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where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

Category: books

leftovers . . . (and a few other morsels besides)

the dishes are mostly done––except for a few errant goblets. the cutting board is oiled and tucked away for a well-deserved slumber. the beds at the top of the stairs are finally all full, and certainly rumpled. (a triple delay between newark and o’hare made me wonder if boy No. 1 would ever get home.) along the day, no one got cut, or burned, or splashed with red wine, and other than bellies too full, we escaped without harms.

it was in fact as hilarious and raucous and savorable a day as ever could be––testament to julian of norwich’s promise that all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. (i need to inscribe that on my kitchen wall, as i fret and perseverate and plot and re-plot my time charts and checklists, clocked to the quarter hour.)

my prayer is that your day, too, rolled out without a hitch. or at least no unfixable hitches. i know there were empty chairs, and hollowed hearts to go with them. i know some forsook big birds, and all the fussing. but deep down i hope a trickle of grace and gratitude slipped in through one of the cracks.

while the rest of the world races to the mall, or speed dials black-friday shopping deals on their keypads and phones, i’m taking to the woods, or the simple turning of pages. and i’m leaving just a few morsels here.


poets corner: first up, from ross gay, the bloomington, indiana-based poet whose “catalog of unabashed gratitude” is a fine place to begin:

“And thank you, too. And thanks
for the corduroy couch I have put you on.
Put your feet up. Here’s a light blanket,
a pillow, dear one,
for I can feel this is going to be long.
I can’t stop
my gratitude, which includes, dear reader,
you, for staying here with me,
for moving your lips just so as I speak.
Here is a cup of tea. I have spooned honey into it.”


nature beat: once upon a time in november of 1947, a poet by the name of jack kerouac sat at his mother’s kitchen table in the working-class ‘hood of ozone park in new york city. he’d just coined the term “beat,” (a word in which he saw double meaning, derived from both “beaten-down” but also “beatitude”), and while waiting to see if he might ever get anything published, he unleashed these lines on november’s harsh winds and inked them into his journal (posthumously published as Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac, 1947–1954):

Powerful winds that crack the boughs of November! — and the bright calm sun, untouched by the furies of the earth, abandoning the earth to darkness, and wild forlornness, and night, as men shiver in their coats and hurry home. And then the lights of home glowing in those desolate deeps. There are the stars, though! high and sparkling in a spiritual firmament. We will walk in the windsweeps, gloating in the envelopment of ourselves, seeking the sudden grinning intelligence of humanity below these abysmal beauties. Now the roaring midnight fury and the creaking of our hinges and windows, now the winter, now the understanding of the earth and our being on it: this drama of enigmas and double-depths and sorrows and grave joys, these human things in the elemental vastness of the windblown world.

Jack Kerouac, 1947

storybook corner: i stumbled onto a wonder from nobel-prize winning polish novelist olga tokarczuk the other day, a mostly-picture book titled the lost soul. it’s the tenderest story of a man who’s lost his soul, and in the whole book there are only four pages of text (and three of those are barely a few lines long). the story picks up here:

“once upon a time there was a man who worked very hard and very quickly, and who had left his soul behind him long ago.” a paragraph later we find that “during one of his many journeys, the man awoke in the middle of the night in his hotel room and he couldn’t breathe. . .”

he visits a wise, old doctor who tells him: “if someone looked down on us from above, they’d see that the world is full of people running about in a hurry, sweating and very tired, and their lost souls, always left behind, unable to keep up with their owners. the result is great confusion as the souls lose their heads and the people cease to have hearts. the souls know they’ve lost their owners, but most of the people don’t realize that they’ve lost their own souls.”

the wise old doctor’s prescription: “you must find a place of your own, sit there quietly, and wait for your soul.”

and so the man waits. and waits. and waits some more. and with nary another word, we finally see his soul come knocking at the door of a little cottage on the edge of the city, where the man had gone to sit in pure quiet.

and here’s the happy ending: “from then on they lived happily ever after, and john (the man) was very careful not to do anything too fast, so that his soul could always keep up with him. he did another thing too––he buried all his watches and suitcases in the garden. the watches grew into beautiful flowers that looked like bells, in various colors, while the suitcases sprouted into great big pumpkins, which provided john with food through all the peaceful winters that followed.

and may this day in the wake of so much blessing be filled to the brim with the pure joy of savoring –– all without timetables, and stopwatches, and sinks to be scoured.

which will be the first leftover you sink your fork into???

slow birding

A force in us drives us to the untamed. We dream of the wild, not the domestic, for it is wildness that is unknown….It can be a daily need, a desire to connect with the wind, to live facing the unexpected.

What will bring us wildness in the places we live, domesticated with warmth and culture? For some, icy branches scratching together will suffice. A glimpse of a gibbous moon or a pomegranate-stained evening sky might help. But more than these, more than perhaps anything else, are the birds. These winged dinosaurs that have given up stored fat, hollowed their bones, and made many other compromises for flight––these organisms connect us with here and there, with then and now, as they chatter outside our windows or soar past our lives. 

Slow Birding: The Art and Science of Enjoying the Birds in Your Own Backyard by Joan E. Strassmann

i surrender my soul to anyone who looks out the window and sees so vastly, so deeply. someone who understands that the pulsebeat of all creation––timeless creation––is as near as the fluttering in the branch that scrapes against the panes of our window. 

joan strassmann, an animal behaviorist and beloved professor, is the someone who penned those words. she penned them in her new book, Slow Birding, a title that immediately caught my eye (and when i mentioned it to my birdwatching mother, she swiftly informed me she’s been slow birding forever; so much for novel ideas). strassmann writes that she, like my mother, has been a slow birder all her life, not one of those birders frantically motoring hither and yon for a quick glimpse through the binocular lens, a scribbled addition to the “lifelist,” and then onto the next spotting. strassmann is not about “spotting.” she’s about slow-paced study. about taking the time to delight in the humors, startle at the spats (as even regal papa cardinal squawks away the lowly sparrowly choristers), marvel at the parabolas of flight, as feather takes on the wind. she’s all about absorbing the wonder. 

here at my cloister-in-the-making, where the walled garden soon will be serpentined with climbing hydrangea, where an elegant and capacious shingle-roofed bird B+B has been ceremoniously mounted on an elegant hand-carved post (the resident architecture critic thought it would be nifty if the scrolled brackets of the house were matched by post brackets that echoed the scrolling; and our beloved jim the builder obliged), it’s the feathered flocks that spring the whole place to life, to effervescent animation: the crimson troupe of cardinals, the squawking trio of jays, the countless sparrows, the occasional and pesky grackles, the ominous hawk.

with a mind toward soothing and stoking the soul, we’ve pared our dwelling here in this old house to an unfettered few balms: armchairs are ample and poised for conversation, a fireplace crackles with logs from the forest, books line the walls, hours are filled with the quiet of pages turning and spices simmering on the near-ancient cookstove. 

