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Category: joy of reading

in praise of eeyore

in all the annals of children’s literature, there deserves to be a shelf devoted to one gloomy donkey. eeyore is his name, a name derived from a phonetic spelling of the sound the farmyard friend is alleged to make. i say “alleged” because i cannot claim that i’ve leaned against a split-rail fence and listened in for just the way he hees and haws.

i write in praise of this misanthropic fellow, forlorn as the day is long, this chap who ambles through the hundred-acre wood tossing out lines wholly hollowed of all hope––for instance, “it’s not much of a tail, but i’m attached to it,” or, when someone pins a red balloon to where his tail went missing, he sighs, “sure is a cheerful color. guess i’ll have to get used to it”––because just yesterday i felt his every pain, and found myself cheered to be so deeply in his shadow.

ups and downs of EKG

it was an eeyore sort of day, and i was in an eeyore sort of slump (my best, best friend had three biopsies the day before, someone else was positive for covid, and i’ve not shaken the last of my own red-ringed devil although i’m due to board a plane to NYC tomorrow). and it made me think how fine a thing it was and is for a child to have an eeyore on the shelf, to feel some kinship when the world turns gloomy grey and a few good hours of slumping around in self-defined misery is not such a bad thing. it’s part of human nature. etched into the very dips and hollows of any old EKG, for starters. and it made me think that our gloomier angels deserve a moment’s appreciation. so here i am appreciating.

if not for grey, wouldn’t rosy raspberry be just another shade from the far side of the color wheel?

i’ve known souls who never seem to veer off the happy plane, and frankly they worry me. it simply cannot be a fact of nature that optimism is ever present. i like a little deviation in my moods. how on earth can you fully appreciate the good days, if you’ve not felt the uptick from down in the doldrums?

of course, i’m not rooting myself down where misery loves its company. like cloudy skies, it passes. and, after all, by day’s end at least a few of yesterday’s bumps had smoothed (the kid with positive covid PCR–a kid hunkered down in our basement just the night before–took another test and this one proved him negative; and this meant we didn’t need to seal our own college kid in a cellophane wrap, keep him home from college for an extra week, figure out just how to get him off to school without infecting every other passenger in sight).

all i’m saying is that i am grateful that in turning the pages of alan alexander milne’s classic children’s tale, a wee child sodden with sadness might find a kindred shadow in the likes of dear friend eeyore. no one likes to be alone in sorrow. i know very few who would appreciate a swift “get over it” when feeling wearied by the world, with no quick fix in sight.

and so i burrow against the contours of the dreary donkey. i embrace his full expression of how dark it sometimes feels. and, unlike eeyore, i look forward to the dawn when the sky is once again awash in pretty pink.

i can’t quite think of a question, so i offer simply this: if you’re feeling eeyore glum, may you find some tiny shred of solace in knowing you are not alone. one thing to contemplate might be this: what are the few ties to hope that sometimes pull you from the doldrums? do you have any tricks up your sleeve that chase the clouds away?

please pray for my beloved auntie M, as she is known in these parts, and where she has been my number one love angel since the very day she walked into my life—and my heart—my sophomore year of college.

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

when suddenly you find yourself on summer retreat

tumbling out of my bedsheet, planting my stiff toes on the hardwood planks, it dawned on me that i’ll be home alone most of today. and tomorrow. and the day after. it dawned on me that through happenstance and the spontaneity that is defining this summer, i’ll soon be immersed in a summer’s retreat. the sort of stretch of time that clouds my vision in gauzy doris-day blurred edges, that nearly dizzies me, and surely makes me giddy.

it’s a rarity these days to be home alone under this old roof. and i’m a girl who needs a bit of solitude to think things through, to soak up simple joys and silence, to see a stretch of unoccupied time unspooled before me, far as i can picture.

