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Category: books

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….

inside the word factory

perhaps you have visions of some victorian chamber, with a velvet tufted fainting couch, at the top of a curving stair. perhaps you imagine, ala virginia woolf, a room of one’s own where even the logs in the fire waft a delicate perfume. that, you might imagine, is the inner chamber of one who strings words into sentences into paragraphs into pages for a living. (well, there’s not much of a living there, but that’s a story for another day, and one i shan’t get near.)

but back to the room of my own. i’ve got one all right. and once upon a time it was the one-car garage, likely a Buick or Olds, that puttered up the drive here in this circa 1940s house, when the war tragically was full-steam ahead, and the doctor who built this old house–a doctor who delivered babies deep in the night–must have been proud of that room for his Buick or Olds.

i park myself in that room. for interminable hours these days. from the dark before dawn till the dark in the night. and, mostly, i love every minute of it. even when it’s hard. even when the words are sputtering out like someone forgot to grease the cogs and the wheels in the word factory.

i thought i’d let you peek at my highly categorized filing shelf (up above), where the alphabet of books i’ve read for this book (did you realize that many, many books are compendiums of many, many books tossed into the word whizzer, where they whirl and they swirl, and they come out the other side a veritable library now distilled and condensed into the one single volume you hold in your hand?) are stored in their hardly sophisticated, but highly utilitarian, toppling strip on the floor. i’m certain a shelf would be a handy thing, but all the shelves in the house are previously occupied, so i was left with only this strip on the hardwood floor of my once-garage.

anyway, these are some of the more than 200 books (i just did my taxes, i now know precisely the number i bought), i’ve read in the note-taking phase of this so-called literary endeavor. it appears that i still write like a newspaper reporter, when it was my job to run about the town, and sometimes the country, asking all sorts of questions of all sorts of people who knew what i wanted to know. only this time around, many of the folks who know what i want to know are, well, dead. many died a long, long time ago. take the desert elders of egypt. they died some 1,800 years ago. but their wisdom was timeless, and i hope to absorb at least a mere pinch of it. moving a bit closer in time, there are the transcendentalists, emerson and thoreau, and in my book they seem rather young, having died not even two full centuries back. you get the point. and not all the geniuses whose words i am scouring are no longer among us. many, many are living and breathing and writing more sentences all their own.

i’ve also realized that a pandemic is the perfect time to write a book. there’s nowhere to go anyway. and each day is a wide-open block on the calendar, with little variation except for the chores that punctuate the morning. there’s water-the-plants day, and haul-in-the-groceries day. the middle of the week + sunday are wind-the-clock days, and in a week as wide open as that, why not plunk yourself down in your word-factory chair and get to work on a book? i realize this is my second such endeavor this pandemic, which, honest to goodness, is not too pathetic.

anyway, since this morning is write-the-chair day, i thought i’d let you peek behind the curtain before i plop back down and start typing some more. after all this time pulling up to the very same table, week after week, month after month, year after year, i figure you’re due a backstage tour.

i’m up to 37,226 words, in case anyone’s counting. and i hope to tack on a few thousand more today. i’m not too far from the end of the rough first draft, and then the hard part begins: reading it all from the start, trying not to wince, or fall off the chair in utter humiliation. round two is where you get serious. and each word is a test; each word, each thought, each big idea needs to be tested for muscle and truth, and, yes, poetry. it’s all due the first of june, which means i’ll be typing straight through the return of the songbirds and the blossoming of the lilac. it’s a very good thing i love the topic––the Book of Nature, by the way, that ancient theology that all of creation is infused with the sacred in all its wisdoms and truths, and that your closest encounter with the one i call God just might come lying under the stars one night, or cradling a broken-winged bird in your palm. what i love most is that it’s a wisdom woven with threads from all sources, ancient and not quite so old. so the books on my floor are books from the Celts and the Choctaw, from ancient Egypt and China, and right here in the Land of the Free, from Walden Pond and Cape Cod and clear out to the Great Salt Lake and the Redwoods Forest. which is all making me feel very Woody Guthrie. (and notice my knack for hitting the upper-case key here? that’s because my day job–there in the word factory–insists we show up with our capitals.)