it’s the birds who bring the wild to our windowsills and put flight to our wondering. my housemate here, the aforementioned architecture critic, a man who makes an art of the rhythm of routine, has made it his solemn and devoted morning chore to scoop up a tin of seed and ferry it out to the flocks. whenever i can manage to beat him to the punch, i punctuate my seed dumping with a cheery call to the flocks, to let them know that breakfast is served. i refer to my birds in the diminutive. “here, sweeties,” i call, much to the dismay, i fear, of the neighbors. (but, oh well, they put up the fence so i can do as i wacky-well please in my now-secret walled garden.)

and even though our birding has always been slow, i find strassmann’s intentionality, her keen and fine-grained observations of the ways of each and every genre of bird, has me upping my game. putting down distraction, training my eye out the window for longer and longer spells of the day. taking note of peculiar particulars i might otherwise miss. (it’s excellent training for the whole of one’s closely examined and attentively-lived sole chance at life.)

strassmann passes along the wisdom of famed ornithologist margaret morse nice whose instruction is at once spare yet richly complex: sit still and watch. draw what you see, perhaps, the singular birds who flutter and flit. befriend them. scribble notes in a journal you keep by the window. 

but why a whole book, a 334-page book, if the instruction itself is so brief? well, strassmann explains that she delves into the intricacies of sixteen birds––and five bird-watching places––because to know the ways of the birds, to know each particular one’s biological story, is to illuminate all the more what we might otherwise be utterly missing out yonder. and thus we might look and look more closely.

the stories, obtained over the lifetimes of various ornithologists who trained their lenses on a single question or puzzle or species, might leave you oohhing and ahhing and racing to windows.

for instance: blue jays––noisy, bossy––are “the most american of birds, occurring in every state” (though not a single state claims the jay as its state bird); the american robin is the “earthworm whisperer,” and when a robin cocks its head toward the earth, it’s listening for the rustle of the underground worm; the ubiquitous sparrow is a bird with roots in bethlehem (yes, that bethlehem), and once was considered a pot-pie delicacy (thankfully those days are behind us––and the sparrow); and finally, the cardinal has reason for chasing after the reddest of berries: the carotenoids in the fruits make for a deeper red of its feathers (and not only that, but the redder the cardinal, the more desirable it’s regarded in the feathered fiefdom of red-bird mating).

it’s all endlessly wondrous to me, the alchemy of poetry and science and feather on air, the proximity of the wild, the animations of beings both social and singular. 

there is something about the delicate ways of the avian world, something about the simple existence of seed and nest, flight and song, that stirs in me an exercise of the prayerful. it’s as close as i come to the wild day in and day out, and it draws me every time into a marveling that makes me sense i’ve been brushed by the holy divine. 

what will you do slowly today?

the other night i was blessed to sit and listen in proximity to pádraig ó tuama, who among many wonders spoke about how he loves birds and irish names for birds, and i was enchanted. because he’s as kind and generous as he is brilliant, yesterday afternoon he sent me the poem he’d read—“now i watch through an open door”––with the irish names for various birds woven into the poetry, and so i am including here the last stanza, with the names highlighted and i’m adding a little glossary below, so you too might be enchanted by the names the irish put to their birds…..

Oh forest flame, oh young light on the old oak,
oh small brown druid I hear
but never see. Oh red king of the morning, oh dainty feet
among the dungheaps, and fierce goose
with fierce goslings, oh muscled hare, russeted
by the long evening. Oh my
low deer, powerful and insignificant,
oh glen, oh magnificent.

irish names for birds:

*goldfinch: “bright flame of the forest” 

*wren: “brown druid”

*chaffinch: “red king”

barn owl: “graveyard screecher”

red wing: “little red one of the snow”

meadow pipit: “little streaked one of the bog/moor”

kestrel: “wind frolicker”

bullfinch: “little scarlet one of the woods”

greenfinch: “little green one of the oak tree”

oh, sigh, oh magnificent irish….

one last thing: i’ve been invited by a dear friend, the poet mark burrows, to partake of a celebration of the great austrian-bohemian poet rainer maria rilke, on dec. 4, rilke’s birthday. i quake to tell you that we’ll be in conversation with none other than pádraig ó tuama, and the details are spelled out in the flyer below. and you can find out more and register for the free zoom program here. (you’ll need to scroll down a wee bit; it’s the third in the roster of events…) (my favorite part of the flyer is where it notes the time of the event in ireland! be still my ol’ irish heart….)

and that, dear friends, is it for the week. be well, and be slow….

it’s the-light-will-save-you season

it wafts in, gold dust, falls in rivulets across the table, broad swaths and shafts through the windowpanes. it’s molasses light, the amber season, the light of autumn coming that just might save me. it holds alchemical powers, makes my heart quicken, might even push out the walls of my veins a wee bit. i imagine it expands the little red blood cells ferrying molecules of oxygen all around my labyrinthine insides. it makes me more alive than any other season’s sunlight. and it’s coming day by day.

the sun is slipping is how we put it. but, really, that’s not the science. that’s the egocentric way we humans always try to think: putting ourselves in the core of the equation. really, it’s just plain old geometry, all about the angles of earth to sun, and axis to angle. we’re spinning at our cockeyed angle, and come autumn, when we’re leaning out from the sun, the angle shrinks from summer’s straight-on-from-on-high 90-degrees to the slenderer 23.5 degrees, meaning the sun no longer shines straight down in an intense tight cone, but rather the light’s diffuse, the shadow longer. the sun––should you imagine it as a flashlight shining on a table (should you care to do a bit of third-grade science, here)––is not shining from straight above, but now (imagine moving your hand and the flashlight lower in an imaginary arc) it’s shining from off to the side, and the light cast is, per our hypothesis, less intense, more spread out, and––here’s the magic, if we’re talking earth and not flashlights and tables––more golden.

dylan thomas said we should “rage against the dying light.” mary oliver called it “the old gold song of the almost finished year.” i call it molasses light. and i won’t rage against it. i will all but gulp it down. heck, i’d lick it off the table like an autumn lollipop if i didn’t know how impolite that was.

it’s the-light-will-save-you-season, and it’s saving me.

it comes with its cousin, tinge-in-the-air. or at least it does here where i live, not far from the shoreline of that great lake michigan. as one long summer sings it’s almost-finished song, i will relish the next one on the song list: the song of autumn’s gold, with a chaser of goosebumps-in-the-morning air…


commonplace corner: i tend to read in tandem, two books at once; sometimes more. and it’s magic when one book finds itself in conversation with another, unbeknownst to all of us till we stumble on the paragraphs that talk to each other. that happened this week when the subject was how we learn to tell stories. and it’s making me think hard and long about the places in my life where i learned what it meant to sit at a table and be transfixed by the ones from whom the words were pouring, the one with the magical capacity to make a whole room laugh at the very same moment, as if a giant feather had just tickled all our funny bones. at once. how miraculous is that, to make a whole room laugh? to make a whole room cry? to make a whole room think? i can’t think of anything more magical. maybe other than making someone walk who’d never walked before.