here’s how i happened into it, this elixir of time and possibility: the college kid, the one whose dorm i run all summer, he’s off to get a taste of a big ten school up wisconsin’s way, and my sweet mate, he’s off on the jersey shore being an angel to his mother. so that leaves me. and a tall stack of poets to while away a weekend. to take in summer in my own sweet tempo. to saunter through a farmer’s market. to pluck fistfuls of herbs from my very own patch of farm. to sleep with windows wide open and shades not pulled (the better to catch dawn’s first light). to listen to the ticking of the clocks. and watch the blue jays chase away the noisy sparrows.

any day now there’s an editor who’s going to ping me on my little clamshell, and suddenly i’ll be on deadline, in rewrite-and-edit phase of a manuscript now idling on the book-assembly line. but in the meantime, since her calendar got backlogged, i’m on guilt-free time. i can manage not to accomplish much in the writing department and not feel too, too guilty. after all, she’s the one who called time-out.

so here i am with lots of thoughts and a rare dollop of time to let them soak me through and through. thinking while puttering is a very fine endeavor, one especially fit for summer, when the puttering is plenty. there are weeds to mindlessly pull. and hoses that beg to be pointed in the right direction while thumbs are put to work, adjusting the spray with simple pivot and bend in the thumb joint. there are salads to heap on plates. and proseccos to be poured. there are pages to turn, and windows to stare out, though never mindlessly for a million curiosities pass by each and every day.

a summer’s retreat is an especially fine thing. because, like upstairs windows left wide open all through the night, the breeze comes easy, the air is soft, and i’ve little to do but lie there, soaking in its wonders.

the only certainty of this week’s-end ahead is the stack of poets idling beside me, calling me in whispers to please, please, please crack open each and every spine. here’s who’s on tap:

Wislawa Szymborską, the Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet, whose 27 poems in Here, a 2009 collection, consider life on earth, from the microbe to the apocalypse. It’s said to be “a virtuoso of form, line, and thought.” And, by my taste, it’s one of the great book covers of recent time. (see right).

The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky, by Ellen Meloy. (2002) Call me quirky (in case you don’t yet) but I have an insatiable love of essays on otherwise little considered flecks of life: punctuation marks, colors, et cetera et cetera, and so the anthropology of turquoise is right up my alley.

A trilogy of American poets: Philip Larkin: The Complete Poems; Otherwise: New and Selected Poems, by Jane Kenyon, in whose New Hampshire farmhouse (the one she shared with poet Donald Hall) and barn I once spent a morning; The Best of It: New and Selected Poems, by Kay Ryan, U.S. Poet Laureate 2008-2010. This trio of poets promises to bring a wealth of deep sighs as their way with words is, for me, far better than the most sumptuous deep-tissue massage.

And, finally, I Belong Here: A Journey Along the Backbone of Britain, by Anita Sethi, a just-released book from Bloomsbury I’m reviewing…..on the cover, Lucy Jones promises, “This book will make the world a better place.” I’m all in.

and that’s how i’ll be unfurling this lazy stretch of most necessary time.

how would you spend a lazy stretch of necessary time, a summer’s sudden and unanticipated retreat?

the fresh-washed feel of now….

long ago, at the kitchen table where i grew up, the dad i loved, the one whose words seeped deep into corners of my brain as if etched in perma-ink, he was something of a walking-talking bursting-at-the-seams circa-1950s steel-cased filing cabinet, one so stuffed with aphorisms you could only shut the drawers with the heftiest of heave-hos. he had a witticism for everything, and every occasion. and though i can’t remember precisely the way he unfurled it, there was one along the lines of “the only good thing about banging your head against a brick wall is how good it feels when you stop.” only his version was pithier by multiples. 

i’ve been hearing some variation of those words rumbling round my little noggin these past few weeks, as slowly, elusively the fog begins to lift, we ease off our masks, and tiptoe back into some shadowy semblance of the life we used to know. the brick wall is crumbling. the skull banging into forged cement is winding down to diminuendo. 

and while plenty murky, especially round the margins, there are frames of the now-rolling picture show that indeed feel sharper, crisper, more vividly infused with color than i ever remember. the most quotidian of tasks feel, well, almost celebratory. certainly a relief. 