so that’s the news from the factory floor, where i’m due any minute to be back in my chair and hitting the keys–caps shift and otherwise.

on the topic of books, what are the ones on your must-share list? and why?

the darkness is coming…don’t be afraid.

it’s dark now, the cloak of night not yet lifted on the world out my windows. each pane of glass, at this early dark hour, is a mirror. as i shuffle about the kitchen, cranking up heat, scooping out coffee beans, the night sky grows faintly milkier. the ink of the sky drains away, tucked in the bottle till it’s needed again.

this weekend, the night comes sooner. the darkness tiptoes in. the lights will burn sooner. i say, be not afraid.

the darkness for me — and maybe for you — is wonder. is blessed. is there where the burrowing, and the deepening begin. i’m not afraid of the dark. i strike a match, haul out the candles, maybe even the logs for the fire. i say, bring it on. bring me the folds of introspective depth to sink into. give me unbroken prairies of quietude. let me finish a thought, and follow that one with another, a game of thoughtful pied piper, wending and winding through the tall grass of soulful contemplation.

because i used to haunt the sorts of bookstores that ought to post “no trespassing” signs for those who sneeze at the first whiff of dust, i have tucked in my bookshelves all sorts of tomes — some skinny, some fat — with provenance unknown. one of those, perhaps the skinniest i own, is cooper edens’ if you’re afraid of the dark, remember the night rainbow. cooper edens, i picture with daisies strewn in his hair, a true berkeley hippie of the hallucination age. among the gentlest spirits that ever there was.

i’ve read that his parents, bless them, encouraged day dreaming. imagine that. when he was in first grade, the teacher told cooper’s parents that cooper shouldn’t come back to class because he was “too creative.” cooper’s mother, someone who should be pinned with a very gold star, replied, curtly: “good!” and kept her daydreamer home. she fueled him with crayons and cardboard, and perhaps the sorts of iconoclastic coloring books where you’re told to draw outside the lines. soon, dear cooper, was channeling monet and van gogh.

but now i’ve daydreamed my way into the cooper edens story, and i meant to be thinking about darkness.

befriend the darkness is the point where i’m headed. when the clocks take their back-leap deep in the night on sunday, when three becomes two, and the clocks demand the arduous catching up of the hands big and little, consider the ways you might savor the dark side of the year.

learn a thing or two about stars; pick one by name and discover its story. trace it along the night sky.

lug a pile of logs into your house. tuck them in the hollow that’s made just for them. alternately, gather the wax of the honeybees, the wax rolled into columns called candles. strike a match, watch the flame play flame games against the darkness. turn off all lightbulbs. sit for an hour in candlelight. pay attention to the sacramental effect, how the simple shadow cast by the flickering flame makes you see what you’d otherwise miss, makes you relish the beauty of time and space, allows you to wrap yourself in the blessing of being alive.

bundle up and step outside for a moon walk, as i’ve written before, it’s the ancient and elemental lesson in addition and subtraction, the waxing and waning of the runner-up night light. catch the night shadows as they play upon the lawn, the inside-out of the shadows of daylight.

once you step back inside and shake off the chill of the night, burrow into a nook or a fat stuffed armchair, a place where you like to read and think and look out a window. maybe it’s right by that fire, still crackling, still ablaze in the dance of the flame.

consider this passage from one of the books i’ve been reading this week, a book by the great henry beston, one of the finest poets and chroniclers of nature that ever there was. he wrote from the woods of maine, at the turn of the last century, as the 1800s rolled into the twentieth century, back when candles and logs and one-room schoolhouses were ordinary everyday notions.

wrote henry, henry who has consoled me like a deep and wise and most trusted friend this week at the cusp of the darkness:

“As I watch the fire burning in the great fireplace on a first chilly night, I do not wonder that fire and the mystery of fire have played so important a part in the great religions of [hu]mankind. The power to kindle that ever-hungry flame must have been the first great achievement of man on his way to fuller being; with fire he both metaphorically and in all reality could see ahead in the dark….To me, [fire] is the element which is always a part of the mystery and beauty of the world. The earth may be shabbily and wickedly broken, the river and the air befouled, but the living flame, rising from whatever source, is beauty from its first appearance and as beauty lives. There is no compromise with flame, and not without reason has it served us as a symbol of that unknown to whose ultimate mystery we can but lift our uncertain hands.”

