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Category: books for the soul

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

Portrait

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….

the light may save us (and a few books, too)

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i was minding my dr.-seuss-birthday business yesterday (march 2, the national feast of green eggs and ham, and 113th birthday of theodore geisel), when suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, something caught my attention. i mean really caught my attention. i mean made me put down my pen and turn my head sharply in the direction of the beckoning.

i stared, jaw-dropped. it was something not seen in months and months. it was pure and unblinking. it was whiter than white, a color so sharp, so intense, you could practically apply it with paintbrush.

it was the first light of spring, the vernal lifeline cast from the biggest star in the sky, the one that burns through the day, the one that signals “the seasons are turning.” you’re making it — just when you’re thinking you won’t — from winter, on into spring.

i sat and stared at the light. marveled at the way the season comes on unannounced. no clanging and banging, just the world underfoot quietly going about the business of awakening. all around i feel it, the drab of winter dying away to the newborn tenders of spring. from underneath a pile of spruce branches, i discovered snowdrops pushing their slender necks through the crust of winter’s garden. my front walk is flanked on both sides with a pool of lemon-y aconites, their bright shining faces aglow in the hours, especially, when morning sun soaks them in wattage.

all this unfolds as i too shake off the germs that took me hostage for the better part of two weeks. we’re still moving slow as sap here in the house where strep took hold. but there are signs that life insists on moving forward. spring will come. lungs will clear. the intensity of sunlight will creep from a tickle to a surge.

sometimes i remember: if we surrender to the rhythms of the earth, and the heavens above, we will be carried by the divine heart that animates each and every stirring. world without end. amen.

what signs of hope did you spot this week?

and, in case you’re looking for a few soulful books, here’s my latest roundup from the Chicago Tribune.

Religious humor in ‘Sin Bravely’ leads spiritual book roundup
Barbara Mahany
Chicago Tribune

“Sin Bravely” by Maggie Rowe, Soft Skull, 225 pages, $16.95

Admittedly, the “religious humor” section of the bookshelf is markedly sparse. Yet that’s where you’ll find “Sin Bravely: A Memoir of Spiritual Disobedience” from comedy writer Maggie Rowe, a suburban Chicago native who’s written for stage and screen, including scripts for “Arrested Development” and Netflix’s “Flaked.” Since 2002, she’s been performing in and producing the Comedy Central stage show “sit ‘n spin,” Los Angeles’ longest-running spoken-word extravaganza, described as “part theatre, part 12-step meeting, part tent revival.”

Publishers Weekly called “Sin Bravely,” Rowe’s debut memoir, a “born-again version of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.'”

Don’t let the funnies fool you: It’s an unflinching examination of the dangers of literalism in the religion department. And while you might be distracted by the sound of your own laughter, it’s a dead-serious message that won’t soon be shaken off.

The plotline goes like this: As early as 6 years old, Rowe found herself obsessed with a fear of going to hell, one so extreme it drove her to become “an outrageously dedicated” born-again Christian. At 19, crippled by her fear, Rowe checked herself into an evangelical psychiatric facility, where pictures of Jesus hung on the walls and a kindly doctor — and a ragtag cast of lovably kooky characters — proved prescriptive.

It’s there that Rowe launches her anti-damnation campaign, finally subscribing to her version of Martin Luther’s admonition: “Sin bravely in order to know the forgiveness of God.” In a scene unlikely to be found anywhere else on the religion bookshelves, she tests her newfound theology in, of all places, a strip club’s amateur night. We’ll let Rowe take it from there, for hers is a storyteller’s inimitable gift.

“Liturgy of the Ordinary” by Tish Harrison Warren, IVP, 184 pages, $16

From the photograph of a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich on the cover, Tish Harrison Warren’s debut work, “Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life,” signals that it’s rooted in the quotidian, the humble humdrum of day-after-day existence. This is spiritual guidance for the bed-maker, the teeth-brusher, the traffic-snarled among us. This is one ordinary day turned inside out, its hallowed script revealed, liturgical underpinnings exposed.

Warren, an Anglican priest, campus minister, writer, wife and mother of two, unlocks “a practical theology of the everyday,” and she does so by seamlessly coupling ordinary moments — awaking, brushing teeth, losing keys, eating leftovers, sitting in traffic, checking emails, sipping tea, sleeping — with the sacred.

She beautifully ties making the bed to the Creation story, to God’s making beauty from chaos. In a consideration of tooth brushing, she draws us into a meditation on Christianity as an embodied faith, one in which our senses — our physical pleasures — draw us closer, more emphatically to the divine. Even a fight with her husband becomes a platform for seeking shalom.

It’s in the nitty-gritty of daily work where Warren illuminates holiness. She writes of “tiny theophanies,” church-bell moments, that jolt her — and us, her readers — to sacred attention. The purity of her vision, the clarity of her writing, makes effortless work of the notion that the small acts of our everydays are what shape us into the sacred vessels we are meant to be.

As Annie Dillard once wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” And “Liturgy of the Ordinary” unveils the holy way through even the humblest, most fumbling of days.

“Hammer Is the Prayer” by Christian Wiman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 224 pages, $26

It would be unwise — foolish, even — to think that cracking open a book of poetry might take you straightaway to the same high plane as prose that trains its lens on God. Or the Sacred. Or however you define divinity.

What happens in poetry is altogether chancier. You might, one moment, find yourself immersed in the earthly, devoid of anything remotely godly. And then, one poem later, find yourself catapulted to a place you’ve not before felt, so sudden and so certain is your awareness of, your proximity to, what’s holy.

So it is traveling through the pages of Christian Wiman’s “Hammer Is the Prayer: Selected Poems,” a gathering of three decades of poetry from one of America’s foremost poets, one whose poems have been said to “reach out to both heaven and earth.” Wiman, for 10 years editor of Poetry magazine, now teaches religion and literature at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School. This is his eighth book.

Raised a strict West Texas Baptist, he’s said that his awareness of God went dormant once he hit college, but then, newly married and diagnosed with a rare incurable blood cancer in 2005, Wiman and his poetry began to grapple with faith and with God. It’s more of a wrestling, a visceral dance with doubt and belief. An urgency, too, entered his work, and it’s that sharp edge in his poetry that seizes your heart.

To trace the trajectory of God’s absence or presence in Wiman’s poetry is to enter into your own dance with those unrelenting questions.

Here’s one: “Lord if I implore you please just please leave me alone / is that a prayer that’s every instant answered?”

Barbara Mahany’s next book, “Motherprayer: Lessons in Loving,” is due out in April.