heck, i walked in a CVS drug store yesterday and ambled — no, sauntered — over to the toothbrush aisle, took my time searching for what i needed instead of grabbing and later discovering i’d grabbed wrong. i didn’t even hold my breath when the dude in biker shorts brushed by close enough for me to get a whiff of his perspiratory beads (a polite way of saying sweat). then, for kicks (a double-header that would have been unheard of just weeks ago), i lollygagged into the grocery store and actually hugged someone with whom i share no DNA, nor the same front door or roof. in other words — egad — someone from outside the confines of my months-long strictly-imposed stay-away-from-me bubble. 

perhaps you, too, have noticed this phenomenon as we emerge from the COVID caves where we’ve been hibernating through two long winters, two springs, a summer, and a fall. so much these days is bristling with an extra tinge of sweetness. we can breathe again. the people we love flow in and out of our houses, and we are paying attention. we are relishing. the bliss of conversation within the six-foot circumference. the occasions when we might be without mask, and thus can once again bring to our expressiveness the whole complement of facial moves and twitches from the nose on south, those parts so long eclipsed from public consumption. 

of course, i’m wary of the calendar filling too swiftly, too mindlessly, but so far that’s not happening. maybe the new dialed-down pace of things will stick around awhile. 

mostly, i hope this fresh-washed feel lingers. i’m perfectly content with one foot still in sticking-close-to-home mode and the other freed from inhaling fear with every half-breathed breath.  

what i love best about this now is watching a kid i love come and go, flow in and out of summer the way summer is supposed to be. he’s only been home three days, but each one of those days has been the very definition of conviviality, of a kid being nothing more, nothing less, than a plain old happy-go-lucky mask-less kid. 

this kid and all kids, in every corner of this republic, are long overdue for anything akin to normalcy. they’re starved for all the sweet spots that make the ardors of growing up bearable. it’s been awful to watch kids confined to dorm rooms, ferrying dinner in plastic-domed containers back from dining halls, to eat in solitude. it’s been awful to know that friday-night fun meant sitting alone in your dorm room, sharing screens on a wide web of laptops, to play remotely — doors closed and towels all but stuffed between the cracks to keep corona off the premises. 

it’s the proportional cost of COVID that’s tipped the scales, made it doubly hard for some among the whole of us. for kids from kindergarten through college, the fraction of their lives stifled by hoping to steer clear of the red-ringed virus is not insignificant. the lower the denominator, the higher the proportion of their little lives has been masked and just plain odd. 1/24th is bad; 1/8th is triple worse. 

at the other end of the age range, it’s proportionality of another kind: the fraction of years left on one life’s lease. our old next-door neighbor, the spriteliest, feistiest of 94-year-olds, one who still spends his best days at the racetrack, laying down bets on thoroughbreds, was making a lunch date with the resident architecture critic a couple weeks back when suddenly he offered perspective i’ve not forgotten. “when you’re 94 and you don’t have much time left, a year lost is everything,” he intoned into the speaker phone. again, it’s a fraction of declining denominators — 1/2, 1/3, a parade of fractions not pretty.

as we all stand back and try to gain some semblance of deeper understanding of the aftershocks, as we now clock our lives in BC and AC, before and after COVID, the kaleidoscope will ever shift. for now though, there’s a sweetness in the air. everything old is new again. getting on a plane. sliding in a cab. parking yourself in the bleachers at the ball park. congregating on the sidewalk with old long-unseen friends. dashing in the grocery store for that one forgotten item. or listening for the click of the front door, when the kid you love ambles in the door, after a long summer’s evening staring at the stars. and you didn’t once worry that he might catch COVID.

and, now, for a bit of summer reading….

it was my ritual of summer, signaling the start of kick-back time, soon as the last of the school bells rang, we were piling in the station wagon, unpiling at the door to the town library, dashing to the desk to ask the librarian if i could sign up for summer reading, being handed the folded card, filling in my name, piling my arms with books, scurrying home to read — all in hopes of the ink-stamped blot that would count the books i swallowed whole each and every summer. it’s a rite not outgrown. my hair’s now the color of old aluminum pipes, but summer reading is a class all its own, one that belongs to all. best accompanied by nighttime’s crickets and the blinking lights of fireflies. best lubricated, in the heat of mid-afternoon, with tall sweaty glasses of mint-swirled waters. and even better if read from a perch, be it tree branch or (geriatrically-approved) solidly-grounded reading nook that safely and securely looks into the trees.  

