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Category: joy of reading

piles and piles of books…

soulbooksstack

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?

smoky mountain runaway…

smoky mountain stroll

long ago, and far away. strolling in the smoky mountains. my big brother and me, when i was three and he was four, and we called knoxville home….

dispatch from 37383, specifically a roomy porch in the nooks of the smoky mountains, looking out over the undulations of sewanee, tennessee…. 

i’ve run away to the smoky mountains. for a few days. to absorb the rhythms of poetry and southern-steeped prose at the sewanee writers’ conference, where the likes of alice mcDermott, marilyn nelson, and bobbie ann mason bring their writing wares. and where plain folk like me wave our paper fans to stave off the summer’s steamy heat, and drink in undiluted verse.

my dear friend katie (thelma to my louise) picked me up while the stars and moon still blinked, at four bells the other morning, peeling through the city, and down the interstate before too many truckers even roused from their big-rig bunks.

i climbed aboard with visions of a wide front porch, and mountain sounds lulling the night away. i climbed aboard because when nestled alongside an old dear friend, endless conversation melts away the miles. before we’d ticked even halfway through the list of things that must be explored, dissected, analyzed, and plain old pondered, we’d hit the nashville city limits, and not long after, the sign for sewanee, 93 miles, and up, up, up, along the winding mountain road….

the first sound i uttered — upon racing to the promised porch and drinking in the strata-upon-strata of leafy-knotted mountainsides and tops fading in the far-off faraway — was wordless: nothing but the sound of breath rushing in, the sound of drinking what you’ve thirsted for — for so so long you can barely remember a time when you weren’t so parched.

since then, it’s all been as gentle an unspooling as any day — or string of days — can offer.

that porch, equipped with wicker rocking chairs and ceiling fans whose paddles stir air as thick as meringue in the making (at midday, anyway), is Runaway Headquarters, the post from which all stirrings stir.

long stanzas of pure silence — save for birdsong in the morning, and crickets in the thick of night — punctuate the hours. the orb of moon over the mountains, the only speck of light for miles and miles and miles, grows fuller by the night.

dawn begins with softening of inky night. haze settles in the cleaves of mountainside. it’s all soft, slow, seamless, from start to finish, from first fluttering of eyelid to that uncharted moment when at last the sleep surrounds. and there’s no finer first breakfast course than just-brewed coffee and a prayer cast wide across the precipice.

mid-morning, we motor down the winding half-mile gravel drive to the many winding miles of road that deliver us to “the domain,” 13,000 acres of leafy campus, the pride of Sewanee, The University of the South, a literary mountaintop mecca. one that just happens to be the sole beneficiary of Tennessee Williams’ literary estate, and, since his only sister’s death in 1996 (long institutionalized, she was the one on whom williams modeled his character laura in “the glass menagerie”), Sewanee is the holder of the copyright to every play, screenplay, poem, letter, and story the twice-Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright ever penned. curiously, his papers went to harvard and columbia universities, but Sewanee got all the dough and this: his patio furniture, his breakfast plates, a working toaster, and a small bronze nude, tucked away in the archives.

it’s a place dotted with an architecture my favorite critic dubbed “Appalachia Ox-bridge,” modeled after the oh-so-erudite Oxford University (as in the one in England), only here it’s Tennessee limestone in shades of khaki and caramel. oxonian bell towers, complete with parapets, ring out on the quarter hour. rose windows shimmer in the late afternoon light. and nearly every walk leads through or to some medieval surprise — a cloister, a fountained courtyard, a spiral stair to who knows where.

four times a day, all the good folk of the writerly conference plus townies like us gather in a quaint old hall, where oddly dying hydrangea bushes (whole bushes, potted, not stems blithely plunked in a vase) flank the podium. writers, poets, teachers rise and read, recite, preach the holy word of literary craft. i’m not alone in madly scribbling notes, and looking starry-eyed toward the rafters. trying my darnedest to seize a certain turn of phrase, or some truth just lobbed our way, one that begs for at least a moment’s pause.

our collective breath was taken away just yesterday when a southern gentleman in straw hat, seersucker jacket, and French sailor’s striped T, a fellow by the name of allan gurganus (author of “oldest living confederate widow tells all”), rose to read his latest genius in the making, a chapter from a novel he says is titled, “the erotic history of a country baptist church.” while we all rose to a rare (i’m told) standing ovation, i leaned in and whispered to katie, “that alone was worth the 800-mile drive.”

