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Category: books

the illuminating work of the modern-day manuscript

IMG_0011on the eve of the night before she died, she asked me to write her obituary. and then, a month later, after her brother had read her will, she tapped me on the shoulder (or he did for her, literally, in a jam-packed cafe after her memorial, when he came up from behind, leaned in and whispered the question that made my knees go weak); she asked me to be the custodian, the caretaker, of her creative work.

to peel back the tape from a dozen or so boxes and crates, to lift from layers of dust, old essays, typed and stapled, some typewritten the old-fashioned way, others spewed out from every iteration of computing in the late-20th century. another four years of 21st-century essays, dustlessly tucked away inside her sleek hulk of a computer, one that would be boxed and moved and plugged in at my house, where for weeks i couldn’t bear to click open folders, never knowing if i’d find cold, hard diagnostic reports, chemo spreadsheets, or an essay that would rip my heart out.

my job was to sift and sort, read and re-read, move from pile “yes!” to pile “maybe?” to chisel away at the stack till what was left were those words, those essays that could not, should not, be left to crumble into paper flakes, the ink fading by the year, passwords lost and irretrievable.

but, more than anything, to be the caretaker — to be asked in someone’s last will and testament, for heaven’s sake, not just some passing rumination — is to take to heart the work of seeking light. of lifting up what amounts to someone’s heart and soul and inextinguishable brilliance, and offering it sacramentally to the world, believing wholly that it will find its way to every pair of eyes, to every thirsty soul, to every pathfinder who cannot find her or his way. especially, in this case, anyone who happens to be searching for a path through the tangled woods of cancer, a path my friend mary ellen knew too well. and took on like no one i’ve ever known.

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admittedly, my drop caps are not quite so frilly…

it’s been three years, with fits and starts, and sudden rushes of momentum. i’m riding a tail wind right now, have been deep in teaching myself the ways of self-publishing. yesterday laid out 71 pages, complete with drop caps (those giant-sized first letters of every essay, a typographic wonder with roots in the illuminated manuscripts of eighth-century British isles, and those bent-over cloistered monks who traced Biblical text with quill of peacock, crow or eagle, and ink from insects, plants, burned bones or bits of gold).

along the way in this modern-day manuscript making, a brilliant friend (formerly a new york times book review editor) was hired as a second pair of eyes in the sorting phase, to add her voice to the hard task of editorial umpiring, calling balls and strikes and the occasional grand slam. a proposal was written, sent to a literary agent and a publisher, both of whom deemed the writing “beautiful” — “smart, reflective, emotionally transparent,” declared the agent — but because publishing in any circumstance is a steep uphill climb, doing so posthumously is even steeper. they pointed us toward doing this on our own: meaning, learning the ways of self-publishing.

in recent weeks, as i puttered about my garden and my life, it began to feel as if my friend mary ellen was traipsing behind me, tap-tapping me on the shoulder once again, getting antsy (as might have been her way), wondering what the heck the bottleneck was all about. and if i’ve learned anything in my decades here on earth, you do not — repeat, not! — ignore the sotto voce whispers of one you’ve loved, now keeping watch from wherever it is those whispers come.

so i got to work. and we’re ready to grab our ISBN (the 13-digit numeric monogram that makes a book a book, gets it entered into the library of congress, for crying out loud; next best thing to tying it up with a frilly bow, baking it a cake).

if writing is holy work, and for some of us it is, burrowing deep inside the wisdoms and epiphanies of someone wise and wiser as her death drew near is among the holiest. and the most blessed. i am blanketed inside the skeins of her sentences. i punctuate paragraph after paragraph with my tears. i hear her voice so loudly, so emphatically, and yet more gently than i’ve ever heard before, i wouldn’t be surprised if she tapped me in a dream, whispered blessings for bringing her holy work across the finish line.

it’s what she dreamed. it’s what she asked. and it’s a task carried not on our shoulders, but in our twinned hearts. where the magic is this: along the way it can sometimes feel impossible, and too heavy a load. but sticking with it — be it this book, or any seemingly unbearable assignment — forgiving the lulls and sabbaticals, carrying it into the light, just might make it the most essential work in a long long while, love’s true labor.

mary ellen, any day now you’ll have your ISBN. and your name forever gracing the cover. and someone, some day, will pull you from the shelf, and your words will be inscribed in countless hearts. which is what you set your sights on from the very beginning…

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Mary Ellen Sullivan, author of “On the Wings of the Hummingbird: An Invitation to Intentional Joy,” ISBN coming soon. (photos courtesy of Maureen Butler)

have you considered the holiness of the daily work you do? what moments in particular seem shot through with something a bit bigger than the moment at hand? and how might your daily tasks illuminate this too-dark world?

and so we wait…

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down where the earthworms stir, there must be stirring. all the science books say so. but from here, at my kitchen window, it takes some convincing to buy into the notion that this here is springtime.

i know the calendar says so. i know sun and planet earth did their vernal doh-si-doh, as big ol’ sun inched its way north across the equator at 4:58 p.m. (chicago time) day before last, and suddenly spring had sprung. but round here, there’s not much springing to be spied. we’re in the crouch-down-low days of earliest spring, when your knees have to get in on the act if you really want to catch mama earth in her opening numbers.

the surest sign that earth is a rumbling is what’s happening up in the trees. and i don’t mean the leaves. i mean the cardinals, flitting and chasing and carrying on like red-feathered banshees. males chasing males. aerial cartwheels. rabid games of catch-me-if-you-can. male and female flirting like nobody’s business. pheromones must be filling the air. the occasional female butting in on somebody else’s romance. (oh, the vociferous protest!) it would be safe to assume baby cardinals — flocks and flocks of them — will soon offer proof of unseen ornithological joinery.