i’m proposing summer reading here, though what you read is whatever you choose. no groupthink here. i’m starting with annie dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk, a collection of meditations “like polished stones,” and french novelist muriel barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, or as my adorable mother-in-law suggested, “it’s got a porcupine in the title.” and it’s a charmer, set in an elegant Parisian hôtel particulier, it was a best-seller in france, (originally published in 2006), and though the New York Times subtly scowls that it “belongs to a distinct subgenre: the accessible book that flatters readers with its intellectual veneer,” i say label me “accessible” this summer. 

the Times goes on to tell us: 

The novel’s two narrators alternate chapters, but the book is dominated by Renée, a widowed concierge in her 50s who calls herself “short, ugly and plump,” a self-consciously stereotypical working-class nobody. She is also an autodidact — “a permanent traitor to my archetype,” as she drolly puts it — who takes refuge in aesthetics and ideas but thinks life will be easier if she never lets her knowledge show. Even the slippers she wears as camouflage, she says, are so typical, “only the coalition between a baguette and a beret could possibly contend in the domain of cliché.”

Her unlikely counterpart is Paloma, a precocious 12-year-old whose family lives in the fashionable building Renée cares for. Paloma believes the world is so meaningless that she plans to commit suicide when she turns 13.

…Both skewer the class-conscious people in the building: Paloma observes the inanity of her politician father and Flaubert-quoting mother, while Renée knows that such supposedly bright lights never see past the net shopping bag she carries, its epicurean food hidden beneath turnips. Both appreciate beauty in Proustian moments of elongated time. 

who’s in? and what titles might mark your beginning in this, the summer when we slink our way out of COVID hibernation??

and, how’s your emergence from the Age of Corona unfolding?

skunk update: he’s still on the loose, despite our wiliest of efforts. just this morning, evidence that he tunneled right out of the wire escape hatch we thought led straight into his take-me-to-the-woods case…..

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?

undulations of the everyday

IMG_0985and, zap!, like that we’re back to the real world. the everyday. cinderella sweeping the hearth after the ball. our sparkly slippers are somewhere left behind, though the sparkliest shoe i’ve ever slipped on was the mary jane i polished with a glob of vaseline back back when i was about to see my grandmama (she who would notice such things, who would remark on a gloss-less mary jane).

one kid pulled out of the station 12 days ago, is nestled back by his keyboard in connecticut, churning out words as a foreman in detroit once churned out carburetors and mufflers. only my kid’s business is complex legal puzzles, ones i stretch to comprehend. the other kid, the one still kid enough to let me make him one last batch of his favorite mac-n-cheese, he’s in countdown mode, leaving just the other side of this wallop of a storm hurling our way.

the tree, my sumptuously fat fraser fir of a tree, it’s missing from the corner it’s lit up these past three festive weeks. it’s stripped naked and currently residing on its prickly limbs, toppled by the winds that are hurling forth that storm. for now, it’s just outside the kitchen door, my way-station of sorts, a mid-point when i can’t quite bear to haul it shamelessly to the alley.

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socrates: 469–399 B.C.E.

i’m back to my business of books: reading them, writing about them, maybe even writing one or two in the year (or years) to come. somehow i seem to have made it my business to read with a ferocity that teeters toward insatiable. one big thinker leads to another and another, as if i’m the freshman in college and my curriculum is as old as the ages. this week, somehow, it was socrates under whose trance i fell. i can’t stop thinking about the bug-eyed thinker whose devotion to big ideas, to the why behind it all, got him a big ol’ spoonful of hemlock, and it makes me wonder why it is we as a human race are so quick to expunge the ones who think outside the box, the ones who try in vain to correct the course of human decency and depth.

