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Category: books

boxing up the bookshelf

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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

that one brave thing (an update)…

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illustration by Antony Huchette, for the New York Times Book Review

just a quick middle-of-the-week update from the courage department…

not so very long ago, i wrote here about trying very, very hard to be brave.

these are some of the words that tumbled straight from my truth-telling heart:

i forget sometimes that i can be brave.

i sometimes think the countervailing forces of the world — the ones that whisper to me that i’m not good enough, don’t belong, won’t pass muster — they’ll knock me down. buckle me at the knees.

…i sometimes think of myself as a chicken. a wimp of the first order. i keep watch on folks who look to be brave, and wonder, “how, oh, how do they do that?” here’s a secret: sometimes when i talk to them, when we both unfold our hearts, i find out that they’re just as scared as i am, but they shush away those nasty whispers. or march headlong into them, never minding the awful bluster.

of course i have to remind myself — over and over and over — of that little truth. that the courage to face fears is sometimes simply plugging your ears to the noise, and deciding to hum your own little courage tune.

and just in case, i’ve come up with a back-up plan, or maybe it’s a fortifying plan. it’s modeled off the vitamins of my youth. it’s the one-a-day plan. one brave thing each day. that’s it.

i understand deeply that the trail up the mountainside comes one footstep at a time. no one’s taking giant leaps for womankind. they’re taking normal human strides, one foot in front of the other, and suddenly they’re at a point that’s halfway up. or nearly at the top.

it’s the one-brave-thing plan. i muster as much courage as it takes for one bold move — sending off the email that makes me quiver in my clogs. making the scary phone call before my voice gets caught in my throat. taking five deep breaths then plunging in.

here’s what happened the day i took a deep breath, and mustered all my courage:

Boyhood on a Shelf, April 9, 2017, New York Times Book Review, page 13.

thank you, and thank you, dear mother courage.

i’ll be back, as always, friday morning. it’ll be hushed because, for me, it’s Good Friday, that day of sacred silence from noon till three bells, the hours of the Crucifixion.

delighted to hear if your courage took you to any heights of which you’d only dreamed….

 

Motherprayer: birthed

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a book is born…

it’s just after dawn on a gauzy gray morning. the nubs of springtime are fattening on the branches. a splash of wake-up yellow here, cobalt blue there, as if someone’s dipped into the pots of children’s paints, begun to add zing to the gray and the grayer.

it’s soft outside, the day unfolds gently, as i step beneath the dome of fading stars. i stand still as still can be. i open my heart, unfurl a prayer without end. i’m casting to the breeze, to the morning’s airborne whirl, the whole of my little book. the book my heart insisted i birth.

it’s the deepest work of my mama heart, the one stack of love letters i wanted to leave behind, whenever behind comes along.

it’s a whisper to every motherer everywhere: you do magnificent work, holy work. what you do, day after day after day, long night after long night, year after year, it matters. deeply. you do the work that stands the best hope of healing the wounds and the tatters of this tired old world. the balm — the attention, the love without end — it pours from your heart, if you let it, if you will it. and the world so desperately needs it.

my deepest prayer on my little book’s birthing day is that as its pages are turned, tiny embers of light begin to be sparked, to flicker, to glow, as each and every someone who reads its words begins to unlock a litany of memories, of stories, of beauties, all her or his own.

and may those sparks kindle into flame that lights the way, that reminds you how blessed you are. as frame after frame in your story — your sweet story, your heart-wrenching story — is unspooled, is held up to the incandescence, may you find your heart stirring, remembering, re-living some holy hour. you might be the mother, you might be the one who was mothered. all that matters is that in pausing to pay deepest attention to the heart-work of mothering, you catch a glimpse of how sacred, how vital it is.

that’s my whispered prayer.

may it be so….

here’s an excerpt from Motherprayer, one of its essays, which ran in the Chicago Tribune two Sundays ago. It’s titled “Why We Do It,” something of an anthem to mothering and those who ply its healing, loving arts…

moving toward labor & delivery: the birth of a book

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this is the part of book birthing where, on one hand, you’re finally breathing, but on the other hand, your breath is beginning to quicken, and you remember you’ll soon be in the part where you feel dizzy nearly all the time.