me, i’m just stationed here at my old maple table, filling my hours with words — birdsong as backdrop. my lifework seems to have settled into the sedentary task of reading and writing. my eyes and six of my fingers seem to be the only moving parts of me many a day. my brain, though, and my soul and my heart, they’re all deeply engaged. it’s just that, from the outside, you can’t see them expanding. sort of like the hard work of mama earth in springtime. sort of like what’s happening down where the earthworms wriggle. (or start to think about wriggling, anyway.)

the stacks by my side seem to grow taller and taller. occasionally teeter. if i’m not careful i’m going to turn into a hoarder. a hoarder of big ideas and snippets of poetry. not a bad affliction. this week alone i welcomed these fine friends to my flock: the late essayist and editor brian doyle (a book of uncommon prayer: 100 celebrations of the miracle & muddle of the ordinary and god is love: essays from portland magazine); historian and storyteller extraordinaire jill lepore (these truths: a history of the united states; brilliant!); diarist etty hillesum (considered the adult counterpart to anne frank, her diary and letters, written during the darkest years of nazi occupation, testify to the possibility of compassion in the face of devastation, and the combined work —  diary and letters bound in a single volume — is titled an interrupted life: the diaries, 1941-1943 and letters from westerbork); two jewish books of blessings called “benchers,” prayers and songs in hebrew and english (for a class i’m teaching). and finally, and emphatically, mary oliver’s long life: essays and other writings. in the wake of her death, i have found myself reaching back into her bookshelf, finding titles i’d not known before. long life is a beauty, one from which i scribble and scribble, taking notes like a chimney — a poetry chimney — puffing up bellows of something like holy incense.

here are just a few bits i couldn’t help but add to my Mary O. litany:

30. “What can we do about God, who makes then breaks every god-forsaken, beautiful day?” — Long Life, p. 17 

31. “I walk in the world to love it.” — Long Life, p. 40

32. “All the eighth notes Mozart didn’t have time to use before he entered the cloudburst, he gave to the wren.” — Long Life, p. 88 

and then there are these two longer passages, which i tucked into my ever-growing file, titled “book of nature notes”:

“This I knew, as I grew from simple delight toward thought and into conviction: such beauty as the earth offers must hold great meaning. So I began to consider the world as emblematic as well as real, and saw that it was—that shining word—virtuous. That it offers us, as surely as the wheat and the lilies grow, the dream of virtue.

“I think of this every day. I think of it when I meet the turtle with his patient green face, or hear the hawk’s tin-tongued skittering cry, or watch the otters at play in the pond….” (Long Life, p. 87) 

“A certain lucent correspondence has served me, all my life, in the ongoing search for my deepest thoughts and feelings. It is the relationship of my own mind to landscape, to the physical world — especially to that part of it with which, over the years, I have (and not casually) become intimate….  

“Opulent and ornate world, because at its root, and its axis, and its ocean bed, it swings through the universe quietly and certainly. … And it is the theater of the spiritual; it is the multiform utterly obedient to a mystery.

“And here I build a platform, and live upon it, and think my thoughts, and aim high. To rise, I must have a  field to rise from. To deepen, I must have a bedrock from which to descend.…  

“It is the intimate, never the general, that is teacherly. The idea of love is not love. The idea of ocean is neither salt nor sand; the face of the seal cannot rise from the idea to stare at you, to astound your heart. Time must grow thick and merry with incident, before thought can begin.

“It is one of the perils of our so-called civilized age that we do not yet acknowledge enough, or cherish enough, this connection between soul and landscape — between our own best possibilities, and the view from our own windows. We need the world as much as it needs us, and we need it in privacy, intimacy, and surety. We need the field from which the lark rises — bird that is more than itself, that is the voice of the universe: vigorous, godly joy.”  (Long Life, pp. 89-91)

and thus, my dispatch from the muck days of spring….

what’s expanding your soul this week?

book of delights, indeed

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there’s a little book in my stack of books to read, and it’s titled quite honestly, without the usual hyperboles and obscurities that sometimes find their way into titles. the book of delights: essays is its name. unadorned. not hiding its purpose. in most anyone else’s hands it might be too saccharine by doubles. but it’s in the hands of ross gay. and he’s a poet, and someone i wish i could spend a long afternoon with. or a semester. in one of the classes he teaches at indiana university.

IMG_1332professor gay might be one of the most ebullient hearts i’ve read in a very long time. in true poet fashion he sees what most miss. he writes longhand in pen (he tells us, in a line i underlined, that susan sontag once said somewhere something about how “any technology that slows us down in our writing rather than speeding us up is the one we ought to use”), and, pen in hand, he notices everything from a church marquee to his predilection for licking driblets of coffee off the edge of his cup. somehow, deep in the landscape of each and every something he notices, he finds room to wend to a place that explodes into joy, or take-your-breath-away revelation about the quirks of being human.

the book of delights is a collection of one-a-day “essayettes,” anywhere from a paragraph to five pages, written from one august-first birthday to the next. professor gay tells us that one delightful day in the month of july a couple years back he decided to write a daily essay about something delightful. he wrote 102. his book (published this month from algonquin) has been called “a joy explosion.” that, from lidia yuknavitch, author of the misfit’s manifesto, no less.

before i pluck out a few things that shimmered for me — and hopefully for you — you should know a few things about the poet-professor. mostly this (at least for now): one of his collections of poetry, catalog of unabashed gratitude, (2015) was the winner of the national book critics circle award, and a finalist for the national book award in poetry in 2015. in his day job, he’s the director of creative writing at indiana. oh, to be a student in bloomington. oh, and he’s a gardener, plucks plenty of wisdoms in the patch of earth he tends.

in fact, catalog of unabashed gratitude has been described as “a sustained meditation on that which goes away—loved ones, the seasons, the earth as we know it—that tries to find solace in the processes of the garden and the orchard. that is, this is a book that studies the wisdom of the garden and orchard, those places where all—death, sorrow, loss—is converted into what might, with patience, nourish us.” (i’ve already added it to my reading list…)

but here’s the passage from book of delights i wanted to bring to the table today, because in a world sodden with sorrows, every shimmering shard of gentle goodness is a necessary daily multivitamin for me.

listen to this from an essay titled, “the sanctity of trains” (and then we’ll consider it):

I suppose I could spend time theorizing how it is that people are not bad to each other. But that’s really not the point. The point is that in almost every instance of our social lives, we are, if we pay attention, in the midst of an almost constant, if subtle, caretaking – holding doors open, offering elbows at crosswalks, letting someone else go first, helping with the heavy bags, reaching what’s too high or what’s been dropped, pulling someone back to their feet, stopping at the car wreck – at the struck dog, the alternating merge, also known as the zipper. This caretaking is our default mode, and it’s always a lie that convinces us to act or believe otherwise – always.