because it’s the new year, i tackled my wild herd of books unread. i lined them up in little piles, marked certain ones with a sticker of urgency. i galloped through a few of those: mary oliver, first up; thomas berry, next. david whyte’s essentials, a wee slip of a book proving what comes in smallest packages might well pack the biggest wallop. it’s a collection of his poems from a span of 35 years (collected by his wife, which adds a note of devotion that melts me), and each one comes with a whisper, whyte’s from-the-wings tale of how and why the poem came to be. whyte is a poet-philosopher with a degree in marine biology, making him exquisitely trained to look and look closely. this line from the flap jacket gets at my devotion to him and his work: “this collection…forms a testament to whyte’s most closely-held understanding — that life cannot be apportioned as one thing or another; rather it is best lived as the way between, made beautiful by darkness as well as light, at its essence both deeply solitary and profoundly communal.”

and this first poem, perhaps, holds necessary wisdom for the new year. it’s titled, start close in, and here are two stanzas (never mind, here’s the whole thing):

Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
thing
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.

Start with
the ground
you know,
the pale ground
beneath your feet,
your own
way to begin
the conversation.

Start with your own
question,
give up on other
people’s questions,
don’t let them
smother something
simple.

To hear
another’s voice,
follow
your own voice,
wait until
that voice

becomes an
intimate
private ear
that can
really listen
to another.

Start right now
take a small step
you can call your own
don’t follow
someone else’s
heroics, be humble
and focused,
start close in,
don’t mistake
that other
for your own.

Start close in,
don’t take
the second step
or the third,
start with the first
thing
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.

–david whyte: essentials

whyte writes in the poem’s afterword that it was inspired by dante’s commedia, and “it reflects the difficult act we all experience, of trying to make a home in the world again when everything has been taken away; the necessity of stepping bravely again, into what looks like a dark wood, when the outer world as we know it has disappeared…”

david whyte, it seems, is a very fine way to enter into the undulations of the everyday, the ones that follow, one after another, after another…

bless you in this new chance to quietly, certainly, begin again. may your journey be intentional….

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who will be your guideposts through this new and fresh terrain? 

book for the soul: sister helen prejean’s “river of fire”

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i’ve been waiting to tell you about this one, one that pulled me in from the very first pages.

here’s how it begins:

“They killed a man with fire one night. 

Strapped him in an oaken chair and pumped electricity into his body until he was dead.

His killing was a legal act.

No religious leaders protested his killing that night. 

But I was there. I saw it with my own eyes. 

And what I saw set my soul on fire–

a fire that burns in me still.”

that’s the very beginning of Sister Helen Prejean’s fiery baptism into her role as the Dead Man Walking nun who, ever since that night in the killing chamber, has devoted her days to fighting mightily and gutsily against the death penalty. and as she writes a few paragraphs later in the preface to her latest book, River of Fire, a memoir at once hilarious, soulful, and intimately detailed, recounting the spiritual journey that drew her to the executioner’s cell that night: “Once when I was inside the Louisiana death house awaiting an execution, Captain John Rabelais, a guard, asked, ‘What’s a nun doing in a place like this?'”

River of Fire is her answer to that question. and it’s as soulful a book as i’ve read in a rather long while, and a glorious read to boot! as i didn’t write in my review for the Chicago Tribune, i wound up hauling that book wherever i went for a few days, carving out hours and space in which to sidle up beside Sister Helen, who came to feel like the nun i didn’t have in fourth grade. oh, i loved sister leonora mary, but she wielded a sharp-tipped pointer, kept every hair on her head in hiding, and sure never told me the tales of the loves in her life, nor referred to herself as “a sort of free-range chicken version of a nun.”

sister helen is, by her own admission, highly free-range. and that’s how i best like my chicken — and, apparently, my nuns.

oh, lordy, to sit down beside her in real time…who knows the tales that she’d tell in the confessional of kitchen-table tête-à-tête?!