what that means is that “the book” is off at the printers. the jacket cover too. there’s not a single mark on any page left for me to make, to fix, to erase. it’s rolling off the presses as i type. and, any week now, a big cardboard box will kerplop on my front stoop. when i lug it in the house, haul out the scissors, cut the tape and peek inside, i’ll see the one book i wanted to leave behind on this holy earth.

it’s called motherprayer: lessons in loving, and it’s the deepest work — to date — of my living, breathing motherheart.

all along — ever since the moment (a quarter century ago) when i found out a tiny heart beat inside of me — i’ve been taking notes, scribbling down the lessons learned, recounting the hours when i’d run out of answers, couldn’t quite find my way. my teachers, time after blessed time, have been those two sweet boys whose lives unfurl right before my eyes. and, nearly as certainly, the flanks of wise-souled motherers all around me.

more often than not, in hours glorious or sorrowful, when i shook with loneliness or wrapped myself in joy, i turned to the one sure thing i knew might steady me, or at least get me through till daybreak: motherprayer. those murmurations of the heart and soul that sometimes find no words. sometimes spill in time with tears. or even rise in holy hallelujah (so sweet and rare those moments are).

because part of the birthing of a book means you must practice being brave, stepping out into winds that might blow cold, blow harsh, i’m going to take a baby step here, and share with you the press release written by my beloved comrade kelly hughes, the publicist for slowing time, and now for motherprayer.

her words made me cry (i wasn’t the only one, i’m told). which is a holy anointing, indeed. here, for your eyes, before anyone beyond the publisher gets a peek, the official press release for the one book i most deeply wanted to birth.

(you can tell i didn’t write it, because kelly types with caps, something i seem so disinclined to do….)

***

Journalist recounts her “crash course in loving” in new book Motherprayer

Writer Barbara Mahany’s ability to capture the beauty of small moments, honed as a reporter and columnist for the Chicago Tribune, captivated readers of her first book, Slowing Time. Now, she turns her attention to the sacred mysteries of mothering in Motherprayer: Lessons in Loving (Abingdon Press, $18.99 hardcover, April 4, 2017), with a hope to apply these lessons to the world beyond our own familial bubbles.

For Mahany, who has two sons, “motherprayer” captures the essence of what mothers do: a way of loving that becomes prayer beyond words. “Mothering was my crash course in love,” she says, teaching her how to “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. With eyes and ears wide open. Love even when it’s not so easy.”

“No other instruction has so captivated or ignited me,” she writes. “Nor so blessed me.”

Before becoming a journalist, Mahany was a pediatric oncology nurse. “Which means I’d spent a good many years entwined with life and death. Paying attention, asking and pondering sometimes impossible questions. And being left, too often, without the faintest answer.”

“Three threads of me—mother, journalist, once and always a nurse—combined in ways I’d not anticipated,” Mahany says. As she kept watch “on the species I birthed,” she kept field notes, gathered here in the book. The arc begins with her first pregnancy and continues on to the present day, written in real time: on the eve of first grade; the first night her firstborn drove off alone in the family car; while grieving a daughter lost to miscarriage; after a crushing baseball loss that broke a second-grader’s heart. These and other moments are extracted from motherhood “to ask the toughest questions, lay bare essential truths, and seize whatever shards of illumination I might have stumbled upon,” such as:

• “The Most Interesting Things Moms Just Know”: a reflection on mothering as “paying pure attention,” spurred by a question from her youngest son. Kids apparently have no clue that moms “live and breathe to map out his landscape; that as he shovels pasta tubes into his mouth, we are studying his sweet face; no clue that we’re listening intently.”

• Mothering Day: Mahany suggests this as a replacement for Mother’s Day, to honor all who practice mothering: “tender caring, coaxing life, leaving mercy in your wake, the art that knows no gender bounds, that the world needs in mighty thronging masses.”

• Teaching Tenderness: on taking her son out on a worm rescue mission, moving those stranded on the sidewalk after a rain. She instructs her sons in “a curriculum of tenderness toward all things living and even those that aren’t.” Mahany’s boys know their mom to be “on a mission from God, perhaps, to let no winged or multi-limbed thing suffer crushing fate or die in a wad of toilet paper.”

• “The Egg that Wouldn’t Take No for an Answer”: Reflections on a most welcome last-chance baby, “eight pure pounds of Dream Come True, Prayer Answered, birthed against all odds, as I barreled toward 45.”