(and speaking of that book, the real live actual first copy landed on my stoop this week. and it’s lovelier than i ever imagined. thank you, abingdon press.)

motherprayer-arrived

books for the soul: december edition

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because it’s Christmas and Hanukkah in the days just ahead, this morning is bringing you two posts, and first comes the latest roundup of books for the soul. from the pages of the Chicago Tribune, and tucked here for anyone poking around in search of a something special to read… 

Ann Voskamp leads this week’s spiritual roundup 

By Barbara Mahany
Chicago Tribune

‘The Broken Way’
By Ann Voskamp, Zondervan, 288 pages, $22.99

From the first sentence of “The Broken Way,” Ann Voskamp, a writer of exquisite capacity, does what she does best: She pierces into a vulnerability that’s rarely explored with such truth-telling and almost never mined for hope. Yet she makes us believe that our deepest blessing is born of our brokenness.

“We can be brokers of healing,” she writes, “exactly where we have known the most brokenness.”

Voskamp, a best-selling author with a devout following (her book “One Thousand Gifts” sold more than a million copies and has been translated into 20 languages), is at her breathtaking best in this exploration that hollows our souls and leaves our hearts in pieces.

“I just know that — old scars can break open like fresh wounds and your unspoken broken can start to rip you wide open and maybe the essence of all the questions is: how in the holy name of God do you live with your one broken heart?” she writes in one of her opening, bracing paragraphs.

A wheat farmer’s wife and the mother of seven in Ontario, Canada, Voskamp has known grief ever since she witnessed her baby sister’s skull crushed under the wheel of a delivery truck outside her family’s farm. It’s a grief that led her to pick up shards of glass and use them to pierce “the inner softness” of her arm, “the whole thick weight of hell” pressing against her chest.

And yet, out of that brokenness, Voskamp finds a way. She comes to understand that operating out of love — a wild, abundant love — wielded in unexpected, unplanned ways throughout the day, she breaks free. In one afternoon’s itinerary of rampant acts of kindness, Voskamp and her flock of kids stuff bubble gum machines with quarters, tuck parking fees in envelopes on random windshields in a hospital parking lot, buy a cart of groceries for an unsuspecting soul in a checkout line. And that’s just the start of it.

“God is drawn to broken things,” she writes, “so He can draw the most beautiful things.”

‘Light When It Comes’
By Chris Anderson, Eerdmans, 181 pages, $16.99

The clue to reading “Light When It Comes” is nestled in its foreword, where we’re instructed to “pay fierce attention to the holy of everything.” The brilliant essayist Brian Doyle, who penned the foreword, goes on to write that in ancient Irish tradition that’s the task of the seanachies, or story-catchers. Theirs is an imperative calling, he insists, because “stories of grace and courage and humor and love and wild tenderness are compass points and lodestars, and if we don’t catch and share stories that matter, we will have nothing but lies and blood, and can’t we do better than that?”

Chris Anderson, professor of English at Oregon State University, poet and Catholic deacon, is one such story-catcher. And here he writes impressionistically, a pastiche of images, snippets of story, all connected through the singular thread of looking for and stumbling on joy. Stumbling, too, onto the indescribable holy, those moments where we understand at some deep level that we’ve encountered the sacred.

Drawing on the ancient Ignatian prayer tradition of the examen of conscience, a daily practice spurring us to take stock of the joys and sorrows of our every day, Anderson puts words to the practice in these pages that record the fleeting moments of joy.
However small, however ephemeral those moments, he writes, “this is where God is calling us.” It’s a connect-the-dots theology, but in the able hands of Anderson, an evocative writer, a fine-grained observer of light and shadow, the image we see in the end is one that insists God is all around. But we must pay fierce attention to notice.

‘The Paraclete Poetry Anthology’
Edited by Mark S. Burrows, Paraclete, 224 pages, $20

Consider this a short course for the soul. Or, perhaps, the syllabus to last a lifetime. Herein, Mark S. Burrows, a poet, translator and professor of historical theology and literature in Bochum, Germany, becomes one of those once-in-a-lifetime teachers who illuminates the way into the depths of a subject we’ve never before seen so clearly.
In his introduction, “‘A Sense of Presence’: Poetry and the Education of the Soul,” Burrows makes the case for why poetry is a sure road into the uncharted landscape of the divine.

It is through “the startlements of language” that a poem begins its work, in its capacity to awaken “the sense of wonder by which we discover again and again traces of the beauty that saturates our world,” Burrows writes, drawing fluently from a pantheon of poets. “In moments of surprise, we sense light breaking forth from the dark we carry within us,” the professor writes. Poems attune our minds “through the practice of attention.” And they invite us “to wander into truths often hiding in plain view.”

And then, as if we’ve been invited into a book-lined library, one curated across a lifetime, Burrows lines up a litany of poets and poems illustrating that very thesis.
Gathered here we find selected and new poems from a contemplative monk or three, an Episcopal priest, a rabbi, a protege of Thomas Merton, an Iranian-German poet, a theologian, a flock of English professors, and poets from Ireland, Poland, West Virginia and Tennessee. Tucked amid the poets’ roster, we find Rainer Maria Rilke, considered one of the most lyrically intense German-language poets, in new and previous translations by Burrows.

You’ll wear out the pages and the binding before you’re ever ready to put down this book.

Barbara Mahany is a freelance writer whose next book, “Motherprayer,” will be published in the spring.
Copyright © 2016, Chicago Tribune

maybe this will help…

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it’s not even six on the big-faced clock that hangs above the kitchen door, just beside the cookstove. it’s pitch black outside. i couldn’t sleep. again.

that’s how it’s been so many nights of late.

the truth is, i feel broken. deep down inside and all around. it’s the state of the world. the state of domestic affairs (and by that i do mean the nation). and a few other worries besides.

i try not to bring my bundle of knots here to the table. i’ve tried mightily not to be a cry baby. but the truth is, the past few weeks have steamrolled me. maybe you too? as much as i cringe at institutions and norms being turned on their heads, like so many chairs in a tavern strewn after a beer brawl, it’s the oozing of hate, of ugly words, and pent-up outbursts that’s making me quake deep inside. getting to be it’s hard to go a day without bumping into someone spewing some sort of ugly all over the place.

i’m not wired for that. i’m guessing neither are you. when God was making me, i must have been funneled through the light-weight department. i’m of delicate nerve, i suppose. which is why, too often, i shatter. (fear not, God was looking out for me, so i got a double dose of feist, which when in desperate straits i can muster. been known more than once to pull myself up my bootstraps. i’ve taken blows that could have toppled me for good. some day i’ll tell some of those tales. but for now suffice it to say i’m equal parts shatterable and watch-me-pick-up-the-pieces, leaning toward the latter.)