here are two sumptuous paragraphs that made me think this week. one’s from erskine caldwell, an american novelist and short story writer whose father was a home missionary at the turn of the last century who moved from place to place in the clay hills of georgia, so young erskine absorbed the dialect and wisdoms of the impoverished sharecroppers where his papa preached. the other’s from kerri ní dochartaigh, a breath-taking writer born on the border of the north and south of Ireland, whose recent memoir, thin places: a natural history of healing and home (pointed to me by beloved chair sister sharon b.) seems to be taking the writerly world by storm. deservedly so. she too has written a sumptuous paragraph about the storytellers in her life. maybe they’ll make you think about the story spinners in your own sweet life…

Erskine Caldwell

I was not a writer to begin with; I was a listener. In those early decades of the century, reading and writing were not common experiences. Oral storytelling was the basis of fiction. You learned by listening around the store, around the gin, the icehouse, the wood yard, or wherever people congregated and had nothing to do. You would listen for the extraordinary, the unusual; the people knew how to tell stories orally in such a way that they could make the smallest incident, the most far-fetched idea, into something extraordinarily interesting. It could be just a rooster crowing at a certain time of night or morning. It’s a mysterious thing. Many Southern writers must have learned the art of storytelling from listening to oral tales. I did. It gave me the knowledge that the simplest incident can make a story.

from Thin Places: A Natural History of Healing and Home by Kerri ní Dochartaigh

My grandfather was born in the same week as the Irish border. He was a storyteller, and his most affecting tales, the ones he gave me that have shaped my life, were about place, about how we relate to it, to ourselves, and to one another. Good seanchaidhthe––storytellers––never really tell you anything, though. They set the fire in the hearth, they draw the chairs in close; they shut all the windows so the old lore doesn’t fall on the wrong ears. They fill the room with a sense of ease, a sense of all being as it should be. The words, when they spill quietly out of the mouth of the one who has been entrusted with them, dance in the space, at one with the flames of the fire. It is, as always, up to those who listen to do with them what they will. 


“‘Consider the lilies,’” Emily Dickinson said, “is the only commandment I ever obeyed.” Some days, that one is enough. More than enough.


and finally in this week’s version of the chair gazette, a celebration this week of shifting sunlight and words that awaken us, i need to leave one last bit. some but hardly all of you play on the various social media playgrounds — facebook or instagram (i try to do little of either) — and my job as a person with a book in the publishing chute is to tell the world it’s coming (which i intend to do as quietly as my publisher allows). and this week the marketing folks at broadleaf books sent me my “blurbs,” those words of kindness that early reviewers send along. because i promised those marketing wizards that “the chair” would always be my core people, i need to quietly leave those blurbs here to keep up my end of the promise. if you’ve seen ’em in a little post i left on facebook, well then apologies. if not (and my mother counts among those who’ve not seen them elsewhere) here’s the lineup that frankly broke me out in goosebumps. the kindness of these five, all of whom are heroes of mine, pretty much made the last two years worth it….

some heart-melting kindnesses from early reviewers of The Book of Nature: The Astonishing Beauty of God’s First Sacred Text

“Regardless of where one’s spirituality (or lack of it) may lie, Barbara Mahany’s The Book of Nature is a deeply rich celebration of the ageless overlap between religion and the many faces of the natural world—the ‘Book of Nature’ to which mystics, monks, and others have turned for insight into the sacred. Best of all, this thought-provoking exploration is wrapped in Mahany’s luscious and luminous writing, which makes every page a delight.” 
—Scott Weidensaul, author of A World on the Wing

“Attention is among the deepest forms of integrity. In The Book of Nature, Barbara Mahany pays attention. She doesn’t look through nature; she looks at nature and, there, sees the mysteries that make and unmake us. In an age of environmental threat and neglect, Barbara Mahany’s book is a theological, poetic, and devoted plea for attention to our most fundamental constitution: matter—and everything that comes from it, including us.”
—Pádraig Ó Tuama, host of Poetry Unbound from On Being Studios

The Book of Nature is an invitation to step into the newness of each day: sunrise, garden, forest, waters, nightfall. These pages reflect both awe and heartbreak, a pause when our world feels on fire and the climate crisis calls us to collective lament, communion, and action.”
—Mallory McDuff, author of Love Your Mother: 50 States, 50 Stories, and 50 Women United for Climate Justice

“Following in and deepening the footsteps of the Desert Mothers and Fathers, Barbara Mahany’s The Book of Nature invites you to engage with nature as the body of God: to know that all life is the happening of a nondual Aliveness  called by many names. Calling to a humanity drunk on transcendence and desperate to escape from Nature and our responsibility to Her, The Book of Nature reveals the sobering immanence of God as the Source and Substance of all reality.” 
—Rabbi Rami Shapiro, author of Judaism Without Tribalism

“Lovely and smart reflections—the perfect book to slip into a rucksack on a day you’re planning a wander through the larger world!”
—Bill McKibben, author The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon

and that, dear friends, is that. page proofs are due tuesday, so i’ll be back–perhaps–to more regular chairs, less gazette (though it’s been deliciously fun to assemble morsels every week) and more single-subject essay.

but in the meantime, spill your thoughts about autumn sunlight, storytellers, or words that’ve stirred you this week as we move into golden time….the season of the light that just might save you….

a peek at this little book i’ve been making for the last couple years…

there is a choreography to birthing a book, an unseen one, one that’s becoming familiar to me, a familiarity so far beyond the dreams i cast out my long-ago childhood window, into the leaves of the oaks that arbored and harbored me, onto the heavens far, far beyond. 

first, you feel an idea wriggling around deep in your soul, then it rises up to your brain, and the only way to scratch the itch is to begin to breathe possibility into it. what if? you percolate that inkling for a while, front burner to back to front again. and then you begin to read, to see if sinew comes to the bones. and, if you find that the deeper you read, the more curious you become, then you know you’re onto something worth chasing. 

i chased the idea that all of creation––the cadenza of birdsong, the golden slant of the setting sun, the comfort of even the chirring cicadas in the waning weeks of summer––held the pulse of the sacred. all of it was of the God i’ve long held close to my heart, the God daring to brush up against us, to draw us into the dance, to unfurl timeless truths in an alphabet of moonbeam and monarch, the veeing of geese or the hard crack of lightning scything the sky. 

i’d long known that when i step into the dawn or the woods, plant my bum on a log by the lakeshore or the rickety rock in my own back plot, i’m keen to a sense that an ineffable presence is there, right there, with something to teach, to offer, to whisper. but until i knew of this so-named Book of Nature, an ancient theology rooted in the notion that long before there were words, God spoke through the murmurings, the convulsions, and the unfurlings of the natural world, i hadn’t sensed it so perceptibly. hadn’t realized there were millennia of thinkers who’d been reading that book.