• Food offerings for heart and soul: “Serving up what amounts to depths of heart, to say in mashed potatoes and Irish butter: I love you dearly, and I’m so sorry I’ve been distracted. The hours of stirring, of simmering, of thinking something through, not whipping it off in the last ten minutes before the hunger sirens screech, doesn’t it all find its way deep down in the deliciousness?”

Mahany is Christian and her husband is Jewish, so her family encounters God in the rituals and idioms of two faith traditions. She writes about this weaving together of traditions in the faith life of her family. Since motherprayer can at times be expressed through food, readers will find recipes “From the Cookery Files” throughout the book, such as “Birthday Mac and Cheese (Or for Any Day When Comfort Is All You Need),” “Height-of-Summer Peach Shortcake,” and “Welcome-Home Brisket.”

“Mothering a child is the most sacred calling of my life,” Mahany writes. “It begs all I am and all I’ve got, and then some. Without prayer—the inside line to angels, saints, and Holy God—I’d not have made it, not even close, to labor and delivery. Nor a single day thereafter.”

let me know what you think. 

love, b.

p.s. you have no idea how much courage it takes to hit the publish button here this morning….

 

epiphany’s eve: the midnight whispers

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legends enchant me. stories passed from generation to generation. stories passed from village to village, hearth to hearth. legends are the stuff of story and wisdom. one part enticement and charm, along with a dollop of take-away.

img_8844and so i found myself enchanted when i tumbled upon a legend i’d not heard before. it popped from the pages of strega nona’s gift, a storybook my faraway forever best friend mailed me this week.

as i learned while turning the pages, the month of december is one filled with feasts, all of which insist on stirrings in the kitchen. it begins with st. nick (dec. 6), flows to santa lucia (dec. 13), then it’s Christmas eve’s feast of the seven fishes (dec. 24), followed swiftly by the midnight feast of Christmas (dec. 25), and new year’s eve’s feast of san silvestro (dec. 31) when red underwear, for unknown reasons, is required (note to self: go shopping).

it seems those italians do not stop: they roll the feasting straight into january, which is where this story picks up. according to strega nona, my new guide to january feasting, the eve of epifiana — that’s epiphany, from the greek, “to appear” — once again finds everyone cooking. but this time it’s for the beasts and birds, the wee scamperers and the lumbering furry fellows.

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“there was a legend that at midnight on the eve of epiphany all the animals could speak to each other. it was because the ox and the donkey kept the baby Jesus warm with their breath in the manger.

“so the villagers wanted to give their animals a feast…”

and that’s all the prompt i needed. (although if you read along, you find the motivation is merely to squelch the chance of midnight gossip among the animals, lest they peg you as a stingy old cheapskate who feeds them not. which i’d say squeezes some of the charm out of the equation.)

for years now, my annual feast for the birds is a ritual of the longest night, the winter solstice. i make suet cakes, string cranberries, heap a mound of seed into the feeders. as darkness blankets the hours, i make certain my flocks are fed, and fed amply.

so now i’ve another excuse. and in honor of the ox and the donkey who bowed down, who warmed the newborn babe with their breath (as exquisite a furnace as i’ve ever imagined), i baked more cakes, melted more suet, stirred in plump raisins and nuts and seeds. i tossed with abandon last night, the eve of today’s epiphany. i filled the old bird bath that now serves as my trough. scattered cakes and crumbs near the french doors, so i could peek at the merriment come morning.

and sure enough. not long after dawn, as i wandered out to refill the terra cotta saucer that serves as my birds’ winter bath, there before me was one big fat mama raccoon, holding a cake in both of her nimble long-fingered fists.