which is where this tried-and-tested old table of friends comes to the rescue. i stumbled into something so good the other day, i had to haul it over here. it’s a book i was reading for work (God bless a job that commands you to read and read deeply). and while i’m not keen on self-help tomes of any kind (truth is — and we’re truth-telling here this dark morning — books that promise salvation-by-baby-step, they make my skin crawl; i’m flat-out allergic), this particular book, which hadn’t set out to fix me or anyone else, more or less set in cement something i’ve always believed: you can find your way out of your brokenness by exercising rampant and wild love beyond measure.

or, as the brilliant ann voskamp writes in her breathtaking new book, The Broken Way: A Daring Path into the Abundant Life:

“we can be the brokers of healing exactly where we have known the most brokenness.”  

or: “God is drawn to broken things — so He can draw the most beautiful things.”

and: “maybe the love gets in easier where the heart’s broke open?” a theory posited by voskamp’s young son.

a canadian wheat farmer’s wife and “the mama of a half dozen crazy exuberant kids,” as she often puts it, voskamp has known grief all her life. ever since she witnessed her baby sister’s skull crushed under the wheel of a delivery truck outside her family’s farm. it’s a grief that led her to pick up shards of glass and pierce the sharp edge along “the inner softness” of her arm, “the whole thick weight of hell” pressing against her chest.

it’s a grief that led her into the deep well of darkness: “old scars can break open like fresh wounds and your unspoken broken can start to rip you wide open and maybe the essence of all the questions is: how in the holy name of God do you live with your one broken heart?”

and yet, out of that brokenness, voskamp, who five years ago wrote the runaway bestseller, One Thousand Gifts, finds a way toward blessing. she comes to understand that operating out of love—a wild, abundant love—wielded in unexpected, unplanned ways throughout the day, she breaks free. in one afternoon’s itinerary of rampant acts of kindness, voskamp and her flock of kids stuff bubble gum machines with quarters, tuck parking fees in envelopes on random windshields in a hospital parking lot, buy a cart of groceries for an unsuspecting soul in a checkout line. and that’s just the start of it.

she leans into science to back up her scheme, the review of general psychology, in particular, and a study that showed that “those who perform five acts of giving over six weeks are happier than those who don’t.” and here’s why, according to voskamp’s squad of research psychologists: “when you give, you get reduced stress hormone levels, lowered blood pressure, and increased endorphins. acts of kindness reduce anxiety, and strengthen the immune system. five random acts of kindness can increase happiness for up to three months later.”

in this particular instance i’m going with it, abandoning the newsroom adage of “if your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.” i’m flat-out buying the science, and the instruction, because frankly anyone got a brighter idea?

i might call it the fireworks rule. do something kind, do something crazily wild driven by love, and don’t tell a soul that you’ve done it, then wait for that tickle, that pop, that night sky of sparkle and light, rising up from deep down inside. it’s the lightning bolt of adrenaline, perhaps, oxytocin oozing all over. it’s God, maybe, tapping you there on the heart, whispering, “hey, sweetheart, high five. that’s what i’m talking about when i talk about love. love and love madly. love with abandon.”

voskamp circles back to her newfangled notion a few chapters later, when she asks: “why hadn’t somebody showed up a long time ago in a three-piece suit to tell me those small acts of intentional love actually trigger the brain’s receptor networks for oxytocin, the soothing hormone of maternal bonding? that little acts of love actually release dopamine, the hormone associated with positive emotions and a natural high? why hadn’t anyone told me: bend low in small acts of love, and you literally get ‘high’?”

chances are, we knew this already. or at least we had a mighty strong hunch. and chances are, too, we’ve lived it. given it the occasional workout.

but somehow, in this long stretch of feeling quite bulldozed and broken, voskamp’s words and her litany of random, wild abandon loving, it all went a long way toward helping me see the dim light of hope in the distance.

in case you’re inclined to play along, here’s more from the list of crazy wild loving that filled one voskamp day, a day that happened to be voskamp’s own birthday: she filled a mason jar with gladiolas from her garden, and drove them to an old man she knew in a nursing home. but she didn’t stop at just his room, she and her kids ran up and down the halls, leaving a trail of mason-jar glads, room after room. and on their way into town, they drove past a squad car and circled back to leave a box of cookies on the hood, hoping aloud that it wasn’t “mistaken for a bomb.” then, for the joy of it, the whole lot of them grabbed a pie at the market and dropped it off at the town doctor’s office, to “thank him for catching babies.” then, they stopped at a coffee shop, and sprang for the coffees of every single person in line. next up, a dozen donuts dropped off at the town hall. just because.

that’s not all. voskamp wondered aloud what would happen if you walked into a diner, and whispered to the waitress that you’re paying for the dinner of that family over in the corner, a family you’d never before seen, and likely wouldn’t see again. and all that was preamble to the litany i mentioned above: the bubblegum quarters, the windshield parking fees, the cart piled with groceries, paid for in full.

be audacious is the point. love audaciously, the insistence.

“don’t think that every gift of grace, every act of kindness, isn’t a quake that moves another heart to give,” voskamp writes. “what if the truth really is that every tremor of kindness here erupts in a miracle elsewhere in the world?”

i’m willing to subscribe to the voskamp theory of tremors and earthquakes of kindness. i’m willing to sign my name to the roster of crazies.

it’s the closest i’ve come in the past few weeks to seeing my way toward the light. and i’m lurching toward that flickering flame.

before it goes out.

how bout you? since the whole point is not to divulge your own wild acts of kindness, how bout recounting the times you’ve been so blessed out of the blue? perhaps a litany of blessing, of random kindness exercised madly, is just what the doctor ordered to lift us out of our blues?

books for the soul: just in time

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i often turn to poets and prophets when my heart feels like it’s leaking sadness, and so this latest roundup of books for the soul is an apt offering this fine november morning. i don’t always remember to post these here, though they’re always to be found at the chicago tribune, now tucked inside the arts & entertainment section on thursdays (soulful roundups, the ones i write, appear every five to six weeks). if you’d prefer to find this online, here’s your link. otherwise, read on below. God bless mary oliver, w.s. merwin, and brian mclaren for abundant wisdoms and poetry.

Spiritual Books by Brian D. McLaren, Mary Oliver and W.S. Merwin

By Barbara Mahany
Chicago Tribune

“The Great Spiritual Migration” by Brian D. McLaren, Convergent, 288 pages, $21

That Brian McLaren’s roots in conservative Christianity once ran deep, makes his a powerful voice calling for a prompt and wholesale realignment. It’s a religion gone astray, he argues, and it needs a serious fix.

His ultimate challenge, astutely laid out in “The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion Is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian,” is this: Might Christianity find a way to become more Christian? (Read: More all-inclusive, and, most of all, more loving?)

McLaren, a former pastor, progressive activist and highly respected Christian thinker, minces no words in claiming that Christians by the droves are “fleeing the brand, as the brand is so compromised as to be unrecognizable.” He writes as only an insider can — with rock-solid authority. His thesis: “Our religions often stand for the very opposite of what their founders stood for.”