Henry Beston, Northern Farm

the darkness is coming. don’t be afraid.

how will you embrace the dark hours?

and, happy blessed all saints day and all souls, and that hallowed eve of jack-o-lanterns and candy scavengers who won’t be scavenging so much this year…..xoxo

a peek inside: a new book and the story behind it

in which i tell you a bit of the backstory of my next book, book No. 4, The Stillness of Winter: Sacred Blessings of the Season, coming soon to a bookstore near you…

The call came just about a year ago. An editor I adored had dialed me up seemingly out of the blue. She had an idea: Our good friends at Abingdon Press had an itch to launch a small line of really beautiful gift books, the sorts of books you might tuck into the drawer of your bedside table, the sort you might leave in a nook where you often curl up for a long minute’s ponder. The sort of book you might stash in your glove compartment, or the cupholder next to your steering wheel, to steal a few minutes’ solace while idling in the after-school car line. 

The wise and wonderful editor thought that maybe Slowing Time was the book with which to begin. Specifically, she wanted to draw from the winter sections of that long-ago very first book with my name on the cover — from Winter, Season of Deepening (basically Advent, the counting-toward-Christmas month of December), and Winter, Season of Stillness (the dawn of the newborn year, the quiet and cold months of January and February) —the sections that began and ended Slowing Time’s spiral through the wonder and astonishments of the year. 

Would I be keen to nip and tuck, to add and subtract, to make something wholly new out of something already well-worn, its pages rubbed soft at the edges, its corners turned in, in that way that we mark a place to return to? Would I be willing to dive into winter all over again? 

The answer was an unqualified and emphatic, Why, certainly! 

So, as the nights grew longer last December and started to brighten minute by minute through January and February, long before anyone ever imagined the pandemic about to strike, about to change just about everything, I daydreamed and plotted all over again. Just what would I tuck into a field guide to winter’s often unwhispered wonders? 

I settled on Stillness. I charted my way through the months by the sun and the moon and the stars in the heavens — by the solstice on the longest darkest night, and by Epiphany when the star shines brightly. I traced the stirrings in meadow and forest, and paid heed to the invisible but certain stirrings underground, deep within earth and within our very own quieting selves. 

As is my capricious way, I jampacked wonderments of sacred contemplation and delighted in the kitchens of December, January and February. I paused to inhale snippets of poetry. And I counted out blessings for week after week, a calendar of meditative post-its, for each winter’s month. 

The point is perhaps countercultural. It is, in my book, imperative: Dare to be still, dare so even in, especially in, December, when the world typically kicks into overdrive. And keep at it clear through to the first rumblings of vernal awakening. Relish January’s blessing of starting all over again, wiping clean our soulful slate, resetting our sights on the determined ascent. Consider the ways February calls us to reach beyond our solitude, beyond the walls of our very own hearts, to attend to the urgencies of those we love, and those we don’t even know — yet.

Last winter, deep in the making of Stillness, I didn’t know, in those long and glorious weeks of tapping away on my keyboard, that its October birthing — and this coming winter — would come on the heels of months of locked-down fear and worry and heartbreak. I didn’t know that we — the people of this holy Earth — would have been sequestered into a stillness that was not to our liking, one dictated by an invisible virus, one that’s barely understood even all these months later. I didn’t know how hungry we’d be for face-to-face, shoulder-to-shoulder, heart-to-heart connection. 

And so the invitation now is more urgent than ever: Seek a stillness that draws you quietly, gently into your deepest self. Look more than ever for the small wonders that punctuate your every day. Make your own joy. Savor an Advent — or a Festival of Lights — that’s stripped of the crazy-making cacophonies. Kindle a flame, night after night. Awake in the first light of dawn. Cloak yourself in layers and layers of illumination, ones you stir on the stove, ones you pull from the bookshelves, ones you gather on a snow-laden walk through the woods. 