it’s imperative, and more urgent than ever, that as this great holy earth is pummeled and poisoned and burned, we realize that maybe what’s most at stake is a tie to the sacred. 

for the better part of eight or nine months, i read everything under the sun––poets and prophets, mystics and saints, believers and non-believers, all of whom had something to say on the subject of all creation, its wonders, its heartbreaks, and lately its cavernous losses. i combed my readings for notes upon notes. then, equipped with voluminous cross-referenced pages, i started to write. within a couple months, i’d written some 200 pages. and then i waited a very long time. 

but now, those pages edited and copy edited, typeset and proofed, the cover designed and posted online in most of those places where booksellers peddle these days (it had been on amazon, and now–except for U.K. amazon––it seems gone! but now it’s back––like magic!), i’m at the part of the book-birthing dance where you pull back the cover on the book’s actual cover so the ones to whom you most emphatically write can be the first to officially peek. 

so, here’s the cover. (you are, i hope you know, all the ones to whom i most emphatically write, the ones who faithfully wander by and pull up a chair whene’er the spirit so moves you….)

the pages inside, 204 of them, will have to wait to be read till the next vernal equinox, the day the book is “official,” marked with its very own pub date––March 21, 2023––and whirling into the world. 

of all the books i’ve written, this is the one that counts as the most intensive. it started from scratch (unlike the others, all collections of essays), and came in layers and layers. 

i had a brilliant editor, lauren winner, an american historian, scholar of religion, professor at duke divinity school, episcopal priest, formerly an orthodox jew, an endlessly curious mind, a voracious reader, and a best-selling author on multiple spiritual subjects––Mudhouse Sabbath, her journey from orthodox judaism to anglican priest, Wearing God, the many metaphors for God found in the bible (these are but two of her many published words)––who now teaches the craft and art of spiritual writing at workshops, universities, and seminars from coast to coast. i can and will attest to her brilliance, to the way she evoked from me layers i hadn’t known were there, the way she lifted the prose off the page, insisted i weave in an airiness that might make a critical difference. 

there’s a whole team behind the making of the book, though only one of us gets our name on the cover. there’s a meticulous and exceedingly kind copy editor, there’s a cover designer and another designer for the interior pages (this book is a beauty inside). there’s a production editor, and a typesetter and a page proofer. and there’s the editor who believed in the idea in the first place, and nurtured it along. i am forever indebted to each one of them. and there will soon be a team whose job is to do what’s hardest for me: peddle the darn thing, get it onto and off of bookshelves. in bookshops and libraries. and into the hands and the nooks of readers. 

there is an essential and indispensable triangle in the world of letters: the writer, the idea, and the reader. it’s a conversation unspoken. a conversation in pages. and without the reader, the writer is whispering into an abyss. and the only sound is the author’s own echo. 

so this is the book. and if you ever choose to pluck it off a shelf, you will find my whispered whole truths deep inside. 

if writers write to say this is what i believe, this is where i find the beautiful and the sacred, and maybe i can show you just where i’m seeing and sensing, maybe just maybe one little writer can filter onto the world just one little mote of starlight or sunlight or moonlight where before there had only been the murkiest shadow. 

The Book of Nature is my one mote of filtering light. 

you can find it on Broadleaf Books here.

you can find it on amazon here.

and, very excitingly, you can find it on the indie booksellers’s bookshop.org

here’s how my publisher, Broadleaf Books, is describing the book:

We live inside a nautilus of prayer—if only we open our senses and perceive what is infused all around. 

Throughout millennia and across the monotheistic religions, the natural was often revered as a sacred text. By the Middle Ages, this text was given a name, “The Book of Nature,” the first, best entry point for encounter with the divine. The very act of “reading” the world, of focusing our attention on each twinkling star and unfurling blossom, humbles us and draws us into sacred encounter.

As we grapple to make sense of today’s tumultuous world, one where nature is at once a damaged and damaging source of disaster, as well as a place of refuge and retreat, we are called again to examine how generously it awaits our attention and devotion, standing ready to be read by all.

Weaving together the astonishments of science; the profound wisdom and literary gems of thinkers, poets, and observers who have come before us; and her own spiritual practice and gentle observation, Barbara Mahany reintroduces us to The Book of Nature, an experiential framework of the divine. God’s first revelation came to us through an ongoing creation, one that—through stillness and attentiveness to the rumblings of the heavens, the seasonal eruptions of earth, the invisible pull of migration, of tide, and of celestial shiftings—draws us into sacred encounter. We needn’t look farther for the divine.

and that, dear friends, is the news of the week. be careful out there, this latest covid bugger (BA5) seems more determined than ever to muscle its way in. i’m going back into semi-hiding given that i am still dizzy from my first covid round….

what’s stirring you this week?

Little Babs, long before she dreamed of a book cover

tick, tick, tick….

snapshot of the writing garage moments after final manuscript submitted

waiting has been the posture of the week here at book-making headquarters. which, for someone wired like me, means clicking my phone every few minutes, checking to see if there’s yet a reply. forcing myself into tasks—say, cleaning the bathtub, sorting the wash––that will keep me and my antsy fingers away from the checking, reminding myself simply to breathe. 

it might come as little surprise––after keeping you in the loop here as i’ve loped toward the publishing finish line––that the reply i am so, so anxiously awaiting is the one from the editor who will, ultimately, thumbs-up or thumbs-down that collection of words i refer to as my latest book. a book whose making has certainly silvered a few more of my hairs. a book i turned in sunday night, with hours to spare before the monday deadline. the first editor, a true godsend with whom i’ve been back-and-forthing for the last four weeks, gave it a solid thumbs up, but the one we now await is the one who a.) moves it along. or b.) asks for more rewrite still. or, i suppose, in the doomsday version (one i’m apt to imagine) c.) she simply throws up her arms and shrieks, “i’ve no clue at all why this was a book i thought worthy of printing!”

over the last few weeks, in this latest batch of dispatches from here in the writing garage (this appendage to our old house began its existence as a place where mid-century cars sputtered fumes, not too distant, i suppose, from its now housing a sputtering writer), i’ve pulled back the curtain a bit on just how it is that thousands of words find their way onto pages soon to be glued, bound, sewn, or whatever is the latest technology for keeping the papers from scattering. (imagine if in buying a book, you were handed an assemblage of pages and told to shuffle them into just the right order before you sat down to read; binding, clearly a nifty invention….)

one of the lists i’ve been making this week is something of a manifesto, of how––should i ever find myself in the editor’s desk––i might try to alleviate the suffering of a writer whose tender self and soul would be under my watch. it’s hardly a stretch to assume that most who assign themselves to the occupation of putting words on the page tend to find their hearts rising and falling in some measure with the way those words are met by editors and loved ones and even anonymous readers. 