“an almost constant, if subtle, caretaking….”

“this caretaking is our default mode, and it’s always a lie that convinces us to act or believe otherwise — always.”

that stopped me in my tracks — both of those bursting-out truths. made me begin an inventory of caretaking, one worth making a communal effort.

caretaking:

–how my husband literally never fails to say thank you for dinner. even if all i did was slurp into a pot a tupperware vat of leftover chicken noodle soup that my beloved down-the-alley neighbor sarah left on our doorstep.

–how my cross-the-street neighbor ran out in the ice and cold to hand-deliver half a box of  “ugly” produce — all organic, but too bumped-up to be sold at the store or something. coulda fooled me. those sweet potatoes and zucchini — on a cold winter’s day — were perfect to me.

–how the lady in the parking lot let me go first. how the whole line at the checkout stepped aside to let the woman, clearly in a hurry, with an armload of stuff, go ahead of all of us.

–how my mom shuffles up the walk every tuesday with her blue plastic cooler filled with zip-lock bags of ingredients (a cup of rice, an already-chopped onion) and various cans and a package of meat. because tuesdays have been grammy tuesday for the last 26 years (the night she cooks for us, sits down to eat with us), and she can’t imagine a week without tuesdays.

what ross gay is getting at, though, are the nearly invisible caretakings, the ones hardwired, perhaps, into our DNA. the ones that sometimes rise up into heroic proportion — make us run into the street if someone’s been hurt, or we’ve heard a loud thud or a crash. but more often than not, they’re the gentle empathies — the instinctive “otherness” — that propels us to not always and only be out for ourselves. they’re the random acts of kindness that, collectively, quietly, weave heart into the fabric of the nitty-gritty everyday.

and they matter. more than we often realize.

because ross gay made me pause to consider the nearly invisible art of taking care of each other — strangers, and friends, and dearly loved ones, besides — i’m going to keep watch. and work a little bit harder to do my fair share.

what caretakings have caught you unaware, and melted your heart for even one nearly invisible moment?

keeping company with waldo & friends

by the hour, i sit behind my wall of books, reaching from merton to thoreau to emerson, deeper and deeper into the folds of wisdom. it all started because of merton, aka brother louis. or maybe it all started because of mary O. or maybe it all started because of my mother.

my mama, who goes to mass every day of her life (a week ago, during the depth of the polar vortex, i called, and she was in her armchair at 8 o’clock sharp, watching mass on the telly. i shouldn’t have been surprised, and i wasn’t; but i melted a bit at her devotion), she must have been my first rabbi (rabbi in hebrew translates to “master,” or “teacher”).

she’s the one who woke me each morning, flinging the blinds, warbling lines from browning or dickinson — “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world” (browning, song from “pippa passes”); “some keep the sabbath going to church — / i keep it, staying at home — / with a bobolink for a chorister — ” (dickinson, 236).

she’s the one whose home movies always drifted away from the faces of her five cherubic children to the iridescent-blue indigo bunting, or the neon-red scarlet tanager darting in the boughs over our heads. some 60 years ago, when in a single day a realtor toured her through half a dozen lovely houses along chicago’s north shore, she bought the one with the most trees. and the creek gurgling in the woods across the street, and the green pond where the frogs croaked and the turtles sunbathed on logs, and the country club directly across the way, with its wide-open vista, promising her a lifetime of sunsets.

she must have been the one who first planted the seed. the seed that has grown and grown. the seed that now is a towering, undeniable, inescapable force, the one that draws me into the woods, under the star-stitched dome of midnight or dawn, the seed that draws me to windows where i can keep watch — on the birds, on the wind, on whatever is falling from heaven.

turns out i am hardly alone in this congregation of woods-goers. i’ve been hot on the trail of something called the Book of Nature, a text i’d never known by name, though i’ve been reading it since before i learned to assemble alphabet letters into words that came with particular sounds and meanings. i’d first learned of it — by name — when a rabbi i was talking to on the radio a few years back said of my first book, slowing time, “it’s midrash to the Book of Nature.” (midrash is defined as ancient commentary, often rabbinic, on Hebrew Scripture; it makes connection between text and lived reality, so says my all-things-jewish dictionary.)

hmm. i’d never known that a girl with a confirmation name, and a patron saint besides, could put a pen to midrash. but my main intrigue centered on this Book of Nature, a title i certainly wanted to get my hot little hands on.

over time, and through the years since, i’ve burrowed deeper and deeper into this ancient wisdom. there’s a whole theology that centers on the notion that the Book of Nature, unfurled at Creation, is God’s first holy text. (called the Two Book Theology, it’s the belief that God is revealed through a pair of complementary sources: the Books of Scripture and Nature; Genesis followed by Word.) this first text even has a latin name, librum naturae, and it traces through the millennia, an idea explored by the ancient “church fathers,” among them augustine of hippo, origen of alexandria, galileo, on through martin luther, emily dickinson, clear to merton’s gethsemani doorstep and mary oliver’s walks through the cape cod woods.

a fellow by the name of sir thomas browne, clear back in the 17th-century, aptly wrote: “there are two books from whence i collect my divinity: besides that written one of God, another of his servant, Nature, that universal and public manuscript that lies expansed unto the eyes of all.”