The Stillness of Winter: Sacred Blessings of the Season will tiptoe into the world in just a month, on Tuesday, October 6, to be precise. But I’m telling you first, because everything I write begins here, where some of the holiest stirrings of my life have been birthed. 

I’m going to leave you a few little excerpts, and the peeks at the pages and cover above.  

But first, one penultimate thing: my editor promised Stillness would be beautiful, and I am humbled to say that I do think it is. I was delighted to discover that Abingdon hired a brilliant book designer — Jeff Jansen is his name and, among other brilliant strokes, he’s the genius who designed a few wonders for best-selling author Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts.

I gasped the first time I saw the red bird perched on the red-berried bough on the all-white cover Jeff designed for Stillness, and once I turned the pages, spotted the hand-drawings of the fat-cheeked raccoon, the wily squirrels, the pine cones, the gingerbread babies and the bright shiny kettle, I swooned again and again. When the first finished copy landed with a plop on my doorstep a few weeks ago, my knees nearly buckled when I discovered they’d graced Stillness with that rarest of book-publishing graces: the sewn-in satin ribbon that might mark your travels through the season soon upon us, the season of stillness, and so many wonders awaiting. 

bookplate

Though the peddling part of book publishing is the part that breaks me out in hives, my publisher would be not too pleased if I failed to mention that you can pre-order Stillness now from your favorite indie bookstore, from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Cokesbury, the sales arm of Abingdon. The marketing team already sent me custom-made bookplates, so in this age of virtual book signing and book tours, I can — and happily will — scribble a love note, sign it, date it, and send it off for you to affix to the title page, whether it’s a gift for yourself or someone you love. Just leave me a note, with instruction, and via email I can get your mailing address, and ship off your bookplate soon as your books arrive….

so now you know the story behind the pages of Stillness…

and now, a few little excerpts, one from each month…

*excerpt from “December: Sacred Invitation”:

December, I like to think, is when God cloaks the world—or at least the northern half of the globe—in what amounts to a prayer shawl. December’s darkness invites us inward, the deepening spiral—paradoxical spiral—we deepen to ascend, we vault from new depths. 

At nightfall in December, at that blessed in-between hour, when the last seeds of illumination are scattered, and the stars turn on—all at once as if the caretakers of wonder have flown through the heavens sparking the wicks—we too, huddled in our kitchens or circled round our dining room tables, we strike the match. We kindle the flame. We shatter darkness with all the light we can muster.

Here’s a radical thought, for December or otherwise: Live sacramentally—yes, always. But most emphatically in the month of December. To be sacramental is to lift even the most ordinary moments into Holiness. Weave the liturgical into the everyday.

December is invitation. December is God whispering, Please. Come. Closer. Discover abundance within. Marvel at the gifts Ive bestowed. Listen for the pulsing questions within, the ones that beg—finally—to be asked, to be answered. Am I doing what I love? Am I living the life I was so meant to live? Am I savoring, or simply slogging along? 

December invites us be our most radiant selves. And we find that radiance deep down in the heart of the darkness. The darkness, our chambered nautilus of prayer. The coiled depths to which we turn in silence, to await the still small voice that whispers the original love song. Chorus and refrain, inscribed by the One who Breathed the First Breath: Make room in your heart this blessed December, make room where the birthing begins.

*excerpt from The January Kitchen (the section headnote plus the table of contents, which includes essays + recipes):

The January Kitchen:

As the curtain rises on the newborn year, we find ourselves tucking away tins, now emptied of all but the last sweet crumbs, vestige of merriment, of splurge upon splurge. 

Hibernation—an old-fashioned word for hygge (that au courant Danish term for “cozy comforts”)—beckons. Which might be why depth of winter is the season that draws me closest to the cookstove. I practically purr puttering around the kitchen. All-day pots bubble away, lulling me into dreamy meditative fugues. Slow cooking, I’d wager, was made for snowy days, stay-inside days. Doughs rise. Wine-steeped stews simmer. Chowders thicken. Fruity compotes collapse into jewel-toned ooze. It’s all a plethora of stove- top seduction, as what you pitch into the pot gives way, a few hours in, to heat and spice and saintly patience. It’s kitchen adagio, the slow dance of surrender. And at the cookstove, trophies come dolloped on fork or soupspoon. Either way, you won’t want to dash too soon. 