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breakfast, interrupted

she glanced up but didn’t flinch. she seemed not to mind that i was trespassing quite near to her breakfast. nor that i was offering a warm drink besides. (alas, she didn’t mutter a single word, nothing close to a thanks for the chow; so much for the midnight whispers. although she might insist i’d missed the chatter by a good six hours.)

and now i’ve a new excuse for spoiling my herds and my flocks (i like to think of them in masses, as it makes me feel like the shepherd i long to be). there is something deeply comforting in imagining that i’m the guardian of my critters, in hoping they can depend on me to keep their bellies full.

it’s a simple notion indeed. but it charms me to no end, and satisfies the tug to be God’s caretaker of all creatures, great and small and in between. in a world that sometimes leaves me gasping for breath, making a feast for my wild things is balm. especially on a morning when it’s 15 below. and the ‘coon at my door comes knocking.

what are the feasts that prompt you to stir in the kitchen? and is epiphany, the feast of the three kings, or wise fellows, among the ones that stir you?

sometimes it’s called little christmas, and for me it’s a quiet pause, the last inhale of merriment, before we return to so-called “ordinary time.” may your epiphany be filled with quiet and wonder, and a bright star in your night sky.

one last legend, in short form: the italians also celebrate epiphany with the story of befana, a soot-splattered old woman, sometimes called “the christmas witch.” in the version i love best, a few days before baby Jesus was born, the wise men stopped to ask befana for directions to the manger where Mary and Joseph and the newborn babe would be found. she hadn’t a clue, but offered the travelers a room for the night. come morning, the trio invited her to come along, to meet the Christ child. she declined, saying she had too much housework (therein lies the learning that one oughtn’t be waylaid by mopping; you never know what you’ll miss). once the kings had gone on their way, the old lady had a change of heart. covered in soot, cloaked in a deep-black shawl, carrying her broomstick, she set out in search for baby Jesus. to this day, the story goes, she’s still searching. and as she travels from house to house, on epiphany, she leaves behind fruits and sweets for the good children, and coal, onions, and garlic for the ones who are naughty.

merry blessed epiphany.

finding miss rumphius

miss rumphius

“You must do something to make the world more beautiful.”

so instructs miss rumphius, the protagonist of the children’s book that vies for most-blessed on my shelf. close as a children’s book comes to gospel, far as i’m concerned.

miss R title pagemiss rumphius, the great aunt of barbara cooney, the great children’s book writer and illustrator, is little and old when we meet her on the very first page of the very fine book. she lives in a little house overlooking the sea, on an island in maine. but she hadn’t always been old, we are told. she had been young, and she dreamed, and she longed to travel the world. when she was young, she spent her days by her grandpapa’s side in his wood-carving shop, where he chiseled away at great chunks of trees, making them into curly-cues and cherubs and figureheads for the prows of great sailing ships, ships that would criss-cross the seas. and, sometimes, when her grandpapa got too busy to finish his paintings of sailing ships and faraway places, he would let little alice (for that was her name before she was called miss rumphius) pick up his paint brush and “put in the skies” of his paintings. and in the evenings, when she sat on her grandpapa’s lap, curled up for the great and nearly lost art of unspooling stories, she told him she too wanted to sail the world like those ships, and, someday, live beside the sea. her grandpapa said that was all well and good, but there was a third thing she must do: “you must do something to make the world more beautiful.”IMG_7814

i’ll let you read for yourself just what miss rumphius stumbles upon. but i’ll give you a clue: it’s tall and it’s blue (or purple or lilac or pink, the color of sunsets) and it blows in the wind. and it carpets the hillsides. indeed, and no doubt, miss rumphius did just what she was told, she found a way to make the world more beautiful.

and she passed along her instruction to anyone who would listen, and anyone who happens to turn the pages of miss rumphius, the book: “you must do something to make the world more beautiful.”

it’s an instruction that’s ancient and timeless, and new every day.

miss rumphius sprung to mind this week — again and again and again — because i seem to keep stumbling upon her disciples here and there and everywhere. first, my own beloved uncle died, an uncle who, like miss rumphius, circumnavigated the globe, searching always for the beautiful and the rare and the breathtaking. he stitched his life with beauty — and stories — that left us oohing and ahhing, his flock of nieces and nephews. he instructed in short sweet pronouncements: “good things last,” or “when the cookies are passed, take one.” he instructed, most lastingly, in the way he lived: gently, devotedly, with rarest refinement.

miss rumphius sprung to mind again when my summer porch was filled one very fine morning with pewter-haired souls — a poet, a painter, a sculptor, a potter, a writer or two — and we all read words from the page, and it was beautiful, all of it. the poet, in fact, wrote later to say that the “gathering remains fixed in memory like a latter-morning Breughel.” (can you hear me sighing so deeply?)

and miss rumphius sprung to mind when a treasured soul i am blessed to know told me how she has a particular habit of filling her satchel with books, and scattering them to whomever she meets in the criss-crossing trails of her day. she calls them her rose petals, and she strews with abandon: to her seat mates on city buses; to the someones who happen to ride in her very same elevator; to whomever sits by her side in the children’s hospital cafeteria, where she works as a nurse. i told her she’s my miss rumphius, sprung from the pages. she didn’t know who i meant. so i wrote this just now so she — and you — might discover, and might, too, be enchanted.

and you, too, might set out to follow miss rumphius’ most lasting prescription: “do something to make the world more beautiful.”

what will be your beautiful?