just a few years ago, pope francis wrote: “God has written a precious book, ‘whose letters are the multitude of created things present in the universe.'” and before him, pope john paul declared: “the visible world is like a map pointing to heaven… we learn to see the Creator by contemplating the beauty of his creatures.

all i knew was that i love nothing more than to stand, stone still, under the night sky, drinking in the moon and the glowing orbs of heaven. or to sit burrowed in sand and stiletto-sharp dune grasses along the shore, counting out the undulations of the lake’s watery pulses. or to marvel at the mama bird dutifully and vigilantly building her nest, one shriveled stick or grass or ribbon at a time.

i knew and know that i feel the hand of God there. feel the telltale tingle up my spine. i know God’s nearby when i catch the goosebumps breaking out along my arms and my thighs.

so, acolyte to Wisdom, i follow the trail deep into the pages where wisdom is recorded, where it’s spelled out in words that hold me like a vice, or would it be as a spelunker? this week found me in the Transcendentalists: first thoreau, then the master, r.w. emerson, who i learned preferred to go by his middle name, waldo. (henceforth, waldo it is.)

i’ll begin though with a few notes drawn from thoreau, first from richard higgins’ thoreau and the language of trees:

…The winter woods, especially, were a spirit land to Thoreau, a place for contemplation. He walked them alert to the mystical, more as supplicant than naturalist….All its motions… must be “circulations of God.”

and from thoreau himself: “if by watching all day and all night i may detect some trace of the Ineffable, then will it not be worth the while to watch?”

or: “my profession is to be always on the alert to find God in nature.”

maple trees, thoreau called “cheap preachers,” whose “century-and-a-half sermons” minister to generations. 

at his funeral, thoreau’s friend and teacher emerson said that despite thoreau’s “petulance” toward churches, he was “a person of a rare, tender, and absolute religion.” 

which drew me straight to emerson, absorbed for days in his signature essay, Nature. and these are but some of the notes i scribbled into my notebook:

Chapter IV Language:

Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact. Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour, and is not reminded of the flux of all things? Throw a stone into the stream, and the circles that propagate themselves are the beautiful type of all influence.

A life in harmony with nature, the love of truth and of virtue, will purge the eyes to understand her text. By degrees we may come to know the primitive sense of the permanent objects of nature, so that the world shall be to us an open book, and every form significant of its hidden life and final cause.

Chapter VII Spirit: 

[Nature] always speaks of Spirit. It suggests the absolute. It is a perpetual effect. It is a great shadow pointing always to the sun behind us. The aspect of nature is devout. Like the figure of Jesus, she stands with bended head, and hands folded upon the breast. The happiest man is he who learns from nature the lesson of worship. 

…the noblest ministry of nature is to stand as the apparition of God. It is the organ through which the universal spirit speaks to the individual, and strives to lead back the individual to it.

…Is not the landscape, every glimpse of which hath a grandeur, a face of him?

Chapter VIII: Prospects

The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.

no wonder mary oliver called herself a student, first and most, of emerson, who taught her — and us — that “the heart’s spiritual awakening” is “the true work of our lives.”

and with that i leave you to your own musings on the true work of our lives, the Book of Nature, and its most brilliant disciples and diviners….

who are your wisdom teachers, from the pages of the Book of Nature, or otherwise?

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one stack among many

piles and piles of books…

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books around here are slip-sliding into puddles. books are piled on bedside tables, and teetering at the edge of my old pine writing desk. books shove me out of chairs. and books sometimes line the stairs. books come into this old house all on their own. and sometimes, because i shlep them. my little book-lined writing room is becoming my book-stacked obstacle course. can you hop the pile? can you slither through the gulch, the one between two (or three or four) gravity-defying stacks?

i came home from the smoky mountains with but one genre of souvenir: books, and more books. books that all week have called me to the wicker chairs out back. books whose stories hold me from one reading interlude to the next. and then, of course, there are the books for work. lots and lots of books for work. some, i discard right away (voodoo dolls and crystal balls on covers). some i wade a few chapters in before gently laying aside. but every month, on assignment, i find three who shimmy to the top. they’re the ones i round up and claim satisfying soulful reads.

before we get to the latest round of tribune-anointed books, here are a few that might be among the best i’ve read in years:

donald hall’s a carnival of losses: notes nearing ninety.

hall, once the poet laureate of this fine nation, died a few weeks back, but not before his last — perhaps best — collection of essays was published. every single one of these is a gem, a specimen worth study. as the impeccable ann patchett puts it: “donald hall writes about love and loss and art and home in a manner so essential and direct it’s as if he’s put the full force of his life on the page. there are very few perfect books, and a carnival of losses is one of them.”

once upon a time, i sat in donald hall’s living room, at his farm in new hampshire. those hours grow more and more radiant across the distance.

eveningland: stories, by michael knight.

michael knight, a southern writer whose native and literary landscape is mobile, alabama, and who has been likened to o. henry and called “the anton chekhov of mobile bay,” is a writer i’d not known before i took a seat in the old hall at sewanee. from the first sentence, i was glued. reading an untitled story about a father and his son (one i had reason to think might be autobiographical) he couldn’t make it through without pausing to brush away and apologize for tears. that’s enough to make me love a writer. and when we bumped into him the next afternoon (along a leafy shaded path en route to the bookstore), he apologized again, though we insisted it made his reading all the more beautiful. his eveningland traces a few characters who weave in and out of stories, across the arc of life. each one is achingly wrought. and unforgettable.

and, here, because i forgot to post it a few weeks ago when it ran, is the latest roundup of books for the soul, as published in the chicago tribune.

“Faith” by Jimmy Carter, Simon & Schuster, 192 pages, $25.99

As the early pages of Jimmy Carter’s “Faith: A Journey for All” unspool, it doesn’t take long to get lulled into the front-porch-rocking-chair rhythms and cadences of small-town Southern gentility that is Plains, Ga., circa 1930. It’s easy to forget that you’re not just reading the reflections of a gentleman farmer with his mules and peanut crops, but in fact the remembrances of a Nobel Peace Prize-winning president of the United States.