canned-ham camper cafe

you needn’t much else amid such sustenance, but we couldn’t resist the roadside stand, and lunched on perhaps the finest sandwich summer offers: sliced heirloom tomato, piled thick atop oatmeal bread, bare except for shake of salt and a grind or three of pepper. and last night’s porch supper was perhaps the finest tennessee gazpacho ever poured from a roadside canned-ham-camper-turned-cafe.

i’ve never been a natural wanderer; my nesting inclinations, hard to bend. i left a boy back home who filled me up with far more hugs than usual the day before i left; he told me plenty times that day that he’d miss me — words not often spoken by a kid a year away from packing up for college.

but sometimes a mama needs sustenance, needs silence, and poetry and birdsong to fill in all the cracks. i found it here in the mountains, here on the broad front porch from which i count the shining stitches in the night sky.

it’s been a long long time since i was home in the smokies. but, oh, sweet reunion it surely is.

thank you, beloved katie, for plucking me from the summer’s long dry stretch, and quenching me with mountain air and sewanee magic. and for this rare and wondrous chance to pull up a wicker rocking chair this week…xox and, emphatically, to katie’s sister beth, who so generously shares her slice of smoky mountain heaven….

where’s your summer runaway or retreat? and what unfolds once you’re there?

a gift from the mountains….(from maurice manning, Pulitzer-finalist poet, born and bred in Kentucky, and who had me on the edge of my seat at Thursday night’s reading.)

An Orchard at the Bottom of a Hill

by Maurice Manning

Why don’t you try just being quiet?

If you can find some silence, maybe

you can listen to it. How it works

is interesting. I really can’t

explain it, but you know it when

it’s happening. You realize

you’re marveling at apple blossoms

and how they’re clustered on the tree

and you see the bees meticulously

attending every blossom there,

and you think the tree is kind of sighing.

Such careful beauty in the making.

And then you think, it’s really quiet,

but I am not alone in this world.

That’s how you know it’s happening,

there’s something solemn and wonderful

in the quiet, a slow and steady ease.

Whether the tree is actually sighing

is beside the point. It’s better to wonder,

you needn’t be precise with quiet,

it just becomes another thing.

It isn’t a science, it’s an art,

like love, or a dog who’s pretty good,

asleep in the grass beneath the tree.

xox

p.s. i’ll add postcard-worthy pics to this post once home. for the life of me, i can’t add from afar….

sewanee kindness

hibernation station

book corner

reporting from my arctic cocoon, where the mercury hovers at a brisk -3, which the weatherfolk tell me feels something akin to -19, which explains why nary a bird is in sight and the bumps on my flesh are reaching architectural proportion…

if you propped up a camera at my house and did something of a time study, clicking the bulb every five seconds, it might appear that i’ve not moved in five days. the hide of the couch has given way to the rounds of my bum, the blanket lurches off to the side on those rare few occasions when i rise — for a drink or a nibble or a night’s sleep in full recumbent position — awaiting my certain return, where it folds itself just so round my knees and all of those knobby parts that protrude from the human equation. i am the very definition of “to cocoon,” or better yet, “to slither into dormant state where the turning of a page is perhaps the most taxing of movements.”

and so it goes in a week when you’ve intentionally left the calendar unmarked — not a doctor’s appointment or deadline in sight. all you’ve to do is hunker down with the ones you so love, the ones whose appearance by your side becomes rarer and rarer as the years and the miles pull you to faraway points on the map.

just yesterday there was an actual moment — an hour or more — when four of us were all nestled in the very same room, all under blankets of our own choosing, and all turned pages (or, truth be told, clicked through screens), while the logs in the fire crackled and hissed and occasionally whistled. it was — we were — the very picture of post-pioneer home entertainment.

i’ve been hunkering down with three glorious friends — john mcphee, john o’donohue, and my newest friend, robin wall kimmerer, a plant scientist, potawatomi, and poet who is taking my breath away by the paragraph, with her brilliant collection of essays, braiding sweetgrass, a book that’s been lined up in the queue between bookends that sits atop my desk, but only just now shoved its way to the front of the line and into my lap. i take turns with the three of them, as if in deep conversation with friends across the kitchen table. i read mcphee, draft no. 4, a collection of essays on the craft of writing that reads something like a masterclass, for whole chapters at a time; it’s that good that a whole hour can sweep by and i’ve not moved saved for the scritches and scratches and exuberant stars i’ve penned in the margins.

it’s the rarest of times, the depth of the pause that comes in this bend in the year, the days wedged between christmas and new year’s. and, by golly, the weather outside is playing right along. i trudge outside only to dump seeds for my hungry feathered friends, the ones i worry about, especially when there’s barely a flutter of wing and i imagine them barricaded and seed-less in the places they hide to keep out of the cold.