Whereas the founders of religions — and the denominations thereof — were defined by generosity, vision, creativity and boldness in action and thought, the religions that “ostensibly carry on their work,” McLaren writes, often become “constricted, change-averse, nostalgic, fearful, obsessed with boundary maintenance, turf battles, and money. Instead of greeting the world with open arms … their successors stand guard with clenched fists.”

McLaren’s argument demands attention; it comes in a time of religious tumult. American society, and the West in general, is rapidly becoming more secular, with the “nones” — the religiously nonaffiliated, including atheists and those who claim to be spiritual but don’t identify with a particular religion — accounting for almost 1 in 4 Americans today.

Pointedly, McLaren asks: “What would it mean for Christians to rediscover their faith not as a problematic system of beliefs but as a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion?”

“Upstream” by Mary Oliver, Penguin, 192 pages, $26

When reading Mary Oliver in any form — poetry or prose — you oughtn’t be surprised when suddenly you find yourself at a full stop. When you come across a sentence so arresting in its beauty — its construction, its word choice, its truths — you can’t help but pause, hit “reread,” and await the transformative soaking-in, the awakening of mind and soul that’s sure to settle deeply.

So it is with “Upstream: Selected Essays,” Oliver’s latest collection of writings (19 in all, 16 from previous collections), here twinning the threads of the natural world and her lifelong literary companions. Long considered the high priestess of astonishment, she lays before the reader epistle after epistle from her Book of Nature and the meditations therein.

For Oliver, the natural world — be it a consideration of the snapping turtle or the red-tailed hawk, the cattails swishing at the pond’s edge or “the black-bellied pond” itself — is the channel into the sacred.

Hers is not an explicit religiosity, but rather it’s writing weighted with suggestion, with a gentle nod toward the divine, and every once in a while an explicit salutation. Addressing a gargantuan gassy-breathed snapping turtle, for instance, she asks: “Did He who made the lily make you too?”

She never fails to stir us from whatever is the natural speck before our gaze to the immeasurable heaven’s dome above and beyond.

And as with all the best of Oliver, and her company of contemplatives, her message, her religion, is one that rests on this command: Open your eyes. Pay attention.

“Garden Time” by W.S. Merwin, Copper Canyon, 96 pages, $24

“Poets were my first priests, and poetry itself my first altar,” Mary Karr, the poet and memoirist, once wrote. And so, for those of us drawn to the liturgical practice of carving out quietude, and cracking open the pages of volumes of poetry, the latest collection from W.S. Merwin, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize in poetry, is prayer of a high order.

The son of a Presbyterian minister who started out writing hymns for his father, Merwin, now a practicing Zen Buddhist, takes on a study of time in this latest collection, “Garden Time,” 61 new poems written late in his life (he’s now in his ninth decade). Merwin’s verse pulses with a longing, a knowing that this moment is blessed — and is slipping away. There’s a reverence here that can only be called sacred, a divine infusion.

While he trains his eye on the natural world, it’s the infinite wisdom tucked within that world that Merwin is mining. His subjects of inquiry (to name but a few): sunset, shadow, silence, the sound of rain when it stops. Considered “an oracular poet” by some literary critics, these poems brim with unanswerable questions; Merwin’s examination of time and memory — looping, spiraling, slipping to and fro — can’t help but spur you to pause, to pay closer attention. To consider your own life’s measure of time, looping and slipping away.

Attention, Mary Oliver says, is the beginning of devotion. And devotion is the high art of the soul. That high art is rarely practiced more ethereally than through the words of William Stanley Merwin.

Barbara Mahany is a freelance writer whose next book, “Motherprayer,” will be published in the spring.
Copyright © 2016, Chicago Tribune

while you’re busy reading this, i hope to be typing away on another post for this friday morning, one in which my holy balm was found pushing my wheelbarrow.

reading for work

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some days, my workday unfolds like this: i wander over to the books in my stack that teeters as it rises toward the ceiling. i pull out the one that tempts the most. i pour a guzzle of coffee. i reach for a pen, for i don’t know how to read without one (making me a potentially reckless patron of the local library). i cozy my bum on the chair. i study the cover, read the flaps at the front and the back, then i turn to page one. i await the first sentence. first sentences signal plenty: do i want to read on to the second? or is this going to be an obligational exercise? (because i’m an occupational reader, i can’t give up after just one paltry sentence, nor even one that clanks when what i’m after is take-your-breath-away.)

i hum the loudest when i find myself tumbling into the text, when whole chunks of an hour go by, and i am as busy with my scribbling as i am with my inhaling of words, of ideas, of penetrating thoughts.

my job is to read books for the soul. i still can’t quite believe that counts as work, and that — rather than collecting garbage cans, or chopping carrots for vats of soup — i’ve somehow found my way to reading for work. reading soulful books for work.

and by my definition the soul is a broad-canvased endeavor. the soul is without boundaries, stretching from star-stitched night sky to the meadow where queen anne’s lace nods in the breath of morning’s breeze. by my definition the soul is that thing that catches the beauties, the depths, the light and the shadow of life and life beyond our feeble capacities.

in my book, the soul — that thing that i’m reading to stir — is the catch basin of all that is sacred, of all that is dispatched from God. it’s our job, us little people with our creaky knees and our hair that won’t do the right thing, it’s our job — or so i believe — to rumble through life on full-alert, on the lookout for those barely perceptible moments when the shimmer of light on a leaf, or the way the dawn ignites the horizon, signal to us that God is near. no, God is here. and if we listen, say put our ear to the wind, or to the chest of someone we love, or if we simply sit quietly and all alone, we might hear the still small voice that whispers of love, of courage, of bold and emphatic action, of whatever is the holiest thing you needed to hear. because God does that. God wants us to bump up against wonder. God wants us to feel the walls of our heart stretched and stretching. God wants us to rustle under the newness of a thought, or an inkling, that’s never struck us before. or the God i love does, anyway.

as i was reading away this week, reading mary oliver’s newest book, a collection of essays titled, “upstream: selected essays,” as i was reading lines like this one — “I walk, all day, across the heaven-verging field.” —  or — “Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity.” —  or — ” I can hear that child’s voice…its presence rises, in memory, from the steamy river of dreams….It is with me in the present hour. It will be with me in the grave.” — as i was reading those lines, i thought about how, for me, religion seeps in most deeply when it seeps in softly, tricklingly, when it’s not klonked over my head, with a two-by-four of this-is-what-you-should-know.

i let that softness, that newness sink in. my God comes at me gently, with a subtle tap to the noggin. or the barest wisp of breath against the nape of my neck.

