, the amazing stonescapes, you know.”
You mean sort of like the stones standing near the door?
“No, not at all,” he says, barely glancing away from his Guinness.
“It was an intimate landscape. Every field had its name. It was a folk world, a world of folk culture. Also, through working the land –cows and cattle, sheep and fowl, sowing crops, cutting hay and turf, it was a full farming life–it meant that you became acquainted with the landscape.”
His favorite chore: Cutting turf in the bog, slicing half-foot slabs of earth, boring deeper and deeper with every slice. The bog, he explains, “is where there was a forest and where it collapsed, and where all the past life is congealed underneath the surface in a fallen way.”
And so, “in a sense, cutting turf is a place where you enter the hidden time of a landscape, where its memory is interred.”
It is those poetic riffs, infused with a passion for the natural world, that are the underpinning of O’Donohue’s vision. It is his Celtic soul oozing out–in conversation or in his books.
He was blessed with a father “with a lovely mind for a farmer. He always had the ability to think. He could go to the horizon with the thoughts.”
And always, turning the hay, cutting the turf, there was conversation.
“At night, too, around the fire at home, the experience of the day is sifted. With all kinds of silence, loads of silence looking into the fire. A lot of old time for integrating experience, digesting, mulling over things.
“It was a lovely way for a young man to grow up. James Hillman (the Jungian analyst) said, `Women relate face to face, but men relate shoulder to shoulder.’ “
It wasn’t long before O’Donohue went off to university, where he studied philosophy and English literature, and where his mind, he says, “really woke up.”
“I always think that thoughts are the most intimate part of humans,” he says. “The way you think is the way you are. Meister Eckehart (a 13th Century German mystic) says our thoughts are our inner senses. Polish them and refine them; the edge of your thinking will determine who you hold yourself to be, what you hold the meaning of life to be and how you will live with yourself in the world.
“I think one of the things that really holds us back and atrophies us and condemns us to live such forsaken lives is the deadness of our thinking, and how we swallow like fast food the public cliches that are given to us, and how we dedicate so much of our precious inner time of the mind to listening to garbage that has nothing to do with anything.”
O’Donohue, in his own humble way, wouldn’t mind turning that around. He doesn’t much like the trappings of celebrity, though. He quips as his picture is being taken, “Rilke says, `Fame is the sum total of misunderstandings that gather around a new name.’ “
He never set out to be the writer of books that have made him a household name back in the old country. And lately he has been crisscrossing America where people line up, sometimes in the hundreds, waiting for a word, and his scrawl on the books they buy, often four or five at a time.
“One of the things that consoles me about all this is that I didn’t go out looking for it at all,” he says.
He was quite satisfied with having completed his PhD in philosophical theology with a dissertation on the philosopher Georg Hegel that won him a summa cum laude in 1990 from the University of Tubingen, near the edge of the Black Forest in Germany. That dissertation, written in German, draws rave reviews — one as recent as last summer in The Review of Metaphysics, a scholarly journal. He’s thinking he should have it published in English.
But back to the, er, more accessible road his writing career has taken.
It just kind of took off on its own, it seems.
Having written poetry since he was 21 and along the way becoming a priest, although not tied to any parish or particular order, O’Donohue had been invited several years ago to share his meditations at a conference in California. Someone made tapes of his talks that were later heard by an agent in New York. The agent got them tucked between covers as “Anam Cara,” which sold like hot cross buns from Dublin to Donegal. In America, sales topped 50,000 in hardcover and 60,000 in paperback, not too shabby for a first book of its ilk.
“I’ve been totally blown away, really amazed, so humbled, by the resonance these books have found,” says O’Donohue, who for long hours every morning sits with a fountain pen in a little room with an open fire, writing a sentence, throwing it out, writing another, tossing it too. “After three hours, you have four miserable sentences,” he says. “For every one of them, you’ve thrown out 100.”
But in the end, when all the sentences add up to a finished work, he whispers one last benediction as he seals the envelope to his publisher. “Always when I’m launching a book,” he confides, “the last line I always say is, `May this book find its way to those who need it.’ “
and here is the beannacht that started my way back to my old poet friend….
written for his mother, Josie; beannacht, in Gaelic, is a word with more nuance than mere blessing, it’s “goodbye and God bless,” so here is a beannacht for the those we have lost, in ireland, in ukraine, here on our very own sod…
On the day when the weight deadens on your shoulders and you stumble, may the clay dance to balance you.
And when your eyes freeze behind the grey window and the ghost of loss gets into you, may a flock of colours, indigo, red, green and azure blue, come to awaken in you a meadow of delight.
When the canvas frays in the currach of thought and a stain of ocean blackens beneath you, may there come across the waters a path of yellow moonlight to bring you safely home.