it’s a rare refueling respite. a time to curl away from all that pulls at us, all the other times of the year. it’s what makes these days holy to me. unfettered, unbroken. a time to breathe in the same air as the ones you so love. a time to lay a soft palm on the arm or the shoulder of the one who turns pages beside you. a time for whispers and glances, and  heart-melting meeting of eyes.

it’ll be over today, when the tv roars to a tiger-ish roar, and the football teams clang helmets, and the boys i love — along with a few of their friends — haul in spicy hot food and decibels to match.

perhaps i’ll begin to turn my thoughts toward the cusp of the new year coming, the one about to be birthed, the one i will once again fill with hope and dreams and prayer. i will pray for peace, and for gentle ways to rinse the land. i will remember those who’ve stitched this past year with kindness, defiant kindness, a kindness that refused to submit to the ways of the loudest and most churlish among us. i will count my blessings, one after another, one sweet soul after another. for it is in the sweet souls who surround me that i find those rare shimmering lights, the ones that keep me from slithering into the muck. i’ve needed those lights more than ever in this past soul-tattering year. needed reason to rise above the least common denominator, needed scant outlines of hope that the darkness would pass, the dawn might certainly come.

oh, coming year, come on us gently, come on us with occasional radiant light….

i pray you’ve found quiet or noise in the proportion that best suits you. and i pray for all of us that the year and the days ahead are gentle to the heart and the soul, and that one or two of our dreams come tumbling true. 

for what do you pray in the year just up around the bend?

reading for work

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some days, my workday unfolds like this: i wander over to the books in my stack that teeters as it rises toward the ceiling. i pull out the one that tempts the most. i pour a guzzle of coffee. i reach for a pen, for i don’t know how to read without one (making me a potentially reckless patron of the local library). i cozy my bum on the chair. i study the cover, read the flaps at the front and the back, then i turn to page one. i await the first sentence. first sentences signal plenty: do i want to read on to the second? or is this going to be an obligational exercise? (because i’m an occupational reader, i can’t give up after just one paltry sentence, nor even one that clanks when what i’m after is take-your-breath-away.)

i hum the loudest when i find myself tumbling into the text, when whole chunks of an hour go by, and i am as busy with my scribbling as i am with my inhaling of words, of ideas, of penetrating thoughts.

my job is to read books for the soul. i still can’t quite believe that counts as work, and that — rather than collecting garbage cans, or chopping carrots for vats of soup — i’ve somehow found my way to reading for work. reading soulful books for work.

and by my definition the soul is a broad-canvased endeavor. the soul is without boundaries, stretching from star-stitched night sky to the meadow where queen anne’s lace nods in the breath of morning’s breeze. by my definition the soul is that thing that catches the beauties, the depths, the light and the shadow of life and life beyond our feeble capacities.

in my book, the soul — that thing that i’m reading to stir — is the catch basin of all that is sacred, of all that is dispatched from God. it’s our job, us little people with our creaky knees and our hair that won’t do the right thing, it’s our job — or so i believe — to rumble through life on full-alert, on the lookout for those barely perceptible moments when the shimmer of light on a leaf, or the way the dawn ignites the horizon, signal to us that God is near. no, God is here. and if we listen, say put our ear to the wind, or to the chest of someone we love, or if we simply sit quietly and all alone, we might hear the still small voice that whispers of love, of courage, of bold and emphatic action, of whatever is the holiest thing you needed to hear. because God does that. God wants us to bump up against wonder. God wants us to feel the walls of our heart stretched and stretching. God wants us to rustle under the newness of a thought, or an inkling, that’s never struck us before. or the God i love does, anyway.

as i was reading away this week, reading mary oliver’s newest book, a collection of essays titled, “upstream: selected essays,” as i was reading lines like this one — “I walk, all day, across the heaven-verging field.” —  or — “Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity.” —  or — ” I can hear that child’s voice…its presence rises, in memory, from the steamy river of dreams….It is with me in the present hour. It will be with me in the grave.” — as i was reading those lines, i thought about how, for me, religion seeps in most deeply when it seeps in softly, tricklingly, when it’s not klonked over my head, with a two-by-four of this-is-what-you-should-know.

i let that softness, that newness sink in. my God comes at me gently, with a subtle tap to the noggin. or the barest wisp of breath against the nape of my neck.