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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! 

catching the elusive slipstream and other hints of holiness

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more than once this week, i’ve felt shivers run my spine. more than once this week, i felt myself suspended in some holy sort of hammock. i’ve giggled. and more than once, i’ve wanted to dash to the telephone, to call my blessed friend. and then, stopped cold, i remembered phone lines don’t go to where she is. wherever she is.

my friend died not two weeks ago.

but that didn’t stop me from feeling her as close to me this week as if we were, as we so often were, huddled on the couch, under the buffalo-check blanket that might belong in a horse barn, but kept us warm through many a long winter’s afternoon when, curled up with mugs of tea and bowls of clementines, we coursed across the landscape of our lives, our hearts, our souls.

death when it’s new can be like that. out of the blue you bump into the reality — a cement-block wall, almost — that the someone you want to reach for, the someone you’ve always reached for, isn’t there. it’s as if your mind is playing tricks with you, taunting, teasing, playing hide-and-seek. maybe it’s just me, but i push my imagination as far and deep as it will go, all but see and hear the someone right before my eyes. convince myself one day the phone will ring, and the someone will be there, and at last i’ll hear, “trick’s up. i was only hiding.”

but in moments when i wasn’t playing mind games, when i’ve been going about the business at hand, i’ve suddenly had a certain sense that something, some holy force, had slipped beneath me, inside me, and propelled me or the world around me in inexplicable ways. well, i’ve an explanation, but it defies logic, and laws of physics.

take, for instance, the fact that all summer i’ve been drudgingly tapping keys on my keyboard, slowly uprooting words from deep down underground. i’d type my way to the end of sentences, but really, i was all but lost. form was formless, and all swirled foggily around me. i was trying to find the words, the shape, the essence of some elusive book. i knew what i wanted it to be, but somehow i couldn’t find the path. i’d get distracted, spend long spells away from the keyboard. i started to think nothing would ever come. i thought a bit about my capacities for swirling foam in coffee at the local barista bar. maybe, after all, that was better use of my waking hours.

but then, this week, once again i sat down. opened up a document, one that had no name, and suddenly — slowly at first, but building in speed and force — i’d renamed it “chapter 1.” it’s finished now, and sits waiting on my computer. it’s been followed, swiftly, by chapters 2 and 3, now almost written down to the very last period.

where’d that slipstream come from, i wondered? i didn’t think too hard to pounce upon my answer.

and in another breathtaking moment of serendipity, a fellow i love, a post-college living-in-a-new-city sort of fellow, he was out and about recently, and struck up animated conversation with a lovely lass. they weren’t too deep into conversation before it was revealed that, out of all the souls who inhabit this giant metropolis, they both just happened to share in common a deep love for our beloved friend who had just died. the fellow had known and loved our friend his whole life long, called her his “spiritual godmother”; the lass was one of her devoted students, one of the very few she’d tucked tightly under her wing, imparting the intricacies of her craft even as her cancer spread and spread. the meeting of the two — the fellow and the lass — could not have been more random, impossibly so. and the depth of their first conversation was, apparently, the sort that glimmers on the prairie.

now i can’t claim to be one of those folks who frankly believes that angels have wings and hover over us. but i do believe in souls that never really fade, and i do believe in forces of holiness and miracle. i’ve spent decades trying to figure out just what happens when someone you love dearly dies. what happens after the last breath comes, and stillness fills the room? i promise to let you know when i nail that one. but until then, i’ll side with the folks who believe that holiness is a force of life abundantly present, and animating all the hours of our day. maybe the work to be done is on our side, maybe it’s about opening ourselves through a particular level of prayerfulness, maybe it’s about a soul so porous we’re a filter, a catch basin, for all that’s good and beautiful and buoyant. maybe thinking aloud about all this is the dumbest thing i’ve ever done. or maybe, in putting words to wondering, we might — together — stumble on some truth, some shimmering shard of wonder, of heaven tumbled down to earth.