turns out, two fine friends here at this very table know her well (one is and one was a sister of the congregation of st. joseph, the very order of nuns to which Sister Helen belongs, and one is spelled out in the shortlist of acknowledgements at the end of River of Fire). both can — and animatedly do — unspool a skein of Sister Helen stories: how she shows up at sundown on the front stoop fully equipped and raring to go for a long night of story-swapping; how she holds any audience anywhere utterly spell-bound and never brings so much as a note to the podium; how in real life she’s the real deal — every bit the iconoclast and rabble-rouser she seems on the pages of her books.

before i plop down my tribune review, i’ll add this one community service announcement: sister helen will be at The Well Spirituality Center in lagrange on wednesday, october 30 at 7 p.m. (click the link above, and secure your $25 seat in the room). without notes, of course, she’ll be telling tales from the pages of her life and her books. and, as she does in her book, she’ll leave you laughing one instant, and covered in goosebumps the next, so utterly stirring is her brand of free-range wisdom and soulful epiphany.

here’s the review, as it ran in the tribune:

‘River of Fire,’ Sister Helen Prejean’s new memoir, is as irreverent as it is wise

By BARBARA MAHANY

CHICAGO TRIBUNE | OCT 02, 2019

‘River of Fire’

By Helen Prejean, Random House, 289 pages, $27

Sister Helen Prejean is known as the nun from New Orleans who wrote prayerfully and piercingly about witnessing death-row electrocutions in a Louisiana prison. That her book about her experience, “Dead Man Walking,” rocket-blasted to best-seller status, spawned a movie, an Academy Award-winning performance, a play, and an opera that’s been produced on five continents, says something undeniable about her storytelling powers.

Prejean has done it again in her new memoir, “River of Fire.” While the subject here — her own spiritual evolution — might not be as harrowing as what she terms “government killings,” Prejean’s capacity for truth-telling, for holding little back, makes for can’t-put-it-down page-turning.

A truer title might have been “Inside the Nunnery: 1,001 Things You Were Afraid To Ask.” And Prejean tells plenty. We start innocently enough, reading about life beneath a nun’s habit of so much black serge she felt “mummy-wrapped.” She recounts the story of a nun friend once mistaken in a fabric store for a “bolt of black material,” so voluminous was the to-the-floor flesh-masking swirl of standard-issue black wool. Prejean holds back little in detailing a seven-year relationship with a hard-drinking priest, a celibate bond, to be sure, but one charged with more than some of us might ever have imagined vis-a-vis our fourth-grade nuns.

But Prejean isn’t practically a household name in social justice circles and beyond because of her knack for titillation. She oozes hard-won wisdom, soulful epiphanies, and wraps it all in breathtaking humility that shrinks any distance between author and reader. The whole way through, “River of Fire” reads as if a tête-à-tête on the schoolhouse steps, where one sits beside a beloved, much-wiser soulmate and sops up a lifetime’s worth of lessons learned, often the hard and roundabout way.

Most of all, Prejean cuts through church-preach. Time and again, she zeroes in unswervingly on the essence of radical non-conformist Jesus, the one who preached love, the one who reached out to those on the ragged margins of society.

And she’s laugh-out-loud funny. And irreverent. Sometimes, both at once. Writing about the saints — Joan of Arc in particular, the saint who was “burned at the stake on charges of heresy and the unpardonable sin of cross-dressing” — Prejean writes matter-of-factly: “I just know I’d never be a good martyr. I burned my hand once making brownies and I nursed my wound and talked about my wound and held up my poor burned hand for all to see and sympathize with. Burn at the stake? For something as trivial as holding beliefs considered to be a little unorthodox? Be burned alive for that?”

Don’t mistake her narrative hijinks or her yarn-spinning capacities as sideshows to dilute an otherwise indelible confessional and testament to the power of a life devoted to God and godliness. Rather, it’s the pure joy of reading Prejean — her gift for knocking herself off any saintly pedestal, making the reader believe that we might all leap into her river of holy fire — that makes this a spiritual work of high and radiant order.

“I have a hunch I’m going to be waking up till the moment I die,” she writes. And in so writing, the good sister opens up for all of us the doorway into our own humble stumblings toward what can only be termed the lifelong walk toward holiness.