and then during another part of another workday, when i was gathering notes for a lovely circle i am entering this evening, a circle filled with doctors and nurses and health care workers who believe in, and practice, narrative medicine, the art of gathering the stories of those whose lives will be entrusted to their care, their compassion and their steely intellect, i turned to two of the great thinkers in my lexicon, vladimir nabokov and rebecca solnit. i read, again, their instructions for reading and for writing. and i realized, they too, rooted and root their life’s work in soulful tomes.

nabokov instructs us in how to read: “a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. it is there that occurs the telltale tingle…”

solnit, author of countless brilliant prose passages, instructs us in how to write: “listen to what makes your hair stand on end, your heart melt, and your eyes go wide, what stops you in your tracks and makes you want to live, wherever it comes from, and hope that your writing can do all those things for other people.”

and so i go, as instructed, to read, to try to write, to capture those fleeting sparks of the divine, to catch them with my soul, and clutch them dearly to my heart.

not so shabby, for a long day’s work.

where do you find the soulful words in your life? and how do you imagine the soul, and its capacities for catching all the passing sparks of the Divine? 

once my latest roundup of soulful books runs in the chicago tribune, where it’s now found on the thursday books page every six weeks or so, i will post it here, of course.

and a note, for anyone who’s curious, about book selection: i’ve chosen to only write about books i find rich or enriching, and i don’t get to write about nearly enough of those, limited to only three per roundup. knowing the courage it takes — the self-exposure — to put any words to the page, i’ve made it my policy that i will not write about a book that i find short on what i’m after. i know how much it hurts to be criticized, and i will not subject another soul to that. life’s too short. and there are too many gloriously good books to read and write about. wonders to behold, indeed.

redlining: when words queue up in the wings

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a peek at the cover…

it’s those two little eggs. they’re what bring me to tears. well, that and the fact that i’ve not slept too much this whole last week. it’s what happens when you’re redlining. which, in the world of books with your name on the cover, means you are weighing every last alphabet letter, typing, trying words on for size. hitting delete (a lot of hitting delete), then typing some more. you’re nearing the end.

i’d been waiting and waiting. for months. and then, with not even a whisper, not even a ping (i was at a funeral, and my phone was turned off), the whole 240-some pages slid in under the so-called transom (as if a laptop came with an office door, an opaque glass door, with your name etched on the face, and a doorknob that creaked when you turned it, as back in the movies and sitcoms of a whole other era).

at first, i was trembling too much to peek. i knew that this round — the one after your words have been wrung through the copy-edit machine, after the production editor puts her very fine eye to every last comma and dash, and all the words in between — this round weighed more than the others in the editing room. the closer you get to the end, the closer you get to the day the big box arrives, when you pull back the tape, and stare at the stacks, the ones with your words, covered and bound, the more it all weighs.

i quelled my butterflies. all but stuffed them back in the jar where they belong, the one with the air holes punched in the lid. and then i dove in.

fullsizerender-2i’m done with round one, the round where you read on the screen. now i move onto round two, the one where you read from pages and pages, actual paper. actual trees, felled for the service of smoothing, and fixing, and hoisting up line after line, as many notches as my brain and my heart and imagination can muster.fullsizerender

which means my brain cells are thirsty for coffee. and my muscles and bones are aching for sleep. and while i practice my finger-stretching exercises, the warmups for another day with the red pen and keyboard, i figured i’d give you a peek at the cover. i’d had no idea it had slid off the art director’s drafting table. certainly no idea it was over on amazon, where, with the click of a button, you too can take a close look.

you can even read how they describe it, those folks who do the describing:

Barbara Mahany writes, “Mothering was my crash course in love. Love of the sort I call Divine. Love in the way we yearn to be loved: Without end. Without question. Without giving in to exhaustion. Love with a big and boundless heart. Love with eyes and ears wide open. Love even when it’s not so easy.”

In Motherprayer, Mahany generously shares personal love letters on the mysteries and gifts of mothering, interspersed with family recipes and gentle essays, all offering beautiful lessons in how to love, and how to love breathtakingly. In her bracingly honest style, Mahany lifts up the everyday—the hard, the glorious, the laughter, and the tears—and invites readers to pay attention, cradle our loved ones in prayer, and see the sacred lessons in loving.

which is why i’d better get back to the redline. which is why i nearly toppled off my chair the day i stumbled onto those words. i was minding my business, one fine afternoon, just clicking around on the keyboard, in that way that we do now, when suddenly one click led to another, and there it was: my next little book, idling on amazon. awaiting its turn in the racks. the book-peddling racks.

so while i head off to try out some verbs, try to find ones with sinew and heft, i’ll leave you here with a promise: i’ll tuck my whole heart, and all of my soul, into the redlining to come. and the book that comes very soon after. the book that will land just in time for mothering day. the book you’ll find at the bookstore next april.

i’m writing a book for the very best reason: for both of my boys (those two little eggs in the palest of blues up above), so they’ll know, so they can hold in their hands, someday maybe even read, the record of just how deeply they were loved. and the few things i learned along the way.

redlined, of course.

if you wrote a book, what would you put on the cover?

and as long as we’re in the book bin today, why not mention that my first book, Slowing Time, was read aloud back in the spring by a lovely woman in Nashville, and recorded, made into an audible book. i have five copies that i’m happy to give away. if you’d like a book-on-tape, if you’d like Slowing Time, with a wee bit of buttery twang, just plop a comment down below, and the first five someones who raise their sweet hand, will get an audible copy. how’s that for a friday morning adventure in listening? (my dear publisher has wanted me to do this for months, but i’ve, um, been a bit shy.)

because i love to give glories where glories are due, i am leaping off my chair to holler my lungs out in thanks to nancy watkins, the brilliant longtime chicago tribune editor, who was employed to copy edit Motherprayer (and thus made my wildest dreams come true), and the astoundingly fastidious and kind and word-perfect susan cornell, the production editor at Abingdon Press, who is shepherding each and every page to the printing press. there’s a dream team on this book, and page after page, i find myself sighing at their utter perfection. consider me enchanted. blessings to both of you. xoxox

road trip reads

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any minute now, we’re piling in the red wagon and pointing it south, straight to louisville, kentucky, the state of grace in which i was born. we’re headed down for a memorial for a beloved uncle who died at 91 earlier this summer. he was known as “secretary of the interior” in blue-grass country, and they didn’t mean affairs of domestic geography so much as affairs of chintz and raw silk and impeccable antiques culled from trips around the world. more than 40 such trips circumnavigating the globe. a lifetime procuring the beautiful, as head of interior design for decades at louisville’s grand old department store.

despite the fact that it’s my beloved architecture critic’s birthday tomorrow, he insisted he was driving my mama and moi and devoting much of his day to interstates and trucks barreling past him, passing as they often do on the left. by sundown tonight, though, we’ll be checking into a sublime historic hotel, the brown hotel, and that alone will make this a trip to remember.

while we’re motoring i thought i’d leave a few books here on the table. i’ve not kept up with posts from my tribune roundups of soulful books. so here, a culled list of favorites from the last two distillations, a potpourri of books i particularly loved.