i’ve suffered at the hands of all the above. i’ve winced as editors killed my “little darlings,” the newsroom nickname for those snazzy bits of sentence or prose that the writer pretends makes him or her the star of the class, only to find the darling is unceremoniously flung to the cutting room floor, where it lands with an unceremonious thud. i’ve gulped as my father-in-law dialed long distance to suggest i might need a refresher stretch on the therapist’s couch as he thought something i’d penned right here on the chair, after our firstborn sauntered off to college, was far too depressing, and a sure sign that i’d teetered over the edge. and, back in my newspaper days, i had readers pen letters in what used to be a telltale chickeny scratch, often in recycled envelopes (in the digital age, it’s now hard to predict when an incoming email is going to explode with invective), all but insisting i leap from my desk in the tribune tower, run––not walk––three blocks east, and jump in the big cold lake. with stones tied to my ankles.

it can be not so pretty, this audacity to say what you think. or you feel. or what you pray. to put into words the otherwise ineffable. to sometimes see sentences there on the screen that you simply hadn’t realized were in you until they arose, one tap-tap at a time. 

it’s one thing to put words to breath, in conversation over breakfast or lunch or sitting alongside a friend on a bench or a swing, and to know that those words won’t leave a trace––except in the memory of the one to whom they were spoken. to dare to put ink (or pixels on a screen) to those thoughts––sometimes half-baked, sometimes raw, sometimes with too many dashes or commas––is, when you pause to think about it, rather a bold expedition. seatbelts ought be required. 

anyway, my manifesto would begin with one or two basics: don’t forget that the one on the waiting end is likely on needles and pins; offer kind words even when pointing out stumbles and weak spots; and please remember how daunting it is to play at this game. it’s not too much of a stretch to extend my manifesto beyond the wordsmithing game. it’s a very short list that might apply to the wider world as we seem to be slipping deeper and deeper into an age of too-little regard for the human species with whom we share this moment in time. 

it takes so very little.

what would you include on a Manifesto for Minimal Kindness, editorially or otherwise?

note that in the snapshot above, compared to one shared a couple weeks back, the stacks in the writing garage only grew higher and higher as the days ticked by, one after another en route to that finish line...good news is the other writer who lives in this house wandered into the room last night, eyed the bowing shelves, the shelves all but groaning under the weight, eyed the impossible hopscotch of books, and declared: “you need more shelves.” so i guess my disarray just might save me after all.

still plowing…

please excuse the interruption in regular programming here at the chair, i’m barreling toward the latest installment in the Deadline Plan, this one poured in concrete, i’m told. i rounded the bend on the penultimate deadline last sunday, and awaited the first batch of edits, which landed tuesday midday. now awaiting batches two, three, and possibly four. all destined to drop––impeccably and with my whole heart attached––on the editor’s desk by end of business on monday.

if you ever wondered how a book becomes a book, here’s how in one word: persistency.

never looking up from the page. forgetting to eat lunch. thinking of verbs in your sleep. surrendering nearly every last domestic chore to the very kind fellow who stalks these same halls, the one who is making sure i sleep, eat, and drink gallons of water.

i think it will all be worth it. i’m pretty sure there will come a day when i look back on this chapter and––just like labor pains––forget how much it hurt, how much my head pounded, and my heart right along.

as i look at my bookshelves these days, i see not just pages and pages of paper and ink but the accumulated anguish of hundreds of authors over hundreds of years. books do not write themselves. books demand total attention. and day after day of it. for as long as it takes.

and what’s it all for? for the scant hope of communion, for the slim chance that one someone somewhere will be reading along and suddenly hearing a loud pop, down in their heart, or up in their brain. because some faraway someone has just put to words some ineffable thing that they’ve never named. though they’ve long sensed it.

there is much typing still to be done here. and after that, the copy-editing brigade comes over the hills. and then proofing each page, making sure no squiggles or bloops slide into a sentence. making sure each their is a their and not there. same with the its‘s.

once this latest round of incessant typing slows to a ceasefire, i’ll be back to breathing again. it’ll come in waves from then on. this here is the final hard push. just like the time my miracle baby was about to arrive, and the monitor beside me dropped to a gulch. and my doctor looked me in the eyes, and said, “barb, you’re getting this baby out in one push.”

and i did.

and i’ll do it again with this book.

in the meantime, here’s a little amuse bouche for your troubles.

One of the best things a man can bring into the world with him is a natural humility of spirit. About the next best thing he can bring, and they usually go together, is an appreciative spirit — a loving and susceptible heart.

John Burroughs, naturalist, conservationist, wonder seer

and why not another?

If we turn our mind toward the good, it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not be attracted thereto in spite of itself.

Simone Weil, French philosopher, mystic, political activist

what pithy bits of wisdom or heart stirred you this week?

out of chaos, come pages of quiet

this is the word factory, the chamber where a book is in the making. and if you can’t see the steam rising from the computer screen, imagine it. it’s there. and so too it rises from the fingers wildly skipping about the keyboard, plucking new verbs from out of thin air. making up occasional others.

i’m in the final stretch of a book-making adventure that has been wildly, um, adventurous. early thursday morning i was given the latest in a long series of hurdles, each one daunting, each one prompting me to mutter under my breath, this is impossible, i can’t do this. but then, hours later, after the shakes (and the swears) wear off, i find my stride here on the alphabet keys from which i build so much of my life. i type like there’s no tomorrow, i type into the wee wee hours. my deadline––a full revision of a manuscript: this sunday night, before bedtime.

which is why this one particular friday, there isn’t much chair to pull up to. i’m deep in the 70,359 words that currently comprise The Book of Nature: The Astonishing Beauty of God’s First Sacred Text, a quiet contemplative book slated for birthing on the vernal equinox of 2023 (that’s march 21st, if you’re wondering). where it will end, is anyone’s guess. i sense a word chopper not too far in the distance. that’s when you’ll hear the telltale welp of the writer watching her words whirl down the drain. a painful interlude in which i try hard to fixate on the words of that guy we know around here as the oak park native and spear-fisherman, one ernest miller hemingway, who might or might not have once insisted “a story is only as good as what’s left on the cutting room floor,” a possibly apocryphal maxim that’s meant to take the sting out of the editor’s slicing and dicing, and by which the writer soothes herself as each “little darling” dies a swift death as it whirls to the cutting-room catch basin. what it means is that you’ve pared your pages of prose of all fat and mouthfuls of gristle, and all you have left is sinew and spine. and now, i’ve mixed enough metaphors in a single paragraph to have each and all editors unbuckling their seatbelts, scrambling for safe exit.

speaking of safe exit, you might be wondering if this room where i type has been deemed an occupational hazard, a danger zone where i could be caught under an avalanche of literary proportion. there is, you might be pleased to know, a single narrow uncluttered trail to the door. and the books that surround me on four of four sides are stacked in utterly intelligible groupings, all of which i can easily reach from here in the chair where i spell out my words, one tap at a time. i pride myself on conservation of effort when it comes to bending and plucking.

before i leap back in, somewhere around the 39,000-word mark, i thought i’d quietly leave a dollop of wisdom from the inimitable novelist george saunders on why it is we write in the first place. may this give you something fat-free, and stripped of all gristle, to chew on:

Literature is a practice that improves a culture and can make it more tender and open.  But its effects lag and are approximate and tend to benefit people already gentle and inclined to caring. 