Carter begins this bedrock retracing of a life of faith by recounting, in down-to-earth vernacular, a boyhood steeped in Sunday school and church suppers, in farm work and field play with the African-American farm kids next door. Yet in the next sentence, the 39th American president is reaching for his mainstay philosopher, Reinhold Niebuhr, then quoting activist, preacher and friend William Sloane Coffin, just as seamlessly as he draws from the writings of theologian and Nazi-resistor Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

But it’s in quoting Carter’s own works — a 1978 speech to his fellow Southern Baptists, for instance — that the former president inspires most unforgettably (and his words, against the backdrop of the summer of 2018, rise up piercingly):

“A country will have authority and influence because of moral factors, not its military strength; because it can be humble and not blatant and arrogant; because our people and our country want to serve others and not dominate others. And a nation without morality will soon lose its influence around the world.”

Carter’s book is necessary tonic — and prescriptive — for these fraught times.

“Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor” by Yossi Klein Halevi, Harper, 224 pages, $24.99

The inside flap of the book jacket states that “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor” is “lyrical and evocative,” claiming it’s “one Israeli’s powerful attempt to reach beyond the wall that separates Israelis and Palestinians.” It is that, all that; and for that, there is little argument.

The argument of critics, though, is that the series of 10 letters addressed to an imagined Palestinian, all written by Yossi Klein Halevi — a senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, where he co-directs the Muslim Leadership Initiative — boils down to a one-sided correspondence.

That’s the pushback from left-leaning rabbis and thinkers who argue that writing to an unknown, unnamed neighbor, with no give and take, no wrestling of ideas and perspectives, is to leave out the essential other voice in a much-needed debate. (Halevi offers the book in Arabic translation for free download and openly invites Palestinian response; he calls this book the sequel to his earlier “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden,” a search for holiness — and understanding — among Palestinian Muslims and Christians.)

Halevi, an American-born emigre to Israel, writes with a profound and palpable empathy. “We are intruders in each other’s dreams, violators of each other’s sense of home,” he laments. His keen observations — deeply human in scale — ache with a longing to reach across “the wall between us,” to make peace, to find a two-state solution.

This epistolary approach evokes a measure of intimacy and illuminates the undeniable complexities of the Israeli history, across the millennia. With one half of the conversation laid out for all to read, the lingering hope is that there comes from Palestine the voice not heard in these pages.

“On the Brink of Everything” by Parker J. Palmer, Berrett-Koehler, 240 pages, $19.95

Parker J. Palmer — writer, speaker, activist, community organizer, and one who claims “Quakerish tendencies” — has long earned the title of trusted spiritual guide. Now 79, he takes on the mantle of cherished elder.

His newest book, “On the Brink of Everything,” might be called a meditation on aging, but it’s more than that. In his first sentence, Palmer writes, “We grow old and die in the same way we’ve lived.” This is in fact a meditation on living, as we move toward “the brink of everything,” the precipice at the far end of our lives, “a window into heaven,” as he puts it.

Through two dozen essays, a dozen poems and three songs (sung by Parker’s great friend, the soulful folk singer Carrie Newcomer and available for free download at NewcomerPalmer.com), Palmer reminds us not only that aging shouldn’t be feared, but rather that it stands to clarify our vision and deepens our capacity for knowing. Quoting one of Kurt Vonnegut’s characters in “Player Piano,” he reminds, “out on the edge you can see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.”

Palmer, then, places us squarely on that edge and points us toward all those truths we’d be wise to see — and to make our own.

Barbara Mahany’s latest book,“The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” was published in April.

Twitter @BarbaraMahany

armchairbooks

what are you reading this summer?

the little book wings its way home…

Blessings of Motherprayer

i admit to a particular fondness. soon as i held the sweet little thing in the palms of my hands, i felt a tug at my heart. i should have known it was coming, for i’d felt a rising affection, a weaving into the nooks and crannies of my heart, over the long slow summer.

soon as i spied the fat manila envelope on the front step the other evening, soon as i’d snipped the blades of the scissor through the envelope’s corner, and pulled back the padding, soon as i dumped it onto the counter, and lifted it ever so gently, i felt that rush of newborn awe that oddly might be something akin to the way willy wonka must have felt when the first everlasting gobstopper came spitting out of the chutes and the tubes and the silvery pipes of wonka’s crazy-candy-concocting machine. only i’d spooned in words, lots and lots of words, 219 pages of words, and with little more than 10 months wait, and a bit of hocus pocus, out came a little book. a little book with yet another nest and a robin’s blue egg.

it’s called the blessings of motherprayer: sacred whispers of mothering, and in the vernacular of the publishing world, it’s called “a gift book,” a word whose meaning i had little understanding of back in may when i first got the call from my editor, not long after the birthing of motherprayer: lessons in loving, that collection of motherly essays plucked from the front lines here on the homefront.

not knowing quite what a gift book might be — is it a book with a ribbon tied in a bow? — i did what any scrambling writer might do: i made it up as i noodled along.

what i knew mostly boiled down to this: it would be part-motherprayer, part-brand-new, and it would be pretty.

i gathered that the gist of this idea is to pull out a few glimmering threads, the parts that might jingle around in your brain or your heart for more than a few minutes or three after you turn to a page. i also gathered — because i’d heard so from plenty of most blessed readers — that a snippet here, a snippet there, is a marvelous way to read a particular sort of book (the sort that, so far, my books tend to be).