(The January Kitchen table of contents…only recipes listed here)

Worth-the-Wait Porridge

Elixir (Bread) Pudding

Cure-All Mac and Cheese

Beef Stew with Pomegranate Seeds, Nestled Beside Aromatic Rice

Winter Salad: Roasted Fennel, Red Onion, and Orange

*and, finally, a wee little bit from the Count-Your-Blessings Calendar for February…(just three of the fourteen included here…)

A Count-Your-Blessings Calendar

Fourteen Blessings for February

Here, fourteen blessings to wrap yourself in the end-of-winter’s hardest won gifts—peace, quiet, and the contentment that feels most like purring. Especially when you’re bursting to break out of February’s days upon days of dreary.

Blessing 1: The earth’s turning dollops one more minute of sunlight onto each February day. Ancient Celtic spirituality considered dawn and dusk especially permeable thresholds, “a time that is not a time,” when the sacred is more apt to seep through. Consecrate the sacred hour. Tiptoe outdoors once twilight deepens into darkness. Read the night sky. When you spy a twinkling star, whisper a prayer of infinite thanks for heaven’s lamplights. 

Candlemas (Feb. 2): Amid the winter’s darkness, pause to consider the blessing of the candles, ordained to illuminate the hours. Fill your kitchen table, gathering a flock of orphan candlesticks. Adorn with winter branches and berries clinging to the bough.

Blessing 3: Behold the hush of snowfall. The flakes free-falling past the porch light, their hard-angled intricacies and puffy contours tumbling, tumbling, lulling all the world and its weary citizens into that fugue state that comes with heavy snow—when at last we take in breath, and hold it. Fill our empty lungs.

***

hmm, not sure what stirred me to write this whole meander with grown-up capital letters; perhaps the whisper to act like a real-live someone with her name on the cover of a book. anyway, i’m sure this is more than you ever wanted to know. but my dear mother has been asking for weeks and i’ve been sketchy with details, so this is — mostly — for her.

questions, comments, big giant thoughts? more aptly, do you shudder at the notion of winter, or do you — like me — relish the hygge months?

my bunker of books

stack o books

it’s dawned on me, as i haul my load of books from nook to nook, that i just might be building myself a bunker of books, a wall of words to crouch down beside, steer clear of bombs and missiles shrieking overhead. all these long and fractured months, the one sure solace, the one oasis is the place i go when i crack a book, haul out a pen (if the book belongs to me and not my kindly library), turn page after page.

i tend to read in stacks, one book begets another. one wise soul points me toward another, and like a sparrow pursuing trail of seed, i follow. hungrily.

the corner of the world into which i’ve staked my flag–of late–is the landscape at the intersection of the sacred and the natural world. it’s a country with permeable borders, ensuring easy entry into neighboring poetry, and down the chute of saints (modern-day sectarian as well as the medieval and monastic kind). the immediate agenda is research for a book i just might write, but really it’s because i could spend all the days of my life catching up on books and minds i missed in my earlier blurrier chapters.

it seems a safe bet, does it not, that the minds that have survived across the ages might be the ones with something wise to say, to remember, to press against my heart. and so i backfill with the classics (john muir and c.s.lewis, and even justice william o. douglas, in the current stack), and move fluidly through the ones hot off the press.

against the backdrop of the daily news, it’s a much quieter terrain. surely, a sacred one. one infused with those rare things, in case of fire, we’d grab and run: shimmering epiphanies, the ones that shimmy open the chambers of our hearts; words so wise we commit them to memory almost as soon as they fall across our lips; poetries that soothe the soul, while simultaneously making us see anew, snapping the whole tableau into finer-grain focus.

it’s the underpinning of my everyday, my subplot to live simply, nearly monastically, amid a world of noise and unceasing distraction. no wonder they call this the age of attention deficit disorder. when’s the last time you sat on a log in the woods, drinking in the symphony of birdsong and silence?