And yet.

In stories we might catch a glimpse of why people do the things they do, which should prepare us to think about things more incisively and boldly when people do something that is cruel, violent, or inexplicable.  Whatever we are brought to feel, through literature, about love and understanding and sympathy must take this into account: the invasion of a peaceful country by people who have somehow, it would appear, set aside love, understanding, and sympathy, or have twisted these notions into strange shapes amenable to their purpose.

Also, in this world of ours, there be monsters — the workings of whose minds are mysterious, and whose darkness (their apparent indifference to love, understanding. and sympathy) we somehow keep underestimating.

This, too, can be written about. 

But what also can be written about: people fighting and dying for their freedom and the freedom of the people they love.

What do we do when notions dear to us (notions of compromise and kindness and the ultimate goodness of any human being) are mocked by events and made to feel facile? Can our understanding of these notions be expanded so that they are more muscular and useful and don’t have to be set aside or apologized for at moments like this?

George Saunders, Story Club newsletter

or this, from jane hirshfield:

“Poetry’s work

is the clarification

and magnification

of being.”

may this week bring you peace. and a glimmer of peace to this broken, broken world.

and happy blessed most magnificent birthday to two complete loves of my life, who happen to have been born back-to-back: my beloved sweet P, on sunday, and auntie M, on monday the 28th, a day i consider a national treasure.

the room to which i return….

in which we return, at long last, to the book-making assembly line…

seeing the sacred in nature isn’t typically quite so literal as this ancient relic in the south of england, St. Luke’s Chapel, Ashley Woods, just beyond Abbotsbury in Dorset.

it’s been just shy of a year since last we dropped in on the so-called word factory here at typewriting headquarters, where at the time the bare bones of a book were chugging along the bookmaker’s assembly line, where the supply chain includes alliterations, prepositional clauses, pithy twists of phrase, and occasional insights, all dropped in as the book-in-the-works rolls down the line.

inside the room where the typewriting happens, all was ablur: alphabet keys clacking away, sunlight and moonlight clocking in for their consecutive shifts as the one at the keyboard clackety-clacked, barely noticing the celestial variation as long as the screen stayed aglow.

back then, a precise 37,226 words had been tallied on the factory’s modern-day abacus, the one that spits out the word count with the click of a single key. and there’d been a hard deadline of june. but round about march, it seemed a draft had been drawn to its natural end. so off went the words (59,324) on the pages (110), in hopes of an early editorial read. a bit of a thumb to the wind, to gauge which way it was blowing. or if it was blowing at all.

not long after, all went silent.

and stayed silent. inexplicably, worryingly, for months.

but now, minus the inexplicable tale of the inexplicable months in between, there’s something akin to hope rising. there’s a title, a cover, and even an editor. and, of course, there’s a deadline (more on that in a minute). nothing in the word-factory world seems to come without deadline.

the title, fairly straightforward: The Book of Nature: The Astonishing Beauty of God’s First Sacred Text. the cover, still under wraps. the editor, a writer/scholar/author/professor who i think might be a certifiable genius. but even better, for a writer seeking to braid inter-religious threads: she happens to have been raised jewish, converted to orthodox judaism during her freshman year at columbia, and while studying for her master’s at cambridge in england, she converted again––to anglicanism and, in 2011, was ordained an episcopal priest. these days, she’s an associate professor at duke divinity school, and nonfiction section editor at Image, the journal that, per their website, “fosters contemporary art and writing that grapple with the mystery of being human by curating, cultivating, convening, and celebrating work that explores religious faith and faces spiritual questions.”

bottomline: the newly-appointed editor of my next adventure in bookmaking (she edited my first book too) knows her stuff, is more than fluent in dual religions (encyclopedically versed in the history, practice, and wisdoms of judaism and christianity), and should keep me from tripping into any unforeseen landmines, or swimming too far into the deep end. a good editor is just that: part-lifeguard, part-life-rope, part-landmine detector.

so, soon as said editor drops a pile of edits and queries and what-were-you-thinkings and i-don’t-get-its here on the assembly line (delivery promised for monday), i’ll be working night and day and day and night to whittle down the word count, untangle the knots, piece together the puzzles, and liberally sprinkle the whole kittencaboodle with ample heaps of fairy dust, all in the hopes of a book that won’t be a bomb.

it’s a book about seeing the sacred out in the wilds, which turns out to be the beating heart of an ancient theology, a foundational worldview that long, long ago rooted celts and jews, egyptian hermits and wandering t’ang dynasty poets. and it’s never quite been erased, even if little mention is made of it now. (its disciples would count as diverse a flock as henry david thoreau, annie dillard, mary oliver, and thomas merton, to name but a familiar few.) somewhere along history’s timeline––certainly by the middle ages––it was given a name, The Book of Nature, a text without words, a text built on an alphabet of birdsong and moonrise, raindrops and thundering skies. it arises from a belief that God first spoke through all of creation, and millennia later came a second sacred text, the Book of Scripture. the two books––one wordless, one spilling with words (783,137 in the King James Bible)––ever in conversation.

in the beginning, long before books and literacy, how better to divine wisdom, glean sacred knowledge, than to look to the heavens, the seas, and the stirrings of earth? and now, in an age when words are as likely to be cudgels or wedges, in an age of balkanizations and polarizations and endless debate over turns of a phrase or translation, it’s the wordlessness of this text––the wholly immersive sensuality and rhythms and spirals of heaven and earth, its ubiquity, dynamism, and subtlety––that i count as its genius. and its holy and silent way in.

who’s not felt the goosebumps rise on the nape of the neck when the sandhill crane trumpets across the autumn sky, or the monarchs come in like a cloud, or the lightning bolt scythes through the night? it’s as close as i come to feeling the faint hem of God brush up against me, or enfold me and hold me. there’s a divine animator always at work, always in wait, enraptured, seeking our gaze or our notice. read the great book of creation, run your fingers across its pages and lines, inhale its sights and its sounds and its scents, and you will––perhaps––know something of God, the God who longs for nothing so much as our company, for our sure and undivided attention.

while i strap on my seatbelt, buckle in for the long editing weeks ahead (all will be due by the third week in march), i’ll still post bits here on fridays, mostly a montage of bits that over the years have captured my imagination and my enchantments. it’ll be something of a potpourri till i’m back from book-making adventures. but i promise good morsels.

only the west gable-end wall of the 13th-century chapel remains. of historical note is the fact that the couple who discovered the ruins on their property, restored it, and later chose to be buried beneath its altar, played a pivotal role in saving a Jewish family captured (and later released) during Kristallnacht, or Night of the Broken Glass, the horrific murderous night in November 1938, carried out by the Nazis, who torched synagogues, vandalized homes and shops and schools, and killed close to 100 Jews while sending another 3,000 off to concentration camps.