i can only hope. and pray. and keep watch for the gentle brilliant touch of my beloved slipped-away friend.

as is so often the case, i had no intention to write a word of this. but the words came anyway. so here we are. i’d been thinking that i was so intent on getting back to chapter 3 and 4, i’d just post the latest edition of my chicago tribune roundup of books for the soul. that might have been the safer, wiser bet. or maybe not. a short bit of one of the reviews was cut for space, so i’ll post the link to the latest roundup here, and down below, i’ll include the unedited version of the first review, the glorious, The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible, by Aviyah Kushner, which i loved.

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The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible
By Aviya Kushner, Spiegel & Grau, 272 pages, $27

The highest praise for a book, perhaps, is tucking it into a slot on your bookshelf where you’ll always be able to effortlessly slide it out, lay it across your lap, and soak it up for a minute or a long afternoon’s absorption. The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible, Aviyah Kushner’s poetic and powerful plumbing of both the Hebrew and English translations of the Bible, now rests in just such an easy-to-grab spot in my library.

In a word, it’s brilliant. And beautiful.

Kushner, a poet and journalist who grew up in a Hebrew-speaking home where dinner-hour debate often pivoted on the meaning of the Bible’s original Hebrew text, went off to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop back in the summer of 2002, and found herself in novelist Marilynne Robinson’s class, parsing the Old Testament. Kushner barely recognized the text in English translation.

Therein was launched a trek into language and belief that took Kushner around the globe. She draws on grammarians and lexicographers across the millennia to lay out this roadmap into the depths of sacred text. Not lost is her insistence that much is lost in translation, and even if you’ve no interest in religion, the linguistic excursion here is not to be missed.

Most essentially, Kushner lifts the veil for all of us who don’t know ancient Biblical Hebrew. She pulls us deep inside etymology and history and meaning. And as a Kirkus review so aptly put it, Kushner’s first book is, in the end, “a paean, in a way, to the rigors and frustrations — and ultimate joys — of trying to comprehend the unfathomable.”

how have you brushed up against the holiness of someone you’ve loved, no longer right here among us?

when the morning news brings harper lee

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this old house will be a newspaper house as long as fish wrap is dotted with ink. every morning, seven mornings a week, the first sound that reverberates around here — save for the pre-dawn robins who rev up their vocal cords — is the THWOP! of rolled-up papers plopped onto the front stoop (three separate wads each weekday and saturday, two on sundays). twice a year, when the bill comes due, a bill that topples into the hundreds for all that fish wrap, there’s no discussion. we don’t debate the wisdom of rolling out hard-earned cash for an inflow of ink and paper. because you never know what the news will bring. and we couldn’t live without the possibility of getting lost in sentences that swoop our hearts away. or the joy of flipping through a section and discovering a story we otherwise never would have tumbled upon. or the raw eruption of hot tears spilling on the page, as some account of awfulness carries us miles and miles from where we’re reading, and into dingy corners we’d not know were it not for the newspaper’s insistence on wiping out our ignorance and insouciance.

heck, this old house and half the people in it were practically built on the backs of newsprint. were it not for one chicago tribune’s newsroom, i never would have spied — and uncannily fallen hard for — the lanky fellow who became my lifelong paladin, and the father to our children (the two we call our only “double-bylines”).

still, not every morning brings what this one did; these words from the one spooning oat-y Os into his hungry gullet: “you’re gonna go nuts over this one.” and then he shoved before my eyes the front page of the wall street journal’s friday arts-and-culture section.

“the first chapter of harper lee’s new book,” he mumbled between Os, lest i miss the red-hot scoop, the unparalleled capital-e Exclusive, the biggest leak in publishing in plenty a while, the newspaper’s literary splash four days in advance of tuesday’s worldwide release of what’s being called the reclusive ms. lee’s “new novel.”