so i set out to make a patchwork of bits that i loved, bits that might nestle into those places of the heart that come alive with just the right care and attention. and because i realized there’d never been “a gift book” for slowing time, my first collection of see-the-sacred essays, i decided to do a good bit of plucking from its pages, too. and then, for good measure, i combed through a year or two of writing that hadn’t yet been pressed into anyone’s pages. essays and thoughts scribbled during the long aching months when two beloved friends were dying, when the words they spoke shook me through and through, and in which i was blessed to carry their words from their lips, or their texts and their emails, to the page, where now they will live on forever.

i’ve never been a quilt maker, though my great grandmama was a fine one, not so much for the art as for the pragmatics of keeping folks warm, and doing so with bits and scraps of old pretty-patterned cloth. i grew up with those patchwork triangles and squares pulled up to my nose every night as i dreamed. so maybe that’s why i find such joy — three generations later — making patchworks of words, sewing blocks of type into pages of books.

this was my third summer doing so, and with the screen door inviting in the breeze and the birdsong, i sat for hours and hours at the old kitchen table, thinking and snipping and stitching.

big litte booksand somehow along the way, this little book — for it is a little thing, just big enough to tuck in your purse or your backpack, or perhaps the pocket of your snuggliest coat — wormed its way into my heart. i pulled out parts and pages and paragraphs i’d loved the first time around. i stuffed in ones that never fail to put a lump in my throat, or even to brush away a tear.

it’s tender and quiet and full of my heart.

and, by jove, it’s pretty (all thanks to the wizardry of the book-making wizards at abingdon press).

here’s a recipe page: springtime kitchen

and here is a page with a wonderlist (left) and count-your-blessings calendar (right):

wonderlist count-your-blessings

i’m rather too shy for the part of the publishing equation that’s next on the docket: the peddling part, where i need to ferry this little book into the world, and ask if you’d like to add it to your bookshelf (or bedside table). so for now, i’ll simply say you should be able to find it — or request it — at your favorite bookseller’s shop. or, on that behemoth of book peddling, amazon, where you can let your fingers do the clicking. (egad! i just clicked over there and saw that already, somehow, since it’s not out yet, it’s gotten two reviews, one good, one not-so-good, and the not-so-good seems to dislike my version of prayer, which is more conversational, less liturgical than some desire, and my wonderment with the stirrings of earth and sky seems to rub the reader* the very wrong way (too flowery, though i’ll admit the sentence cited in the review is a bit over-the-top, and one i wished i’d nipped and tucked). a few years ago, in a slowing time review, one amazon reviewer labeled me “pagan,” for my reverence for sun, moon, and stars, which i see purely as the artistry of the sure hand of God.) (and now you see, perhaps, why this book-writing business is a tough one for the tender of heart.)

while my typing fingers are now trembling, i’d best sign off from this adventure in friday-morning writing. i’ll go gulp a stiff mouthful of coffee and meander through my now-thawing garden.

the little book will be officially birthed on april 3. i might go hide under my patchwork covers till then……(as you have now witnessed the real-time humiliations and humblings that come with baring your heart and your soul….)

p.s. *amazon has this program called “amazon vine customer reviews” in which they send out, for free, samples of products — books, diapers, headphones, you name it — to a phalanx of volunteer reviewers, who in exchange for the product write a customer review, posted right there on the amazon website. from what i understand there’s little pre-screening about who gets what product (which is how a fellow who gave five stars to a book titled “angry white men” saw fit to give only two stars to “slowing time.” the results, as you might gather, can be brutal). 

what’s your latest work of the heart? and what gives you the gumption to keep going, even when it hurts?

love letter at the end of a chapter

little angel wings

it’s pitch black as i sit here at the old maple table. the softest ping-ping-ping syncopates the ticking toward dawn. it’s the sound of rain dripping from the downspout, a sound we’d nearly forgotten, the long parched days washing out the memory, the garden all but shriveled, each leaf clasped, as if in prayer, awaiting benediction from the heavens in the form of holy blessed rain. it’s the ablution this old world needs, the rinsing away, we can only hope, of all our brokenness and sin. the sin of evil, a dust that’s blown in, caked every surface in fine-grained sediment. we might need a long day’s rain, to rinse us, cleanse us, clear away that which dirties this old and broken world.

but this morning brings with it a swelling-up of love, of gratitude. and that, for me, is the lasting ablution, time after time. i woke up early because last night i came to the close of a months-long chapter, a chapter of being out and about with my little book, motherprayer, the one that gathers up quiet little moments from the landscape of mothering, the one that whispers in no uncertain terms: this is holy work, this mothering. this just might be my life’s deepest calling, this curriculum in loving, sacred instruction like no other i have ever lived and breathed or known.

for months now, i’ve done what writers do when they birth a book to the world. they carry it forth, literally. they amble hither and yon, and say a few things about why in the world they sat down to write those words. it scares me every time. scares me something fierce. but then a holy thing begins to happen: people raise their hands, tell their stories. or come up to me, clasp my arm, my hand, and whisper stories, their stories. or send me notes, ones that break me out in goosebumps or find me wiping away yet another tear. 

last night i came to the end of the last such outing on my calendar, the last one for awhile anyway. and like every other outing that preceded it, it was stitched with moments and stories i’ll not forget. this love letter — a thank you, really — is for each and every someone who’s raised her hand, whispered her story, who’s added verse and stanza to the motherpoem that will not end….

dear you who raised your hand, you who told your story, you who never said a word but brushed away tear after tear,

thank you. i’ll never forget you. i’ll never forget your story.

the one about how you were one of nine, and you’d all but gotten lost in the noise of your old house, so you wandered down the lane, found motherlove in the old lady who lived alone, but who always made time for you. the one (your “other mother,” you called her) who asked what you wanted for dinner, a question you’d never realized existed, a question you’d never before been asked in the house where you were growing up. the one, the other mother, who taught you love in the way she sat across from you, looked you in the eyes, listened to your words. the one whose house you would have stayed at night and day, and sometimes did, because sometimes no one noticed you were missing from your own.