Her parting words, almost as if she’s leaning in, there on the schoolhouse step, where you’ve now been sitting side-by-side for 286 pages, as if imploring one last life-or-death time: “I urge you to get in the conversation on human rights and stay in it. It’s the only way the arc of the universe bends toward justice.”

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

Twitter @BarbaraMahany

and what fine reads have you read of late?

let the page turn begin…

summer read

the summer porch is back in business, the sacred art of staring through screens into the first light of dawn and the lingering hours of twilight into starlight and moonlight. there’s a big old wicker chair in there, once dragged in from the hand-me-down bin, one pointed straight into the white pine and the little bird house on a pole where all day long the sparrows or chickadees flit and dart and chatter. i’ve taken up my position therein, and as many hours as the day will allow, that’s where you’re most likely to find me.

even this weekend. by day’s end, long after nightfall, both boys i birthed will be asleep in this old house (thunderstorms, don’t dare fudge our flight paths). the older one is flying home late tonight to be here when the not-so-little-anymore one walks across the graduation stage on sunday. it’s a weekend that’ll be packed with as much high-altitude soaring as we — and a host of jubilant high-schoolers — can possibly pack in, but just as emphatically i plan on planting myself for a few long hours of soulful conversation out there in the room on the verge of the garden. there’s a whole lot of catch-up to catch up on, the sort best done when knees rub against knees, when the folds of skin on someone’s face are squinched or softened in real time, right before your eyes.

i admittedly won’t be doing much turning of pages this weekend — not the literal kind, anyway. in the midst of a real-life page turn, bound pages are usually put aside. so while i dash off to fill the fridge, pin up the welcome home and happy graduation signs, and pick up the rented white dinner jacket (it’s new trier, and that’s the way they’ve done graduation since at least 1936), i am leaving you with the summer reading roundup i wrote for the chicago tribune.

it apparently ran in the paper a couple weeks ago (saturday, may 18), but for the life of me i can’t find it, so here tis, in its original form. my lovely editor asked me to pick three books i’d want to slow read this summer, three that might especially stir the soul, so i went with three whose glorious magnificent writers are no longer among us. mary oliver and w.s. merwin both died within the past few months — mary O. in january, merwin in march. brian doyle died just two years ago; he was only 60.

i promise you a sumptuous summer — at least in the reading corner — should you crack open any one of these…

Pause to reflect on three greatssoul books summer

By Barbara Mahany

There are those for whom summer reading is synonymous with plot-thick page-turners, guzzled beachside or poolside, covers splattered with sunscreen. For others, the indolent season takes an opposite tack: it’s all about catch-up, savoring deep dives into the life lists of authors who’ve long been our polestars. Especially when death brings the coda, in the wake of a beloved author’s last penned utterance. It’s in the spirit of relishing these now-extinguished luminaries’ earlier works, titles forgotten or celebrated, that these three collections constitute a summer’s holy trinity…

The Essential W.S. Merwin

By W.S. Merwin, edited by Michael Wiegers, Copper Canyon, 200 pages, $18

The fittingest way to fill the silence that followed the death in March of W.S. Merwin, the late great Poet Laureate of the United States, who had received every major literary accolade, including two Pulitzer Prizes and the National Book Award, is to crack open the collection of his poems and prose deemed “Essential.” 

Apt title, indeed, as this definitive distillation traces a poetic legacy that’s been said to have “changed the landscape of American letters,” a compilation spanning seven decades of Merwin’s often spare unpunctuated poetry, translations, and lesser-known prose narratives. 

Merwin was, is, and always will be essential. 

“Through daily practice and attention, [Merwin] has created an incredible model for a way of existing on earth,” writes Michael Wiegers, editor-in-chief of Copper Canyon Press, who was tasked with culling nearly 50 books of Merwin poetry and another eight books of his prose. “His poems have defined for future generations what is possible in poetry and in life.”