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actually, it’s harper lee’s old novel, “go set a watchman,” her first go-around with a manuscript, submitted back in 1957, when she was all of 31, to her new york publisher, j.b. lippincott.

as the book-peddling legend goes, ms. lee’s editor back then found the story “lacking,” and advised that the would-be author instead zero in on the flashback scenes, in what would become the searing tale of scout and dill and jem and atticus finch and boo radley, and racial inequity and empathy played out in small-town maycomb, alabama: “to kill a mockingbird,” the pulitzer-prize winner that went on to be named “the 20th-century’s best novel,” according to a vote taken by the nation’s librarians.

and so, before my first sip of coffee this morning, i was riding the rails with jean louise finch, aka the “scout” of mockingbird fame, as she “watched the last of georgia’s hills recede and the red earth appear, and with it tin-roofed houses set in the middle of swept yards, and in the yards the inevitable verbena grew, surrounded by whitewashed tires.”

i admit to having been among the skeptical when news of this “long-lost discovery” first made headlines. i admit to suspicion when word leaked out that the 89-year-old ms. lee’s not-long-out-of-law-school attorney just happened to find the manuscript tucked away in a safe deposit box, shortly after ms. lee’s 103-year-old sister, lawyer and lifelong protector, alice lee, had died. i worried that the not-altogether-with-it nelle harper lee might have been duped. coerced into publishing something she’d not wanted paraded through the glaring light of day, to say nothing of the folderol and zaniness sure to come after a half-century’s literary silence.

well, i’ve now read every word, every word the wall street journal rolled into print, and i’m here to tell you i’ll be among the ones in line to gobble up the next however many chapters ms. lee has lobbed our way. whoever was that long-ago lippincott editor who found the first-go lacking, i beg to differ. i’d not want to miss the chance to drink in a line like this one: “love whom you will but marry your own kind was a dictum amounting to instinct within her.”

or: “she was a person who, when confronted with an easy way out, always took the hard way. the easy way out of this would be to marry hank and let him labor for her. after a few years, when the children were waist-high, the man would come along whom she should have married in the first place. there would be searchings of hearts, fevers and frets, long looks at each other on the post office steps, and misery for everybody. the hollering and the high-mindedness over, all that would be left would be another shabby little affair a la birmingham country club set, and a self-constructed private gehenna with the latest westinghouse appliances. hank didn’t deserve that.

“no. for the present she would pursue the stony path of spinsterhood.”

dare you not to race out to add your name to the long list at the library, or order up your own copy from your nearest most beloved bookseller.

i for one will be inhaling every line, on the lookout for a passage equal to the one i just might call the greatest american paragraph ever penned, the one that makes my heart roar every time.

for the sheer joy of retyping its every word, here is one walloping passage from atticus finch’s closing argument in his defense of a black man wrongly accused of raping a white girl in the deep south of the 1930s. page 233 in my first perennial classics edition, printed in 2002:

“But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal — there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court. It can be the Supreme Court of the United States or the humblest J.P. court in the land, or this honorable court which you serve. Our courts have their faults, as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal.”

heck, the whole closing argument — from the bottom of page 230, clear through to the fourth to last sentence on 234 — the whole magnificent thing was enough to make me a lifelong believer in the pen of harper lee. and the wall street journal’s gift this morning — slick as it was for the newspaper owned by the same outfit as lee’s new publisher, HarperCollins, to steal first crack at the watchman — twas a mighty fine one.

and an indelible reminder of why i’ll forever be a girl with ink pumping through her veins.

what’s your favorite line, or scene, or passage, from mockingbird? 

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and, for your summer reading’s consideration, here’s how the journal lays out the launch of ms. lee’s latest, under the news headline, “scout comes home”:

“The first chapter of ‘Go Set a Watchman’ introduces Ms. Lee’s beloved character, Scout, as a sexually liberated woman in her twenties, traveling from New York to Alabama to visit her ailing father and weigh a marriage proposal from a childhood friend. It also includes a bombshell about Scout’s brother.”

i’ll let you read for yourself and discover that bombshell…..oh, the joy of a byline we thought we’d never see again, one that bears the name harper lee.

the pages turned…

eric carle page turned

sometimes it’s in the immeasurable glimmer flashing by that we catch notice of the years slipping by.

so it was when i got word that eric carle, he who cut and glued the tissue-paper colors of the first childhood i inhaled by heart, he who wrote the rhymes, and pounded out the rhythms of measured bars of caterpillars and brown bears and grouchy ladybugs who ate the page, he would be among the short list of honorees at my firstborn’s college graduation.