or, just last night, you with your blessed story about how you had only one child, and you were older when she was born, so surprised, really, to find yourself a mother so late in the game. you knew, you said, that roots and wings were what was asked of you. your job, a mother’s job, you said, was roots and wings. and then you said, so unforgettably, how you were really good at roots, really good. but wings, not so much. you struggled with the wings, you said. you struggled so with letting go. you struggled the whole first year she was away at college. and then, her sophomore year, when she regaled you with college stories, you realized, “she’s never coming home.” and so, you said, under cloak of nightfall, sitting in a football stadium, you needlepointed a pair of wings. you sent them off to her, your beautiful daughter (the one who sat beside you, held your arm as you spoke last night, just home from the cancer doctor). you said she called you “in hysterics.” (we think you meant that she was laughing.) what in the world was with the wings, your daughter asked. you said she wondered if maybe you were telling her it was time for her to fly away. you told her, though, that they were wings for you, the mother who was having a hard time coming up with the requisite pair. and she, your daughter, was to hold onto them so that when she flew (not if), she could give them to you, because you were having a really hard time with the wings part of the mama equation, you were the one who’d need help with all this letting go. and your daughter, who is breathtakingly alive and beautiful, she piped in to tell all of us crowded in the room that all these years later, 38 years later, she had those needlepointed wings hanging in her closet, so each morning when she got dressed, she’d remember that her mama gave her wings.

or the stories you’ve whispered to me about grandbabies who nearly died, who at the brink of death got a liver transplant from a baby two beds away in the pediatric ICU, and how you’ve watched your daughter’s motherlove as she stood guard, stood watch, loved beyond measure. or the stories about kids at college who got so sick, so scared, so you name it, you leapt on planes and stayed for days or weeks or months, depending on the reason you leapt in the first place.

or you, the woman who months ago raised your hand to tell me that just that afternoon you’d lamented to your grown and beautiful daughter that you regretted that you’d “never done anything important with [your] life.” and that after listening to all of us talking about motherlove and motherprayer, you’d started to think that maybe, just maybe, you had done something important with your life, mothering those two lovely daughters who were now, in kind, mothering good and gentle children of their own.

bless you.

and i’ll never forget the very first mama who reported back that she was reading motherprayer and — an answer to my prayer — she’d filled the end pages with scribbles all her own, as story after story uncorked for her some tale from her own raising of three boys, stories she’d all but forgotten, but now recalled and recorded vividly.

i know i don’t know all your stories, but i do know you have them, tucked away in your heart. i know that every room i’ve been in these last many months has been brimming with stories, told and untold. there is not a motherer among us who is not a profile in courage, who is not an encyclopedia of loving. it all comes with the job. the holiest job that’s ever landed in my lap, my arms, my heart, my whole.

may motherGod anoint you, bless you, and whisper holy words into your heart: you are living breathing blessing, you motherers of the world. however and wherever and to whomever you ply your love, you are putting flesh and sinew to the gospel. love as you would be loved.

and thank you.

love, bam

i mean it, of course. as trembling as i get before i clutch a podium — as if holding on for dear life — it always erupts in blessing. i open my heart each time i write, and thus i’m endlessly showered in the reciprocal opening of others’ hearts. and i am blessed beyond words. if you’ve not had a chance to raise your hand and tell your own story of motherlove, from any angle, feel free to tell it here. it’s why this old table has so many chairs. we always find room for one more story. who taught you motherlove? what are some of the most powerful lessons you learned, and how? what are the moments when you’ve found it easiest to love beyond the point of exhaustion? and the most challenging? who inspires you? how do you refuel? have you ever considered the motherly capacities of the Divine?

a book for the heart…

cover of Blessings of MP

pssst. you get the first peek. of course….

my definition of heaven: a summer morning, the breeze blowing in through the screen just enough to tickle my bare toes. the chirp of papa cardinal syncopating the click-clack of my typing, as i pull up to the old maple table and weave a word here, a sentence there, taking threads and making whole.

making a book. weaving a book. yes, writing pages and pages, and snippets and bits. but even more — in the case of this sort of book — stuffing in a little treasure here, pausing for a bit of joyfulness there. it’s a crafting that feels something like making a collage, a heart’s collage. snipping bits of beautiful, and figuring out how they most stand a chance of leaping off the page into a blessed someone’s open heart…

my favorite sort of summer — all these years beyond the summers when i’d spend the weeks crafting intricate home-spun cardboard-box dollhouses with my best friend martha — is to spend the weeks plonked at my old maple table “making a book.”

and that is indeed how i’ve spent this summer (when i wasn’t rushing to take my one sweet boy off to law school, or holding my breath while the other one tried out for soccer).

my deadline is september 1. but i turned in my last stash of pages on monday. which means i beat my deadline, i’m breathing again (but only momentarily — i never really breathe till delivery), and since it’s already listed in my publisher’s spring 2018 catalog (which i discovered by accident the other day), i’m letting you in on the not-so secret. and, voila, that’s the cover up above.

the idea was that we’d make something of “a gift book” of motherprayer, pulling a few favorite bits, and adding a dash of this, a dollop of that. i wasn’t quite sure what exactly a gift book meant, so i nodded (if we’d not been on the phone, with several hundred miles between us, my lovely editor might have seen the quizzical tone to my shaking my head up and down slowly, very slowly…) and then i leapt in to try to find my way through to the other side of whatever that meant. along the way, i decided that i was going to pull bits, too, from slowing time, my first book. and i was going to tuck in other bits of words that just might tinkle someone’s heart chimes. and i suppose that’s how it all began to feel like i was making a soulful collage.

or, as i describe it in the opening pages, “this book might read a bit like you’re peeking into my occasional jottings, something of a journal of the heart.”