have you stumbled on anything sacred while out in the wilds?

under the full moon of february, snow moon, consider all this unfolding, unfurling, pushing up toward the deepening light:

Tree sap makes the vertical climb from roots to swell buds, bucks shed their horns, ewes lamb and nannies kid, great  horned owls, bobcats, minks and coyotes mate, and the first northern larks, robins, belted kingfishers, red-wing blackbirds and sand hill cranes return to this northern land I am the current steward of.
–Nance Klehm, ecological systems designer, landscaper, horticultural consultant, permacultural grower, and earth steward

the rare company of an especially fine book

long, long ago, the one certain place where i escaped in the house where i grew up, where i all but opened the window and soared out through the oaks, was beneath the covers of a patchwork quilt in my upstairs room where i’d hide for hours on end in the pages of an opened book.

the very architecture of a book is built for drawing you in: there’re the pages opening like spread-wide angels’ wings, there’s the tucked-in gulley where those pages are hinged to the spine, the gulley that demands ocular acrobatics, as your eyeballs make the leap from one page’s bottom to another one’s top. it’s an enclosing space, the sprawl of a book, a paper-and-glue construction akin to being wrapped in the long arms of a hug.

garth williams’ pig barn and charlotte’s web

back in the days when the books i read were washed in watercolor from the brushes of tasha tudor, or in the black ink of garth williams, i could get lost in a book from sun-up till starlight.

tasha tudor’s thumbelina

i’d wager a bet that those were the pages that imprinted on me the storybook poetries that have shaped every room of my grown-up house — the ticking and chiming of old schoolhouse clocks, windowpanes that peer into trees, birdhouses on poles, amply padded armchairs upholstered in checks, teapots that whistle, and logs that crackle in hearths.

that itch to escape — really, more of a pang or an unstoppable pull — still lures me, especially as the affairs of the world seem to crumble, as the ends of my nerves feel rubbed raw with brillo and steel wool. it might be why the walls of this old house are stacked, floor to ceiling in plenty of rooms, in tight-soldier rows of spine after spine. books are the balm, the antidote to so much of the madness beyond our front doors.

especially so is a book i tumbled into only this week. it’s a book for the soul, if ever there was. it’s a book for the tenderhearted, to which i most assuredly and emphatically admit. it’s diary of a young naturalist, by dara McAnulty, who not only is a teenager (a northern irish one) but one with extraordinary voice and vision. he’s autistic, he lets you know before you’ve come to the end of the prologue. but before he tells you that, he describes himself thusly: “i have the heart of a naturalist, the head of a would-be scientist, and the bones of someone who is already wearied by the apathy and destruction wielded against the natural world.”

count me as a kindred spirit.

even more so, he lets on again and again how trampled his heart often feels, how porous it is, and how solace for him comes in the tendernesses of the unfiltered natural world.

the book has bedazzled the literary world. young dara, all of fourteen when he penned these glorious pages, won the wainwright prize, britain’s blue ribbon for nature writing, for this, his debut work. that his words found their way into a book, let alone a prize-winning book, is a feat in and of itself; “quite amazing,” he writes, “as a teacher once told my parents ‘your son will never be able to complete a comprehension (a mandatory exam in the british educational system), never mind string a paragraph together.'”

well, string paragraphs he has done. has done, indeed. has done to the tune of 222 pages.

he’s been compared to the incomparable greta thunberg, perhaps the planet’s fiercest defender and an unfiltered critic of our devastations thereof. the guardian of london sang the diary’s praises, calling it “miraculous,” writing that it’s “a combination of nature book and memoir, a warm portrait of a close-knit family and a coming-of-age story,” in which McAnulty’s “simple, gorgeous sentences unfurl, one after another.” the poet aimee nezhukumatathil called it “at once a lush and moving meditation and electric clarion call to action.” reviewers, in the UK and here in the states, have heaped it with praise. “it really is a strange and magical experience,” wrote a reviewer in the daily mail, before comparing McAnulty’s writing to that of the poet ted hughes. another reviewer, one in the guardian, said McAnulty’s writing reminded him again and again of the great WH Hudson, a brilliant and eccentric nature writer “who lived with the same deep and authentic sense of emotional engagement with nature as McAnulty.”

weaving across the arc of a year, paying exquisite attention to season upon season, McAnulty drops us all to our knees, as we behold, along with him, the wonders of barn owls, cowslips, corncakes, and the summer’s first blackberries.

of the poetry of a blackbird’s morning sonata: “When the blackbird came, I could breathe a sigh of relief. It meant the day had started like every other. There was a symmetry. Clockwork.”

of dandelions: “Dandelions remind me of the way I close myself off from so much of the world,” he writes, “either because it’s too painful to see or feel, or because when I am open to people, the ridicule comes.”

a hidden pond: “…reflecting the sky and squiggling with shadows galore, darting in and out of the light. A convulsing mass of tadpoles, and with them the epic cycle of life, anticipation and fascination.”

springtime: “The ebb and flow of time punctuated by the familiar brings a cycle of wonder and discovery every year, just as if it’s the first time. That rippling excitement never fades. The newness is always tender.”

for a girl whose jangled nerves and galloping heart are soothed and slowed by the poetries of startling never-before-so-captured language, McAnulty is bliss by the spoonful. he describes his family as “close as otters,” and in describing a soaring white seabird he writes of “the art deco lines” of the gannet. caterpillars move “like slow-motion accordions,” and a goshawk chick looks “like an autumn forest rolled in the first snows of winter.”

as if that’s not more than more than plenty, here are but two excerpts:

Prologue
This diary chronicles the turning of my world, from spring to winter, at home, in the wild, in my head. It travels from the west of Northern Ireland in County Fermanagh to the east in County Down. It records the uprooting of a home, a change in county and landscape, and at times the de-rooting of my senses and my mind. I’m Dara, a boy, an acorn. Mum used to call me lon dubh (which is Irish for blackbird) when I was a baby, and sometimes she still does. I have the heart of a naturalist, the head of a would-be scientist, and the bones of someone who is already wearied by the apathy and destruction wielded against the natural world. The outpourings on these pages express my connection to wildlife, try to explain the way I see the world, and describe how we weather the storms as a family……

I started to write in a very plain bungalow surrounded by families who kept their children behind closed doors, and empty-nesters who manicured their gardens and lawns with scissors – yes, I actually witnessed this. This is where sentences first began to form, where wonder grappled with frustration on the page, and where our garden (unlike any other in the cul-de-sac) became a meadow during the spring and summer months, with wildflowers and insects and a sign that read ‘Bee and Bee’ staked in the long grasses, and where our family spent hours and hours observing the abundance that other gardens lacked, all of us gloriously indifferent to the raised eyebrows of neighbours that appeared from behind curtains from time to time.