Buechner 101 by Carl Frederick Buechner, Frederick Buechner Center, 170 pages, $15.99

Maybe once a generation, or once every few generations, someone is born with gifts literary and sacred in equal measure. A translator, perhaps, of the highest calling. One who can at once lift our souls and our sights by virtue of the rare alchemy of the poetic plus the profound. Therein lies the prophet. Therein lies Frederick Buechner, at 90, one of the greatest living American theologians and writers.

In these collected works, “Buechner 101: Essays and Sermons by Frederick Buechner” — including excerpts from his Harvard Divinity School lectures, “The Alphabet of Grace”; a searing essay on his daughter’s anorexia; a seminary commencement address on the hard truths of pastoring a flock of believers, doubters and everyday sinners — we are immersed in the depth and breadth of this rare thinker’s gifts.

Anne Lamott, in her introduction, admits to being blown away by Buechner’s capacity “to be both plain and majestic” at once. She ranks him side-by-side with C.S. Lewis, then declares, “No one has brought me closer to God than these two men.” That alone might make you rush to pore over these pages.

This world sorely needs a prophet who reminds us to not give up our search for holiness amid the noise and hate and madness all around. Buechner, though, says it in words that shimmy through the cracks, burrowing deep within us, reverberating long after the page is turned. He writes: “We must learn to listen to the cock-crows and hammering and tick-tock of our lives for the holy and elusive word that is spoken to us out of their depths. It is the function of all great preaching, I think, and all great art, to sharpen our hearing precisely to that end.”

And it is that very sharpening that we find, paragraph upon paragraph, page after page, in Buechner 101.

Our Father by Rainer Oberthür, illustrated by Barbara Nascimbeni, Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 58 pages, $16

The questions are pure. The questions, profound. From the child’s script, the surest path to heaven. And from the start, “Our Father,” a breathtaking peeling back of a foundational prayer of so many Christian religions, shimmers with a simplicity that can’t help but catapult our sacred questions to the highest heights.

Before beginning a line-by-line, word-by-word, meditation on the Lord’s Prayer, as it’s often called, this extraordinary picture book frames the prayer in the context of how it responds to the most essential — and possibly unsettling — questions: Where did the world come from? Why does it exist? Why am I here? Why do people die? What happens afterward?

In a voice that exudes comfort and heart-to-heart closeness the reader is told that these really are questions about God: Where is God? Why can’t I see God? How can I talk to God?

Are these not the very questions pondered by legions of theologians? And yet, the answers found here — in a children’s book from a Grand Rapids, Mich., publishing house with a long tradition of searching the globe for particularly illuminating children’s text and illustration — are perhaps among the clearest ever penned.

Which is what makes this a book for the soul young or old or anywhere in between. Each line — alongside charming illustrations that beg to be studied closely — becomes a prayerful exegesis, unfurled in words that speak to the pure heart of the child. It’s a book that will lull you into the sure and safe cove that is a building block of faith. And, chances are, you’ll never again murmur mindlessly the words of “Our Father.” Instead, you’ll be awakened to the depths of its timelessness and its capacity to enfold the answers to all our deepest questions.

Circle of Grace by Jan Richardson, Wanton Gospeller Press, 182 pages, $16

Blessings, an ancient literary form, “illuminate the link between the sacred and the ordinary,” Jan Richardson writes in her breathtaking “Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons.” Often poetic and pulsing with the rhythms of invocation and incantation, blessings “use ordinary language in ways that can become extraordinary, offering words that arrest our attention and awaken us to how the holy is at work in our very midst.”

Before carrying us through the liturgical year, blessing by blessing, Richardson writes in her introduction that a good blessing “shimmers with the mystery that lies at the heart of God.” And then, she unspools “good blessing” upon “good blessing,” one after another shimmering, in ways that might make you weep, so tenderly, so astonishingly, do they slip into the hollows of the soul.

Richardson, a writer, artist and ordained Methodist minister, belongs among the most treasured spiritual lights on the bookshelf. Her words trace that thin line that courses the topography of the soul. She knows the way into the deepest interiority, into the mysteries of life, of grief, of wonder. Your breath will be taken, again and again. And you will return, again and again, to these pages, pulled by the magnetism of her words, her capacity for imbuing the everyday with the sacred.

A blessing, she writes, “is something wild. It leads us where we did not imagine to go, and never in a straight line.” It does so, in Richardson’s hands, by lifting the quotidian hours of our lives — the waiting for night to end, the unimagined grace of coming home — and making abundantly clear a profound holiness.

Becoming Wise by Krista Tippett, Penguin Press, 288 pages, $28

If you, like me, read with a pen at the ready, you’ll likely run out of ink on this one. If you measure the worth of a book by the volume of scribbles you pen in the margins, the stars emphatically drawn, and the sentences underlined, Krista Tippett’s “Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living” — a compendium of wisdom, at once intimate and expansive — stands a serious shot of emerging both splattered and cherished.

Tippett, the Peabody Award-winning radio host and National Humanities Medalist, is a master of what she terms “generous listening,” an act “powered by curiosity,” and a “willingness to be surprised, to let go of assumptions and take in ambiguity.” Sadly lacking in the modern-day public square, it’s an art Tippett has practiced and honed in her years hosting National Public Radio’s “On Being,” a program and podcast launched in 2003 as “Speaking of Faith,” in which she’s generously listened to — and deeply questioned — some of the most luminous minds on the planet.

From this lifetime of rich conversation, Tippett elicits a poetic inquiry, interwoven with memoir. What does it mean to be human? What matters in a life? What matters in death? And, in the end, wisdom is what Tippett seeks. “Wisdom leavens intelligence, and ennobles consciousness, and advances evolution itself,” she writes.