and i go on to say: “all in all, this is something of a patchwork. a patchwork of joy. of love. of wonderment. and it’s the closest i’ve yet come to field notes on the blessings of motherprayer, fueled and put to flight on the wings of sacred whisper.” (p.s. in the actual book, i do put on my grown-up-alphabet shoes, put away the all-small letters and reach for the “Caps Lock” key on the keyboard. just in case you were worried…)

and what it means is that this is a book especially for all who love in the way a mama loves — and remember, i EMPHATICALLY (see, i can find the caps keys!) believe that the verb, “to mother,” is not is not is not confined to those who’ve birthed a babe, or raised a babe from and by heart, or even spent more than a few consecutive hours chasing a little person round a swing set or plopped on the couch for a string of heart to hearts. the verb to mother is a verb that belongs to all, all who reach down deep, consider what it means to love as you would be loved, who are wise enough and willing enough to move mountains if need be to buffet someone’s oozing broken heart, to provide the words that amount to the roadmap through tight mountain pass, or simply to share soulfully in all the joy stuffed inside some sweet and hungry someone, be it a kid-sized someone or one who’s all grown up.

it’s a book that weaves twin threads — and more. it’s a book intended to kindle the soul, and to ponder the lessons learned along the winding steep-pitched trails of mothering. we need both, those of us who see the holy work in mothering. one is oxygen for the other. and along the way, i wound up deciding that — as with mothering, in which, for the life of you, you could not would not pick a favorite among your children — i’d fallen in love with this book, too.

right now it’s working its way through the book-making wizardry, where all sorts of geniuses grab their polishers and rub it to a glisten. i’m braced for the day when someone pings me to ask if i might take another stab at this or that, or “kill the darling,” a famous newsroom directive that means, “all right, you’ve had your fun typing this sentence that all but does a cartwheel, now kill it because it’s noisy and it’s getting in the way.”

but on this fine morning at the end of blessed august, i’m closing down the month by reporting in on how i’ve most blessedly savored every drop of this one glorious whirl through summertime….

and, too, here’s my latest roundup of books for the soul, in case you care to read about those, too. this month’s lineup includes a jesuit’s wise and courageous words of compassion, dharmas from thich nhat hanh, and prayers from julia cameron.

i’ll keep you posted, but till then have a most glorious last weekend of august.

xoxo, bam

what were the joyful noises you made this summer? what wonderments and serendipities did you stitch into the season not yet over…. 

the sound that soothes

typewriter image

take a listen: typewriter keyboard. tap-tap-tap-ring!

it’s the closest i know to a lullaby. the tap-tap-tap of the typewriter keys, ending every time in a churn and a chime. it’s how i went to sleep nearly every night of my growing-up years. my papa, perched at the kitchen table, his index fingers flying across the keys, a flick of the return arm, the telltale ping, and he was off again, bolting across the very next line.

he wrote, late into the night. i barely ever heard him come up the stairs. my bedtime was infused with words being formed, one sentence strung upon another. whole constructions of idea, unfurled across the page. i heard the whole thing.

my bedroom, just above and tucked at the back of the house, absorbed it all. especially in summer, when the screen door was open, and my window, just above and a smidge to the north, made for acoustic shortcut. every last A-S-D-F-G-H, a melody in pre-tempered steel.

no wonder typewriters soothe me. no wonder the tappity-tap-tap is more than music to my ears; it’s balm to nooks and crannies deep inside.

my papa’s been gone now, 36 years, four months, and 20 days, but i can bring him back, at least in sound, by pounding across a keyboard. oh, to have an old underwood with churn and chime. i make do, i suppose, with apple’s iteration of that soothing sound, the tappity-tap as if in padded slippers, not nearly the decibel of yore, certainly not the grind of how my papa typed. my papa typed in high-grade staccato, in rat-a-tat-tat, with cymbal crash. the whole house shook, i think.

and so this week for me was pure soothe. i too was perched at my old pine table. the one where i too try to build my house of words. where i, like my papa, string letters into words, words into sentence, paragraph into prose, one key at a time.

i was bathed in the lullaby of the alphabet keys. nearest thing, perhaps, to amniotic heart song.

it’s been awhile since a week beckoned with a single assignment: write, and write some more.

i did as instructed. and right away i knew i’d slipped into my old familiar writing groove, the one that comforts me as an old sweater soothes the arms that know it best. the posture that seems to fit me most emphatically is the one when i’m coiled into the keyboard, playing across the keys as if a child’s playground, and i am putting bum to every slide and swing. feeling breeze blow soft against my face. delighting in the pure joy of making words spring to life. prying back the hatch on my heart, and letting all that’s there leap out, and romp.

after days and weeks and months of that other side of writing, the one that pulls you to podiums, or hauls you out in front of crowds, and begs you to put breath to words, to tell the stories behind the pages of a book, i came home this week to the old hard chair that holds me up every time i sit down to write. i came home to days filled with little but the sound of thinking and the tappity-tap of my fingers skipping across the keys.

and that’s when i heard the hum that rises up from deep inside my heart. i am, it seems, most content when wrapped in quiet, when deep in thought, when lollygagging across my laptop swingset.

a writer (or at least this one) is by nature — and job description — one who takes in the world in full alert, and preferably from a lookout station planted firmly at the sidelines, not at center stage. it’s from the margins, the quiet margins, where the art of exploration, of thinking deeply, of taking in the roar and the whisper of the crowd, might best be exercised.

and so i’m home again, here at the quiet keyboard, alone with whatever rises up and spills from that sacred nautilus deep inside.

and to that i whisper a hushed and certain, amen. and thank you.

what sounds soothe you? and where is your most sacred landscape, the one that puts the hum in your heart??

p.s. i got a tad distracted this morning when i tuned into mika and joe, to catch the morning update. i seem to have lost my rhythm, the one that hummed when i awoke. twas a tough choice: take in the news, or type the morning away. i thought i could straddle both. but the revelations from the squawking box, they shook me up a bit (the national enquirer allegedly harassing mika’s teenage daughters, the word that m&j were told by the white house that the impending enquirer story could be spiked if only joe would pick up the phone and apologize to the president).

boxing up the bookshelf

img_8284

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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