suddenly, i was back in an overstuffed armchair. a navy plaid. one we’d bought when my belly was full and round, one we’d bought — on what for us amounted to a whim — because suddenly i was overtaken with the urge to have a sitting place, a nesting place, for me and my soon-to-be-born. that boy was not a week old before i cradled him in my arms, plopped him on my lap, perched a book before his eyes, and began to turn the page. one ear pressed against his mama’s heartbeat, and through the other ear, his mama’s voice rising and falling in sing-song brown-bear rhythm.

and so it went, through bedtimes and lull times and any time we happened to be curled together on the floor of his room, where a nook carved along the wall cradled all the books of childhood i had gathered for this and any other child.

suddenly, in my mind’s eye, in that tumble of remembering, i was perched atop my firstborn’s hand-me-down four-poster bed. he was nestled beside me, my long-legged boy in his little boy pajamas. i could see his little hand, dimpled hand, his hand that loved to turn the pages — no pages more so than the ones of eric carle.

every child has their natural-born predilection for a certain page. there must be something about the words, the rhyme, the color, or maybe just the humor deep inside. it’s indecipherable, and unpredictable, just what that book, that page, might be. but in the case of our house, our bookshelf, there was no more-loved page-turner than eric carle’s brown bear.

“brown bear, brown bear,” i can begin to recite. and i can take it — still — clear through to red bird, and yellow duck, and blue horse, and green frog, and purple cat. i stumble on white dog, but pick right up with black sheep, and goldfish, and then, skipping right by teacher and children, crescendo comes: in which, in rat-a-tat retelling, we tick through the whole menagerie of curiously-colored critters.

if i read that book once, i read it three million times. it was in these pages, i’m fairly certain, that my sweet boy learned his yellow from his blue. and for some reason, one that might forever escape me, it’s where i heard him laugh on cue, each time we came to that horse of blue. did he know that horses were not blue? is that what struck him silly?

and here we are, the pages barely touched in years. but when i got the news, the news that mr. carle would be presiding, i tumbled up the stairs to the nook in his little brother’s room where the books now stand, forgotten soldiers, stiff-backed, listing, and i pulled out the trinity of carles — hungry caterpillar, grouchy ladybug, and brown bear — and there, i turned the pages, and there i saw the years-old crinkles on a page that once upon a time must have so excited a little page-turner that he up and scrunched that charming goldfish that swims across two pages.

that the author of the cornerstones of my firstborn’s childhood would, all these years later, be there, in the flesh, at his college graduation, the ceremonial whirl that is the close of college, well, it just put a zap to my heart, and melted me. and washed me over in a sudden measure of just how many years have passed. how many pages have been turned. and made me ask, again and again, how did we get here? how did we get to this brink of college graduation, a moment that shimmered in the far-off distance, an indecipherable mirage that felt miles beyond my reach?

and as is my wont to do, i tick back across time, i hold the celluloid frames up to the light. i study one after another. measured bars all unspooling toward this moment of glory-be, he-made-it. i think of the shadowed hours, the ones when darkness descended, the ones when that blessed child bared his deepest fears and worries. i think of the broken hours, when a dream slipped just beyond his fingers’ reach. i think of the occasional glory, when that beautiful boy felt invincible and whole and understood just why it was he was planted on this holy earth.

and so there is symmetry, full circle, weaving together the beginning and the end of this particular chapter, the chapter called school life (even his little brother announced the other afternoon, as if he’d just put two and two together: “gosh, willie is about to be a real adult!”). the beginning and end here seem to have serendipitously been marked by eric carle, a fellow who found his joy, his purpose, in making shapes of brightly-colored tissue paper, and who wrote the score for a childhood measured out in the joy of turning pages, the delight of stumbling on a page that makes you laugh out loud.

i wonder if i might wiggle my way through the crush of all those college kids, and yank the wise man’s sleeve, and whisper my almighty thanks for the animation he stitched into our long ago just-beginning picture-book days?

red bird carle

who wrote the score of your childhood, or a childhood you’ve been blessed to watch up close? which picture books can you close your eyes and still recite, page by page, word by word?

on this particular morning i am particularly tied to my firstborn, who is about to step into the defense of his thesis, his 180-page page-turner. with all my heart and soul i offer up this morning for his prayers and dreams to come tumbling true….