The book, called “a master class in the art of living,” draws from conversations with poet Elizabeth Alexander, physicist Brian Greene, civil rights veteran John Lewis, physician Rachel Naomi Remen, chef Dan Barber, playwright Eve Ensler, and humanitarian Jean Vanier — to name only a partial roster of her fellow seekers of wisdom.

what titles top your summer reading list? 

pilgrimage to the land of poets – and spring peepers, while we’re at it

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a short interlude of my poetry bookshelf (alphabetical by poet, of course)

i’m told tales of folks who slip their finery off their boudoir shelves, who tuck silks and satins into trunks and valises. i’m told they jet off to faraway places, wiggle their toes in pure white sands. sip intoxicants adorned with wee paper parasols and wedges of papaya. then, i’m told, they manage to find their way home, whole again.

i’d not know from such exotica. and i doubt it’d do much besides break me out in patchy hives.

i, in sharp contrast, am yanking out a sweater or three, tucking them alongside my toothbrush. i’ll pack a stash of honeycrisp apples (an upgrade for the occasion) and piles of reporter’s notebooks, then slide behind the wheel of my old red wagon, and motor my way to grand rapids, smack dab in the palm of the mitten state just to the north and the east of my land of lincoln. i’ll hole up for three days of prayerful prose and poetry, and thinking way beyond the quotidian box.

it’s called the festival of faith and writing, and it’s a poet’s idea of heaven on earth. especially if you take your poetry infused with a dollop of holy. it’s an every-other-year consortium where the mystical meets iambic pentameter, or more likely the freest of free verse. it’s a forget-about-lunch, who-needs-sleep, dawn-till-midnight fill-your-lungs-with-real-life-bylines-who-make-you-swoon jamboree.

this year it’s where tobias wolff and george saunders (professor and protege, respectively, long ago at syracuse university) will put heads together for a public tete-a-tete. where dani shapiro, memoirist and essayist, will “insist that sorrow not be meaningless.” and where poet scott cairns will mine eastern orthodox liturgy to “clear a pathway through the slings and arrows of modern life.” ashley bryan, the 92-year-old children’s book author and illustrator, will illuminate the art-making behind his collections of black american spirituals for children. and, before the first day’s dinner hour, i’ll sit down in a small room to listen to christian wiman, guggenheim fellow, former editor of poetry magazine, now senior lecturer in divinity and literature at yale’s divinity school, read poems from every riven thing, or passages from my bright abyss: meditation of a modern believer, which the new republic called “an apologia and a prayer, an invitation and a fellow traveler for any who suffer and all who believe.” before i nod off, i’ll whirl in the incantatory vapors of zadie smith who will ponder the question, “why write?”

yes, by day, i’ll binge on words and thoughts that stir the soul, and, often, put goosebumps to the flesh (the surest sign i know that God’s in the neighborhood). and then at night, i’ll make my escape to a historic inn, where a room under the eaves will be my hideaway. and where i’ll forego dreams for the sheer joy of turning pages upon pages, all while plopped atop my featherbed. or perhaps i’ll shrivel like a prune in the depths of my victorian claw-footed tub.

and it just might be the surest cure for my tattered soul.

as i did two years ago, i’ll be taking copious notes, and promise to report back next week, with all the snippets and moments that make me woozy.

but, of all the poetry the days will bring, the one i’m most awaiting is wholly otherworldly, and not propelled to sound waves by human breath. it’s amphibian, as a matter of fact: the wee spring peepers, whose dissonant and deafening nightsong, rising from a blur of woods, stopped me more than anything i’d heard two years ago april.

back then, i described the soul-perking moment thusly:

the moon was half both nights, or nearly so. the sky, a western michigan sodden blue. the daylight not yet rinsed out. the night shadow inking in. and then, from the lacy backdrop of leafless woods, the rising vernal chorus of the spring peepers, that amphibian night song that breaks you out in goosebumps — or it does me, anyway. it’s a froggy croak — a high-pitched rendition, indeed — i’d not heard since trying to fall asleep in the upstairs dormer of my husband’s boyhood home, where the backyard pond and its full-throated citizens lull me to dreamland with their percolating melodies. i wanted to record a few bars for you, so you too could share the goosebumps. instead, i offer this, borrowed from the land of internet.

listen in to the peepers for now, and i’ll be back next week, to pour forth the very best i tuck into my writerly notebooks.

and a bit of poetic amuse-bouche till then:

A Word
BY SCOTT CAIRNS

For A.B.

She said God. He seems to be there
when I call on Him but calling
has been difficult too. Painful.

And as she quieted to find
another word, I was delivered
once more to my own long grappling

with that very angel here — still
here — at the base of the ancient
ladder of ascent, in foul dust

languishing yet at the very
bottom rung, letting go my grip
long before the blessing.

Source: Poetry (July/August 2013).

if you imagined a getaway for the soul, a stretch of days to soothe and restore, where would you go? what would you ink into your itinerary? 

and, p.s., happy blessed birthday to my mother-of-heart, ginny, the most loyal reader of the chair that ever there was. and happy one day late to my little ellabellabeautiful! 

soulful pages: latest edition

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i sometimes forget to post my roundups of soulful books here at the table, so this morning i am delivering the latest edition, which will run in this sunday’s printers row journal, the chicago tribune’s literary supplement. you’ll find it online now, right here, but i’m saving you the click, and posting below. and as the spirit moves me, i just might post a second post this morning…..i’ve a hankering to write about proper porridge. stay tuned. (turns out i decided to also post here — way down below — the tribune’s holiday gift guide roundup of what you might say were the six soulful books that most vociferously leapt off my bookshelf last year…) so lots of soulfulness to muse this wintry morning. put the kettle on, grab the fuzzy afghan, and commence the art of curling up with a great good tome….

Spiritual roundup: ‘Sabbaths 2013’ by Wendell Berry, more
Barbara Mahany

Sabbaths 2013 by Wendell Berry, Larkspur, 36 pages, $28wendellberry sabbaths

There are rare few times in the unfolding of our quotidian lives when we hold something in our hands and know, right away, that it’s sacred. To hold “Sabbaths 2013,” a hand-bound volume of Kentucky poet Wendell Berry’s poems in handset type with wood engravings by Wesley Bates, is to behold the sacred.

It’s as all the finest books on our shelves should be — a work of art, of exquisite attention, at every step of the bookmaking process. Larkspur Press in Monterey, Ky., is that rarest of small-press publishing houses. Gray Zeitz, the founder, is described as “bewhiskered, aproned, and ink-smudged.” He sets type by hand on clamshell printing presses, and his place of creation is said to be equal parts library, museum and workshop. Larkspur’s tagline: “Creating fine books one letter at a time.”

Certainly, these poems of Berry deserve to be unspooled with such care. Each of the 20 poems is a meditation, the closest we might come to modern-day Scripture. To encounter these lines is to brush up against the beautiful, the breathtaking, rooted in the everyday — the birthing barn, the generations-worn kitchen table, the old dog with her gray muzzle.

Consider, for instance, just this one line: “The years / have brought him love and grief. / They have taught him that grief / is love clarified, appraised / beyond confusion, affirmed, lifted / out of time.”

Stripped: At the Intersection of Cancer, Culture and Christ by Heather King, Loyola, 224 pages, $14.95

Cancer is hardly the landscape where one might expect soliloquies on prayer. But prayer, the down-on-your-knees, heart-wide-open petitions that spring from the raw fear of dying and death, is what makes “Stripped” (the author originally titled it, “Stripped: Culture, Cancer, and the Cloud of Unknowing”) very much a book for the soul — and not only for those who’ve been excoriated by the words, “You have cancer.”