May the nourishment of the earth be yours, may the clarity of light be yours, may the fluency of the ocean be yours, may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow wind work these words of love around you, an invisible cloak to mind your life.
we can’t get away from it, nor should we. as bombs rain from the sky, as hospital wings are mortared, and women in labor carried away, who are we to wonder which can of soup we might open? or which load of laundry to do?
as bodies in masses lie bloodied and dead in the road, escape made folly, how dare we flip through the page of a magazine, looking for words to carry us off?
as old people, too frail to leave home, are shivering in their now windowless houses, neighbors cutting down trees, building fires for heat and for cooking, boiling snow for buckets of water, who am i to complain about all the times in a week i have to run to the grocery?
those are the questions, some of the questions, that plague us in this war time. war a word that now shrieks from the page. it should have shrieked sooner, shrieked louder, i fear. or maybe i just wasn’t listening, quite closely enough. wars until now have mostly not woken me in the night. but now the war does.
i’m barely awake in the the murky hours of darkness, and the gnawing dread and the weight of this war are close enough to the thin icy edge of my consciousness that one little stirring brings it all back to mind, to heart. i’m fully awake then, startlingly so.
i know, because the math now comes without pause, the eight-hour time calculation, i know that in the deep of my night it’s morning in kyiv, and bombs must be pelting again, so how can i go back to the business of sleeping? what if, while i keep my eyes closed, a child is lying cold and afraid––in a half-frozen field, at the back of a church, in a house ripped to shreds along with everyone else who’d been under its roof? except for that one lone child now trapped in the cold grip of terror.
i might sit in an armchair not long after dinner, and it might seem like i’m looking ahead, at the screen where a show rolls along, but i’m not paying attention. i’m wondering what it must feel like to count yourself blessed for crossing a border and leaving all else far, far behind.
there is no peace on the planet.
the very words war and peace now carry a weight that expands far beyond what had become almost a throwaway sense. i don’t think i realized before just how much volume they hold. i think i mostly dismissed them. considered them words mostly just holding a place. words with a hint of amnesia. words stripped of their grip on us.
prayers for peace now hold a meaning that used to escape me. i imagine the day when the bulletin breaks, and we might hear the words, war ends. i pray for that day. i pray mightily. but i am wondering now how prayers in the holocaust felt?
what prayer do you pray as you count the last seconds you breathe? i pray it’s a good one. and i pray even more that it’s heard on the other end.
i imagine God is distraught. i know i am. i know nearly every last someone i know is. if they’re paying attention. paying attention to me is a prayer, so i pray it day after day. there are days when i want to turn off my attention. slink off to a safe little cove, wake up when it’s over. when the bulletin comes.
in the times when my prayers are dried up, when my heart has run out of gas, i try to find someones stronger than me. someones who know how to keep going, how to stare fear in the face, how to not cover their eyes and their ears. i poke around looking for words to sturdy me, to steady my wobbly ways.
there is, so often, no better someone than the gentle-souled farmer who plows his own fields with draft horses and oxen down kentucky way. wendell is his name, wendell berry. and this poem of his––the last poem i read to a friend who was dying––is, like all the best prayers, a quiet wisp of a poem that slips in through the smallest chance it can find. i know this poem by heart, or pretty close anyway. but now, more than in a very long time, it reaches out from the dark and brings a most holy communion.
i pray that some little child far off in ukraine might be wrapped in the whisper of wing that comes from a wild thing stirring.
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
from New Collected Poems (Counterpoint, 2012)
what brings you strength when you’re feeling wobbly, or weak in the knees?
lynsey addario, whose photo is above, is considered one of the greatest war photographers of the 21st century. she’s a fearless photojournalist, who focuses her work on conflict, human rights, and the role of women in traditional societies. she’s unflinching, she runs toward the scene, whatever it is, so we can all see. she was in the news this week because she took the picture of a family––a mother, her two children, and a church volunteer helping them run––dead in the road trying to escape kyiv. the new york times made the brave and important decision to run the photo–big–across its front page. addario, who is 48 and who was named a macarthur “genius” in 2009 , talked this week about making that photo; here’s what she said:
“I’m a mother, and I when I’m working, I try to stay very focused. I try to keep, sort of, the camera to my eye,” she said. “But of course, it was very emotional. First of all, I had just been sprayed with gravel from a mortar round that could have killed us very easily. So I was shaken up, and when we were told that we could run across the street by our security adviser, I ran and I saw this family splayed out and I saw these little moon boots and puffy coat.”
Addario added that, even though she felt it was disrespectful to take the photo, she thought that she had to.