and then during another part of another workday, when i was gathering notes for a lovely circle i am entering this evening, a circle filled with doctors and nurses and health care workers who believe in, and practice, narrative medicine, the art of gathering the stories of those whose lives will be entrusted to their care, their compassion and their steely intellect, i turned to two of the great thinkers in my lexicon, vladimir nabokov and rebecca solnit. i read, again, their instructions for reading and for writing. and i realized, they too, rooted and root their life’s work in soulful tomes.

nabokov instructs us in how to read: “a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. it is there that occurs the telltale tingle…”

solnit, author of countless brilliant prose passages, instructs us in how to write: “listen to what makes your hair stand on end, your heart melt, and your eyes go wide, what stops you in your tracks and makes you want to live, wherever it comes from, and hope that your writing can do all those things for other people.”

and so i go, as instructed, to read, to try to write, to capture those fleeting sparks of the divine, to catch them with my soul, and clutch them dearly to my heart.

not so shabby, for a long day’s work.

where do you find the soulful words in your life? and how do you imagine the soul, and its capacities for catching all the passing sparks of the Divine? 

once my latest roundup of soulful books runs in the chicago tribune, where it’s now found on the thursday books page every six weeks or so, i will post it here, of course.

and a note, for anyone who’s curious, about book selection: i’ve chosen to only write about books i find rich or enriching, and i don’t get to write about nearly enough of those, limited to only three per roundup. knowing the courage it takes — the self-exposure — to put any words to the page, i’ve made it my policy that i will not write about a book that i find short on what i’m after. i know how much it hurts to be criticized, and i will not subject another soul to that. life’s too short. and there are too many gloriously good books to read and write about. wonders to behold, indeed.

the pages turned…

eric carle page turned

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

red bird carle

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

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

soul pickings…

book pickings

pray tell, you might ask, what is she doing now? perhaps, given the tower of pages above, i’m devising a rube-goldbergian contraption for felling the wintertime ants that dare to cross my kitchen table. or, perhaps, it’s the latest in literary aerobics: hoist this pile off the tabletop and see how many jumping jacks i can count — before dropping the load on my poor baby toes, or tumbling under the weight of the heart-pumping challenge.

or, perhaps this: in the plummest assignment a girl could dream up, my old newspaper, the chicago tribune, has asked me to basically peruse the literary all-you-can-eat and fill my tray with the juiciest morsels — month after month after month. now, you’ll not find me weighing the caloric wonders nor the narrative arc of sultry page turners. and i won’t be digesting the latest in graphic novels, or avant-garde fiction. my little assignment, which runs on the pages of the tribune’s literary supplement, printers row journal (special subscription only), is called “round up: books for the soul.” and i’ll be lassoing soul-stirrers every four to six weeks.

and, in case you hadn’t already guessed, my definition of soul is a broad one, a deep one, so watch out bookshelves, i’m coming right at you. i’ve been asked to mine the lists of just-published pages to pluck out the ones that stir me — and maybe you — the most deeply. in my book, that means children’s picture books are near the top of the pile. and so too is the 8.4-pound, 4,448-page, two-volume whopper, the norton anthology of world religions, a collection i could — and i will — spend the rest of my days inhaling. it means poetry and essay, and even a book of black-and-white images with very few words, if that finds a way to the depth of the place that stirs us, inspires us, sets us wanting to right the world’s wrongs (or at least to course-correct the fumblings that hold us back from all whom we were meant to be).

at the moment, i’m whittling my latest short list down to the final three, and i’ll be defending my picks in short pithy blurbs — all to be handed over to my editor by monday morn. while i can’t let on here what’s next on the docket, i can pass along the trinity of titles that were picked for the perch of the new year, the first installation in what promises to be a perpetual devotion.

a marvelous and hilarious side note on the list just below. when dear, marvelous, and often quite wacky anne lamott spied the review online (i had no idea it had even been edited, yet alone posted) she went bonkers with joy, and declared it “the single best review anyone has ever gotten in the history of publishing,” which made me chuckle on an otherwise gloomy new-year’s-eve day, and slam-dunked my certainty that hyperbole is a jocular, life-giving art. when last i checked, a mere 24,362 of annie’s beloved friends had “liked” the review on facebook, and i for one was simply tickled that ms. lamott felt the love, as it were. (may we all know the joy of being loved out loud, over and over and over again….)

here, with no further ado, is my first round of round ups: books for the soul. i cannot emphasize emphatically enough how wonderful each title is. nor how very much i love this assignment that has me back in the news pages i love. (i’ll post the link, but i don’t think it will work if you don’t already have a tribune subscription. just in case, though, click here.)