More than anything, it’s the quality of King’s writing that catapults this book off the shelf. Her words are sharp-edged as any surgeon’s knife, and, as with all the most powerful writing, hers has the capacity to slip in wisdoms and enlightenments without notice. You’re busy laughing, or wiping away a tear, and suddenly you realize you’ve pulled out a pen to underline words to keep for the ages.

This is not a cancer saga you’ve read before, and where King’s faith takes her is a place few might choose. (She submits to surgery, but decides against radiation or chemotherapy — decisions she made 15 years ago now, and she’s still alive to write about it.) It’s the journey, the straight-shooting, no-punches-pulled, intimate cry of her heart, that makes this a most soulful expedition. One you’ll not soon forget.

Inside Time: A Chassidic Perspective on the Jewish Calendar, based on the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, adapted by Yanki Tauber, Meaningful Life Center, 3 volumes, 944 pages, $54.99

It would be shortchanging this three-volume set to call it simply a meditation on time. More apt would be to call it meditations within meditations, a Russian doll of deep thinking on the sacred nature of time and the particulars of the Jewish calendar. What’s found here is a collection of deeply thoughtful essays, exploring the soul of time as defined by the Torah and seen through the lens of Hasidic teaching. You needn’t subscribe to a Lubavitch world view to be enlightened by the epiphanies found in these pages.

At heart, in Volume One, “Time and Its Cycles,” is the notion that Creation wasn’t a divine one-time act, but rather that God creates the world anew in every moment. (Volume Two considers the Jewish calendar from Rosh Hashana to Purim; Volume Three, Passover to Elul.) This notion of perpetual creation, Rabbi Tauber argues, is a powerful antidote to the hopelessness that plagues so much of the modern-day landscape. Most powerful of all, he writes, is the corollary that time is wholly concentrated in the here and the now, inviting a fine-tuned focus on mindfulness.

Consider this instruction, drawn from one of the many charming stories Tauber tells to illustrate his teachings: “We cannot make our days longer, nor can we add additional hours to our nights. But we can maximize our usage of time by regarding each segment of time as a world of its own.”

For the student eager to burrow deep into the great vault of Jewish sacred text, this is a book to hold our attention for a very long time.

Barbara Mahany is the author of “Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door.” Twitter: @BarbaraMahany

Copyright © 2016, Chicago Tribune

p.s. as i’ve spent the last hour riffling through my files to see how very many times i’ve not posted those soulful roundups here, i realize i must have some reticence about taking up space at the table when the roundups are not too hard to find on the tribune website. looks like i’ve only posted five of 10 roundups, or even included a link. oh my! one you might want to look up would be the gift guide, in which i picked the six books that most leapt off the shelf last year, in the soulfulness department. you can find that roundup here. or, on second thought, maybe i should post it here……

Gift guide: Books for the soul
From a book by Pope Francis to an anthology of world religions, these 6 books are ideal for the spiritual-minded.
By Barbara Mahany

It’s a glorious expedition to survey the spiritual landscape of this year’s books for the soul, to pluck the ones with richest deepest resonance. Poets and scholars, a pundit and pope, all rise to the top.

Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words by David Whyte, Many Rivers, 247 pages, $22

Poet and philosopher David Whyte constructs an alternative dictionary of 52 words — an abecedarian that stretches from “alone” to “vulnerable” — and, in so doing, invites the reader to explore the depths of each entry, beyond the semantic surface, burrowing into the poetic and the profound. It’s a form of prayerfulness, the meditative powers of contemplating a single word. Whyte takes us there in plainspeak, though his is a language that pulses with counterpoints of shadow and illumination. Surely, a certain road to soulfulness is paved with unexpected poetries and luminescence at every bend. Whyte takes you there by heart.

The Norton Anthology of World Religions: Volume 1 and 2, W.W. Norton, 4,448 pages, $100

Weighing in at 8.4 pounds, a whopping 4,448 pages, and tucked in a tidy two-volume book pack, this massive and monumental Norton Anthology, edited by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jack Miles, holds inspiration for more than one lifetime. At heart, writes Miles, it’s an invitation “to see others with a measure of openness, empathy, and good will. … In that capacity lies the foundation of human sympathy and cultural wisdom.” With more than 1,000 primary texts — Volume 1 covers Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism; Volume 2, Judaism, Christianity and Islam — this is an instant classic.

The Road to Character by David Brooks, Random House, 320 pages, $28

Before diving into modern-day parables in the form of biographies — ranging from Augustine to George Eliot to Dwight Eisenhower to Dorothy Day — David Brooks, columnist for The New York Times and opinionator for this oft-imploding globe, pens as fine an exegesis on sin as has been written in recent times. Our sin: “self-satisfied moral mediocrity.” It’s in those character studies of some of history’s greatest thinkers and leaders, 10 in all, that Brooks lays bare what it takes to cultivate deep moral character. And isn’t a moral core, tested in everyday trials, our one best hope at an everlasting soul?

Map by Wislawa Szymborska, translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak, HMH, 464 pages, $32

Here, for the first time, is the English translation of all of the poems of Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska’s last Polish collection, including previously unpublished works. In all, “Map” gathers some 250 poems written between 1944 and 2011. While Szymborska, who died in 2012, focuses her attention on quotidian subjects — an onion, a cat — she plumbs them to probe life’s big questions — love, death, and passing time. And while she might not be as widely read in America as poets Mary Oliver and Mark Strand, her words bore deep. She is poet serving as spiritual guide.

Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality: On Care for Our Common Home by Pope Francis, Melville House, 192 pages, $14.95

This breathtaking amalgam of urgency and poetry mines the spirit and appeals to the moral core. It’s as essential a soul-stirring read as any recent manuscript. Billed as the pope’s pontifications on the environment, it is in fact a sweeping letter addressing a spectrum of global sins. The Guardian termed it “the most astonishing and perhaps the most ambitious papal document of the past 100 years,” bespeaking its relevance beyond the walls of the Roman Catholic Church.

In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World by Padraig O Tuama, Hodder & Stoughton, 192 pages, $23.95

This quiet book of contemplations by Belfast-based poet, theologian and peace worker Padraig O Tuama barely stirred a ripple in the marketplace of books, but where it counts — in the hearts of those blessed to turn its pages — it swiftly became a treasure. More deserve to be stirred by its deep currents. Putting to work poetry and gospel, side by side with story and Celtic spirituality, O Tuama explores ideas of shelter along life’s journey, opening up gentle ways of living well in a troubled world. The reader can’t help but be drawn in, slip-sliding into the harbor of the author’s soulful words.
Copyright © 2015, Chicago Tribune

A version of this article appeared in print on November 29, 2015, in the Printers Row section of the Chicago Tribune with the headline “Food for the soul – Poetry and profundity in these true gifts”