Wednesday, August 1
We watch in wonder as countless silver Y moths feast on the purple blooms. Some rest, drunk with nectar, before refilling, whirling and dancing in constant motion. The feather-like scales, brown flecked with silver, are shimmering with starry dust, protecting them from being eaten by our other nocturnal neighbours. I find it fascinating that silver Y fur can confuse the sonar readings of bats, and even when they are predated they can escape, leaving the bat with a mouthful of scales. And here we all are, the McAnultys congregated in worship of these tiny migrants. Soon they will make the journey to their birthplace, silver stars crossing land and sea to North Africa.

The night crackles as the storm of flitting moves off. We jump up and down and hug each other, tension leaking out. We chat and look at the sky, sparkling with Orion, Seven Sisters and the Plough. This is us, standing here. All the best part of us, and another moment etched in our memories, to be invited back and relived in conversations for years to come. Remember that night, when fluttering stars calmed a storm in all of us.

Dara McAnulty, Diary of a Young Naturalist

part of the miracle of McAnulty’s writing is that he writes as evocatively about his neurocognitive otherness as he does about the dandelions, the otters, and the caterpillars. he is something of a spelunker into the unexplored wilds of the world seen through an asperger’s lens.

again, from the prologue, where he writes matter-of-factly:

“Not only is our family bound together by blood, we are all autistic, all except Dad [a conservationist] — he’s the odd one out, and he’s also the one we rely on to deconstruct the mysteries of not just the natural world but the human one too. Together, we make for an eccentric and chaotic bunch. We’re pretty formidable, really. We’re as close as otters, and huddled together, we make our way out in the world.”

he writes, bracingly, about being bullied. about how, under the fluorescent lights of a classroom, he feels “boxed in, a wild thing caged.” he writes of the foul-mouthed insults hurled his way. simply because he’s not like the others.

i’d say he’s beyond them.

reading his stripped-bare sentences, my eyes stung with tears. and in his aloneness, i felt the walls of my own heart reaching toward his. i found not merely comfort, but the rarest of company.

how blessed is the world that from his distant landscape of otherness, he makes art from life’s murkiest shadows to its patches of purest white light.

McAnulty’s latest book, wild child: a journey through nature, a multi-sensory jaunt through the wilds especially for children, was published last summer, and described as a “dreamy dive” into the natural world. he’s planning another book about his wanderings around ireland, connecting nature with myth. i’ve taken a number and am already standing in line for that one.

for i’ve found, in the pages gloriously inscribed by a boy who writes in tender tones, who sees the world in ways that make me truly see, a kindred spirit, a diarist who makes me feel safe and warmed in the clutches of this holy, holy earth.

what are the titles that bring you comfort in these trying times? and how precisely do they do so?

wilbur the terrific

a little bit Miss Rumphius, a little bit madwoman with spade…

someone i love is dying, and someone else i love is stationed at her bedside, has been so for weeks now, navigating the shoals and sharp rocks of slowly, surely dying. 

someone wise once said that dying is hard, hard work. so too is being the one who keeps the bedside vigil, who is there when the breathing comes hard, who is there in the rare in-between moments when the stories from long, long ago come tiptoeing into the light, seeping out of tucked-away places in the black-box mystery that is the human mind. 

because we live in a world with ethernet connection, and because rhythm and routine etches something of a lifeline in even the most uncharted landscapes, i know each day how the hospice day is more or less unfolding, 720 miles away on the fabled jersey shore. i am living some shadow of those faraway days right here in this old house. holding my breath, holding down the fort on this end, so the ones i love can do what needs to be done in these anointed hours, with no mind to what’s unfolding here. 

somehow, in a summer that’s breathing hot and hard, i’ve drifted toward the tool rack in my cobwebby garage. i’ve taken on tasks long overdue — and back-achy. weeded like a madwoman. envisioned something beautiful where before there’d been bald and desiccated earth. set out to make it so.

as endless chore has morphed into life-breathing vision, as prairie weeds came out, and carpet roses, false indigo, and myrtle were laid into newly-dug holes, i found myself fueled by Miss Rumphius, she of Barbara Cooney’s eponymous classic picture book, she who set out to scatter lupine seeds wherever she traipsed and turned. for Miss Rumphius held faithful to her creed: “you must do something to make the world more beautiful,” her grandfather had once told her, as she perched upon his knee. “all right,” she promised, not knowing just what that promise might be.

when she grew up, the little girl with the promise, Miss Alice Rumphius worked in a library, where she read books about faraway places, which made her want to travel the world just like her seafaring grandfather. and so she did, trekking from tropical island to tall mountains where the snow never melted, through jungles and across deserts. when at last she came home to a place by the sea, she remembered her instruction and her promise to her grandfather: to make the world more beautiful.

in the arithmetic of my little brain, i too took on that creed; subtraction counterpointed by addition. as the someone i love lay gasping, lay whispering her goodbyes, i set out to sow pre-emptive beauty into this thirsty, blessed earth. it seemed a necessary exertion. it seemed to breathe a little oxygen into this airless stretch of days.

of course i know i’m not really balancing anything. no forever blooming white rose could supplant the weekly phone calls, or the undying knowledge that once upon a time the one who’s dying was the one who emphatically and open-heartedly endorsed the marriage between the lifelong observant jew and the lifelong devoted catholic. and besides, long before that, she was the one who taught the one i love how to engage deeply in conversation, never letting pass a cursory question or response. long before i met him, deep conversation had become my lifeline. and, in the long list of things the reading teacher taught, she’s the one who made me love the color red. because a world in red just might stop you in your tracks, or charm you trying. and it’s a color now that will forever make me see her standing in her red kitchen with her red plaid apron, the one i once sewed for her, the one she wore for decades ever after, and she’ll be waving a big red spoon as if conducting some orchestra, though really she’d be making some essential point because that’s the most certain thing she ever did with a spoon. cooking, you see, was not her thing. and she was more than proud to say so.

there is no tally, in the end or all along, for the countless ways someone weaves her way — indelibly — into the fibers of your heart. all i know is that she melted me — and half the jersey shore — endlessly, unforgettably. 

every once in a while in these mad garden-reshaping days, salty tears have fallen on the clods of dirt i’m heaving with my shovel. but at day’s end, when i rinse my muddy toes under the faucet, when i finally pause to eat, i look out at the white roses, and the false indigo shifting in the summer breeze, and i think hard about the hard work of living and dying and making the world more beautiful. 

in whatever holy blessed form the beautiful comes. 

and it’s a promise i will never break. 

fully admitting that a good bit of my binge gardening was merely putting my worries to work, and keeping me from idly staring at the clock, awaiting word from the jersey shore, praying fiercely all along the hours, here’s the question: where do you find balm for the deepest aches in your heart? and how do you follow Miss Rumphius’ instruction to make this world more beautiful? (latter question is one for your own heart, no need to divulge your secrets here….)

and while we’re at it, may this first-ever national holiday of a juneteenth be a blessed one….