Round Up: Books for the Soul 
By Barbara Mahany

Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace
By Anne Lamott, Riverhead Books, 304 pages, $22.95

Anne Lamott is practically a household word in the peeling-back-the-soul department. She’s utterly disarming. She’s hysterically funny. One minute, you’re falling off your chair laughing, and the next, you’re gasping for air, because Lamott has just unfurled a sentence that cuts straight to the heart of what you really needed to know. She’s been doing that for so many books now (this is her ninth nonfiction title), I keep thinking she’ll run out of ways to take my breath away.

Which is why I didn’t expect to see her latest collection of essays tumble into my short list of soulful treasures. I was wrong, so wrong. Lamott is one in a million. Who else would make this leap, writing of a moment that’s so serene and holy, “I was sure I was going to end up dating the Dalai Lama.” Or: “I thought such awful thoughts I cannot even say them out loud because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.”

Hers is an inimitable mix of irreverence and deep-down holy wisdom. Her wit is so sharp, her synapses fire so quickly, she deftly connects the dots and vaults across the spiritual landscape like nobody else. Never suspecting we’re about to come around some light-drenched bend, we practically sputter when she steers us head-on into one of her wild-eyed illuminations.

Lamott grounds the holy in the messy, hilarious, madcap adventure that is her life. And she sees the truth so piercingly perceptibly, we’re left slack-jawed and wiser in her wake.

Paradise in Plain Sight: Lessons from a Zen Garden
By Karen Maezen Miller, New World Library, 192 pages, $15.95

This little slip of a book, like the best of all soulful books, slips deep in your soul practically unnoticed. Suddenly, you’re sitting bolt upright, because you’ve been reading quietly along and you realize you’ve just inhaled a sentence that packs a spiritual wallop.

As in: “We live stupefied by our own deep terror, our unmet fears. Out of fear, we crush our own spirits, break our own hearts and — if we don’t stop — rot our own flesh,” writes Miller, a Zen priest and teacher, in an essay about crossing the threshold of fear. “All that is ever required of us is that we lift one foot and place it in front of the other.”

Miller’s plainspoken wisdom, the essence of her Zen Buddhist practice, is couched in the story of discovering and tending a long-neglected 100-year-old Japanese garden, the paradise in her own Southern California backyard. Amid a landscape of rocks and ponds and pines and orange trees heavy with fruit, Miller doles out Zen lessons on fearlessness, forgiveness, presence, acceptance and contentment.

“This book isn’t really about Zen, and it isn’t really about gardening,” writes Miller in the prologue. “It might seem like I’m talking to myself, but I’m talking to you. Now, about this paradise. You’re standing in it.”

Indeed, you needn’t be a gardener, nor inclined to long hours of meditation, nor a disciple of Zen. And you certainly needn’t travel to the nearest Japanese garden to unearth the truths Miller so generously lays at your mud-sodden soles.

The Lion and The Bird
By Marianne Dubuc, Enchanted Lion Books, 64 pages, $17.95

A so-called children’s book, a picture book, among the most soul-lifting books of the year? Why, yes. Emphatically yes.

Tripping upon this marvel of a book, by French Canadian designer and illustrator Marianne Dubuc, is to tumble into a tale of unforgettable tenderness — the story of a lion who finds a wounded bird in his garden one autumn day and nurses it back to flight, a winter’s convalescence of warmth and friendship that banishes loneliness, for lion and bird. It’s one that tears at and stitches together again the heart.

Words here are spare, as are the pencil-shaded drawings, and thus the tempo is slow, the mood quiet. It’s the intimate details that draw in the reader, and thus the reader’s heart — the wounded bird pecking seed off a dinner plate, little bird dozing the night away curled inside lion’s bedside slipper, bird peeking out of lion’s winter cap as the two lumber off for a romp in the snow.

By spring, when bird is healed and its flock returns, a nod to the sky is all lion needs to know that it’s time for bird to leave, to put flight to his wings. And so, the summer is passed — lion alone. Come autumn, lion can’t help but wonder, can’t help but study the canvas of sky. And then, after two achingly empty pages, a musical note exalts on a page. There’s bird, perched on the limb of a tree. Lion’s heart leaps — and so does the reader’s.

It’s a lesson in unspoken, ineffable love. And it unspools in gentlest wisps. Sometimes, that’s all the soul needs.

Barbara Mahany is the author of Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door (Abingdon Press, Oct. 2014). Twitter: @BarbaraMahany

and what books would you add to a list of those fine for the soul? even though i’m limited to just-published titles, you can add all-time favorites, classics, can’t-live-withouts to this ever-lengthening list…..(and i promise to keep posting once the round ups take their twirl in the tribune…)