That truth resonates through these breathtaking pages, be it Merwin’s urgent pleas to attend to this imperiled planet, or his heart-piercing excavations of the unconscious, as in his miracle of a three-line poem, “Separation,” exposing the raw edge of grief. It’s poetry turned saving grace: “Your absence has gone through me / Like thread through a needle. / Everything I do is stitched with its color.” 

Poring slowly over these pages—essential as they are—just might be the wisest prescriptive, balm for the soul, in the wake of the poet’s final absence. 

Long Life: Essays and Other Writings

By Mary Oliver, DaCapo, 120 pages, $16

The January death of Mary Oliver, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, high priestess of seeing the sacred in the natural landscape—be it weeds poking through asphalt, or a goosefish stranded at low tide—prompted a great reprise of her most memorized lines, among them, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

But her 2004 “Long Life: Essays and Other Writings,” a slim and lesser-referenced volume, holds a cache more than worthy of slow reading, pen in hand for all the underlining and asterisk-ing that begs to be inked. Poems, Oliver calls her “little alleluias,” a “way of offering praise to the world.” Prose, she explains, is more cautious, flowing forward “bravely and, often, serenely, only slowly exposing emotion.” 

You’ll find those alleluias sprinkled throughout “Long Life”—and they will take your breath away, even if only a single line, such as this untitled dab: “All the eighth notes Mozart didn’t have time to use before he entered the cloudburst, he gave to the wren.”

But it’s the essays, slowly unspooling, that might hold you in rapt attention, even on a lazy summer’s afternoon. Take, for instance, her introduction to Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great New England Transcendentalist, whom Oliver refers to as “a failed churchman,” as she extols his genius, and reminds us “the heart’s spiritual awakening is the true work of our lives.”

Traversing the few-square-mile landscape of her Cape Cod environs, Oliver finds beauty—and wisdom and prayer—in the quotidian: the town dump, the rain, her mud-caked dog. She never fails to see the sacred. And she declares, almost as anthem: “I walk in the world to love it.”

A Book of Uncommon Prayer: 100 Celebrations of the Miracle & Muddle of the Ordinary

By Brian Doyle, Sorin Books, 192 pages, $14.95

This might be the book to reach for on the rainiest, gloomiest of summer days. For it will soon have you humming. It’s joy, it’s whimsy, it’s bursting-at-the-seams blessing upon blessing. 

Tucked in this gem of a pocket-sized book, you’ll find a centenary of prayers for cashiers and checkout-counter folk, in celebration of the wicked hot shower, for little brown birds in lavender bushes, for folks who all day long “hold up STOP signs at construction sites & never appear to shriek in despair or exhaustion,” for opossums, “you poor ugly disdained perfect creatures.” And—take a breath!—in thanks for “hoes & scythes & spatulas & toothbrushes & binoculars & the myriad other tools & instruments that fit our hands so gracefully & allow us to work with a semblance of deftitude.”

And that’s just the start of it. 

No wonder Mary Oliver (see high priestess of poetry, above) praised his “passion for the human, touchable, daily life.” And Cynthia Ozick declared that “to read Brian Doyle is to apprehend, all at once, the force that drives Mark Twain and Walt Whitman and James Joyce and Emily Dickinson and Francis of Assisi and Jonah under his gourd.” 

Doyle, a poet, writer, and longtime editor of the esteemed Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, died in May, 2017, of complications from brain cancer. He’d won three Pushcart Prizes, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature. 

If you wake up and the day happens to be sunny, not rainy, turn to page 66, where you’ll find that Doyle—the prayerful poet for all occasions—has penned a very fine prayer of thanks for suntan lotion. “Which smells good; which smells like relaxed; which smells like giggling children in peculiar and hilarious bathing suits; which smells like not-working; which evokes summer…”

You might be tempted to pen Prayer No. 101: Prayer of lamentation for the inimitable, irreplaceable Brian Doyle. And so, amen.

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

what’s on your summer reading list?

book of delights, indeed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

caretaking:

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

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

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

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

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

and they matter. more than we often realize.

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

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

piles and piles of books…

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

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

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

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

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

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

eveningland: stories, by michael knight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twitter @BarbaraMahany

armchairbooks

what are you reading this summer?