all this to bring me to the latest soulful book i reviewed for my friends in the books section of the chicago tribune. it’s my one excuse for reading that comes with (scant) paycheck. i still pinch myself to think i get to read for work. and every once in a while one of those books takes me to a kingdom i never knew. there seems to be a backlog at the tribune these days, and one of the most glorious books i’ve read in a long while is still sitting on the runway. (here’s a peek into the future: it’s the late great brian doyle’s one long river of song, a collection of take-your-breath-away essays that will leave you gobsmacked at the capacity of the human heart and soul. and if i was allowed to post here before my review runs in the tribune, i surely would. but alas, not allowed…) in the meantime, here’s the review that just posted the other day, a collection of the sermons and speeches of chicago’s very own, rev. jesse l. jackson, sr.

‘Keeping Hope Alive’

By Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr, edited by Grace Ji-Sun Kim, Orbis, 256 pages, $25

Jesse Jackson’s sermons, now collected, stir the soul

By BARBARA MAHANY |CHICAGO TRIBUNE

The pages of “Keeping Hope Alive: Sermons and Speeches of Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr.” are separated into two sections; one for sermons, delivered in churches, and another for speeches, delivered in arenas most aptly tagged “political.” The thing that leaps out most emphatically, though, is that the separation doesn’t matter at all: For Jackson, one of the great orators of the civil rights movement in America and around the world, religion is political, and politics is religion. One without the other is rootless and decidedly dismissible.

Over the last half century, Jackson — the Chicago-based founder of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, ordained Baptist minister, and twice Democratic presidential candidate — rightly earned his slot as one of the soul-stirringest preachers on the national stage. He proudly occupies his podium at the intersection of religion and politics: He lives and breathes the Gospel as well as the moral imperative to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, reach out to the oppressed, the stranger, the ones unjustly shoved beyond the margins.

As he beautifully writes in his concluding remarks (perhaps the most powerful piece in the collection), “When I traveled I stayed in people’s homes instead of downtown hotels. Coal miners’ homes. Meat cutters’, housing projects, gang bangers’ in LA. And when I was speaking I saw them. My refrain at the time was, ‘I understand.’ I knew who I was talking to — the woman, the coal miner …. And I wasn’t quoting Scripture, I was scripturing.”

jesse jackson book

Indeed, Jackson’s most profound gift seems to be his capacity for not seeing the line between religion and politics. The Jesus found in these pages — a selective sampling of those rare few sermons (six) or speeches (19) actually written down, compiled for the first time and edited by Grace Ji-Sun Kim, an associate professor of theology at Earlham School of Religion — is a deeply personal Jesus, one Jackson seamlessly translates into one who knows the pain and struggle of whomever Jackson is preaching to. “Jesus was the victim of the most horrific lynching on a tree,” Jackson declared in an Easter sermon at his Rainbow PUSH headquarters in 2003. “The cross was Rome’s electric chair,” he says later in the same sermon, dissolving the line between persecutions ancient and current.

As powerful as each sermon or speech is on its own merit, it’s the sweep of history that most startles and gives weight to nearly every sentence gathered in these pages. Jackson was there, just below the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in April 1968. Jackson was there, in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1990, when Nelson Mandela walked out of jail on Robben Island after 27 years locked behind its prison gates.

His is a hard-won, authentically lived moral authority, and now, Jackson writes, “I’m old and I have Parkinson’s, but once I was young. I went to jail with my classmates when I was nineteen, trying to use the public library, and now I’m seventy-seven …. After all these years, what remains for me is God is a source of mystery and wonder. Scripture holds up. The righteous are not forsaken. We’ve come a long way since slavery time. But we’re not finished yet. Running for freedom is a long-distance race.”

Reading Jackson, absorbing the clarity of his moral vision, should be required. It’s fuel for the miles yet to be run. “Keeping Hope Alive” is the place to begin.

Barbara Mahany is the author of several books, including, “Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door.”

Twitter: @BarbaraMahany

what books are in your bunker?