“This is a war crime,” she said.
and the world needs to see.
a note: i understand that for some it’s too painful to keep too close a watch. and i understand that our words can’t make a dent in the evil. but against the backdrop of suffering of this magnitude, i can’t imagine turning away.
we are waking up to a terrifying morning, reports of ukraine’s nuclear plant seized by the russians, after they spent the night shelling it, setting parts of it on fire, while every nuclear emergency team in the world huddled, prayed, awaited reports of radioactivity. word comes that the diabolical plot is not merely to cut the power grid to turn out the lights, but to freeze out the people.
our lungs are left breathless, our limbs are trembling. what hell has been wrought?
while the morning leaves room only for prayer, for collective mind-meld to beg to stop putin and his evil conspirators, my work of the week––keeping count, compiling a list of break-through moments of radiant light amid the gathering darkness––feels lame. but, because gathering each and any spark of hope and indefatigable humanity just might keep us from teetering, i will leave it here anyway.
i began the week drawn to pray in one of chicago’s breathtakingly ornate ukrainian churches. not a word was in english (though i did recognize “alleluia,” and “kyiv,” and “kharkhiv,” among the many slavic syllables). but no words were needed to read the faces of the deeply devout, hands clasped, making the byzantine sign of the cross over and over and over (tracing the shape of a cross in the air, but touching the right shoulder first before the left; thumb, index, and middle fingers pressed together, an invocation of the holy trinity).
the faithful came in traditional garb, vyshyvanka, the glorious embroidered shirts worn by men and women alike. and they came americanized, in black leather pants and skiwear. fur, in pelts or jackets, was abundant. but it was the faces i’ll never forget: etched in despair, fervent in prayer. the queue to light candles on the side of the altar never let up, each petitioner clutching crumpled dollar bills in his or her fist, clear through the hour-long mass, a choreography of mystery and reverence, faith and fortitude, i’ll not soon forget.
as the week wore on, the reports more and more dire, i began making a list, because otherwise we might be engulfed by sorrows. these are the moments i am holding onto with all my heart, when the resilience of human kindness and hope refuses to die:
did you see the ukrainian grandma who walked up to an armed russian soldier, asked him what the (heck) he was doing there, told him he was an invader, an occupier, a fascist, and then handed him a fistful of sunflower seeds, and told him to put them in his pocket so that when he dies sunflowers (the ukrainian national flower) will grow from his corpse? and before she turned away, she let him know that from that moment on, he was cursed?
did you see the ukrainian woman with the purple streaks in her hair who gave tea and cakes to a captured russian soldier, a young man with nothing but peach fuzz on his reddened cheeks, and when the purple-haired woman used her phone to call the soldier’s mother, natasha, the soldier broke into tears and blew a kiss to the phone?
did you see the little 8-year-old girl who spent her days in the underground subway station crocheting a tiny pink heart, and then she tapped a stranger on the shoulder, and gave it to him?
did you hear the UN translator’s voice crack as he echoed in english the words of ukraine’s president volodymyr zelenskyy, who called out to the world: “Nobody is going to break us. We’re strong. We’re Ukrainians. We have a desire to see our children alive. I think it’s a fair one.”
did you see the ukrainian grandma cradling a cat, giving a very emphatic middle finger to the passing-by russian brigade?
did you see the thousands of romanians, lined up in their cars, waiting at the ukrainian border to welcome the tired, the hungry, the cold, the women and children and babies fleeing for their lives?
did you see the baby born in the subway shelter in kyiv?
or the ukrainian woman who crossed the border into hungary with the phone number of a woman she’d never met and two children who’d been entrusted to her––along with their passports––by a man not allowed to leave, who thrust his children into her arms, and instructed her to call the number once they crossed into safety. and not long after she placed the call, the mother of the two children approached; mission accomplished. mother and children, reunited. (the children’s mother had left ukraine earlier, with two younger children, but once it was clear the older children needed to leave, and the father was not allowed to cross the border, he turned to a stranger, and begged, please get my children to safety; if you call this number you will find their mother. and she did.)
or the holocaust survivors huddled in a bomb shelter in ukraine, with the flags of israel and ukraine limp behind them, voices cracking as they cursed putin and asked for peace?
have you seen the thousands of germans who crowded into the central train station in berlin to offer fleeing ukrainians a place to stay? and they came with hand-penned placards in german, english, and ukrainian, offering welcome. “i was very scared, i had to get out from this hell,” said one ukrainian woman as she stepped off the evacuation train, and fell into the arms of a berliner she had never before seen or known.
the images keep coming, moving us to tears upon tears, bringing flickers of something that every once in a rare while feels like the faintest outline of hope. but they fade away, and we are haunted once again by this horror we cannot stop.
Lord, have mercy.
what images from ukraine are etched in your heart this terrible morning?